RANKED: Top 10 The National Tracks

Words fae Callum Thornhill (@Cal_Thornhill)

With a career spanning almost two decades, Cincinnati rockers The National have continuously reimagined their sound across seven spellbinding records. The release of Sleep Well Beast (2017) encapsulated their diverse themes to create a deep, dark blend of expertly crafted misery-laden ballads. This year we have witnessed Berninger and co. deservedly top the bill of several European festivals – an accolade that was arguably rightfully theirs after the release of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Revisiting the best of the best is a pleasurable task, but one that will never find a definitive answer.

10) AVAILABLE (Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers)

The only pre-Alligator track to make the list, which demonstrates just how elegantly The National matured. Available, though presented the cornerstone of Berninger’s grizzly, almost vicious, bellows of passion and conviction we see in later records. “Why did you dress me down?” is screamed as the track closes, via the protagonist questioning loneliness, blame, and love.

9) FAKE EMPIRE (Boxer)

Kicking off what Berninger calls “a sad record,” Fake Empire offers the listener a moment of tranquility to blissfully reminisce about the pre-soured stages of life. The reminiscent element comes in the form of an almost dreamscape, fairytale sequence: tip-toeing through the city with diamond slippers on, bluebirds on shoulders and the piece de resistance of the tranquil ideology is turning the light out and not thinking temporarily. Stunning.

8) I’LL STILL DESTROY YOU (Sleep Well Beast)

“This one’s like your mother’s arms, when she was young and sunburned in the ’80s,” is a lyric simple, yet one of the most memorable from 2017’s Sleep Well Beast. As always with The National, moments of reflection and realisation are entwined amongst similes, in I’ll Still Destroy You we have “always up at 5am like a baby.” Similarly to the first lyric, the simplicity packs enough of a punch to make an impact.

7) CONVERSATION 16 (High Violet)

“Cause I’m evil,” echoes throughout the choruses of this High Violet ballad, and The National certainly document exactly why. Miserable things told after the protagonist’s partner is sleeping, afraid of eating their brains, being a confident liar, etc. are all relevant in the demise of what, on the surface, was once a watertight relationship. Whether it be a one sided breakdown or the agreement of both parties, the brutal honesty comes across as almost cinematic.

6) MR NOVEMBER (Alligator)

If you were to pull a live set apart, many critics would place Mr November as the number one live track. Often found towards the bottom of the setlist it misleads the audience into thinking the band are about to inject 12 ounces of passion into the performance, but it seamlessly fits into mellifluous anthems either side. Roaring “I won’t fuck us over,” The National provide ample proof through Mr November that they have the ability to transform from a sophisticated dinner party band to the bladdered taxi ride home ramblings.

5) DON’T SWALLOW THE CAP (Trouble Will Find Me)

Smothered in ghostly, distant vocals and outlining that their are only two emotions The National familiarise themselves with; “careful fear and dead devotion,” offer an insight into how easy it is to change your approach to someone. Possibly on the back of a messy break up, the protagonist outlines methods of how to hurt them, e.g. play Nevermind or Let it Be if you want to see them cry, and with the addition of hooks such as “I’m not alone, I’ll never be,” suggests an ignorance that by highlighting how to hurt them back they’ll never leave. Verdict: teetering on toxic, will probably end up like Sid and Nancy.

4) ALL THE WINE (Alligator)

A rare self-appreciation from The National here; no doubt via a few bottles of house red in a trendy bar. A wine induced confidence is something we can all relate to – the line “I’m a perfect piece of ass” is particularly brilliant and reminds me of the age-old joke about walking past a mirror when you’re steaming and thinking *Owen Wilson voice* wooooow. While All the Wine is somewhat self-indulgent, the ideology of a motorcade having to go around one person would be superb viewing. Egomaniac? Maybe. Lyrical brilliance? Absolutely.

