Sex Education: The first great TV show of 2019

I think we can all agree, the only thing more awkward than the greasy, confusing, acne-ridden years of puberty were the embarrassing and wholly uninformative sex education classes taught by your elderly Maths teacher who broke into a sweat every time he said “vulva”. “Sex” was the hushed word on everybody’s lips and with it spread increasingly ridiculous myths like a bad case of oral herpes. No one knew anything, even the people who had already “done it”. Thankfully, current media has picked up the mantle school curriculums so clumsily dropped and have taken it upon themselves to impart their wisdom of the nether regions. Netflix has already opened eyes to the grim truths of puberty with their hit show Big Mouth – a funny and ridiculous cartoon that everyone should check out, even if they think they know everything about S-E-X – and now they continue their wildly entertaining educational journey with Sex Education.

Sex Education follows Otis (Asa Butterfield of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas fame), a sexually repressed young man with a sexually liberated mother, Jean (played by the utterly fantastic Gillian Anderson of X-Files). Jean works from home as a sex therapist and despite this being a topic of distress for the irked Otis, it soon becomes apparent that her skills have rubbed off on Otis. Maeve (Emma Mackey) – a wickedly smart and blunt social outcast at high school – recognises Otis’ talent after seeing him couch a fellow student through a sexual problem. Maeve, being the cunning young entrepreneur that she is, convinces Otis to set up a high school-based sex counseling business with her for their sexually hapless student body. The plot unfolds with all the whacky fun and explicitly captivating sex tales you would imagine from this setup.

Along with a long line of ridiculous yet fully relatable sexual drama, the show also outlines a clear and captivating story arch thanks to the brilliance of the characters. It would have been so easy to simply rely on worn out high school stereotypes but thankfully Sex Education takes time to craft fully realised, complex characters. Thanks to this, it’s difficult to find a character you fully dislike as everyone has a characteristic that people can relate to or empathise with. The show strives to show that there’s more to people hidden behind the guise of Jock or Bully or Popular or Nerdy – everyone’s going through similar puberty issues and everyone’s got their backstory.

The realness portrayed on screen is helped in large part by the excellent casting. There wasn’t a weak performance in the bunch; everyone fully encapsulated their character. Amazingly, the majority of the main young cast are all fairly new to acting, with some only having two or three credits on their IMDB pages; this would not be at all recognisable based on their performances. Performances from Ncuti Gatwa (who played Otis’ enthusiastic and lovable best friend, Eric) and Emma Mackey, in particular, demonstrated a sort of tender beauty which should certainly help launch their acting careers.

The series offers more than any school curriculum could – it’s got intelligence and heart. The wide and inclusive scope of topics explored are handled with care and respect. The show takes time to analysis and explores each character’s issue and it gives the audience time to care and empathies even if they cannot personally relate. Although the show seems to tick off the list of topics that should be discussed, it never feels forced or like the audience is receiving a lecture and that’s mainly because the show as a whole feels so real and cleverly crafted.

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Brains isn’t all Sex Education has, it’s bright in more ways than one. The actually visual aesthetic is brilliant in its fun, retro style. The series looks like a visual ode to American 80’s rom-coms from the likes of John Hughes, with enough eye-assaulting bright colours and clashing patterns to give a vintage fashion fan wet dreams. Despite the complete 80’s feel with aged architecture and furniture completing the retro portrait, it’s clear the series is not actually set in this period due to modern technology continually cropping up. Visually, it’s more like a little-idealized pocket of time that’s free from the constraints of reality.

This series was a delight, with far too many brilliant plot points and characters to discuss in just one review. Sex Education should be added to everyone’s Netflix list, whether you’re a sexual novice or practised expert. It’s difficult not to feel attached to the characters of Sex Education and with a second series planned, fans will surely be excited to see what’s still to cum (sorry). – Michaela Barton (@MichaelaBarton_)              

rating 9

Looking for some dark, spooky fun? The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has you covered

Sabrina Spellman is facing all the typical troubles of teen-hood – a bully infested school, conflict with parental guardians, the looming spiritual imprisonment into Satan’s servitude, balancing friendships and a love life. Just classic teen drama, really.

A gritty reboot of a silly 90’s sitcom had so much potential to fail and yet The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina defy low expectations and proves itself a thoroughly decent show. Thank Satan for that! Sabrina’s life is messy, even more so than your typical adolescence, and sometimes this messiness can seep into the storytelling technique but despite some slight missteps, the journey as a whole is still entirely bewitching and rather charming.

Even though people are initially going to compare this show to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it’s actually based on a comic series and is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also created the Netflix series, Riverdale. The series opens with our half-mortal, half-witch heroine, Sabrina, having to make a decision between her two lives. To fully come into her witch powers, she must sign her soul away to the Dark Lord in a coming-of-age ceremony however, this would also result in her giving up her human life, human friends and human boyfriend.

Despite playing with some dark, satanic plot points, this series still delivers the fun, mostly thanks to the excellent cast. As in the 90’s sitcom, the aunts are a prominent source of entertainment with their often-tumultuous relationship. Zelda and Hilda, played by Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings) and Lucy Davis (The Office) respectively, act as Sabrina’s stern, logical voice of reason and her bumbling, empathetic heart. The one notable missing ingredient to the classic crew is the dryly witty and meme-able Salem the cat. Salem is present in this series but as a mute, protective Familiar of Sabrina. Though this alteration may be enough to turn old fans off the show entirely, all is not lost. The reins of sarcastic quip dispenser are picked up by Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose.

Ambrose is a British, pansexual warlock bound to the house by a curse and living out their days helping the aunts with their funeral business. Though they’re not given as many classic lines as the 90’s sitcom Salem, they’re still a cheeky, laidback confidant for Sabrina and the acting performance of Chance Perdomo is brilliantly enjoyable.

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The only slight hiccup (and I really do mean slight) in acting ability is the main star Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame. As a whole, she is a more than competent actor – she’s enduring, wholesome and you can’t help but root for her. However, she may be too sweetly innocent. In parts of the show which demands a sinister edge, it’s hard to see past her child-like innocent demeanour. However, seeing that she plays a sixteen-year-old who’s newly entering a darker period in her life, this tameness can be forgiven.

Other areas of the series suffer from slight stumbles also. Occasionally, the exposition vomit from characters can be clumsy and jarring, especially in the first episode. Despite the relatively short run of the series (with only 10 episodes), the show still can’t escape the mistake of using  a “filler episode” which really doesn’t contribute anything to the overall story arc and leads the series to feel like an unimportant Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, with the dodgy monster costume design only hammering home this feel. The monster design throughout the series was rather hit-and-miss, with some looking like cheap trick-or-treat costumes. Oddly, for once the CGI was actually fairly decent, which suggests most of the budget went to this, leaving practical monster design quality to lag behind.

This show could have easily been light teen drama fluff but thankfully they do deliver with the horror. A lot of sequences are genuinely chilling, with sinister visuals that stick with you. There are plenty of storyline and visual references to classic horrors like the Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Cronenberg, the fun is in trying to recognise them all – there are certainly enough to keep a horror buff entertained.

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Another way they keep the show from leaning towards “useless fluff” is through the exploration of feminism. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses witchcraft to explore female empowerment within the limitations set by men. The coven is described to Sabrina as her only path to power and yet the coven is controlled by male figures – the slimy high priest (Richard Coyle of Coupling) and Satan. These are who give witches their power but only at the cost of submission and enslavement. The ceremony of joining the Black Church is even described as a “marriage” to Satan. It’s this sacrifice of freedom that Sabrina fights against.

The series also presents another female-led group fighting for power except this group is the complete opposite of the Black Church. WICCA is a group Sabrina and her human friends created – it’s a group created for women by women to fight for more representative education and against transphobia in the school. The series is clearly conscious of social issues and represents LGBTQ+ and race discussions throughout but without seeming too overly preachy, which should keep people afraid about those mythical “PC police” quiet (though, let’s face it, they rarely give up an opportunity to complain).

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was enjoyable. Was it fantastic and without fault? No. The pacing was often a bit sloppy, acting occasionally cheesy and some special effects questionable. But did it hook me in and get me invested in the characters and plot points? Absolutely. If you’re looking for a spooky and fun binge this Halloween, this series is the show for you. – Michaela Barton (@MichaelaBarton_)

rating 7

Album Review: S/T by LUMP

words fae michaela barton (@MichaelaBarton_)                                                         rating 7

A successful experimental collaboration between two very distinct musicians is about as rare as spotting a dancing yeti. However, seeing that such a yeti is present in LUMP’s music videos and album art, it appears this fabled occurrence has finally come true.

A musical collaboration between Laura Marling and Tunng’s Mike Lindsay sounds pretty much exactly how you’d expect it. Marling takes the lead with vocals, bringing her signature poetic lyrics with her, whereas the instrumentals are mostly written by Lindsay and continue his usual relaxed, electronic compositions.

With first listening, opening track Late to the Flight sounds like Marling’s recent work, with calm guitar and laidback vocals, with only a distant hint of electronic hum. However, there’s still a definite new musical layer added by Lindsay – subtle enough to not be over-powering and ward off traditional Marling fans but enough to assure that this is an experimental collaboration and won’t be just more of the same old. Of course, Marling fans should be well used to a little experimentation as the singer has never shied away from it in her previous work. Regardless, this will be the first album to focus more heavily on modern instrumentals, with Lindsay proving the importance of composing instrumentals with as much care as crafting lyrics.

Marling’s vocal range is allowed full freedom in this album, though her often preferred tenor growl is present in many verses, choruses allow a rare vocal jaunt into the mezzo-soprano. May I be the Light is one such song that plays with hauntingly drawn out croons adding a bright lilt to the song. Lindsay keeps the synth instrumentals reserved to allow Marling’s vocals centre stage. The synths create a night-time feel, with an undercurrent of 80’s Bladerunner score. A growing urgency is added in the choruses with a galloping drum beat and the simple, monotone synth pattern raises in pitch along with Marling’s vocals in the chorus, mirroring her sudden elation.

The first notes of Rolling Thunder are mystical and weirdly wonderful, with hints of Kate Bush. The whole song sounds at odds with itself but in a very purposeful way. It’s intended oddity with the storm of abstractness being part of the charm. The lyrics are filled with odd, evocative imagery. Every line starts with “I’m a” or “We are” or “You” and there are multiple identities explored throughout the song, highlighting how everyone is more complex than just one title. Just like in her previous album Semper Femina, Marling plays with gender, subverting the usual binary constraints in lyrical perspective with repeated lines like “I’m your mother, I’m your father”, refusing to adhere to restricted gender roles in art. The chorus line “I’m a man, of a certain kind. I’m a woman, of a certain space and time” could be critiquing gender identity roles – men being allowed to choose their identity whereas women have their labels thrust upon them depending on when they exist and what they choose to do or wear. Rolling Thunder is the first track on the album to really show off Lindsay’s electronic musical layering skills and introduces listeners to the more playful, LSD-trip sounding songs.

Curse of the Contemporary was the first song released on the album and performs everything this debut intended. Marling’s vocal talent is at full force in this track, exploring the usually ignored higher notes and layering vocals to allow full submersion for the listener. Lindsay’s talents in instrumentals and tempo are also on point. The melody explores uncommon chord patterns in western music, with the verse almost following traditional Japanese melodies. There’s a musical energy brought by the arrangement and layering of instruments, without simply having to rely on loud percussions. The lyrics explore a well-known subject area for Marling, that of living in California from an outsider perspective. The song warns the listener of the escapist, often vain lifestyle in California.

Marling’s lyrics always seem to circle back to a feeling of dissatisfaction. In the running synth bass, 80’s arcade game sounding track Hand Hold Hero, lyrics discuss feeling trapped. “Oh my back to the wall, better that than trip and fall” seems to discuss the musical tendency to stick to what you know and not experiment, in case you fail to please your audience, something which Marling probably feared when writing for this collaboration. Shake your Shelter is again about feeling trapped, using the imagery of a naked crab desperately trying to find a home but feeling bored when stuck in one shell for too long. The lyrics are repeated throughout over a simple instrumental, with a layering effect on Marling’s vocals, which could signify the repetitive, monotonous cycle of life.

The final track – LUMP is a Product – is just an audio credits over music, which is helpful as a reviewer as we now know who to give credit to. However, as just a casual listener, it is a little strange and will likely be skipped on repeated listens, which reduces the total number of actual songs on this album to only six.

The only real critique for this album is that it left you wanting more. More songs and more abstract experimentation of traditional musical form. Lindsay seemed relatively timid throughout the album, only really getting to fully stretch his composing wings is songs like Curse of the Contemporary and Rolling Thunder. Despite this, the pairing or Marling and Lindsay seemed to work surprisingly well, hopefully, they’ll try collaborating again in the future and this time feel confident enough to fully immerse themselves into their new direction.

Courtney Barnett isn’t afraid to speak her mind on Tell Me How You Really Feel

By Michaela Barton (@MichaelaBarton_)

“I got a lot on my mind but I dunno how to say it” is a surprising sentiment from someone whose work is best known for smart lyrics, that always articulate relatable feelings so well.

Courtney Barnett’s recent release, Tell Me How You Really Feel continues her trend of brilliantly raw lyrics. No topic is too personal or taboo for Barnett not to include – such as mental health & toxic masculinity – she’s outspoken and this is her true talent.

Much like her lyrics, the instrumentals are often loud and unapologetic with flavours of grunge, garage rock and riot gurl. Barnett’s vocal stylings have retained her reserved and often sarcastic drone without tiring this sound out. However, this album is certainly not just a carbon copy of previous work. Barnett is growing as an artist and this album demonstrates this.

Dialling down the amps a little, Tell Me How You Really Feel had an even more intimate nature about it than previous work. The utter charm of Barnett is how relatable her music is – Tell Me How You Really Feel homed in on this feature more and has evolved her songs to feel like a private discussion, like she’s a confidante you can trust. Hopefulessness seems to directly address the listener, reassuring that “it’s okay to have a bad day” and you should “just get this one done then you can move along”. It’s gentler but doesn’t breach the territory of sappy. The song ends repeating “I’m getting louder now” as the music swells and starts to return to the usual volume of Barnett’s music. The song introduces the listener to a more confident album from Barnett – she has taken her broken heart and turned it into art and now she’s warmed up and ready to share it.

Barnett has always shined brightest when being brutally honest about her mental health. In City Looks Pretty, the chorus could be disregarded as simplistic with lyrics like “Sometimes I get sad, it’s not all that bad”, but in quintessential Barnett style, she delves deeper than the surface level lyrics and adds “One day, maybe never, I’ll come around”. Sung in an off-hand way, this deceptively simple lyric carries weight as Barnett fully accepts that she may never feel “normal” and this is no longer a paralysing realisation, it’s just a sad fact of life. City Looks Pretty also demonstrates her ever evolving musical maturity; changing up the tempo and experimenting with melody rather than continuing her usual steady grunge guitar instrumentals.

Quite a few songs on Tell Me How You Really Feel diverge from the expected Barnett sound and presents listeners with more interesting musical variations. Charity adds an unpredictable tempo whereas Need a Little Time is more laidback from her usual songs and adds background synth to the instrumental line-up. The album closes with Sunday Roast, which again like Hopefulessness demonstrates Barnett’s raw intimacy in this album in both lyrics and instrumentals. But no need for die-hard fans of Barnett’s original musical style to worry, this album still oozes that classic Barnett tone, especially in songs like Help Yourself and I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.

Nameless/ Faceless is a stand out single and is the epitome of Barnett. Directed towards sexism, the single is the audio equivalent of the middle finger. The verses are thickly layered with sarcasm perfectly performed with Barnett’s dry lilt, so much so it’s probable Barnett pulled a muscle rolling her eyes too hard during recording. Verses are reserved for calling out everyday sexism from men who probably spend their time tweeting insults from the bridge they live under. Initially, lyrics can be mistaken for genuine sympathy – “I wish that someone could hug you, must be lonely being angry, feeling over-looked” – but the punch of condescension reassures that Barnett has no time for that shit.

“He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you’ but you didn’t” is clearly directed at any online trolls that try to degrade Barnett’s songwriting talent, all the while critiquing without showing any ability to perform themselves. The chorus really hits home, however. Borrowing Margaret Atwood sentiments: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them. I wanna walk through the park in the dark, women are scared that men will kill them”. Barnett addresses the stark reality between genders in everyday society, the fact that it’s not even safe for women to walk alone at night – “I hold my keys between my fingers”.

Tell Me How You Really Feel is a solid album. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Though some lyrics may seem simple, they still have a charm to them which allows this fault to go unchallenged. Song topics are addressed in an intelligent manner, without isolating the audience and though some instrumentals were softened in this album, there’s still plenty to tap along to. As with Barnett’s previous work, the lyrics were more impressive than the instrumentals, however, this album has hinted at a musical progression and it’s likely future work will continue to improve and experiment with the genre.

Renata Zeiguer channels Lynch-style oddity on new LP ‘Old Ghost’

by michaela barton (@MichaelaBarton_  rating 8

In an interview, Renata Zeiguer explains she wrote Old Ghost while watching Twin Peaks for the first time. She describes enjoying “abstract darkness and also an abstract beauty”, where subconsciousness blends into reality and “everything then becomes skewed and questionable”. During this time, she was also dealing with a period of depression and she relates the show’s distortion of reality to her feelings while dealing with her depression. The influence of all these components can certainly be heard throughout the album. Constant musical distortion, jarring guitar chords and high, quavering vocals all weave together to translate the Lynch-style oddity of mental illness.

The instrumental arrangement on this album resurrects ghosts of past composers and hints at classic jazz genres without becoming a jazz album. Far from it. Though it may borrow jazz chords and vocal stylings occasionally, these elements are translated and distorted to modern electronic dreamy indie-art. Renata’s vocal stylings flicker between Joanna Newsom and Bjork in light quirkiness, to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in soft, jazz-like musings. The lyrics are abstract and artistic to match the unusual musicality. The careful and purposeful pairing of odd and often chilling musical stylings with poetic lyrics work in harmony and crafts deeply interesting songs.

The album opens with Wayside, which has chilled, low-fi 70s style guitar ambiance that offers a delusional edge before cascading into a pulled back, almost grunge style chorus. Renata’s voice lifts to a haunting falsetto screech that mirrors the distant sounding, psychedelic guitar riffs. All these elements create an unsettling old-timey atmosphere, like the musical equivalent of black and white camp-classic horror films with poorly designed cardboard cut-out costumes of mystical beasts from the deep.

A running theme lyrically is fear and confusion, with Below being the most evident example of this. The lyrics tell of sinking, possibly into an anxiety attack or a deep depressive state. The continued floating style of instrumentals and dreamy, quaveringly high vocals help form a dissociating feeling for the listener. “I can’t breathe, doubling the hydrogen, sky above, or floor below” describes the feeling of plunging deeper into an episode. The circling receptiveness of lyrics also portray the inner thoughts during an episode – a feeling of being trapped within a seemingly vast and suffocating experience with an occasional floating hope that you’ll “be surfacing, surfacing in no time”.

Even seemingly lighter topics of love can’t escape the existential experience of over-analysing and dread. After All is about dating and goes from describing the need to post online about your relationship for social validation, to the nagging paranoia and negativity that signal an uneasy relationship status. The guitar occasionally wavers off in distortion at the end of lines to mimic the unstable thoughts plaguing the relationship. Before the line “part of me is disappearing, losing some control” the instrumentals collapse into a distorted mass, with one lone falsetto guitar screaming through the fog of sound, which is the perfect musical description for confusion and constant paranoia.

A similar theme, Dreambone is about love also, but more about the abstract hope that we will all one day experience it. In this song, Renata has delicate wafting vocals that lift and fall like a calm tranquil feather in the wind. The song describes the desire to find a partner and no longer be alone – “hunting for the bone, make-believing home”. There’s an element of delusional desperation in the lyrics as they describe the hunt – “now they’re running fast … sifting through the mud … They won’t die out, too hungry and insane.” And the inevitable hopelessness of the search is repeated throughout “they’ll learn to live alone”.

One standout from the album is Follow Me Down, which again is about love, but this time the desire for a potential partner to follow her down into the madness and obsession of it. It starts slow and relaxing with dreamy instrumentals that create a lazy Sunday afternoon feel. Occasionally the melodic construction is reminiscent of easy-jazz in 20s bars. Renata’s voice during the song is lovely and keeps her hint of vocal quirkiness.

