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SAY Album Review #20 – Biffy Clyro ‘Opposites’

Biffy Clyro are the biggest band in the SAY Awards short list, and the bookies favourite from the start. I’ve always seen them and thought it great that Scotland has a proper big group that’s rock, and whilst i dismissed them as sweaty rock nonsense that i’d have liked as a teenager, i was curious to finally give them a proper listen.

Opposites is a mammoth, beast of an album, and for stars of the download generation, a bold decision to release a double album. Harking back to the classic rock era of sprawling epics, and stadium filling, hook laden anthems.  The title Opposites is clearly to show both sides of the band, they hard rockers and the more sensitive, contemplative side; to me this didn’t quite work.

Whilst there are indeed some pretty decent tunes on the album, I’d have made it a 10-12 track single album and ditched all the so-so tunes.  Clearly that’s the opposite of the band’s thinking as I’ve just seen that they’re planning to release an B-sides and off cuts from this record later in the year. The problem with Opposites is that so much of it is OK middle of the road tunes, that are probably fine if they come on the radio whilst driving, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to listen to them, at least I wouldn’t.

Of course the irony is that whilst an album of the year nomination has lead me to check them out, I’m now thinking about checking out their first album to see if that sheds any light onto why they’re so popular.

Soundbite: sometimes less is more

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SAY Awards Review #19 – The Pastels ‘Slow Summits’

The Pastels are legendary figures on the Scottish indie scene, and have been evolving, experimenting, and developing their sound over various incarnations and collaborations over the past three decades.  In the last 10 years or so The Pastels have been involved in diverse musical pursuits, including a well regarded film soundtrack The Last Great Wilderness, some theatre pieces and a collaboration with Japan’s Two Sunsets.  You can detect all of these influences and more in ‘Slow Summits’.

I’ll admit to not having listened to anything by The Pastels since my youth, and had assumed that ‘Slow Summits’ would the indie shambles of old, but things have changed with time.  The album is an untouchable blend of autumn instrumentals, pop songs, slow motion build ups and suddenly optimistic melody lines. This is very much an album rather than a collection of songs, it’s a cohesive piece of work to be listened to in its entirety, and whilst most listeners will have their own highlights I’d say it’s definitely the sum of its parts.

The Pastels are a class act, and this album shows a group quietly confident in who they are, and fully at ease with what they’ve become.  Get yourself some closed cup headphones and a cuppa, not only will you benefit from immersing yourself in the glistening shimmer from the gorgeous pop, touching lyrics about friendship and the joys of wandering the streets at night, the subtle instrumental touches that reveal themselves with each new listen, to think how long they’ve been doing it, this is quite a remarkable album.  This is another SAY Awards discovery for me, and another revelation, and for that alone, job done.

Soundbite: majestic indie-pop legends find beauty in what’s around them.

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SAY Awards #18 – Boards Of Canada ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’

Electronic retro experimentalists Boards of Canada have been a fixture on the left-field music scene since the mid nineties (although home recordings date back further) and ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ was their first album after an 8 year gap.  This musical look back to the future BoC style came after a much hyped and innovative alternate reality game and an online search for various codes, and the prize at the end of that search was the new release from the hugely influential brotherly duo.

Much has been written over the years about Boards of Canada, that they got their name from the nature-inspired documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada, their fondness of analogue electronic instruments, multi layered distorted samples, mixing vignettes and full length tracks, and subliminal messaging.

Tomorrow’s Harvest sounds to me like a long lost soundtrack to a cult 1970s sci-fi TV series that was way ahead of its time, hence disappearing from memory.  Whilst certainly tinged with nostalgia, there is an edge, with darker undercurrents and in the case of this album hinting at impending doom (as is the way with the genre).  As with the vast expanse that is space, there’s plenty of openness, mixed with soaring and melodic sweeps, leaving the listener with a glimmer of hope at the end.

That Boards of Canada have garnered such mainstream appeal and acclaim is quite amazing, as there’s is far from commercial music.  I love this sort of thing, but I can’t imagine that it’s to everyone’s taste.  Maybe it’s just a by-product of the modern listening experience, but for me I don’t know if I could just sit and listen to the album on a regular basis, for me it’s the perfect soundtrack to something else, although when I listened on the bike in the gym I became so immersed in it that I forgot how long I’d planned to be on the bike and lasted it’s entirety.  It’s tough when an act has such a distinctive style and sound that the impact and quality is maintained over the years, but BoC have done that with aplomb.

Soundbite: The Orb meets Blake’s 7 (at last, it’s taken many years of writing about music to finally get the chance to used that phrase).

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SAY Awards #17 – Frightened Rabbit ‘Pedestrian Verse’

Over the past decade, Selkirk brothers Scott and Grant Hutchison’s Frightened Rabbit have emerged as one of the leading lights in Scotland’s indie scene, and their fourth album ‘Pedestrian Verse‘ is their major label full-album debut (on the mighty Atlantic Records, home of fellow Scot Paulo Nuttini). The album has confirmed their status as one of the country’s top groups, enjoying both critical acclaim and hitting the top ten album charts.

Scott’s falsetto is a stand-out feature, as are his lyrics, any album that opens with “the cad in the kitchen, giving wine to your best girl’s glass” has to be worth giving your attention to.  There’s life, loss, love, religion, melancholy, reflection and sin, but it’d be wrong to think that this album is laden with doom and gloom, far from it.  There are a bunch of stirring, anthemic numbers, that manage to make an album full of emotional honesty rather uplifting.

All that being said, the album isn’t perfect, there are some fantastic tunes, but equally there are a few that are musically ‘good but not great’. I’m being picky, but the most obvious comparisons are to a group’s other work, and for me a couple of tunes don’t excite me as much as the rest. My picks are ‘Acts of Man’, ‘The Woodpile’, ‘Late March Dead March’, ‘State Hospital’. ‘Nitrous Gas’.  I could imagine Guy Garvey from Elbow signing most of these tracks, and like Elbow you do wonder if Frightened Rabbit will finally enjoy their moment in the sun.

Soundbite: heartbreak rarely feels so good…

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SAY Awards #16 – Rick Redbeard ‘No Selfish Heart’

The Phantom Band’s Rick Anthony’s alter ego Rick Redbeard was a popular choice for many in these awards, and I know that a number of my friends reckoned a place in the shortlist was deserved.

No Selfish Heart has all the ingredients of a true labour of love project, 8 years in the making, home recordings (albeit sounding great), and a feeling of intimacy, warmth and true depth.  Rick has a fantastic rich baritone that’s very much centre stage, along with his lyrics; the stripped back nature of the records serves only to heighten the impact.

The album flows beautifully and there isn’t a weak track to be found. This is quite simply a stunning example of slightly leftfield, modern Scottish folk music, something that both the hipsters and the old timers can unite in appreciating.  No Selfish Heart is a timeless record that I’ll keep returning to.

Soundbite: A ‘Scottish Bon Iver’ modern folk masterpiece

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SAY Awards Review #13 – Chvrches ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’

That the self-produced debut album of a young, Scottish electro-pop outfit was a no-brainer for the SAY Awards longlist is testament to the incredible rise of Chvrches, and the critical success of ‘The Bones of What You Believe’ both in the UK and internationally.  Unlike our neighbours south of the border, us Scots tend to continue to support our homegrown successes (unless they turn into dicks) and take pride in the success of a group like Chvrches.

What’s particularly cool about them is not only was The Bones of What You Believe met with gushing praise from the music press, but the album entered into the mainstream chart, was all over commercial radio, and literally only a few days ago Chvrches played the Radio 1 Big Weekend in a bill featuring the likes of One Direction and Coldplay. In the US the album was in the Billboard end of year best of list, but equally over there they’ve been rated highly by Pitchfork, done the Tiny Desk Concert with NPR, done Jimmy Fallon, and charmed all the hipster press. I know from my time at World Circuit how hard it is to appeal to both sides of the spectrum.

Unlike most albums on the longlist, and popular Scottish albums in general, The Bones Of What You Believe is virtually guitar free, and what’s refreshing about it on such a list is that the album and Chvrches are very much the sound of now.  What is very Scottish about Chvrches, and most hip Scottish groups, is how they cherry pick their influences from older less commercial scenes, and put and contemporary twist and attitude on top.  Whilst the arty elements are very much there, Chvrches aren’t shy of swooping, soaring and downright catchy epic electronica. Stand out tracks like Recover, Lies, Gun, and The Mother We Share are mightily impressive for a home recording.

I have found myself debating what my opinion of Chvrches is, for some reason I’m often suspicious of arty hipster types, and what’s beneath the surface, BUT I’ve watched a number of sessions and performances they’ve done on youtube, and also the songs that Chvrches have chosen to cover, and it’s made me like them more.  Also, the fact that the group consists of non stereotypical ‘cool kids’ actually does make them cooler, and singer Lauren Mayberry taking a stance against cyber-sexism is highly commendable, they’re intelligent people making intelligent, credible music.