3) WALK IT BACK (Sleep Well Beast)

The snippet from ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush’ (Ron Suskind) is what makes Walk It Back a top three The National track. That, and of course the self-deprecation vibe running deep from the opening line to the last. Mellow and atmospheric, we have all the hallmarks of The National. Misery wrapped in a blanket of delicate synths and deep exploration, classic Berninger.

2) SORROW (High Violet)

The juxtaposed approaches to sadness, or Sorrow if you will, provide an exploration into the mind of The National with yet another self-loathing, downbeat ballad. The lyric “Sorrow’s a girl inside my cake,” is particularly interesting – often a girl popping out of a cake has the connotation of being a jubilant occasion, however, in typical The National style the ideology has been flipped and instead we are to perceive Sorrow coming at the most unexpected and celebratory of times.

1) GRACELESS (Trouble Will Find Me)

Trouble Will Find Me, as mentioned in the intro should have been the record that gave The National a leg-up to parade their melancholy tunes around a stage as the festival headliners. Instead, tracks such as Graceless was kept under wraps and owned exclusively by fans. Here we see the body being compared to fruit and the protagonist is no longer their rosy self, but instead a rotten, decaying version of themselves. An ever-growing ballad with lyrics suitable for tattooing and ideology suited for feature length visuals makes Graceless the number on track by The National.

Notable mentions go to EnglandMistaken For StrangersTerrible Love and Lemonworld; perhaps one day the definitive list of all-time The National tracks will be created, but until then we can debate the best of the best.

The Importance of The Streets

by callum thornhill (@cal_thornhill)

Mike Skinner. The Streets. The UK’s greatest (totally unbiased) urban export and an influence on everyday life in the grim north east of England. With five albums out (and seemingly more to follow), it is impossible not to have at least one gritty tune that is scarily relatable to your life. Here, in this feature celebrating The Streets ahead of their comeback tour this spring, I am going to delve deep into their first two records; Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free, and explore how and why the Birmingham musicians have soundtracked my life for as long as I can remember.

From the first time I heard Fit But You Know It on Fifa 2005 I knew that they were going to be the band to soundtrack my life. Now, some thirteen years later, I find myself totally absorbed in looking back and constantly re-appreciating The Streets. They are, in my opinion, a headphones-in band in the sense that the lyrics and music were crafted to give a personal experience. There are some bands that MUST be blasted through massive speakers, but Skinner and co. don’t fit this criteria – there are few records since the turn of the millennial as jaw-dropping as their debut Original Pirate Material. Released in 2002 (and apparently being re-released on vinyl in time for the upcoming tour) it is still as relevant now.

Weak Become Heroes dabbles in various themes including the drug-taking past of the protagonist. Opening with “nothing but grey concrete and deadbeats,” Skinner speaks for a generation with the approach of having nothing better to do. Most striking is that even now that mindset is still popular – a lack of societal improvement has left the youth behind where they are swept under the carpet as long as they are only harming themselves or the community around them. The melodic chorus of “weak become heroes and the stars align,” give the impression that via taking these experimental substances has allowed a greater lifestyle and everything finally coming together away from the monotonous doom and gloom.

There are two sides to The Streets – the first being the confident, lairy attitude as shown in Sharp Darts“I’ve got a worldwide warranty, satisfaction guarantee”. For Skinner to come out in a sub-two-minute banger on album one with such a bold statement – especially considering the DIY approach of producing Original Pirate Material (the majority was recorded in his London flat, with vocals done in a wardrobe), definitely has something to do with The Streets being one of the most recognisable UK garage acts of the past two decades. In this genre, you have to be ballsy and unapologetic, something that this track, and many others, portrays.

The other side of The Streets is the almost-romantic self-reflective approach. Take album closer, Stay Positive, and you can see Skinner using positivity to drag the protagonist out of a downbeat, negative rut. “Your idols – who are they? They too dreamt about their day. Positive steps will see your goals,” gives the impression of hope and that the opportunity to succeed is doable if your mindset flips. Something we all need reassurance of every now and then. Sophomore record, A Grand Don’t Come For Free follows this theme with arguably their most iconic track, and one of the most recognisable ‘love songs’, (Dry Your Eyes) from the 2004 concept album.

