Album Review: Tash Sultana – Flow State

Tash Sultana Flow State
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I often wonder about why certain artists are household names, and why some of the best musicians I can think of are virtually unheard of. It’s not a case of talent equating to fame. Many major stars don’t even write their own music.

The reason I bring this up is because Tash Sultana is huge, but has only just released her first album. One of my American friends suggested that I look her up when I was travelling last year. So I did. I dug her sound – chilled out songs that utilize looping pedals. Next thing I know, I’m seeing her name everywhere. She’s headlining festivals, and even sold out a sizable show here in Wellington [which I sadly missed] a few months ago. How has she made such a name for herself without even having an album out?

Let’s be clear: Sultana deserves the attention. Flow State is a great album, and is all the more impressive when you consider that Sultana recorded every instrument herself. Much like Drax Project, Sultana’s story began with busking on the streets, and has arrived at the point of her ascending to stardom.

Solo multi-instrumentalist albums are nothing new. Mike Oldfield is one of the more classic examples. A more recent high-profile example is Dave Grohl’s Play. And Will Not Fade has covered countless more such projects. But Sultana’s work falls into a different category, partly because she sings, but also because her entire feel and approach stands out as separate from the post/prog rockers. “Blackbird” heads in a different direction (think Kaki King or Rodrigo y Gabriela) but on this album Sultana owns a distinctive sound.

Sultana sets the mood instantly with album opener “Seed”. She shows us that she’s no stranger to guitar as her fingers dance upon the fretboard, masterfully conjuring notes rich in reverb. Her voice is just as great as her playing, transferring from angelic coos to smokey singing.

Lazy campfire strumming lays the base for “Big Smoke”, while a shuffled drum beat extends the laid back feel. Bright finger picking and a contrasting solo allow Sultana to show off the breadth of her guitar playing chops.

I cannot tell you why “Cigarettes” isn’t one of the singles, but in my mind it is undeniably the pinnacle of Flow State. The laid-back groove is simply sublime, but it’s not until we reach bridge that things begin to stand out. A jangly riff and fast paced drums come into play, before Sultana lets loose with a scorching solo that simply rips for a few minutes.

In fact, this appears to be the template for many of the tracks. Mellow for the most part, with a searing solo that emerges during the bridge.

The soundtrack-esque “Seven” is also one of the more interesting tracks. An early violin melody adds Oriental flavours, which stall for a piano segment that transforms into a tense ostinato, with ominous Godspeed vibes. This is a track that takes you on a journey, through a variety of interesting terrains.

“Free Mind” feels a lot different to many of the other songs. It still retains groove, but with synthetic sounding drums it sounds like it has been produced differently to the other tracks, and the polished feel doesn’t sit well alongside the others.

One could argue that an hour is slightly too much. The mellow style works, but isn’t the most memorable – especially when many of the songs seem to follow the same formula. But Sultana does enough to mix it up if you listen carefully. “Salvation” has organ sounds, “Mystik” features horns and sweet, sweet bass lines. “Mellow Marmalade” takes the campfire feel to a new level with acoustic guitar, while “Harvest Love” gives Sultana a chance to show us how well she can wail.

Summer is fast approaching this part of the world, and I can see this being the perfect soundtrack to a carefree day in the sun. But likewise, Sultana’s smokey singing and smooth playing could be just what you need to warm you up in less desirable weather.

Tash Sultana is the whole package. Whether rocking you to sleep with smooth lullabies, or setting you ablaze with furious riffing, she plays with masterful ability. And her voice complements the playing brilliantly. Flow State is worth your attention. Do yourself a favour and give it a listen.

 

Joseph James

Live Review: Amy Shark at Hunter Lounge, Wellington

Amy Shark Love Monster NZ tour poster
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Amy Shark

w/ Neil MacLeod

Hunter Lounge, Wellington

Saturday 15 September 2018

 

Hot off the sold-out Australian leg of her Love Monster tour, Amy Shark stood onstage, silhouetted by a powerful spotlight, softly picking at her guitar strings. The stark lighting looked fantastic, revealing a shadowed figure opening her soul to Wellington.

Possibly a risky move, opening with the last track from her album – and a slow burner at that. Usually artists tend to choose high energy – or at least more popular – songs to kick off their sets with impact. But when the bridge hit… when the drums and synth smashed their way into play… when the strobes began to flash… when Shark shook off the meekness and bellowed into the microphone… we knew that we were in good hands.

