Strangers marks the third full-length in four years from prolific British songster Ed Harcourt (four if you count the 2003 re-release of his early EP Maplewood), a spasmodic musical soul who isn’t afraid to draw from an amalgam of otherwise unrelated influences. Harcourt, now 27, was rumored to have a backlog of over 300 songs by the time he put his debut, Here Be Monsters, to tape in 2001. In defining his aesthetic motivation, he has name-dropped the likes of everyone from jazz legend Chet Baker and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (of “I Put A Spell On You” fame) to acutely modern acts like the Beastie Boys, Perry Farrell and At The Drive-In. While all of his influences may not be promptly apparent, Harcourt’s brand of tuneful, piano-based pop is indeed a savory musical curry, full of spunk and wildly varying concepts that somehow coalesce into a truly captivating listen.
In actuality, the best approximation of Harcourt’s sound would be that of Badly Drawn Boy, crossed with the more august melodic moments of The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft (for those of us naïve folks who believe that Ashcroft has indeed had moments where he was not august), with a voice that can’t help but remind you of Jeff Buckley in spots. The once-important but now going-out-with-a-fuss indie legends R.E.M., whose tastes seem to hold more weight than their music these days, thought highly enough of him to take him out on tour with them last year. Anyone who heard Ron Sexsmith’s last album, Retriever, got a dollop of Harcourt’s piano stylings on “From Now On,” imbuing the song with a vivacity that had been absent from most of Sexsmith’s previous work. Those who were paying attention could have taken it as a nod to the material present on what wound up being Strangers, and they wouldn’t have been too far off. And golly, it’s even got a kazoo.
The album-opening “The Storm Is Coming” lives up to its title, rolling out with an atonal guitar squall and arena-rock beat, joined midstream by Harcourt’s piano and a vindictive chorus (“The storm is coming / It’s gonna make a beautiful sound / I hope it turns your life upside down…”). In contrast to his multi-dimensional orchestrations, Harcourt’s lyrics are pleasantly direct and heart-on-the-sleeve, which he goes as far as to tell you himself in “This One’s For You.” “Born In The ’70s” is a cheeky, driving number that finds him scorning his traditionalist elders. He volleys deftly from tempo to tempo and melody to melody; from the Verveian bombast of “Let Love Not Weigh Me Down,” he drops off quickly to the frail emoting of “Something To Live For” and “The Trapdoor.”
The always-humble Noel Gallagher mentioned in a rare felicitous moment that he wished he’d written “This One’s For You,” which is no less than high praise from a now-descended Britpop deity who actually had an entire genre named after him. The Gallagher name might be innately associated with a certain degree of twatness, but no one’s second-guessing Noel’s musical pedigree. Noel might even enjoy the simple irony in naming a song “Loneliness” and then playing it as an uptempo, major-key pop song.
If the Keane album can catch fire in America for reasons I have yet to discern (besides it being warm, cuddly and completely inert, which while being enough for many people, is SO not rock), there’s no reason to believe that Harcourt can’t get some steam behind a tune like “The Storm Is Coming” or “Born In The ’70s.” The only thing that might hold Harcourt back in the States is that we don’t take too well anymore to radicals or free-thinkers, of which he is both. But make no mistake about it; there are two kinds of pragmatists: Bad pragmatists (I’m looking at you, Craig Nicholls) and good pragmatists. Ed Harcourt is safely in the company of the latter.
The Ritualists – Painted People
The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music
After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.
“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.
“Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.
“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.
There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.
The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk
It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.
Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.
From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).
Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.