Exploring themes of loss, despair, and grief throughout Skinner’s narrative, it is one of the most exhilarating albums of all time. Take Dry Your Eyes and you have a break-up being torn apart moment by moment. Pleading that he can change, grow or adjust, as well as offering an open relationship shows his desperation of trying to cling on to something that has sailed its course. Take also Could Well Be In: a track documenting a new found love but being wary of previous partners; both his and hers. Opening with “her last relationship fucked her up” gives the context of why there is a sense of anxiousness during the date before the male protagonist opens up about the money going missing in response to “close mates all were, always the most important thing to her.” His approach is contradictory to hers, yet he still comes across as smitten and questioning if she is just being friendly – thus emphasising the delicate side to Skinner as opposed to the grittier classics.

To finalise, Mike Skinner has spoke of A Grand Don’t Come For Free, saying: “Every song needs a drama at the centre of it” – using this logic, I am going to coin the quote, or probably reinvent the wheel, and say ‘Every life needs an album at the centre of it.’ For me, it is A Grand Don’t Come For Free.

Top Corner! Five Fantastic FIFA Tracks

By Callum Thornhill (@Cal_Thornhill)

There is no secrecy or mystery between the linking of football and music. The terraces are constantly changing iconic lyrics with the names of their nippy winger or slating the opposition with “____ are falling apart, again” to the tune of Joy Division‘s Love Will Tear Us Apart. One connection between the two industries is closer to home and often overlooked by passive gamers – the Fifa, originally Fifa Football, franchise is constantly churning out a quality soundtrack year after year to millions of players around the globe.

With hundreds of tracks being on the Fifa jukeboxes over the past two decades it is impossible to make a solid, fairly ranked list of the best, but here I look at what I call the golden tunes EA Sports have included over the years since Blur’s Song 2 hit us in 1998 like a Steven Gerrard worldie.

Before revealing the list below, there are a few that could easily have been added including:

Flogging Molly – To Youth (My Sweet Roisin Dubh), Bloc Party – Helicopter, The Strokes – Machu Pichu, and Caesars – Jerk It Out.

5) Morrissey – Irish Blood, English Heart [FIFA 2005]

Okay. So, in my opinion, Morrissey’s solo stuff isn’t THAT great, but this tune soundtracked endless hours of rinsing the PlayStation 2 version of Fifa Football 2005 while I was winning various titles with Ajax. Nestled amongst a brilliant soundtrack (more of which are on this top five list), Fifa may be to blame why I am a Smiths-loving loser…just maybe.

4) The Sounds – Seven Days a Week [Fifa 2005]

Another gem here, The Sounds, who I still know absolutely nothing about except they are a Swedish outfit, have old-school Blondie vibes and an abundance of sass. Seven Days is easy listening and was always allowed to be played through fully rather than hitting the R3 button to skip. The Sounds have made it to endless Spotify playlists I’ve made in the past and thanks to Fifa I actually have a vague idea of who they are.

3) The National – The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness [Fifa 2018]

A modern great in the form of The National. Needing absolutely no introduction at all, they are a band who have only excelled themselves time and time again and even though I don’t own this edition of Fifa, it is heartwarming to know that anyone who (stupidly) hasn’t discovered the band themselves will be introduced to some ambient brilliance.

2) Foals – Olympic Airways [Fifa 2009]

Oxford’s math rock maestros have featured on Fifa soundtracks a couple of times, but it is Olympic Airways that makes the list. Added pretty much at the same time as their debut, Antidotes, dropped. Foals, like the Fifa series, have been a constant companion to my life for a long time now and to see the two combine is fantastic.

1) The Streets – Fit But You Know It [Fifa 2005]

THE tune that got me into music. As a football-loving eight-year-old, who thought it’d be such a stressful life at that age, I didn’t really understand the whole blue Topshop top or being a 9 and a half in four beers time, but knew the lyrics off by heart. It took a fair bit of convincing but I managed to get A Grand Don’t Come For Free on CD that Christmas and had to play it through headphones because of the parental advisory sticker. In short, I have to thank EA Sports and Fifa for effectively making me the person I am today.

