Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Review: Mikal Cronin - MCIII (The 405)

Across his remarkably consistent discography, Mikal Cronin has explored the darkest depths of heartbreak, paranoia, and insecurity in a way that removes any distance between himself and the listener. And musically, Cronin has always aimed straight for the senses, as if the quickest route to our ears, minds and hearts can also be the most affecting. There’s little innovation here when it comes to form or song structure. Instead, these songs focus around expression and music’s ability to stir these tiny neurones in our heads in the most primal and natural way there is.    

Cronin has never shied away from the histrionic or the emotional. And the songs on ‘MCIII’ are still the same open, honest confessions of his hopes and fears, but there is an added sentimentality here. The production value is turned up; there’s full string and brass sections. And even if Cronin’s fragile vocal is still saying the same things, ‘MCIII’ feels like the closest we’ve ever got to the man behind the name. This is even reflected in the cover art, too: ‘MCII’ had an image of a non-descript landscape through a thick sepia filter. Now though there is a full headshot, front and centre, as if to bring the focus firmly on himself.

When explaining the added sonic grandiosity to ‘MCIII’, Cronin has said that it was a conscious effort to make this album sound bigger and more ambitious from the earliest stages of songwriting. And it’s true, even if there is a lot going on here, none of it ever sounds decadent or unnecessary. You can hear Cronin the arranger as well as the songwriter throughout the record. The violin that twists and leaps around the dense layers of guitars and drums on the excellent ‘Turn Around’, as he laments a relationship lost amongst the noise and technology of modern life, helps balances it. Take it away and the song’s vulnerable core might stay hidden. Similarly, the cello that hums beneath ‘I’ve Been Loved’ almost plays like a counterpoint to his vocal, attempting to respond to his cries of heartbreak.

This is a sprawling album in terms of emotions and heart, too. Cronin’s approach to confessional songwriting has always been scattered, moving between painful moments of introspection and self-doubt, to confident statements of intent with complete abandon. Just look at the song titles: the positive, assured ‘Turn Around’, ‘vi) Ready’ and ‘Say’, the vulnerable ‘i) Alone’ and ‘Feel Like’, to the more reflective, insular ‘I’ve Been Loved’ and ‘Made My Mind Up’. If these were chapter titles from a teenager’s diary you’d have to question their stability. This is never clearer than on the stirring, memorable ‘i) Alone’, which opens with a full string section, brass and the powerful chords of a grand piano. It would feel wildly out of place in less capable hands. After a minute or so though, the dull thud of his acoustic guitar creeps slowly into focus, until we’re left with Cronin whispering ‘I’m not alone / In these walls / And I can’t sleep’. It’s a strange transition, moving from this huge, grandiose gesture of orchestras and concert halls to this very private reflection about the demons that can invade your mind when you are emptying it for sleep. The same thing happens on ‘v) Different’, where Cronin’s softly talks about a ‘different kind of lonesome’ between the soft, warm drone of cellos, violins and even some horns for good measure.

Like its predecessors, MCIII relies on its familiarity. These songs aren't designed to challenge or experiment, rather than exist purely for that emotional connection. For those moments where a couplet can stir a memory or a chorus can inspire belief. It revels in its immediacy, and with indie music moving further towards the conceptual and becoming increasingly self-conscious, this feels like a rare, but welcome moment of indulgence. MCIII is a great record because it gives us a scattered, messy, but uncompromisingly honest portrait of Cronin himself. Nothing is overthought, nothing is too considered - because ultimately, beneath all the production value and instrumental flourishes - this is still just some dude with a guitar singing about the way he feels.


Friday, 17 April 2015

New Music: Ross From Friends - .Biz (The 405)

The votes have been counted, please stop submitting your entries, thank you all for your participation - the competition for the best DJ name of 2015 is over.

.Biz is the debut tune from South London producer Ross From Friends. Taken from his Alex Brown EP, brittle synths throb under an assortment of indiscriminate, broken samples, stuttering forward like a car about to run out of gas. There’s a groove here, but you couldn’t exactly dance to it, as it teases at a payoff that never quite arrives. Instead we are left with this innocuous piano loop, like we’re listening to a concert hall cleaner fiddling with the keys before he turns the lights off.

Released through London’s Breaker Breaker Recordings, Alex Brown is currently only available on Vinyl. Head to Phonica, Rough Trade, or Manchester’s Piccadilly Records to get your hands on it, and catch Ross DJ’ing at one of Breaker Breaker’s residencies at The Amersham Arms in New Cross soon.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Review: Cuushe - Night Lines EP (The 405)

Recently, western electronic music has started to overlap with the sounds coming out of Japan and Korea. Take PC Music, whose sugary melodies and notion of this synthetic pop star borrows heavily from K-pop. And even more notably, North American and European producers like Ryan Hemsworth and Gold Panda have both musically and vocally expressed their affection for the sounds of the Orient, with the former collaborating with Japanese singers Tomggg and Qrion.

Cuushe, the production and vocal project of Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, has followed up 2013’s Butterfly Case with Night Lines. Written and recorded mostly in Tokyo, the EP acts as a little storybook for the busy, nocturnal lifestyle of a city that she loves, as much as fears. ‘Many parties are held, where people are connected but unconnected. It’s easy to feel alone, [but] feeling lonely makes me stronger. Night Lines tells a story of loneliness, instability and strength’ –she told Dazed. So in many ways this is an autobiographical EP, projecting her owns sense of self and identity through the sights and sounds of the city that shaped them.

Hitotsuyanagi is a producer before she is a singer. It’s not that she isn’t a pleasant vocalist, but more the way she treats these vocals, bending them into the backdrop of the song at times as if they are an extra instrument. The refrain on ‘Tie’ is so muffled that it could easily be played by a synthesiser, whilst on ‘Daze’, its used as much as rhythmic tool as it is melodic, like we’re listening to the chopped, uneven sounds of a sequencer. And despite the glossy sheen that covers these songs, they are still busy, complex productions. Hitotsuyanagi is excellent at building these intense, rich textures that feel fully formed and filled with character, without ever really striving to be so. The recurring synth motif that runs throughout the steady ‘Shadow’ is almost hypnotic like some kind of tuneful metronome that’s catchy, but you couldn’t exactly hum the tune. ‘Daze’ is the closest Night Lines gets to danceable, with the dull thud of a kick drum barely escaping out of this thick layer of scattered synths. It’s the sort of song you’d listen to a few days after a heavy night, where the memory of the club is still too raw to face, but too cherished to completely let go. These songs are complicated without ever really sounding complicated, and this illusion of simplicity allows these songs to twist, unfold and move around in your mind and heart naturally and of their own accord.

These kind of woozy, ambient soundscapes create this impression of a dream-like state where the synths, vocals and percussion can be some kind of protective barrier between you and reality. Hitotsuyanagi has often related her music to dreams, speaking about it as this powerful, ethereal agent capable of not only moving her listeners, but actually transporting them into these profound states of otherworldliness. On face value, you’d be forgiven to thinking these songs were nothing more than mood setters - songs to accompany the thoughts and emotions you’re already feeling, rather than provoke any on their own. ‘I just want to close my eyes’, she repeats on ‘Shadow’, ‘we just can’t keep going’ she sings on ‘We Can’t Stop’, her voicing cracking and straining just out of tune. She sings with the kind of weariness reserved for the jaded and the exhausted, as if the only thing more painful than the tensions and complexities of her circumstances is the knowledge that she can’t do anything about it. There are times where Hitotsuyanagi’s voice barely resembles a whisper, almost as if the notes and tones coming out of her mouth are just a natural, semi-conscious exhale. It results in this kind of accidental intimacy, like the movements and processes of her mind have involuntarily been turned into sounds.

Cuushe is a project that is rich in identity. Whether it’s her candid interviews, or collaborations with artists to create visual companions to her songs, or more simply; the unique way she writes, records and performs, you still feel like you know her through her music. So even if the lyrics are unintelligible, or the vocals so ambient that you can’t distinguish them from a synth or a guitar, you still feel like you know exactly what she’s saying.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Live Review: Maribou State (The Line of Best Fit)

Photo by by William Cooper Mitchel

Oslo, Hackney
26th March, 2015

After several years on the periphery, London production two-piece Maribou State are edging closer towards the nerve-centre of UK electronic music, as they prepare to Release their debut album ‘Portraits’, in June. Tonight is their debut live show, and this notion of blending their identity as producers and as DJs into a single entity is a familiar one, as acts look for ways to translate the complexities of programming into the raw passion of performance. Regular selectors on the festival and club scenes for several years now, Maribou State have never strayed too far from their productions, leaning towards the warmer, synth-heavy house sounds that come with an Ibiza sunrise or mid-afternoon. This experience will no doubt have seeped into their songwriting, using the ebbs and flows of the dancefloor to create songs that centre around atmosphere and mood as much as they do melody and tone.

There is a full band set up tonight, with Davids and Ivory taking guitar, synth and programming duties, and Johnny Cade and Holly Walker on drums and vocals respectively. When electronic music like this is played on live instruments, there’s a danger that it can land in the middle of the authentic sounds of say a guitar or a drum kit, and the synthetic, digitised aesthetic of the productions but falling short on both counts. Walker’s vocals are so perfect in terms of pitch that they could easily be emerging from a sequencer, whilst Cade manages to keep the beat so precisely that we could be listening to a drum loop.  So it’s a testament to their ability as sound engineers and players that tonight still feels like a club show, with every crescendo or every pause keeping the audience obediently in time.

Davids and Ivory are excellent at building these inviting, all-encompassing soundscapes in a way that commands, but never smothers. And despite Walker’s excellent vocals, Maribou State are still at their best during the instrumental moments, carefully layering a diverse range of sonics until they become these grand, rich walls of sound. The slow, measured synths at the end of new single ‘Rituals’ come in like water filling up the room, creating these gorgeous emotional swells that intertwine seamlessly between the grandiose and the tranquil. There’s a genuine sense of human feeling bleeding into each of these tracks, like the twinkling piano on opener ‘Moon Circles’, or the affected vocal on ‘Midas’. And despite the largely synthetic pallet of sounds on offer tonight, you can still feel the weight of emotional context being fed through every note.

Maribou State have always been excellent producers. Tonight though, there is evidence that they are prepared to move away from the more immediate gratification of UK club culture in favour of something altogether more considered, slowly nudging their listeners towards these moments of bliss instead of arriving there fully formed. This is music to listen to on a bus with your eyes closed or at your desk whilst your mind wanders as much as it is within a club at four in the morning. These are complicated songs without ever really sounding complicated, which allows them to twist, turn and unfold completely naturally and of their own accord.

It’s been over four years since their first single, so this album has been a long time in the making. UK electronic music has changed and mutated countless times between, and even with this brief rendition of ‘Portraits’ tonight, it feels like Maribou State are finally able to express what electronic music means to them in a way that they’re comfortable with. It’s a remarkably assured performance, striking the balance between club and live music culture with surgeon like precision.

Mike Townsend

Set List
Moon Circles