Sunday, February 21, 2010

ailsa craig - a silent no : 19-10-09

The 25th release from Leeds, UK's Squirrel Records is a CD of 12 songs from a collaborative calling themselves ailsa craig. The album, titled "a silent no : 19-10-09" is predominantly the brainchild of producer/programmer and musician Matt Robson. However, singer and lyricist Caroline McChrystal, who formerly sang with the much loved Manhattan Love Suicides and now with it's offshoot band The Blanche Hudson Weekend - could be considered an almost equal collaborator here as she provides all the vocals as well as writing every lyric you hear. Additional significant contributors include the bass guitar work of Lee Hooper and guitarist Darren Lockwood (also a primary member of The Manhattan Love Suicides and now The Blanche Hudson Weekend). As a whole, this is music more for kicking back and listening to, as opposed to the more straight up rock of Caroline and Darren’s previous bands. You probably wouldn't put it on at a dance party either. However, if you are like me - and hunger for something "interesting" - something that breaks the monotony of the bland and tired same old same old - you might find this record to be just what the doctor ordered.

"Nine Times Table" is the curiously titled opening track. "Where can we go and what can we take from this?" asks Caroline. "I'm starting to see, you look away when we kiss," she continues. "Well, you can just leave, go away anytime. I don't want you here, if you are no longer mine." A “breakup" song, certainly - but, what else is going on?

Musically, the first change section has these great background vocals – “Ahhhhhhs” "I don’t care where we go now, but something’s gotta change,” Caroline sings.

For his part, Matt Robson's effects-laden drums and samples create an interesting electronic percussive bed. Additional layers of guitars begin to fill out the sonic textures as the piece progresses. Initially driven by a basic, simple keyboard line, by the time you reach the finale, there is active, solid layers of carefully placed keyboards, guitars and percussion. The guitar work of Gavin Montgomery provides additional "shimmer". “It’s so dark in my dreams,” states Caroline, providing a glimpse into mindset behind this lyrical theme.

"Plans You Made" is almost funky in its initial rhythmic presentation. "It’s so hard to find out dreams are broken," Caroline starts. "And your thoughts can go on unspoken," she continues. "Take a stand make it strong, you’ve got one shot" is the rallying cry.

As the song moves into a change, the vocals are delivered against a rising melody line, driven by synth keyboards - "Don't try to tame free minds. Chasing Ghosts is so hard," is the sentiment told. This ultimately leads to a poignant synth and piano interlude, suggesting introspective thoughts. Serving to set up Caroline’s voice coming back – studio manipulated and FX laden – matched with a robotic percussive pattern. The drum sounds at this point dispense completely with any attempt at sounding like a traditional kit, embracing instead the electronic world. Though I've been told that all the drumming is "real" and everything was "played by Matt" - there is certainly ample room for studio manipulation after-the-fact. Which is all fine and good as far as I'm concerned. It's the finished product that matters, and I'm not really all that concerned with how the results were achieved. The song now gets even better – with a dominant guitar line emerging and lifting it all higher.


"Don’t Hijack The Scene" is a somewhat catchy percussion and keyboard instrumental. Like something Depeche Mode might have done in the 1980’s. At 5:45 in length, it goes on a bit long from a purely active listening standpoint. However, it is the type of thing that might fit well as soundtrack music for a movie or tv show.

"If It’s Not Lost" presents Caroline’s vocals to maximum effect in the studio. She’s singing out fully now, not whispering – and is the most impassioned performance from her here yet. Matt Robson's melodica playing makes it's first (of later multiple) appearance here on the record. “Where are all the good times that we once had? I know I’d like to see them again,” Caroline muses. Musically the song structure and sound design evokes memories of The Cure. Caroline's delivery is measured, while her voice is pitched perfectly with just enough multitracking to create a worthwhile listening experience.

"Finding The End Of The Line" finds me revisiting a song I first reviewed on The Manhattan Love Suicides 2008 release "Burnt Out Landscapes." It was included on that collection because of Caroline and Darren's substantial participation on it - even though it was credited to an artist going by the name of Random Number (who would turn out to be Matt Robson). At that time my impressions were that it was predominantly an electronic piece, with a basic structure some might classify as slower moving "techno" or "house" music. Since I had been into the true electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno for years - and then their pop evolutionary offspring like Depeche Mode or their harsher counterparts like Nine Inch Nails or even Ministry - it was no great leap for me to "get" this music. Making comparisons to David Bowie’s evolution from first "Ziggy/Alladin" - then "Station To Station" - then to "Low." The version here has been remixed, and now armed with additional background information, I can hear Darren's guitarwork more clearly. The guitar notes in the verses have strong delay effects on them. The fast strumming, heavily reverberated by Matt, creating a sound that is part mandolin, and part muted buzzsaw. Lyrically, Caroline suggests you "go for something that you never liked."


