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Saturday, 28 April 2012

Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy LP

What is it?
Okkervil River's critically acclaimed 'Black Sheep Boy' combines elements of Lo-fi, folk and indie to deliver an intense and emotion-packed lyrical experience.

Why should you listen?
You've got to work at this one and give it a fair few listens before you make any judgements. Get used to the forceful vocal delivery and the complexity of the songwriting and the next thing you know it's in your head and you can't get rid of it. The album is distinct for it's heartfelt passion and the quality of the lyrics which evoke a strange sense of melancholy, but never stray into depressing territory. There's a whole range of instruments on offer with production that is seriously lo-fi with similarities to a beefed up version of Bright Eyes with a side order of slide guitar. Ultimately, it's quality collection of dark, folky little gems!  

What's it like?
It's like Morrissey's folky, alt-country cousin has come to visit from Austin, Texas.

What's the best song?
'Black' is a lyrical onslaught, but with a catchy sing-a-long chorus, well as near as you'll get anyway.

Who does it sound like?
Bright Eyes, Tindersticks, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sufjan Stevens.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Polly Scattergood - Polly Scattergood LP 2009

I've had this for a while, but never quite fancied giving it a listen. The CD cover is hardly inspiring and somehow screams 'average quirky female singer' at you. Surprisingly, it's a little better than that, but still inhabits a territory somewhere between Laura Marling and a Kate Bush album track.

You get the feeling that if Polly was allowed to really let rip and escape the quirky straight-jacket, the whole experience would be far more pleasurable and entertaining. There are odd promising moments of pure originality on the album which have somehow sneaked under the record company's radar; the end sequence of 'I hate the way' is a case in point, and my favourite part of the record. 'Poem Song' has an equal lack of commercial value and we are rewarded with another gem rather than the stereotypical quirkiness.

Hopefully Polly Scattergood will be allowed or feel confident enough to make her next album her own vision. Forget formulaic female singer/songwriter standard offerings (Don't Touch) and scream, shout, wail, yodel and produce something different. She ought to aim to be far more of a Lena Lovich than a Lisa Hannigan in my opinion. Don't judge it by the cover, it's definitely worth a listen.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A Year of Into the Valley quotations

Bigmouth Strikes Again: A Year of Into the Valley quotations

It's been a long year at Into the Valley... with literally hundreds of reviews. To celebrate a year of the premier obscure music blog, I've re-read the whole thing and picked the quotes that effectively summarise our output and tell you everything you need to know about our editorial stance. For regular readers; can you spot who said each quote and which post it relates to? Check out the parallel article at Obscurendure.

"The Garrats look like the kind of family that I'd like to be adopted by and join in with their wholesome sing-a-longs."

"There was a time when I fancied myself as a bit of a marine boy; living underwater, impressing mermaids and chucking that boomerang thing at baddies. Come to think of it, it still has a lot of appeal now."

"They are Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Newcastle all rolled into one and will simultaneously give you a good kicking, slap you on the back and push a meat pie into your face."

"Tina Karol has a sexy accent as thick as condensed treacle, the obligatory short skirt and boots ensemble, a group of skipping Kosak style dancers and one hell of a fine pair of lungs on her."

"I didn't know if he was black or white, came from New York or Pontefract, but I knew that in spirit he was Northern, working class and came from Doncaster."

"The question has to be asked; if God didn't, who actually did make Honky Tonk Angels? What is a Honky Tonk Angel anyway?"

"It's a proven fact that all groups that sound like the Clash are rubbish, and that includes the Clash themselves."

"The only thing spoiling it is that all women called Christine now work as slightly cranky school secretaries and are not the sirens of seduction they once were."

"It's like having your brain gently massaged by elves"

"Most of them sound like they could do with a nutricious meal, some vitamin pills, a good wash and a thorough checking over at the local STD clinic, but perhaps I'm being a little unfair."

"The rest of the album meanwhile, is PJ giving us the standard-issue dirge with not a hint of positivity, apart from the warm feeling you get when the whole thing ends."

"I'd personally replace the mumbling guy on lead vocals with Karl Denver, stick the two women out the B52's on backing vocals, get Bez to be the dancer and sprinkle the whole group with magic charisma dust. And that still may not be enough to make them interesting."

"Ginger is good in any context, but in an attractive, Scandinavian witch it is even better."

"I now have to consider the unpleasant truth that I may have a beard fixation."

"If one came on when you were doing your shopping in Aldi, you’d be well happy. You may even do a little jaunty dance."

"Natasha Kahn could rename the band 'Old Bat for Lashes' and replace herself with a witch on lead vocals. The singer from Rachel Unthank would be ideal, or so my Gran says, obviously in a fancy dress witch costume."

"The Leeds festival was like some grim, vast, sprawling refugee camp that is best described as a cross between the camps featured in Children of Men and District 9, but inhabited entirely by students."

"Shake it together in the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland's hat and decorate with copious amounts of jazz hands. Delicious!"

"You've really got to be in the right kind of mood to enjoy this, but interesting and different nonetheless. Or rubbish, depending on your perspective."

"Screamo benefits from variety and the contrasting screamy voices give it some slight differences in tone: man on his own, lady on her own and (don’t get giddy now) man and lady together."

"It's undoubtedly premier league quirkiness as Joanna scores highly in virtually every category with her look of a slightly evil 'gelfling' from the Dark Crystal (check it out film fans), going down particularly well with the judges."

"A word of warning though - I put this on a CD followed by a Lolishit album and listened to it in the car. It drove me mad. You can OD on chiptune."

Saturday, 21 April 2012

X-ray Spex - Germfree Adolescents (The Anthology)

Looking back it's hard to see what the appeal was with punk. Hindsight shows that the really big guns (The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned) were all rubbish or at best hopelessly over-rated. That's not to say that the influence of punk wasn't a massive positive on the world of music and we all owe these bands a hell of a lot, but just that musically you can file the Pistols next to Sigue Sigue Sputnik and spitting at live bands now seems a health and safety hazard rather than an act of rebellion. And as for the Clash...don't get me started. Only Siouxsie had anything particularly innovative to say.

The real quality in the genre came from the next level of punk bands who took on the ideals and attitudes but added a little style and sense of humour. I'd include the Undertones and the Buzzcocks in this batch as well as the much under-rated and gloriously fun-packed X-ray Spex. I was relatively unfamiliar with the band before listening to this anthology, but the sheer joy and passion in the music is enough to win over the most cynical of punk doubters.

The late, great Polly Styrene is a charismatic and surprisingly powerful singer, and also provided a focal point for the band with her snazzy dance moves and unique eye for fashion. Polly didn't adhere to the punk dogma, but was a true original and created something new and groundbreaking in terms of the look and sound she created for the band. She squeals, screams and shouts her way through this collection of songs and somehow it all makes perfect sense and more importantly, you know that the whole band are loving every minute.

Described at the time as 'deliberate underachievers' X-ray Spex didn't produce masses of material and so the compilation sticks with the classics on CD 1 with live versions of the classics on CD2. All the songs presented are high-octane, sax driven blasts of new wave rock with the exception of the more tranquil but equally quirky 'Germfree Adolescents.' My personal favourites are 'Oh Bondage', 'Identity' and the brilliant but bonkers 'The Day the World Turned Day Glo.'

This is an essential purchase for all fans of alternative music and I was left with the feeling that X-ray Spex were not given half the acclaim, respect or publicity they deserved, perhaps because they didn't fit the punk stereotype created in the press at the time. If I was going to the moon I'd rather take one of Polly's tracks than the entire back catalogue of the Clash. The band were true innovators and deserve re-examining in the sterile world of the 21st Century.

A Year of Into the Valley of the Obscure

It's exactly one year since we launched Into the Valley of the Obscure and it's been a hectic but exciting first year in the blogosphere. We've written 184 posts from the really obscure to the household names and attracted the grand total of two members. A big thank you to both our fans.

But what have been the highlights of the year at Into the Valley? Here are the top five moments in the high octane world of blogging.

1. David Gedge from the Wedding Present following us on Twitter. Sadly he hasn't left a comment as yet, but in my heart I know he's an avid reader.

2, Reading my favourite blogs to discover new music, films and books. Take a bow; Obscurendure, Movies and Songs 365, Have You Met Heather, The Vinyl Villain and Aurgasm.

3. The launch of our offshoot blog; The Obscure World where we review books, beer, games and cereal bars. It's destined to be huge. If you are new to the world of cereal bars then you should become a member immediately.

4, The League of Quirky Singers our flagship post went ballistic (well ballistic for us anyway) and achieved of top 3 ranking on Google. It's our number 1 page view provider.

5. Reading and listening to Into the Valley and Obscurendure myself. Listening to the songs, remembering the times associated with each review, laughing at our own jokes and generally using it like some multimedia diary. I really couldn't care less if no-one else reads, with the exception of Chris, Evlkeith and possibly the Garrats.

Let's hope next year is as much fun and just as successful. And keep reading this weekend for the X-Ray Specx Anthology review and some lovely quotes!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Mesh - In This Place Forever LP (1996)

One of the Mesh back catalogue I've been attempting to track down at a reasonable price since hearing their most recent album a couple of years ago. In comparison to 'A Perfect Solution' however, this is a tad disappointing, but that's possibly because I had such high expectations. This is still a high quality, hard edged electro-pop album with a couple of classic sing-a-long tracks.

You can easily see how Mesh used their earlier albums as a stepping stone to perfect their sound and ultimately produce a near flawless album in 'Perfect Solution', but that's not to say this isn't a decent album in its own right. All the elements are here; the pulsing synth driven rhythms, the passionate deadpan vocals and the silky production skills, but it's just not quite the finished article. For some reason it also sounds a very British album where latter releases have had a distinctly German feel about them.

The pick of the tracks are the minimal trance vibe of 'Last Breath of You', the anthemic charm of 'I Don't Think They Know' and best of all, the apocryphal, multi-layered genius of 'You Didn't Want Me.' I can do with out the more industrial numbers, but the techno interludes are quite refreshing.

If you fancy a bit of Mesh for the first time, I'd advise starting with 'A Perfect Solution', but for the converted, this is well worth a listen if it's not too expensive.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton - Knives Don't Have Your Back LP

The golden tonsilled, contralto singer could hardly be criticised for playing it safe with this 2006 offering as it is so radically different from her day job combo; Metric's output. This is a stark, minimal piano driven album which emphasises and makes the most of Emily's special talent. Her voice oozes from the speakers like rich molasses spiked with velvety honey and chocolate butter cream icing, and that's before the accent kicks in and you realise all that sweetness is cut with a splash of Canadian Whiskey.

The lyrics are the real surprise however. In Metric the words and meanings are often a random mismatch of ideas presented in a collage format, but with The Soft Skeleton Emily cuts loose with some heartfelt and seemingly effortless poetry. Odd phrases stick in your mind and appear when you least expect them; 'rather give the world away than wake up lonely.' From a philosophical content perspective it's easily my favourite album of the last few years and was apparently inspired by the sad loss of her father. You can literally feel the emotion and passion in these songs.

All the songs are slow paced, memorable little crackers with the best of the bunch probably the achingly beautiful 'Winning', but closely followed by 'Doctor Blind' and 'Crowd surf off a Cliff.' Whatever your feelings about Metric this is an entity in its own right and listening to 'Knives don't have your Back' can only convince you that Emily Haines is a talent above and beyond the average pop singer. Heartily recommended.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Yourcodenameis:Milo - Ignoto LP

This album is very much like the graph of y=x squared (maths fans rejoice). It starts out strongly with 'I Am Connecting Flight' and '17'. They are both quite harsh, combining screaming with a 'My Bloody Valentine'-esque wall of sound.

Then there is a gradual decline until we get to the total shoegazing action of 'Team Radar'. We are in major 'Slowdive' territory here. It's okay (ish, at best) but you can't help craving an album entirely consisting of songs like the first two.

Luckily, things start to pick up again after this with the soaring vocals of 'FiveFour', informing the listener that the worst is over. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get to this point in the album.

