EP Review :: Spraynard – Exton Square

“…the band and their sound is maturing in real time, but holding onto what made them great in the first place.”

With their debut album, Funtitled, Spraynard – an American trio who can be best described as fusing the careful intricacies and passion of 90’s emo with all that is carefree and great about traditional pop-punk – cast me back to being 14 and listening to Weezer’s Blue Album.

That record is a collection of fast-paced upbeat songs about comic books, video games, generally lacking direction and being totally fine with the fact. This best summed up on their own words – in a line delivered as well as it is written – “Today I will prove that I’m more than a collection of comic books or a high score on the screen”. It’s an incredibly uplifting record that I could (and quite possibly should) go on about at length, alas this is a review of the new EP, sorry!

Exton Square opens with ‘Can I Borrow A Feeling?’, and for the first 78 seconds you might wonder if you’ve indeed put on a Spraynard record. It leads in with a slow and somewhat sensitive opening, something which many who were expecting the EP to simply be an extension of their debut would never have expected. This is quite quickly put to bed and the song continues in much more the fashion we’ve come to expect. This theme however is quite consistent throughout, and its one of the things I enjoy most about the EP. It’s definitely a Spraynard record, they’ve kept a lot of what made their earlier stuff great but they’ve also been able to develop their sound with fantastic results.

Listened to along side the previous release it really feels like a natural progression for the band. In the same way that Funtitled reminded me of youthful times of optimism, Exton Square reminds me of looking back on those times with a sense of nostalgia, and perhaps feeling the ill effects of growing up. It suggests that the band and their sound is maturing in real time, but holding onto what made them great in the first place. (It might be contradictory at this point to mention that my favourite tracking “Trembling” is probably the most closely matched to the style of their earlier records, but I don’t care.)

The style, structure and feeling of the new EP is so intriguing, the evolution of the sound leads to something of a cliffhanger as to what’s to come next. Sadly this sense of intrigue meant that I found it to be a little short, there are only 4 tracks and from a band that writes predominantly concise songs, it almost feels over too soon. This could perhaps be a very clever marketing ploy for a new full length release, but seeing as I didn’t see J. J. Abrams name in the album production credits I doubt it and so I was left feeling that perhaps there could have been a bit more content.

That said, there’s nothing to stop me putting it on again, and I think that’s what I’ll do.

– John Dykes

EP Review :: Rob Bywater – The Factory

“…speaks to the people on the lower rungs with a brash honesty not seen in many years.”

The Factory is the second E.P. from, Cleethorpes’ own, Rob Bywater (at least the second I’ve been asked to review, I really liked the first, in fact you can read it here), and it is clear that all the elements that made the first such a strong release have been emphasized on this second outing, creating a more progressive Rob Bywater sound.

Now the word “progressive” can often be construed as another way of saying “egotistical shit”, where an artist concentrates more on showing off musically than good song writing. Bywater does definitely fall into this category. The songs still maintain the simplistic elements of a strong folk record; open chords with occasional arpeggiated riffs. The progression in The Factory EP comes in the form of subtle confidence, not over indulgent cockiness, with Bywater sounding a lot more comfortable in pushing his vocal range to new levels, and doing so with much success.

On the whole, The Factory maintains the Billy Bragg-esque working class commentary that was common place on the Bywater’s first EP. With, opener and title track, ‘The Factory’ telling a modern day tale of redundancy, money struggles and upper class corruption. This is epitomized in the lyrics: “by the end we were a fraction of the men we were before,” and, “wealthy men’s incompetence bankrupt the working man,” which speaks to the people on the lower rungs with a brash honesty not seen in many years.

The point of interest in this four track record is,second track, ‘Brown Hair, Glasses and Big Blue Jeans’, a three-minute melody telling of a love interest met in the boozer. Tackling the subject of romance, even one that seems alcohol fueled, is a new approach for Bywater but one he pulls of quite graciously, maintaining a specific point of focus that reflects everyday life, instead of attempting to tackle love as a huge Disney-style concept and failing horribly like so many.