"Only Anger" is a slow and deliberate affair. With significant guitar contributions from Darren again, and a co-music writing credit with bassist Lee Hooper, the song serves to provide an emotional center to the album. "Her temper is getting shorter and now there’s nothing you can say," Caroline starts out. "Your gonna have to leave him, your only getting in the way. And even when she gives up, she has got a fight in her," is how the story evolves.

Musically, the song opens with a gentle pizzicato plucking on a muted stringed instrument, credited as "lead bass" to Hooper in the liner notes. In addition to the already established electronic percussion, there are also more natural sounding snares and cymbals, providing a warmth that drums played by an actual person can only provide.

There are appropriately understated Melodica sounds that enhance the overall ambiance. Darren's first musical appearance begins halfway through the first verse, with his "reverse reverb guitar" creating an almost keyboard-like sound.

The big bridge buildup employs a clever studio technique where Caroline’s voice comes in via a stutter/staccato style that leads to the lyric “there’s no beginning, there’s no ending.” This is where Darren’s dramatic, rough and powerful fuzz guitar line comes in behind Caroline's vocals. Its a dramatic moment and the high point of the song.


"A Different Path" is a short, gentle instrumental. Reminding me of the instrumental interludes of the late 1980’s album “Earthed” by Church frontman Steve Kilbey. Acoustic guitar and harmonica’s are the dominant sounds.

Hyperactive, percolating percussion and a sturdy descending bassline serve as the driving entry for “End It (Part 1)” ‘Leaving so fast, you don’t know what you’re getting,” sings Caroline. Matt Robson is credited with something referred to as “lead sample guitar” and evidence of it can be heard throughout the song.

Of note is a particularly hooky chorus sung by Caroline that goes “I can’t go on like this – you must end it”

A surprising and delightful rapid sequenced keyboard line emerges, which leads into Paul Elam’s powerful fuzzy guitarwork.

A Silent No” The actual title track is an introspective piano piece in the traditional sense. It sounds quite “live and organic” (that is to say, unsequenced or enhanced by computer clocking help).

Lee, Matt, Caroline

Wonder Crunching” introduces Flugelhorn as a sonic enhancement that separates this track from the others. “Watch yourself, it’s getting hotter – don’t get burned,” Caroline cautions. Fans of David Sylvian and Harold Budd might find this a like-minded track.

Echo Through” credits the music writing here to Robson, Hooper and Elam collectively, while McCrystal is responsible for the lyrical content. Hooper in particular makes his sonic presence felt with his “uni-string bass guitars.” Caroline’s lyrics and vocal delivery have a somewhat ominous tone to them. Contributing to this overall feel is Andrew Staveley’s Flugelhorn, which completes the mysterious vibe.

End It (Part 2)” An under 2 minute instrumental, is played entirely by Robson on Melodica, piano, programming and his altered voice. It stands as the perfect summation to the albums overall feel. A period at the end of deep and rewarding journey, for those who take the time to explore it.

Find out more at these links:





Friday, February 12, 2010

Zaza :: 01.23.2010 :: Littlefield :: Brooklyn, NY

Certain bands seem to find their way into your field of vision, regardless of where you may happen to be looking. The Brooklyn, NY based band Zaza, who are visionaries themselves, seem to have successfully embedded themselves on my sonic windscreen. Having met songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Danny Taylor in early 2008 at a Pains Of Being Pure At Heart show, it wouldn't be until July of 2009 before I actually saw Zaza perform live, when they appeared outdoors at the South Street Seaport as part of the River To River festival series.

I was instantly captivated by the bands sound and image. On stage a three piece, with Danny stage left, playing guitar, singing lead and running all kinds of loops and effects. The middle of the stage belonged to Jennifer Fraser. A statuesque brunette who alternated between bass guitar and keyboards. Jennifer, looking casually glamorous in one of fashion designer Caycee Black's dresses provided a visual focal point, as she slowly danced out the rhythm of the bass notes she was playing. To the right was drummer percussionist Dru Prentiss who plays in that stand up style popularized first by Mo Tucker in The Velvet Underground and later on by Bobby Gillespie in the first incarnation of The Jesus & Mary Chain.

