Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Singing Sheep - Baa-Baa Black Sheep

When Richard Branson's Virgin Records made its first fortune with the million-selling 'Tubular Bells' from Mike Oldfield, the opportunities for the next step must have been countless, astonishing, heaven-sent...

Apparently not.

The company was still seen as being too small compared to the big names, so signing other groups was proving difficult.

Fortunately for my childhood, Branson made an interesting decision when his auntie, Claire Hoare, told him about the singing talents of one of her sheep. A crew of sound engineers went sent to her flock in Norfolk, and began recording the sheep in question - plus a collection of other farmyard animals.

Via the wonders of 80's technology, the baas, clucks, quacks, and moos were pitch-altered and spliced together to form a single that was released just in time for Christmas: "Baa-Baa Black Sheep". Beginning as just an ovine version of the nursery-rhyme, it follows a chicken-based crescendo with the inclusion of drums and synth and then, obviously, throws in a portion of Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture' for good measure.

Oh, and the B-side? "Flock Around The Clock"

When the record was released in 1982, I was still three months away from being born. However, it somehow avoided being thrown out once the novelty had worn off, and so I had the pleasure of listening to it many times during my early years. I recall at least one member of my family finding the song "a little creepy".

I still own the record which remains in surprisingly good condition, especially considering my clumsy ways with the record player's stylus when I was a kid. Sadly I no longer have a turntable on which to play it, but YouTube (as always) provides the audio of my past.

"Baa" - A Sheep

Monday 11 March 2013

Your Gentlemen - Dead, Almost

I'm a sucker for progressive tracks. I love that gradual build-up of instrumental layers as each brings a wider sound to it, until the crescendo hits its peak and the vocal comes in. Perhaps it is a clich├ęd way to approach song writing: possibly the outcome of working backwards from the chorus and trying to find a "way in". Regardless, I'm yet to tire of it and there are still bands out there that are doing it very well. New Jersey group Your Gentlemen are one of them.

Their first LP, 'Sincerely', provides a bountiful eleven songs of pleasing indie rock filled with great guitar effects, expansive moments of synth, and yearning vocals, but it's the progressive opening track 'Dead, Almost' that keeps me returning. Whilst some of the other tunes may offer more thematically and lyrically - and may well be "better" songs - 'Dead, Almost' is an excellent start to the album. The minimal guitar and light background drone carries us through to the first words, where the instruments then drop back a little, preparing themselves for another go when they will be met by the drums and cymbals.

The song peaks at just the right moment - fifteen seconds before the end - leaving just the appropriate amount of time to wind down to the final strum, and avoiding any sense of aimlessness that could occur with a lengthy diminuendo.

'Sincerely', as a whole, is begging for a listen with its impressive songs, but 'Dead, Almost' stands out especially as a fabulous beginning to Your Gentlemen's story.

If you visit their BandCamp page, you can still download for free their previous release 'Play Their Songs': a five-track EP which includes two songs from the album.


"I just wrote one song at a time. Kinda like an alcoholic: One day at a time" - Neil Young

Sunday 10 March 2013

Underwater Track Team - Underwater Track Team

Californian six-piece Underwater Track Team are a folk-pop band that proudly display their influences and are keen to draw upon them (Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Fleet Foxes, etc.), whilst still clearly trying to retain their individuality. Their self-titled debut EP, released this month, has been made available to download for free via their BandCamp page and offers five songs of plucky guitar and tight vocal harmonies.

Opening track 'The Call' is the band's elected single, and begins with the sounds of the beach before the strings begin to be strummed in the familiar folksy style. Soon accompanied by "oohs" and "aahs" and a drum-kit eager to be heard, the lyrics then begin to guide us down a carefree road of positive self-confidence.

"We're on the rise, You can't deny,
We hear the call.
We are the kings tonight,
We are the queens tonight."

Even without the shoreline and seagull samples, 'The Call' has a wonderful summery vibe to it that should be applauded for evoking such feelings during a cold and miserable March day.

The watery theme continues into the second track, 'Waves', which talks of fear and making mistakes - likening all the worries to the heavy pressure of water. Yet this song is more uplifting than might appear, and the final lines tell us why:

"I never know how far I'm going,
I only know how far I've come.
All the things that have been done,
To make me strong."

As we hit the middle of the EP there's a brief change of style. 'Set Me On Fire', with its smooth-jazz attitude, lounge-bar aura, and female lead vocal, certainly sticks out amongst its neighbouring folk-fests. Yet, lodged between them all as it is, the track provides a healthy and welcome contrast, and also proves that Underwater Track Team are no one-trick pony.

As we approach the end of the record, penultimate track 'It Won't Leave' is back in familiar territory and yet is almost certainly a high point of the EP. The haunting harmonies - particularly on the frequent "oohs" - are spine-tinglingly good (echoed, coincidentally, in the lyrics themselves) and when the piano hammers its way into the second half, the whole tune becomes a glorious example of what this band can do.

The EP ends with 'Keep The Light On'. Although perhaps a less adventurous track than the others, it's swaying rhythm and final drum beats bring the record to a satisfyingly comfortable close.

Recorded and produced in a way that keeps their sound live and untainted, this debut release has some fantastic highlights that are worthy of exploring.


"Being able to still make records is a privilege. I don't take it casually" - Tori Amos

Saturday 9 March 2013

Cantoo - Ivory Eyes

Originally a project begun as a outlet for Aaron Parker's creative backlog whilst he played in other bands, Edmonton-based Cantoo is now a fully-fledged band with a self-titled debut album looming. With a select handful of talented musical friends to assist, Aaron was able to put together the music that he felt an urge to create: free, thoughtful, and with appreciative nods to the 60's.

Generously, Cantoo has made three of the album's tracks available to download for free via their BandCamp page. Album opener 'Send In The Clouds' is a short (1:38) instrumental prelude that introduces some of the band's key aims and sounds, whilst 'Alabaster' is a five minute escalating crescendo of harmony driven with reliable drums.

'Ivory Eyes', however, is the track that clearly shows its 60's influences and gratitude. With some of the finest elements delicately plucked from the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, and The Walker Brothers, the song throws some carefree lyrics and guitar at you, with a slight psychedelic slant - gently encouraging you to lay back and soak up the music. Despite its keen nostalgia, it still keeps a foot held firmly in the present so that the tune doesn't sound dated before it has even had a chance to breathe.

I eagerly await the chance to hear the rest of what Cantoo's first album has to offer.


"It's hard to be angry when you're listening to music" - Jerry Reed