Rob Bywater remains one of the most honest singer-songwriters in the UK. and his small, yet no doubt loyal, following isn’t so much a mystery but more a testament to how little genuine talent is overlooked by commercial claptrap. We can only hope that this is just a phase before artists like this throw in the towel but, when songs are clearly done with as much love as this, I doubt they ever will.

EP Review :: Harker – Loyal Than Most/Lights Off

“…I reckon you’d be able to guess a few of the records in this guy’s collection”

Well, hasn’t Harker has been a busy boy recently! Having already put two tracks towards a split with Dave Hughes and Emma Hallows, he’s also managed to put out a new three-track EP. Loyal Than Most/Lights Off is a really honest release from the Brighton-based singer/songwriter, and makes for a fantastic introduction for the uninitiated out there.

It’s clear from the beginning that Harker isn’t afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve. Both of his original tracks are very clearly influenced by the likes of Brian Fallon (in particular, The Gaslight Anthem) and Chuck Ragan. From the gravelly vocals, to the subject matter, everything here feels somewhat tainted (not in a bad way), by those two guys. That being said, don’t go thinking they’re generic. They’re far from it, but I reckon you’d be able to guess a few of the records in this guy’s collection.

‘Loyal Than Most’ is certainly the best of the two tracks. It’s got a very folky feel to it, but still has that fight and desperation of a good punk song. Finding a balance between those two genre’s is no easy feat, but Harker manages it with ease. His vocals towards the end have this ‘shouting at the heavens’ kind of feel to them, that only increases the tone of desperation in the track, and makes for a sure fire sing-along when played live.

Second track, ‘Lights Off’ swaps folk for country and, whilst it’s still good, it doesn’t have that special something that grabbed me like the opener. The subtle addition of piano certainly makes it the most instrumentally interesting, but the gang vocals sounded a little flat and didn’t really work for me. It also feels like it’s missing a couple of verses. I really like the theme he’s going for, but it feels like there should be more to it.

A rendition of Jawbreaker’s ‘Do You Still Hate Me?’ rounds out the EP, and the Brightonian’s gravelly vocals work perfectly with the track. The whole EP has a ‘punk goes acoustic’ feel to it, and that’s exactly what this is. Like the opener his powerful vocals really shine through. This makes the lyrics really hit home, something that’s imperative when it comes to a song like this. Not only that, but the track fits thematically within the EP, which never does any harm.

Harker is treading a fine line with this EP. His influences really shine through, and that could really put some people off. However, I think he’s managed to create something that will endear him to the audience that he himself is a part of. ‘Loyal Than Most’ is a real standout, and he does a damn fine Jawbreaker cover. I just wish there was a little more to that second track.

EP Review :: Abbie Broom – Dorothy’s Heels/Pocket Change

“I can see this cropping up on Suedehead, in between ‘I Don’t Care If You Forget Me’ and ‘Dial A Cliche’, but that’s really besides the point isn’t it?”

Having found herself an unlikely addition to the Revival Tour in London last October (courtesy of Mr Fallon), Abbie Broom seems to have gathered plenty of positive attention. All signs point to big things coming from the young singer/songwriter and, if Dorothy’s Heels/Pocket Change is anything to go by, it’s easy to see why.

Right from the off you’re enchanted by Abbie’s voice. Her soft vocal style works fantastically with the, reference heavy, lyrics and once it grabs you it’s hard to stop listening. Though the fairy-tale references do flow thick and fast, they never feel forced. Each of them cleverly rolls into the next with ease, adding a sense of depth to this simple folk song, helping to involve the listener even more than usual. My only gripe with the track is the line “…cheating the world out of a fairy-tale conclusion”, which is almost directly lifted from Frank Turner’s ‘Rock & Roll Romance’.

‘Pocket Change’ allows us to see another side to Miss Broom and her songwriting, and is a much more sombre affair compared to the EP’s opener. Abbie’s vocals have a haunting quality as she describes the world around her, taking note of outdated fashions, cars and architecture. Lyrically, it’s very much like an early Morrissey song. I can see this cropping up on Suedehead, in between ‘I Don’t Care If You Forget Me’ and ‘Dial A Cliche’, but that’s really besides the point isn’t it? What I’m trying to say is that it’s a fantastic track. It’s one that really shows of Abbie’s range, both as a singer and a songwriter.