The quality continues to improve, but it is difficult to be prepared for the sheer brilliance of the final track, 'Audition'. It starts gently with a repeated phrase and gradually builds to be an intense... noise? Think of the 'instrumental break' in 'You Made Me Realise' by the aforementioned 'My Bloody Valentine' and then make it even more excessive. It still won't be close to the ending of 'Audition'. Turned up to full blast it's amazing how emotional the whole experience is. It's definitely vying for song of the year, even at this early stage.

With this album, if you learn to take the rough with the smooth, you are rewarded with a satisfying listening experience overall. 'Audition' is made better by the somewhat arduous journey needed to reach it. (The Mars Volta fans will know this feeling all too well.) Definitely recommended.


Saturday, 7 April 2012

Trentmoller - Into the Great Wide Yonder

Anders shuns the trademark clicky-scratchy techno and plumps for an altogether more epic approach which ultimately ends up in movie soundtrack territory. If it was a soundtrack to a film it would have to be an arty, European espionage thriller with no sense of humour, set in old East Germany. If it was a soundtrack it would be marginally above average, but not in the same league as the best.

It's not a terrible album, it's just not very interesting. The chilling atmosphere of his previous work is somehow missing and replaced by a more big budget feel that I'm not entirely sure Trentmoller needed. The instrumental tracks are presented in a techno meets Dick Dale style and tumble along going nowhere fast. The songs with vocals are much more engaging, with 'Sycamore Feeling' and 'Even though you're with another Girl' making a valiant attempt to pull things round, but ultimately it is the haunting mellow vocals and atmosphere of 'Neverglade' that turns the album into a positive experience.

Trentmoller is undoubtedly a talent, but if you want to make a soundtrack, then go make a soundtrack for a film. I'm all for experimentation, but in this case Anders may have been better off sticking to the plan.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Top 10 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' Covers

As I compiled my all time top 50 favourite tracks, I couldn't help but notice the large amount of covers on Youtube of my number 2 selection; 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' by Neutral Milk Hotel. It seems this is an incredibly popular track with muso's the world over and there are literally hundreds of cover versions for your delictation on the popular video sharing site. There are two reasons for this; 1) It is relatively easy to play on the guitar, and 2) Even if you have a really bad voice, it's possibly no worse than Jeff Mangum. Consequently, you can sound great playing 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' with only a modicum of talent.

I've waded through hundreds of hopefuls to wittle the field down to a top ten of premium quality versions of the song. There were thirty covers on the short-list, so the ultimate top 10 needed to throw something different into the mix as the competition was so hot. 

So sit back, relax and enjoy some time in an aeroplane over the sea... 

10. Trustjess 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

There are hundreds of girls strumming guitars and belting out the Neutral Milk Hotel classic on Youtube and this is probably the best of its type. Simple straightforward delivery, a tuneful reedy voice and a nice orange blouse. It basically sets the standard that the rest of the top 10 have to beat.

9. UnjustifiedMurder 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

Unjustified Murder's version works on the principle that the whole song needs a good dose of testosterone and aggressively tears into the song like David Gedge in the Wedding Present on rocket fuel. The voice almost has the same ear splitting/glass shattering quality of Mangum himself and you've got to love the short sleaved 'Liberate' T-Shirt look.

8. Bass Causality Featuring Mike Dewitt 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

We go upmarket for number 8 with Bass Causality's classy instrumental version. These guys look like music graduates and it just goes to show the power of a good education as this sounds extremely polished and professional. Loved the subtle effects in the video, brilliant tromboning and excellent little claps added towards the end. I'm not sure about the fashion choices, but a triumphant interpretation anyway.

7. Dellistt 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

The first appearance for the ukulele as the Dellistt group go instrument crazy by adding a drum and that tooty keyboard thing. It ends up sounding not unlike Beruit which is always a good thing and I love the drummer's moves, although he does look a bit tired by the end. Great vocals, lovely tooting and confident ukulele playing. Highly enjoyable.

6. Milk & Biscuit 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

Milk and Biscuit are easily the best of the 'girls with guitars' style cover versions, but also add the extra bonus of changing the song a bit and ultimately making it their own. Delicate guitar picking, fragile vocals and belting harmonies combine to produce a chilled and relaxed version of the song.

5. The Garrats 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

Proof if ever it were needed that any song can be improved by the introduction of a homemade shaker. The Garrats look like the kind of family that I'd like to be adopted by and join in with their wholesome sing-a-longs. Great harmonies reminiscent of Abba and a togetherness not seen since the Osmonds combine to create something beautiful. If the one with the bowler hat did a little dance it would have been the icing on the cake.

4. The Mike Jurkowski Combo 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

Proof if ever it were needed that the saw is the best musical instrument ever! How do you improve the perfect song? Get some laddish looking guys in hoodies to belt out the song in unison while not quite knowing the words, add a long haired bongo player, and then add a saw player. It's a combination made in heaven. The saw man is good, but not a patch on the Saw Lady!  

3. Tom 1964 and Family 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

Or you could take the view that what the song really needs is a slide guitar. Tom and the team add a country and western element to proceedings, but go even further with a production that sounds like it was recorded in an empty Albert Hall. It's a strangely hypnotic combination, but still fails to prompt a smile from Tom. But still, a family that plays together stays together and who can knock the quality of this version. 

2. JustERose 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

The ukulele returns in JustERose's minimal version of the song. This Sandra Bullock lookalike adds some vocal gymnastics to liven things up, the likes of which have not been seen since Darius covered 'Hit Me Baby One More Time' on Popstars the Rivals, but it still sounds absolutely brilliant. Great crooning; Mangum take note!  

1. Essteef and his Accordian 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

What the song really needs is an accordian. Let's face it; what song wouldn't be improved by being played on an accordian? Essteef rachets up the quality with his twinkling right hand fingers and the pumping of his left hand. The passionate Mangumesque vocals complement the smooth sound of the accordian to perfection. A worthy number 1! 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Nu:Tone - Words and Pictures 2011

I bought this purely on the strength of the cover and the title. What could go wrong? Luckily, nothing.

'Words and Pictures' is gentle Drum and Bass that pretty much anyone would like. It's one of the things that I listen to at work that people find bearable. It's not exactly mainstream, but it's all quite pleasant and inoffensive.

4hero collaborated on the track 'Invisible' and it sounds exactly like 4hero, funnily enough, which is not a bad thing. But the best track is easily 'The Feeling', featuring the smooth Ben Westbeech, which is great to run to (if you're a runner). There's only one track that I give the flick and that's 'The First Time Ever'. A bit of a dirge. And no, it's not a collaboration with PJ Harvey.

'Words and Pictures' is similar in style to Blame but is not as accessible as his recent work. (I bought 'Music' by Blame this year, thinking that I'd review it for you, dear reader. Then I read that it had had some commercial success. That was that plan scuppered.) Give 'Words and Pictures' a listen if you've never listened to Drum and Bass before. It is a lovely gentle introduction.


Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Milkshakes - Exactly Like You

As soon as I got my first combined radio cassette I was eager to tape some music from the radio. Previously I'd made recordings using a standard radio with a cassette tape recorder propped up next to the speaker, but this always produced understandably disappointing results. The new-fangled machine facilitated the recording of a much more professional standard and the first results were treated with a kind of reverence by myself and Evlkeith not seen again until video was invented some years later.

The results of these fledgling recordings were collected onto a C90 known only as the legendary 'Farm Crazy Tape' and included the likes of Rip, Rig and Panic, B-Movie, 3-D A Fish in Sea and obviously The Farm. Tucked into this hall of fame were two songs by the Milkshakes that until now I had never managed to track down. 'Exactly Like You' sounds just as good now as it did then in a down and dirty, beat combo kind of way and at just over two minutes doesn't outstay it's welcome. Even though I've listened to it hundreds of times I'd never heard the last 15 seconds as an itchy trigger finger on record and play meant that a Dexy's song cut in on the tape and obliterated the ending. I'll work hard to get my hands on a copy of 'Fourteen Rhythm and Beat Greats' as I'm sure they have much more to offer.

Any additional Milkshake information gratefully received.