Do you agree with the list of Fifa soundtrack greats? Let us know on the usual social media places with your favourites.

GIG REVIEW: American Football @ the Edinburgh Summerhall

By Callum Thornhill (@Cal_Thornhill)

Where are we now?” asks Mike Kinsella in the opening track of Amercian Football‘s sophomore record and after their short run of UK dates, it would be more fitting to ask where do we go now?

Seventeen years in the making, LP2 was released last year to both the eagerness and wariness of fans of the Illinois math rockers. Since then, they have played around the world reliving their 1999 glory days with riff laden ambient brilliance such as For Sure and The Summer Ends. On Sunday (3 September), Edinburgh’s beautifully intimate Summerhall hosted the final mainland UK show via Brighton and Manchester it was the first time Kinsella and co. had played a ‘proper’ tour since May 2015 when they built up to stellar Reading and Leeds Festival shows.

The first time the newer tracks were played on British soil was earlier this year with a magical performance at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire which, to be honest, set a bar so high that it was near impossible to replicate it in such a tiny space. Everything was stripped bare; the iconic backdrop of the Champaign-Urbana property wasn’t there, the support band was Mike Kinsella playing tracks from his Owen collection and the venue seemed to just throw everything together and put the instruments and equipment on stage.

Musically, the set featured pretty much everything American Football have ever released, which would be a more impressive statement if they had more than two albums, but nevertheless it meant that no one left the venue mumbling “I wish they played ___.” Instead, everyone was in high spirits and an impromptu “Here we, here we, here we fucking go,” was attempted by the rowdier section of the packed out audience.

What was most striking about the whole performance, though, was the order of the setlist. Previously playing the whole of LP2 in order then coming back on to play an encore of classics from 1999; this method was not replicated and instead everything was jumbled. Where Are We Now? merged into You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon which throws you off after rinsing their albums and expecting a certain order. This wasn’t a bad thing and it was intriguing to see how their debut and follow up would work together in a set.

It was, of course, their most iconic hit, Never Meant that closed the set before setting out to Dublin and then back to the USA for another short run of shows. A singalong classic given a new lease of life every time THAT opening riff is played, Never Meant is the tune that American Football‘s cult fans in Old Skool Vans, turned up jeans and flannel shirts want to hear.


Album Review: Soccer Mommy – Collection

By Callum Thornhill (@Cal_Thornhill)

It is easy and somewhat lazy to associate lo-fi with mainstream success stories Mac DeMarco or Car Seat Headrest, but it is Bandcamp where the real hidden gems linger and ripen until picked like prize fruit. The latest of those to release a full length (eight tracks of blissful bedroom pop infused lo-fi vibes) is Soccer Mommy.

Following on from 2016’s For Young Hearts comes Collection; a selection of elegant, fuzz laden tracks freshly pulled from the wordsmith Sophie Allison that dabble in whispery harmonies flowing over subdued instrumentation. That is not to say that Collection is an overly emotive, depressive accumulation of even more Bandcamp finds to listen to on a downbeat, overcast day, though – quite the opposite. The skill set acquired by Allison is showcased on the album in crevices so acute that it takes you until the final track, Waiting For Cars, to realise the development and progression that has just occurred before your eyes and ears.

There are seamless and gentle transitions between tracks throughout, which given the eclectic mix of traditional and new wave lo-fi vibes merging is quite the feat. Take 3am at a Party, for example; connotations with that title would assume that it is a boisterous, carnival-esque atmosphere, but Soccer Mommy have juxtaposed this and crafted a two and a half minute reflective, short but sweet, track that could quite easily soundtrack a motion picture showing the motion picture of the night before. Hindsight visuals could be represented alongside the delicate audio and this is what makes their sophomore full length so brilliant.