The final track on the EP is an ‘alternative’ version of ‘Dorothy’s Heels’. Though I can see why it was included, it wasn’t necessary. The additional drums do nothing to improve the track, and the guitar has a very washed out sound. All in all, not a great take on the original. But that’s why it’s the alternative version, right?  That being said, this is a fantastic release from a great singer/songwriter. It’s clear now why she’s getting so much attention. Be sure to check this out.

EP Review :: Fitz. – Bare Bones

“…there is a definite “home-made” feel, a raw quality, which gives the songs a more touching edge.”

Fitz. is the pseudonym used by West-Midlands based musician Sam Fitzpatrick and his accompanying band, who, together, take modern-folk songs filled with pounding percussion and lace them with powerful vocals to deliver an impressively diverse and exciting debut E.P.

Upon graduating from University with a degree in Music Technology, Fitz. resigned himself to a 16th century stone barn in the Black Mountains of South Wales to wholeheartedly concentrate on his music, passionately working on tracks for his debut album ‘Patchwork’. Following the two-month recording of ‘Patchwork’ with the help of talented friends and musicians, Fitz. started working to assemble a live band to accompany him on stage.

As an ensemble, the members of Fitz. worked tirelessly to create a well-rounded debut EP, full of ‘a-la-mode’ folk instrumentals, layered vocals and intricate acoustic guitars. ‘Bare Bones’ is a 4 track masterpiece, filled with heartfelt and passionate songs; a tasty canapé, if you like, allowing a dalliance, a dabble in the delights that Fitz. has to offer and patently leaving you salivating for the full-length album, expected in May 2012.

After listening to the tracks (details of where to find them below), I am compelled to avoid any obvious comparisons (the likes of Mumford and Sons, Ben Howard, Frank Turner would be stereotypically linked to Fitz’s style) I would, however,prefer to place them on a pedestal of their own. Whilst the tracks have been mastered and well-recorded, there is a definite “home-made” feel, a raw quality, which gives the songs a more touching edge. There are no electronic effects, tweaking or over-production; every song is simple yet incredibly effective. Each track has a strong back-bone, a robust guitar riff or set of chords that provides a stable base for the linked instrumentals. The lyrics melt over the guitars, telling tangible and relatable stories whilst the interesting array of instruments and quirky interpretations of “modern-folk” allow the tracks to be unique and stand-out in an ever-growing market.

Whilst the E.P. flows well, each track fusing effortlessly into the next, the tracks all offer their own take on Fitz’s style. There are intense crescendos and quiet interludes. Two favourite tracks on the E.P. include ‘Firelight’ and ‘Maps’ which both contain the aforementioned ingredients that make this E.P. such a success.

As well as an impressive debut E.P., Fitz. has built an equally inspiring repertoire of live gigs, including performances at a ‘Unicef’ concert and entertaining sell out crowds of over a thousand. The band’s versatility and diverse range of talents allows them to offer exciting and powerful performances, whilst also being gifted with the ability to strip their eclectic supply of tracks down to their bare bones to allow for a more intimate and mellow set. This year, Fitz. is due to visit every corner of the UK promoting the release of his debut single ‘Maps’ and his first album ‘Patchwork’ (out May 2012) through independent record label ‘Us Is The New Them’. ‘Patchwork’ will be a developed progression from the debut E.P., maintaining the initial values and musicality present on ‘Bare Bones’ whilst offering a more substantial sound.

Fitz. are: Sam Fitzpatrick on Acoustic Guitars and Vocals, Joel Careless on Bass, Percussion and Electric Guitar, Benjamin Maines-Blatherwick on Percussion and Drums, and Richard Potts on Banjo, Percussion and an eclectic array of acoustic instrumentation.

The band can be found at: http://www.facebook.com/FitzOfficialUK and their music is available from: iTunes/Amazon.com/Play.com/Spotify

http://www.fitzofficial.co.uk

http://www.soundcloud.com/fitzofficial

http://www.youtube.com/fitzofficialuk

[J]

EP Review :: Great Cynics – In The Valley

“I had this feeling that this is how Giles originally imagined these songs sounding.”