The album ends with Gravity (Old Ghost). This last song is about never being able to fully escape fear: “A cloud is hovering, standing permanently still old ghost that I can’t kill”. Renata sings through the constant nagging anxiety that she’ll never be fully free from whatever plagues her mind, that she’s “never gonna lose (the) old voice repeating all the things I can’t undo”. The imagery she invokes while describing this feeling is perfectly creepy, creating a sense of being stalked by a “man on the ceiling” and “a phantom limb” brushing against her that’ll soon wrap around her neck “choke, choking in the night”. Renata’s vocals match the lyrics with serene haunting beauty and the classic, 20s style key choices in chords creates a nostalgic feeling that captures the essence of an old ghost. Musically, vocally and lyrically, it is a stand-out and a perfect way to close this melancholic and poignant album.

This relatively short album with only nine songs is very strong but not without some criticism. All songs on the album try to overt basic structure, however inevitably repeat their created structure throughout the album. As interesting as a more free-form construction is, it does, however, cause listeners difficulty in remembering songs and the continuation of this structure through the album can cause difficulty differentiating each song from one another, especially as they all seem to be written in a similar key using the same hazy techniques on guitar.

The creepy distortion of reality present in this album is fascinating and rather wonderful. Though some listeners may be put off by a seemingly unapproachable style, key and lyrical theme, when able to fully immerse yourself and appreciate all the musical components, this album truly is a treat.

EP Review: In Forever by Black Tiles

By Michaela Barton (@lowkeypigeon)rating 5

Aberdeen may not be well-known for producing dozens of successful musical artists (Annie Lennox is the only recognisable name after a quick Google search). However, that hasn’t discouraged new indie, 80’s rock inspired band Black Tiles from releasing their first EP: In Forever.

The band list artists like Joy Division and Cocteau Twins as influences, which can occasionally be heard through distorted guitar styles although there’s an undercurrent of garage rock present, also. In addition to this, their influence from Wolf Alice is evident from lead singer Tilly O’Connor’s vocals. 

Throughout the EP, O’Connor’s soft, ethereal voice wafts through hazy guitar licks, adopting an edge when needing to compete against mounting guitar riffs. Unfortunately, her voice is often lost behind the dominant instrumentals, which is a shame as her vocals are engaging and give an intimate-sounding character to tracks.

The track Frequencies enchants the listener upon first note, with steely crisp and intricate guitar, which soon retreats into a wall of sound with lively drums and an animated bassline. The track is about being haunted by songs, unable to avoid being reminded of a love interest in every melody on the radio. “Feels like every song is about you, and I guess this one will be too, who knew?” is sung with a self-aware, wry laugh. The conversational and often realistically blunt lyrics are a strong element and will likely let Black Tiles stand out from bands with wishy-washy lyrics written by emo sad boys who don’t realise their self-indulgent love songs are the musical equivalent of a crusty sock.

An occasional layered effect with vocals offers a haunting, yearning beauty that matches the lyrical content in Frequencies; however, this plus is soon buried under the instrumentals again. Some rhythmic and production moments on this track seem to collapse, giving a live performance feel rather than the tightly structured and balanced volume standard most recordings go for. Although this does give a more raw sound which can be enjoyable, it can also be reminiscent of high school bands getting carried away at a battle of the bands’ type performance.

In Forever is a lively track that builds energy from the introductory bass countdown to the burst of clattering symbols and roaring guitar. “Our dreams are not the same, but I’d like to waste my time with you every day, forever.” This song will certainly be one that plays well live seeing that it’s impossible to listen without rhythmically moving some part of yourself along to the beat. The melody adopts this carefree, reckless attitude, projecting a fun “fuck it” feel.

The sound is fresh-faced and young but not simple or naïve. Although some songs can easily be the soundtrack for any generic teen in revolt, musically there is maturity with themes interesting enough to engage listeners who grew out of their rebel-without-a-cause stage. Black Tiles show promise to develop into a strong band and are certainly one that people should keep an eye on.

Album Review: Devotion by Pale Honey

By Michaela Barton (@lowkeypigeon)

rating 9Minimalistic rock guitar-drum duo Pale Honey lay bare their innermost reflections in their new broodingly introspective album Devotion. Comprised of Tuva Lodmark (guitar/vocals/songwriter) and Nelly Daltrey (drums/principal songwriter), these friends from Sweden have formed an intense and hypnotic sound. Their newest release accounts obsession, depression, anxiety and fractured relationships – stark, harrowing and brilliant, the album guides the listener into the deepest and most tumultuous depths of the psyche. A mix of striped back alternative indie with elements of garage rock, Tuva and Nelly construct an album with scarcely any misses.

The opening track Replace Me tells of a failing relationship the protagonist feels trapped in as she wonders “Why won’t you just leave me?”. Layered unsettling guitar riffs emulate the uneasiness the relationship has fallen to. The main guitar riff stalks the light vocals creating an urgent chasing feel, like the imminent self-implosion of the relationship is getting closure and closure, an implosion that Someone’s Desire accounts the aftermath of. “Learn to leave it, let it go. This was over long ago.” Heavy and menacing, Someone’s Desire is the rejection of a past love’s obsession. With brutal lines like “I never told you why I left you. I lean in and whisper I don’t need to” followed by deep, intense riffs, there’s an undercurrent of hate as the protagonist insists “don’t lay your love here, I don’t want it.” Any past affection that may have existed has been replaced – toxic obsession causing hostile disdain.

After the intense opening, Get these Things Out of my Head bursts through as an energetic and catchy single, but despite the spirited melodies the lyrics stay true to the starkly confessional nature of the rest of the album. Depicting the struggles of living with mental illness and trying to come to terms with the never-ending confusion and strain: “All this time and still I’m not sane. All this talk and yet it hasn’t changed”, “Turned me inside out still I can’t”. Lyrics pour out of Tuva as she pleads for release from the storm in her mind, but the plummeting riffs of the bridge demonstrate her failure as she falls further into the rabbit hole.

Other livelier tracks of the album include garage rock anthem Golden and single Real Thing. Sexual obsession and a stream of innuendos make Real Thing a perkier track for the album. Excitable tin drum beats help lighten the mood while also producing a raw sound. “Pull your gun/ and knock me over” – the metaphor of a gun helps demonstrate the perils of this passionate obsession and the risks it could bring (which will be explored in later tracks), yet still the song leads off with a suggestive plea of “You should come over/ and roll me over”.

The deliberation and instrumental prowess is evident in this album, every note and inflection seems purposeful to emulate the haunting passion of the lyrics. The Heaviest of Storms is a bleak, poignant song suggesting an isolation that comes with deep introspection late at night while suffocated with depression. The storm builds to a pulsing, thunderous climax enveloping Tuva’s voice and burrowing into the listener.

As a complete contrast to The Heaviest Storm, 777 (Devotion, Pt. 2) is a truly beautiful song, with calm vocals, delicate melodies and use of harp to bring the song to a tranquil level that perfectly matches intimate lyrics. Keeping with the general theme of the album however, as affectionate as these lyrics seem, there is a touch of obsession. “I will end my heart to get that close to you … please tell me what to do. Don’t fall over to the other side, out of reach I need you in my sight.” Including the harp over these lyrics may suggest delusion as the protagonist clings so tightly to her love, she’s willing to give her life to stay at their side despite them drifting away. Sweep seems to tell the aftermath of this song. Gentle and moving but with an undercurrent of torment, Sweep describes the feeling of loneliness when love leaves but obsession continues: “You belong to them and I belong to no one. Always stuck behind, I’m stuck inside my mind. You are what I loved and all what I’ve lost.” Synths build, accompanied with drums to an overpowering climax that suffocates the guitar riff.

Why Do I Always Feel this Way is the closing track of the album and a personal favourite. A desperate introspection of a failed relationship with haunting repetitive vocals demonstrating the continuing obsession to answer why. “Was it all for her? I wished it for me. Will I never learn why you’re not for me?” shows a self-awareness of the hopeless fixation yet reveals an impossible feat in moving on. Singer Tuva has spoken of her OCD in past interviews and this song especially, along with others on the album, reveals what dating is like when living with an obsessive mind. Feeling trapped in a continuing loop of doubt, love, self-hatred and hope, never quite able to move past old feelings as they cycle constantly through the mind. Tuva’s voice drifting off as she continually repeats the same questions in an apparent loop is a saddening yet beautiful insight to the obsessive mind.

The album is a haunting masterpiece – brutally self-aware, raw and menacing but wholly human. Devotion’s strength is not only in melodies, lyrics, production or voice, but everything. It’s clear that every element of this album was meticulously thought out and crafted to perfection.

Album Review: Anna of the North – Lovers

By Michaela Barton (@lowkeypigeon) 

Soaked in lush 80’s synths and electronic beats, Anna of the North’s new album Lovers offers a relaxed indie pop similar to that of 1975. Lovers could easily be mistaken for a soundtrack to a John Hughes romantic comedy – you can almost hear the luminescent legwarmers and questionable hair.

The lyrical journey Lovers offers is that of a breakup. Each song represents another stage of separation and the torturous confusion that is paired along. The lyrics are relatively simple yet wholly relatable for anyone who has struggled moving on from a failed relationship or has suffered unrequited love.

Moving On opens with the typical breeze of synths this album is accustomed to and starts the tale of heartbreak with a supportive reassurance to the songs protagonist and the listener. Judging by the first-person narrative of the rest of the album, Moving On may represent the typical words of support from friends directed at the protagonist after a breakup. “Darling I know sometimes it’s hard to take/ believe me I know, you’re going to make it through the day” may as well be the catchphrase for anyone trying to comfort a friend after a breakup. “I’m sure she meant what she said that night” is about believing that all because the relationship is now over, it wasn’t all a failure and the feelings shared were genuine.

Someone is a standout from the album, being one of the more upbeat. Following Moving On, Someone tells the act of trying to do just that. “Two drinks down, there’s something in the water, baby/ lose control, want someone to take me home” is another universal experience of drunkenly trying anything to distract from past love, even if it is just to have someone else to hold for one night. Someone sounds more like a song that would be playing in a club while this experience plays out with a chorus of I’m only human, baby sometimes I act a little crazy being an easily catchy line to belt out with friends.

The rest of Lovers continues the journey of heartbreak. Always demonstrates the pain of unrequited love and the emotional exhaustion that comes with it: I’m tired of being in love … always in the background. Always is a slower more weary tune to mirror the hopelessness of the lyrics. Feels describes this empty feeling further, addressing the lover directly and their hold on their heart saying I remember how it felt so good with you now I’m feeling like a shadow in the room. Baby and Friends have similar themes of begging for the lover to come back or at least explain where it all went wrong.

Fire is a turning point for the protagonist as the rose-tinted glasses are finally dropped and a hint of resentment for the past lover is expressed. “Such a fool to think you changed/ never shown me love, just another drug/ someone to heal your pain” narrates the realisation that the past lover is nothing like how they seemed when on top a pedestal and now that they’ve tumbled, the protagonist can see that they are too good to be moping around. After the more subdued melodies on previous tracks, Fire is another standout as the turning point narratively is marked by a stronger, more upbeat sound that hints hope that this heartbreak may finally be over. Offering another catchy chorus to be belted out with friends, Fire has a sound of triumph that comes with starting to move on.

However, the album’s closing song All I Want may mark a stumble as the protagonist asks it don’t even matter anymore who’s wrong or right/ but can you stay the night? There’s a atmosphere of vulnerability and tentativeness in the slow, gentle melodies. The way this song drifts off at the end gives an empty feeling which may suggest the album is a loop – after staying the night again, old feelings may bubble up and the protagonist could get stuck in this never-ending cycle of heartbreak without ever really moving on.

In a way, lyrically this whole album is pretty generic. The story of a breakup is one that has been told thousands of times before and this album doesn’t add too much to the narrative. Nothing overly new or even many standout lyrics that you can not-so-subtly tweet in hopes your ex will see. Some songs are catchy but that may be down more to the repetitiveness of the lyrics – simple choruses and pre-choruses will act as the main filler for the songs, with the few verses in a song being almost identical to one another.

Lovers offers more in the musicality than the lyrics. Despite the realistic sombre story of moving on from past love, the music doesn’t often mirror the same sorrow. Lovers opts for a fun stylistic blaze of synth melodies with complimentary dreamy like vocals. With the nostalgic party feel of the sound mixed with starkly confessional lyrics, the album almost symbolises the feeling of having to put on a brave face in front of friends on a night out while trying to hide the subtext of heartbreak. It’s a nice listen, one that people suffering from heartbreak can relate to without being forced completely into a state of despair by overly miserable melodies, but also one that can be enjoyed even with a fully intact heart. For anyone who enjoys the nostalgic feel of the 80’s, there’ll be a song or two on here to enjoy.

6/10

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Album Review: Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Shameless Years

By Michaela Barton (@lowkeypigeon)

Ushered into The Shameless Years by a growing haze of metallic sighs that almost resonate cold fresh winds, we’re introduced to an atmosphere that suggests impossible distance from anything tangible. That seems to be a theme with Rafael Anton Irisarri – the creation of experimental landscapes of sound that demands the listener to surrender for full spiritual immersion while also offering a passive guide through whatever strange universe the music creates. That description comes off as a bit, well, wanky, but it’s true. It’s hard not to become a bit of a tosser listening to this album – you kind of have to. It’s not an album for chucking on in the background while you’re cooking, it’s not for blasting while you’re in the car. The only way you can listen to this album is by lying down and sacrificing your day for repeated listens, a feeling of hopelessness and a not so healthy dose of existential dread.

The best way to describe The Shameless Years is through feeling because there really isn’t much else to offer. Imagine you’re watching a sci-fi film, most likely directed by someone like Christopher Nolan, where you don’t really understand what’s going on but all you do know is that all hope seems lost. There’s no action, just people realising that they’re going to die alone in space. Then boom, credits. You know that sinking feeling you get after watching something like that where you kind of don’t want to talk to anyone ever again because life is meaningless and all you want to do is marinate in angsty defeat? Well, The Shameless Years is basically that feeling. In fact, this album will probably be playing over the credits while you stare into the darkness and think “oh fuck, there is no meaning to life.”

Unfortunately, like most music that is trying to be more important than it is, this album suffers from repetition. The exact same theme is carried throughout the album, with no alterations to the pitch, just more distortion from the original. RH Negative is just a more urgent version of Indefinite Fields. Being almost identical, the only real slight difference to RH Negative is something that sounds like a distant, fuzzy crowd cheer layered on top. Bastion is ever so slightly different in that it sounds like the first two songs are being played underwater for a while. Still, nothing really all that new is added except the first hint of an instrument that is actually recognisable when a soft string accompaniment is guided slowly into the fray. Sky Burial continues the same theme, except with a feeling that wherever we were just lost in may finally be coming to an end. The final two songs – Karma Krama and The Faithless – act as a sort of aftermath. There’s an element of greater separation from previous songs, more like a weary recitation.

In a way, this album carries a theme of being lost. Lost in the abyss of space, stranded and staggering in a violent snowstorm, or sinking further underwater – take your pick. Either way, you get the sensation that you’re experiencing the journey of a lost protagonist trying hopelessly to find their way home. In the same way, the listener is on a journey to discover what the hell is actually going on in this album. Continuing the metaphor of the lost traveller, after drowning in floating sounds during the first two songs, the strings being teased out of the musical mist in Bastion represents the first glimpse of hope the weary traveller finds on their journey. The first hint of familiarity to cling onto. Sky Burial incorporates a sort of staggered breathing sound similar to that when using an oxygen tank, which gives the first human element to the album, perhaps indicating that life will prevail.

The slight separation from the rest of the album felt in the final two songs creates the feel that these represent the memories of events. Slightly distorted from the original, lighter, and even more distant sounding as the protagonist moves further away from their ordeal. Close, but not quite a carbon copy, just like real memories. Or maybe Rafael Anton Irisarri was just doing some hoovering in the recording studio, accidentally recorded and distorted everything then thought “fuck it”.

This album needs repeated and concentrated listens otherwise it’ll just pass over your head as yet another arty farty project most likely created by someone with a beard smoking too many joints and claiming to have read works by Camus and Sartre but actually just scanned the wiki page. It feels like this album was definitely created by someone that fits that description and will likely only be enjoyed by people who think they understand the “true meaning behind what everyone else just isn’t getting”. But, does that necessarily mean it’s bad?

Honestly, it’s hard to tell if this album is actually good or if it’s just like abstract art where you can plonk a traffic cone with sunglasses in the middle of the room and claim it’s actually a comment on the nihilistic nature of traffic wardens in modern culture. Has this album meaning? Or is it just a very dramatic prolonged fart? All that can be said is that it provokes thought and feel (mainly confusion but that’s not important) and from what can be understood of art, that’s kind of the point.

It may not be your thing (heck it wasn’t mine until I forced myself to sit down for this review and properly listen) but it is art – whether its pretentious wind or a true masterpiece is up to you. If an uncivilized and unpolished human embodiment of trash like myself can get something out of this album, then there might just be something real there.

4/10

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ALBUM REVIEW: Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes

By Michaela Barton (@lowkeypigeon)

Atmospheric themes far too easily degrade into arty-farty rubbish – it takes quite a skill to keep structure and sense through an entire album; with Fleet Foxes’ new album Crack-Up, it’s a skill they just about manage.

Quite a few songs on this album start off unrecognisable from the band’s typical jingly, chorus style, instead opting for a low growling vocal and minimalist musical accompaniment. Some songs like Cassius- adopt synth sounding instruments, straying slightly from their traditional instrumental roots. Despite this stylistic evolution, their general theme is still quintessential Fleet Foxes, with novel sounds soon erupting into their recognisable style. Layers of guitar and mandolins lead by the usual drum heart-beat, alternating between a calm and storm of sound.

As in previous albums, Fleet Foxes sure do like having annoyingly long song titles. I Am All That I Need/ Arroyo Seco/ Thumbprint Scar follows the same theme as songs on their Helpless Blues LP by combining a few independent pieces into one long story series. I Am All That I Need… tells a common and relatable tale of an ending relationship. The first third reassures that I am all that I need… good to be without you but is soon cut off by the second part of the song which seems to have a more analytical view of the relationship: “So it’s true, I’ve gone too far to find you and the thumbprint scar I let define you was a myth I made you measure up to” seems to admit some fault, accepting that it was unfair to expect any person to match up so perfectly to their false image of the partner. The final part of the song tells of the oh so familiar loss and regret – “I’ll come right now, I need to see you”. I am all That I Need is honest and raw, seemingly more personal than Fleet Foxes other songs which usually act more like fable or folklore.

A stand-out from the album is Third of May/ Ōdaigahara. In the first few verses, this song has punching power and uses widely likable chord progressions which helps separate it from the often purposely challenging feel of the album. However, it’s length of almost 9 minutes will likely prevent it from becoming a popular classic. Ever so slightly reminiscent of 90’s anthem pop-rock electric guitars, thumping piano, and key choice at times, it soon dissolves again into the typical atmospheric Fleet Foxes sound.  The band seems unwilling to ever sacrifice their artistic values and allow themselves to be anything other than slightly odd. If you were to remove the typical fluctuating tempo and sudden retreat into arty themes from Third of May/ Ōdaigahara, it had the potential to be an easily accessible song to tempt in new fans. Looking at the lyrics, the song seems (perhaps unintentionally) to highlight this fear of losing their musical character, worrying – Did I change overnight?

The second half of the album returns to calm, laid back tracks with a few spluttering’s of electric instruments but in general recognisable of previous stylings, sounding like they could have been left over rejects from before. I Should See Memphis stood out a little more, though still laid-back it didn’t retire to the usual vocal tactics of fluttering tenor harmonies, instead acting more like spoken word, perhaps evocative of a softer Leonard Cohen, which works for the poetic abstract stylings of their lyrics.

Some songs like Cassius- and Naiads, Cassadies run into each other despite sounding completely different. These guys have a habit of altering the tempo and style so much during a song it’s often hard to tell if the track has moved on yet or not, which can leave the listener feeling lost. This style does however force the listener to just surrender to the album, letting the songs lead the way and the listener to simply absorb into the music. As relaxing as this style can be, it only works when listening to the album as a whole and not when on shuffle or when constantly interrupted by adverts on Spotify. The album is an odyssey and if you have the time to partake is truly wonderful, however I worry as to how individual songs will translate to casual listening.

Fleet Foxes have succeeded in creating an experimental yet still not wholly inaccessible album. Straying from their typical old reliable crutches of folk instruments and venturing further into modern realms of electric and synth while still sampling occasionally from jazz, the album is rich with tastes. Lyrics hold haunting poetic beauty which invest their listeners into discovering the true meaning behind each song. Though a few songs fade into the background as filler, there are enough unique and intriguing sounds to hold a listener’s interest.

7/10


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