With the likes of Elvis Depressedly and Salvia Palth setting the bar in recent years for the lesser known, not as mainstream as DeMarco lo-fi scene it takes an outstanding record to put yourself in that category, but what we have here is something that has stuck to what it knows and not tried to reinvent the wheel or head so off-piste that the core of Soccer Mommy is diluted and replaced with something that does not reflect their style. Benadryl Dreams is the only song featured on the album that comes anywhere close to high profiler Mac DeMarco’s recent releases and it is quite refreshing to hear someone follow up and album without going for the spangly, jizz-jazz approach.

Musically, it is all pretty expected, to be honest. Muffled drums in the background while weaving hooks connect verse to chorus to bridge – not a bad thing, of course. There are, without a doubt, thousands of other Bandcamp artists that could have put this record out and if you are not familiar with traits or signature marks from them it would be near impossible to see any differences. Lo-fi is brilliant for that, though, it forces bands to make a name for themselves and inject their music with quirks and notable features.

Image result for soccer mommy

With this attempt at ‘making it’ in the scene, Soccer Mommy have opted for frequent stabbing synthesisers and intriguing, mopey vocals coming together in perfect harmony as their ‘mark,’ so to say. Death by Chocolate is the ever-questioning synth laced ballad delicately gluing harmonies to tale-telling lyrics with glistening hooks. Similarly to Waiting For Cars, Death by Chocolate comes to its end after four minutes and it is then that the arrangement sticks with you in an irritating “oh, God! What is THAT song?!”

Overall, for a sophomore record and one that could easily have been overlooked if Sophie Allison hadn’t created an audience over the past handful of years on Bandcamp; it is like any other lo-fi record. Mostly predictable and as mentioned, not reinventing the wheel, there are moments where you go “ooooh” to make Collection well worth a listen.







ALBUM REVIEW: Semper Femina by Laura Marling

By Callum Thornhill (@Cal_Thornhill)

Laura Marling has returned with sixth album Semper Femina. Latin for ‘always a woman,’ Marling’s delicacy and charismatic charm has always been evident in her previous work, but this is a record holding something more. An ensemble of tales cut down into three to five-minute tracks sounds like the norm for songwriting, but Marling has crafted an album that exceeds the norm.

Throughout the creation process of this record, Marling has made her directorial debut with the video for Soothing, produced the record with Blake Mills and released it on her own label More Alarming Records.

Following on from Marling’s podcast series, Reversal of the Muse, where she questioned feminine creativity alongside Haim and Dolly Parton to name just two, Semper Femina carries on this theme across nine abstract, non-definitive tracks. It is an accumulation of what has stood before put together in a record that will be looked back on in several years as one of the most important records of the decade.

The questioning is portrayed in Don’t Pass Me By with the lyrics “Can you love me if I put up a fight” and “Is it something you make a habit of, that not something I need from love right now” give a journey of empowerment and no longer needing a (assumed) man to carry on with life.

Next Time, however, juxtaposes Don’t Pass Me By. Reversing the themes and mellowly singing the optimistic lyrics of “I’ll do better next time” at the beginning. It is a reminiscent track where by the end she has seemingly accepted defeat via a pleading mid-section. The signature plucky guitar and echoey arrangements are core to Semper Femina and create a backbone to the record – not that anything else would be expected from the Hampshire singer-songwriter.

There are moments of rawness throughout; notably in Wild Once where Marling’s authentic, bold accent comes through and you are briefly invited into her mind and memories. Dropping it again now and then throughout, it offers different perspectives and different characters in the songs.

Image result for laura marling semper femina

The moody ballad of Nothing, Not Really closes Semper Femina. Quick, snappy relatable lyrics pour from Marling’s alongside the emphatic instrumentation, which creates a mesmerising sound leaves the nine track record begging to be extended, but in some ways this gives the sense of mystery that was always going to come from Laura Marling’s story telling methods.

The sound of footsteps shuffling and a microphone being placed down at the end of the record shows that the job is done. Marling has completed a record of mystery, passion and allure. It is now time for her to leave and for you to now take it and perceive in however you want.