After the success of their debut album Don’t Need Much, Great Cynics return with something some people might be a little familiar with already. Well, sort of: Back when the band was just Giles and his guitar, and no one had even brought up the idea of a name change, he’d recorded some songs that people really dug. In fact they still do dig these songs, and that’s why we have In The Valley – an EP comprised of full-band versions of three original Cynics songs.

Both ‘You’re Alright’ and ’14 Coleman Street’ have been mainstays of Great Cynics’ sets for some time, so it’s great to finally have full band recordings of these already fantastic tunes. Those already fond of Giles’ original recordings won’t be disappointed either. The extra instrumentation only improves on what was already there. A stronger vocal performance from Giles and better production certainly help too.

The same can be said for ‘In The Valley’. The EP’s opening/title track is the only one of the three that might be less familiar to some fans of the band, but I’ve got a feeling that’ll change pretty soon. This too is a massive improvement over the original recording, and it’s really cool to hear Iona lending her vocal talents more prominently than before. And as good as the other two tracks are, I think this might be my favorite of the bunch.

When I first finished listening to this EP (and I’ve listened to it a whole fucking lot!), I had this feeling that this is how Giles originally imagined these songs sounding. He might not have done but, either way, they’ve turned out awesome. Don’t be an idiot. Get this and, if you haven’t already, go and buy Don’t Need Much too!

EP Review :: Well Wisher – Summer Gangs

“It’s like having a massive indie-pop/emo monster stumble out of the bushes, look at you, and start to charge, arms and legs flailing.”

It’s been a long time since we had a substantial release from, Manchester ‘party-emo’ pioneers, Well Wisher. Two tracks on a split with Polina, and a plethora of live shows, was just enough to tide fans over in 2011, but now we have Summer Gangs. The band’s second EP raises the bar set by their debut – their, catchy, upbeat tunes sounding more refined and polished than ever before. In short, this might well be the best thing Well Wisher have ever done.

Starting out understated with ‘Are You Crazy To Come To The Crazy Beach Party?’ (what a gem of a song title!), Summer Gangs builds into this erratic crescendo of sound by the beginning of the second track, before repeating the whole process all over again. It’s like having a massive indie-pop/emo monster stumble out of the bushes, look at you, and start to charge, arms and legs flailing. The EP is capped off with a fantastic cover of Braid’s ‘Breathe In’ – a track originally intended for a tribute to the, no longer late, 90’s emo outfit – which the band have made their own, whilst making their influences abundantly clear.

Summer Gangs shows a clear progression in Well Wisher as a band. Their older material remains fantastic, but everything here – the lyrics, the musicianship, the everything – is a step up. Not only that, but it’s the closest they’ve come to capturing the band’s intense, captivating, live experience and I couldn’t ask for more than that.

You can stream the entire EP over on their Bandcamp.

EP Review :: theHell – Sauves Les Requins

“…harkens back to the early days of the Trio with a little of that post-punk sound that has permeated through Matt’s previous musical efforts.”

Of all the Alkaline Trio boys, Matt Skiba has been the most prolific when it comes to side-projects – he’s gone solo, released a post-punk record, and has got a new album with The Sekrets on the horizon – but he’s always managed to do something interesting with every new creative outlet. This time Skiba has teamed up with, drummer, Atom Willard (Angels & Airwaves, Rocket From The Crypt, The Offspring) to form theHell.

At it’s core Sauves Les Requins is a collection of four great punk rock songs, but did you expect anything less? The duo is showcasing what they do best, changing it up enough to make it interesting without leaving ‘die-hard’ fans of their past work disappointed. The result actually feels more like a straight up pop-punk record than a lot of the guys’ recent releases, and I for one welcome that. The polish applied to Angels And Airwaves (and the later Alkaline Trio) records is replaced by something much more raw, and yet it doesn’t feel shoddy or underproduced. Combine that with Skiba’s signature dark lyrical style and fantastic vocal, and you have something special. Something that, for me anyway, harkens back to the early days of the Trio with a little of that post-punk sound that has permeated through Matt’s previous musical efforts.

It’s that link to early Trio that makes me start this up again as soon as it’s finished and, despite not knowing what to expect coming in, I’m longing to hear more. Though there’s been nothing announced regarding a full length I, like many others, will be sorely disappointed if that doesn’t come to pass. This is exactly what I want to hear from a side project, and is sure to excite anyone looking for a fresh but familiar pop-punk sound.

EP Review :: Brendan Kelly And The Wandering Birds – A Man With The Passion Of Tennessee Williams

“This is Brendan getting creative, and trying new things…”

The side project can be a wonderful thing. They’re often a chance for an artist to diversify and, when they’re done right, can turn out to be awesome. Back in 2004, Brendan Kelly formed The Falcon – a punk ‘supergroup’ containing members of Alkaline Trio, Rise Against and, Kelly’s own, Lawrence Arms – and whilst The Falcon’s sound was dissimilar to any of the aforementioned bands, the apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree. With this latest project, the raspy-voiced Chicagoan, has endeavored to do something completely different. Not only has he succeeded in doing so, but he’s created something that’ll surprise many a listener.

A Man With The Passion Of Tennessee Williams is a perfect three-track tease of what’s to come from Kelly and his Wandering Birds. Though the lyrical content remains relatively similar to his previous work, it appears we’ll be getting something completely different from a musical standpoint. The opening track demonstrates this perfectly; A simple drum beat permeates throughout, broken up by the effect laden sound of an electric guitar and lead vocal. The end result is a very techno/Euro-dance sounding track, with Kelly’s vocals coming across very Marilyn Manson-esque. So yeah, this isn’t The Lawrence Arms or one of those ‘one man and a guitar’ kind of deals. Surprisingly, this isn’t a bad thing and I’m excited for what’s to come when the full length is released in February.

As for the EP’s two other tracks, the first has a very Lawrence Arms sound about it. Whilst it has been infused with a little of the techno style heard on the previous track, it’s a ‘safer’ song than what came before. Given how different the previous track was, it definitely didn’t strike me in the same way. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable in it’s own right. In an even safer move, the EP closes with an acoustic song. ‘Suffer The Children, Come Unto Me’ shows that Kelly’s basic songwriting process has remained very similar, and so I urge you to give this a try.

This is Brendan getting creative, and trying new things. It’s certainly not what I expected coming in, but I’m excited to see what he can do having lost the constraints of a traditional punk rock record.

EP Review :: Emma Hallows – Anchors Up!

“…there’s a distinct Gaslight Anthem influence here. That’s certainly not a bad thing.”

It almost feels like a cliche at this point, but Emma Hallows is yet another migrant to the ever popular acoustic music scene. Having spent years playing in different bands, she opted to go solo and it seems like it’s worked out for the best. This latest career diversion has seen her playing shows with, UK favourites, Great Cynics and Sam Russo. She even managed to catch the attention of, Loved Ones frontman, Dave Hause, playing a show with him just a few months ago. Not bad going if you ask me.

How Emma managed to record an EP amongst all of that is beyond me. What’s more is that it’s really good. This is far from a “quick, chuck a few tracks together and get it out there” kind of thing. There’s actually been a lot of care and attention put into the production of this record, and whilst it didn’t always work out (see: the electric guitar in ‘Brian and Jane) the addition of a few subtle handclaps or the rattling of a tambourine, in collaboration with Emma’s voice and the sound of her acoustic, make all the difference.

Emma is fantastic and is one of the most unique voices I’ve heard of late, and it helps her stand out from her peers. It’s quite low, but that really works in her favour: I doubt that a lot of the sentiment carried in her, at times, dark lyrics would come across as well if it wasn’t for the way she sings them. Songs based on life’s hardships rarely work if the person singing them is really upbeat. Speaking of her lyrics, for me, they might be the best part of the Anchors Up! package. They’re so easy to relate to, and some of the wordplay is brilliant. Each song is like a little story, and there’s a distinct Gaslight Anthem influence here. That’s certainly not a bad thing.

Anchors Up! is a collection of four brilliant songs that you’ll find it hard not to love. They’re simple songs that are incredibly true to life, each one revealing a little about the person behind them. It might not hit the mark every time, but it’s pretty close.