Keeping the mood up with the boppy “Blood Brothers” from last year’s Night Thinker EP, she presented us with the chance to dance – the first of many throughout the night.

Shark stood front and centre, rocking her trademark look of a sweatsuit jacket with her hair half in a loose topknot, and half down. She was flanked by drums to the left and a musician switching between guitar and synth to the right. A backdrop of Shark’s portrait was at the rear of the stage, with an intermediate sheer banner emblazoned with the word AMY stretched between the musicians and the backdrop.

I had wondered how Shark’s music would translate live. A lot of her songs have programmed samples, and I didn’t even know if she would have a band joining her. Things sounded great as a three-piece though. Shark played guitar during many songs, switching between acoustic and electric. The drummer had both a standard set up and a Roland trigger pad. And the guitarist played synth at times. They obviously used backing tracks for some parts too.

The crowd screamed with approval as Shark mentioned her lifelong infatuation with the band Blink 182, knowing that this meant Shark was playing “Psycho”, which features Mark Hoppus. She switched to an acoustic guitar, deftly picking the melody as she cooed into the microphone.

One point that I feel compelled to touch on is that the volume wasn’t too loud. I always wear earplugs to protect my ears, given the amount of gigs I attend, but I took them out for a period to compare, and the levels sounded quite adequate, and not excessive.

The Hunter Lounge wasn’t quite at full capacity, but the passionate crowd made it feel full. And Shark reciprocated the love. One can never tell whether an artist actually loves the audience they’re playing to, or is paying the same lip service every show, but Shark appeared to have formed a real connection tonight. She playfully interacted with the crowd, allowing a small group to start a Baby Shark (do do do do…) chant, and stating how she hates the meaningless pantomime of encores, but obliging tradition regardless.

Shark walked us through her career, taking the time to share anecdotes that explained meanings behind certain songs.The best was when she imitated a NZ accent, playing out a funny phone conversation between a former [Kiwi] boyfriend and his mother. 

Shark was at pains to highlight that she has flaws, and wants her songwriting to reflect that. This vulnerability she demonstrated helped her connect with the crowd.

One surprise highlight was a cover of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag”, which prompted the biggest singalong of the night, as everyone joined in on the nostalgic trip.

I found the choice of set list fascinating, with intimate ballads alternating against high energy hits. But the audience was with her each step of the way, eagerly clinging onto every word.There were no surprises for the end of the show, with Shark playing three of her biggest hits: “Weekends”, “Adore” and “I Said Hi”, which is a certified banger. She may have started out softly, but she certainly ended on a major high.

It was a brilliant night, filled with great music, awesome lights, and a sense of community. As I left the venue I noticed that my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. 

Amy Shark set list Hunter Lounge Wellington

Joseph James

Live Review and Photos: The Adults at Meow, Wellington

Estere Meow Wellington
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The Adults Wellington Meow banner

The Adults’ second album, Haja, is one of the better albums to come out in recent months. Vivacious and upbeat, it combines energetic Sudanese percussion with emerging New Zealand pop and hip-hop talent.

I was wondering how they would pull it off in a live context, purely because the album featured a lot of contributors from around New Zealand and Sudan. Many songs on the record revolve around Sudanese Aghani-Al-Banat music, and the women who laid down those beats were unlikely to come all the way to Aotearoa for a few Adults shows. I also wondered what material they would play, seeing as there are two Adults records to draw material from.

Raiza Biza Meow Wellington

Raiza Biza opened the night with some smooth hip-hop. He looked familiar, and then I realised that I recognised him from one of David Dallas’ Hood Country Club album release shows last year. He had a great chilled out style, and his backing music was musical – as opposed to just beats – with horns and all.

After a handful of songs Biza looked over to the door to the green room. “Jon, are you ready? Should I do another song?” he enquired, unsure of how long he should play.

“Keep playing, we want more!” a lady behind me yelled. Biza shrugged, signaled the DJ to start another song, and played a few more

Raiza Biza Meow Wellington

The rest of the band came on after Biza’s set. Trinity Root’s Ben Lemi on drums, Steve Bremner on percussion, Emily Browning on guitar and vocals, Estere on roto toms, percussion, vocals and synth, and the main man himself, Jon Toogood on bass and vocals. A fairly star-studded line-up.

Biza stayed on for a few songs, taking on the rapping parts that he and Kings had laid down on Haja. Toogood was clearly stoked to have him on as part of the team.

The Adults Meow Wellington

I was pleased to hear the group faithfully recreate the Sudanese beats. Bremner and Lemi showed off their obvious proficiency on drums and percussion, with Estere adding roto toms, tambourine and maracas to the mix at times. Toogood complemented this by laying down thick bass, which came through loud and strong.

The mostly instrumental tracks “Haja” and “Like The Moon” were standout. They were able to mess around with the songs – due to the lack of verse/chorus structure – giving them the feel of fun extended jams.

The Adults Meow Wellington

Another highlight was lead single “Bloodlines”. “Oh, this is a good one!” a lady shouted as Toogood announced it.

“I hope so,” Toogood replied, “I thought it was good too. That’s why I’m here to play it.”

He appeared in a good mood – perhaps feeling slightly flustered and under-prepared for the first live performance of this material – but also clearly having fun, judging from his dancing as he immersed himself in the music. He joked along with the crowd as they shouted out, and made sure to direct positive attention to his colleagues.

The Adults is a supergroup, of sorts, and each member tonight proved themself a worthy addition to the band. Browning sounded great on guitar and could sing well, although could have used a volume boost. And Estere was the star of the night, spreading her talent across multiple instruments and leading most of the singing. She took on the parts written by Aaradhna and Ladi6 with ease.

Estere Meow Wellington

They played the all eight songs from Haja, followed by “Nothing To Lose”, the lead single from the original Adults record. This was a brilliant way to end, with everyone dancing along to the strong, bouncing bassline.

A short break was followed by one encore, “Short Change” – a b-side I didn’t recognise that Toogood had co-written with Shayne Carter. Bremner played drums this time, freeing Lemi to come up to play lead guitar.

All up it was a fantastic gig. Lots of talent, lots of energy, and plenty of opportunities to dance. It didn’t feel fully polished – being the first performance of new material – but it didn’t feel lacking either. I would have loved to hear more, but they did play the entire album, so I can’t exactly feel cheated. If you get the chance to see the Adults play any of the rest of the dates as they tour New Zealand of Australia then I recommend you head along and have some fun.

Words and photos by Joseph James

The Adults Meow Wellington  Ben Lemi Meow Wellington Steve Bremner Meow Wellington Emily Browning Meow WellingtonThe Adults Meow Wellington The Adults set list Meow Wellington

Album Review: Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

Julien Baker Turn Out The Lights
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Julien Baker’s voice is a show stopper.

I remember the first time I heard it. I was listening through a compilation – a fundraiser for the victims of the Orlando shootings last year. There was a few punk and emo bands I liked that had caught my interest, plus a handful of artists that I hadn’t heard of. Baker’s contribution came on and I stopped what I was doing.

Who. Is. That?!

It was the part in “Rejoice” where Baker really starts belting it out: “I think there’s a God and he hears either waaaa-aaaa-aaa-aaaay”. What a voice!

A quick Google search led me to Bandcamp, and within minutes after I’d downloaded Baker’s album, Sprained Ankle. It became my go-to for times that I wanted to listen to something quiet and relaxing – that wind-down album for just before bed.

It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t the only one who had stumbled upon Baker. I began spotting her name more and more frequently – a Noisey article here, an interview there. Friends shared her Audiotree session on nerdy Facebook music groups. All who heard her voice fell in love [save for Arctic Drones writer Foofer, who remains staunchly opposed to her “Tumblr girl emo music”].

Now I’m not usually one to listen to lyrics. Post-rock – a generally vocal-less genre – dominates my listening habits. And my favourite band, Biffy Clyro, sing nonsense. But Baker’s music is so stark that I can’t help but pick up on what she’s singing.

She covers some heavy content. Identifying as both gay and Christian, she finds herself in a conundrum. Is she loved? Is she condemned to hell? Many of her songs explore the theme of acceptance.

The lyric that caught me off guard:

“If I could do what I want, I’d become an electrician
I’d crawl inside my ears and I’d rearrange the wires in my brain”

And then, just to up the ante, the following song starts with this verse:

“I used to never wear a seatbelt ’cause I said I didn’t care what happened
And I didn’t see the point in trying to save myself from an accident”

… woah. That’s heavy.

That sucks. To feel that you are a mistake, that you shouldn’t be who you are. Although the music is relatable. Who hasn’t felt self-doubt at some point of their life?

I find her struggle compelling, and hope that she can come to terms with who she is in a way that stops hurting. Sadly, as much as I sympathise with her, I feel that the emotion she injects into her music is what sets it apart in the first place. By channeling her pain she can summon something within that truly stands out when she releases it.

Sad Tumblr girl emo music indeed. But Baker’s articulate honesty resonates. And the music supports it perfectly. Sombre piano twinkling and tender guitar picking. Violin enhances the music at times, but on the whole its a case of simple arrangements to support the key attraction: Baker’s voice.

Baker has an incredible voice. Raw and emotive, she simply shines. Some tracks use vocal layering to great effect, with Baker both softly cooing, and belting out harmonies in the background. Just listen to the chorus on the title track. There’s nothing quite like hearing a good singer let loose like that. Goosebump material for sure. As nice as the fragile singing sounds, it feels so satisfying to hear her defiant screams against rejection.

Whatever your reason, give this powerful, intimate and cathartic masterpiece a listen.


Julien Baker links:

Buy/stream Turn Out The Lightshttp://mat-r.co/TurnOutTheLights

Website: http://julienbaker.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/julienrbaker

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/julienrbaker/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/julienrbaker/

 

Joseph James

EP Review: Far From Here – The Loss

Far From Here The Loss cover
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It’s the type of morning that only a place like Karori can put on. It’s cold. Not cold enough that I can see my breath, but certainly enough to warrant a few extra layers of clothing. Everything is grey. Between the concrete roads, the overcast skies and the dense fog, there is little colour to be seen as I walk to work. But the music I’m listening to keeps me in good spirits.

I’ll discuss the music in a minute, but first I’ll tell you a story to give you context.

Hamish Dobbie Far From Here promo shot

Image: Sam Blythe Photography

When I first met Hamish Dobbie seven years ago his favourite band was Dream Theater. We tried to form a band together at one point, but nothing eventuated from it. Later on down the track he joined some of our mutual friends as bass player for their hardcore band Declaration AD [My review of Declaration AD opening for Bangs is one of my favourite things I’ve ever written]. This was then followed by a string of other hardcore/metal projects, making Dobbie one of the busiest people in the local scene for a year or two.

But now he has tried his hand at a different style.

It’s almost clichéd – going from hardcore to acoustic. Dave Baxter from The Chase started Avalanche City. Dallas Green from Alexisonfire started City and Colour. Derek Archambault from Defeater started Alcoa. And then we have the many punk singers who feature on the Revival Tour: Frank Turner, Chuck Ragan, Jon Snodgrass, Dave Hause etc…

And Hamish Dobbie from the local hardcore scene started Far From Here.

His first release is a five track EP called The Loss – poignant pop music with a dash of electronica dance beats.

The EP has been a few years in the making. Dobbie started working as a youth worker in his last year at university, and recently switched to work in the mental health sector. Not easy jobs by any means.The Loss was written in the midst of inner turmoil, and as an attempt to put a language to the experience of suffering.

And rather than writing music in the vein of Terror and Advent, he turned to other musical influences like Broods, JOY, Bon Iver, and Imogen Heap.

It makes for nice listening. The titular opening track sets a tone of mourning through use of guitar and delay, not unlike something Explosions In The Sky would do. A dance beat slowly emerges before everything cuts out. It’s a delicate balance – the sad guitars and the uptempo beat – and although the two elements shouldn’t work together on paper, they somehow create something compelling radiates hope. Just as it seems to gain momentum, the song ends. I wish it was longer.

Two things can be learnt from this first song: first, Dobbie does dynamics well. And secondly, he absolutely nails the guitar tones on this EP.

Despite his best efforts, Dobbie is not the strongest singer. Nor does he pretend that he is. He recruits two friends to help him out in that department. Andy Hockey tackles a verse in “Distance”, and does well to mirror Dobbie’s aching. And Mimi Gilbert features in “I’ve Failed You”. Gilbert’s voice is a showstopper. She recorded it from her home studio in Portland, Oregon, and it took her less than an hour to record all her takes for that song. The vocal harmonies at the end of that track are my highlight of the EP.

If stunning guitar tone paired with Postal Service-esque beats sounds appealing to you, then give Far From Here a listen. If that doesn’t sell it to you, how does incredible vocal harmonies, sublime moodiness and brilliant production sound?

I can think of nothing better on a bleak, foggy morning like this.


Far From Here links:

Bandcamp: https://farfromherenz.bandcamp.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/farfromherenz/

Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/farfromherenz/tracks 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/farfromherenz/

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2ecTxAhzY04Dlh7p4fboeg