Soundbite: cool kids live up to the hype…testify!

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Scottish Album Of The Year

You have until May 28th to vote for your favourite album in the longlist, plus you can listen each album at http://www.sayaward.com/the-albums/ (this piece was written several weeks beforehand).

A couple of weeks ago, the 20 strong ‘longlist’ of nominees for the third Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Awards were announced. For the uninitiated, these awards are essentially a Scottish version of the Mercury Awards; i.e. the one that has some credibility and albums you’d actually want to listen to. And this year’s selection has a whole host of albums that you should listen to, with awards host (and Radio Scotland champion of new music) Vic Galloway commenting that “this is possibly the strongest list the award has seen yet.”

Previous winners RM Hubbert and Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat beating off stiff competition from big label acts show that SAY doesn’t follow others and go for the obvious. It’s another fine selection of albums, and whilst unlikely to bother said Mercurys, they are easily as good as the albums on that esteemed list. What is again striking is the variety that’s on display, with Frightened Rabbit of the opinion that “Scotland’s music scene is amongst the most productive, creative and energetic of any country in the world and this award list serves to highlight that fact.”

Although indie albums tip the balance, the list also features hip-hop, electro, folk, rock and the obligatory (but far from token) jazz and classical albums. I do wonder what would happen if Scotland produced half a dozen world class jazz or classical albums each a year (not an impossibility), would the longlist reflect that?

The spirit of adventure is rewarded this time around, all conquering Chvrches synth-pop debut The Bones of What You Believe has come home, whilst Mogwai continue their leftfield journey with their French TV soundtrack Les Revenants, Boards of Canada go from strength to strength with Tomorrow’s Harvest, young upstart Adam Stafford’s Imaginary Walls Collapse channels the spirit of Beck’s Odelay, and says “In this increasing culture of music as a disposable commodity, events like the SAY Award give us a chance to debate and discuss the importance of the album as a collected work of art and give little or esoteric artists like me the chance to reach a wider public.” Steve Mason’s majestic concept piece Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time might become his first ever award win (Beta Band included), “it would be amazing if the only award I ever won for music came from the country of my birth.”

The inspirational Edwyn Collins caps his creative green patch by making the list with Understated and Glasgow indie royalty The Pastels’ Slow Summits is included. Biffy Clyro are this year’s big name act although I’d imagine, in keeping with the spirit of the awards, they won’t win. Emerging Scots indie stars Adam Holmes and The Embers, Kid Canaveral, The Phantom Band’s Rick Redbeard and Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire are all acknowledged, indicating that the future is most definitely bright for Scottish music. Already attracting acclaim are Camera Obscura, the only act in the list to have an Edinburgh tourist attraction named after them, and Frightened Rabbit. Last year’s SAY winner RM Hubbert is back again with his latest album Breaks & Bone, the stunning conclusion to his Ampersand Trilogy.

Hip-hop again features in the SAY longlist, with a pair of albums, Hector Bizerk’s self released Nobody Seen Nothing was a winner at the Scottish Alternative Music Awards, and Young Fathers Tape Two has lead to them being snapped up by top US label Anticon, with the follow up release already doing well Stateside. For such a small nation, Scotland has an impressive array of world class artists, Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra are a big band of international renown and their tribute to Duke Ellington is something special, and there are two classical albums on the shortlist, much acclaimed Dunedin Consort’s Six Brandenburg Concertos is a stunning piece of baroque, and Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s second Berlioz release features prize-winning mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (“She’s up there among the best sopranos in the world so we are delighted this nomination will bring her more attention here in her home country.” says the orchestra’s Caroline Dooley), showing why they’re regarded as one of the world’s finest chamber orchestras. John Butt from Dunedin Consort makes the point that “It is also a great privilege to be considered for this award among all genres of music, beyond the purely classical scene. Hopefully it will help to show the richness and range of musical production and performance now coming out of Scotland.”

Each year I do wonder if we really need a Scottish album award when there are loads of awards out there already, be that all the specialist genre specific awards, or the national awards – and equally, does it marginalise our music? Making it a sort of ‘not good enough for the proper awards’ consolation prize. After my initial caution I then check out the longlist and find myself agreeing with Creative Scotland’s (agreeing with Creative Scotland??!! – Editor) Caroline Parkin who says that: “It’s great to see such a diverse range of genres on the long list and we hope that each nominee will see an increase in fans and sales as a result.”

Info: Tip up here to listen to nominees: http://www.sayaward.com

Original feature appears in Leither Magazine May 2014