Catching Zaza live once again during the October 2009 CMJ showcase at The Cake Shop, I was impressed with how their sound had evolved from just three months earlier. At one particular point in their set, Danny would lead the band through an over seven minute trance/drone piece, that was at first recognizable, but then morphed into something completely different. The guitars tones were rich and deep as Danny sang in a falsetto voice. Jen delivered a complimentary yet countering bass line, as Dru played a thumping tom-tom beat over the top of drum machine patterns triggered by both Danny and Dru. It needs to be noted that nothing is prerecorded in their shows, but electronic sources like the aforementioned drum machines, as well as looping devices are employed. As a result, their songs are always different lengths, assuring that the live element is honestly represented.

It would be the Hex Fest at Pianos at the very end of November where I would next catch Zaza. Their dark and mysterious sound was a perfect fit for this room. With the spotlights strategically placed to allow only their faces and hands to glow, the sheen it produced fit the music perfectly. Danny's alternately single note guitar work and full chords allowed Jen to move freely between deep groove bass notes and keyboard washes. Dru's drumming was clean and prominent - staying on the toms for long periods, only to break that spell with vibrant cymbal splashes as further enhancements.

At points the band sounds a bit like The Cure to me. That is, the Cure of the "Kiss Me Kiss Me" period. The long, rhythmic trance pieces. Dru will lay out a jungle thump pattern, as Danny plays single note melody lines, with Jennifer paying these countering bass lines. Danny vocals can be more like another instrument, than someone actually telling a story. His vocal phrasing sometimes long and drawn out with reverberated effects contributing to the mysterious edge.

One interesting discovery is when a band you respect will occasionally include members of other bands you have equal admiration for. For instance, The Raveonettes - a band I have written about previously on this site, employed Jennifer Fraser to play bass for them on their early 2009 tour. It was actually my first instance of getting to see Jen play live, and I recall being impressed at that time. I had been somewhat aware of Jennifer from her time in the band The Warlocks (her bass playing on their 2005 album "Surgery" being some stand out work).

Back to their live show, at other points the band delves much deeper into a slow trance groove. Percussionist Dru will at times use a mallet to ride the cymbal and a traditional stick on the drums. This adds a unique quality. Danny can consistently be found singing in that reverberated falsetto while Jen searches for the right bass groove. A piece like this can morph midway through to a jam that picks up the rhythm and evolves into a quicker pace. The kind of sonic landscape that would be perfect soundtrack music to a movie about, say an ancient ride through the hills. It's all so heady and organic.

Which brings us to their most recent show - a prime support slot for Oslo Norway's Serena Maneesh at relatively new Brooklyn venue Littlefield on January 23rd. Zaza opened the show with their most recognizable song - the lead single off of their Kanine Records EP "Cameo" titled "Sooner or Later" A wonderfully tripped out rendition, the band marries tribal drumming against Jennifer's pulsating bassline, while Danny sings in that passionate falsetto. Rising and falling keyboard rushes are merged with guitar atmospherics run through looping devices. Time and space appears to be suspended as you become hypnotized by the narcotic sound.

Next up was "Arm's Length" (also from the Cameo EP) where Danny sings "I don't stop till you tell me too, I tell the truth when you tell me too," and "you don't see it if it doesn't look right, and you don't feel it if it doesn't feel right." Lyrically I interpret this song as the intuitive recognition between two lovers and the unspoken communication that is involved. Musically the song blends a tribal percussive pattern with a military insistence, while Jen's bass playing is freed up to roam in a near jazz style of busy improvisation.

Three as of yet unreleased songs titled "You Are What You Aren't," "Burn and Build" and "Death In A Parked Car" (formerly titled "The River") were played in succession - songs they have been playing live - and fueling the anticipation from the audience for the impending release of the bands first full length album later on this year. Zaza has been hard at work in the studio on this record, and there is a definite buzz and anticipation in the air for this record.

They concluded this night's show with the final song off the Cameo EP - "Repetition." Dru marks out a slow marching percussive beat as Jennifer plays keyboard washes and Danny sings about burning ships that "fear the sea" and growing fruit "without a tree." Poetic stuff.

What is constant about Zaza and what appeals to me the most is the dreamlike sonic soundscapes they create. Count me among those who eagerly anticipate their upcoming full length album release.


Here are some links to YouTube videos that are essential:

These are mine:




And this from their kexpradio sessions: