Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » February
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On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

It’d be easy to pity Casiokids, at least in terms of musical life choices.  Despite kitchen-sink-pop’s mid-aughties shark hop (remember Rehearsing My Choir?), the Norwegian band’s still dazed and amazed by the genre’s hyper-produced mélange, bobbing along like its clubby lil’ bro. Kids’ Sigur Róssish gift for other-y gibberish and affection for their influences’ booty-shaking undertones make for a streamlined musical sugar pill. Where groups like Architecture in Helsinki and Field Music may have fumbled with Art via Rube Goldberg-like song structures and all manner of knob-twiddling wizardry, Casiokids pursue a humbler goal. They want you to have a good, if somewhat familiar, time.

To their credit, Casiokids succeed on Topp stemning på lokal bar, mostly because reverence manages to keep their source material from feeling overcooked or, worse, old.  Songs like “Verdens største land,” with its punched up LCD Soundsystem beat, and Vampire Weekend-cum-hip-hop workout “En ville hest” work markedly well as ego-less dancefloor clutter, marrying their forbears’ punchy production with the good vibe (topp stemning) they appear to desire from their ur-lokal bar. “Fot i hose,” another standout, compresses the band’s appeal into a three-minute backbeat bon bon, managing to recall some of 2003’s more resonant thrills by fusing bottomless DFA bass and Out Hud-style propulsion.  The band’s tasteful appropriation masks real skill, too. Under layers of frictionless beats and buzz, Casiokids have a knack for playful, hypnotic harmony (“Togens hule”), high-functioning drum machinery, and synth subtlety belying their namesake’s chintz.  When it comes to their chosen style, Casiokids might as well be savants, lending their record a relaxed and relaxing confidence.  The range here is narrow, sure, but the band doesn’t misstep – they’re intimate with this terrain and proceed accordingly.

Topp stemning på lokal bar isn’t all precise, easy fun – forgettable instrumentals make up a full quarter of the record, almost unforgivable for an eight-track stateside introductory disc – but, much like Bergen scenemates Datarock and Annie, Casiokids have a gift for pop resurrection, painting a shiny Eurodisco coat over tropes their westerly brethren have all but discarded.  If Topp stemning leans a little hard on its affable musical Esperanto, so what?  For those missing last decade’s attempts at a herky-jerky indie pop Babel, Casiokids have provided a platter full of head-nodding comfort food.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Dominant Legs, a duo consisting of Ryan Lynch (Girls) and Hannah Hunt, creates some of the most unaffected, subtly contagious music I’ve ever heard. Jangle-infused synth-pop would be a feeble, generic way to describe the sounds on Young at Love and Life, and herein lies the difficulty with reviewing this four-song EP. The songs succeed so naturally, nailing words to them feels counter-intuitive. If this sounds grandiose, listen to the record a few times and see what happens.

The perceived shortcomings of these songs rapidly morph into strengths, which stands as one of the most fascinating aspects of this clutch of compositions. Initially, Dominant Legs’ use of simplistic drum machines and Ryan Lynch’s shaky, hesitant vocal delivery raise the flag of amateurism. However, less than a minute into lead-off track “Young at Love and Life,” discerning listeners hear the duo for what they are: products of music made in an honest, direct way. Only two-and-a-half minutes long, this title track functions as a perfect introduction. It includes all of Dominant Legs’ defining elements: lovely vocal interplay between Lynch and Hunt, bittersweet lyrics, and tastefully simple song structure.

“Clawing Out the Walls,” the EP’s second track, is a stunning lurch forward, both sonically and structurally. Repetitive bongo sounds give way to Lynch’s graceful, Johnny Marr-inflected guitar playing, a bass line reminiscent of Motown hits, and the strongest vocal performances in this song cycle. It’s hard to doubt a sincerity that never becomes sentimentalized or off-putting, as Lynch asks, “And do you ever think of starting over, everything you began?”

Avoiding redundancy by slightly varying its consistent sounds, “About My Girls,” a song picked by members of The Smith Westerns as their favorite of last year, revisits and modifies the dynamics found on the opener. Hunt’s layered vocals and keyboard support Lynch’s lovesick delivery on lines like, “I just can’t seem to forget about my girls,” and, “I’m a man of simple pleasures.” It’s a hazy, dreamy ode to being in love with love.  The folk-tinged “Run Like Hell for Leather” provides a somber closing for the EP. Certainly the richest song on here, it recalls the percussion of “Clawing Out the Walls” but explores darker territory and more textured sounds.

No one could accuse Dominant Legs of making vacuous, calculated music, which is something rare in this era of blog-buzzed bands. Young at Love and Life asks for a patient, discerning ear, and brings  more rewards with each listen. This release still seems a bit slept on, but hopefully that’ll change as Dominant Legs makes more of a public showing.

It’d be easy to write off Netherlands’ The Ex. Playing together for the better part of 30 years doesn’t leave too much new ground to run through. And if a group begins as some combination of already established anarcho-punk stuffs only to eventually confront world music, there should be at least a few questions to address.

Punk, its initial underpinnings at least, was supposed to be a link from music to freedom. Most bands, either 1970s groups or current ones, seem to work within very rigid guidelines. Whether it was the DIY thing, Crass, or coming from a country whose politicians would be castigated in the United States and denounced as commies, The Ex don’t perceive the same musical delineations as everyone else. Sometimes that works to their benefit, sometimes not.

First releasing Disturbing Domestic Peace (Verrecords/Ex, 1980), the band reveled in an English sense of politicized punk. The template remained in place for a good long time, even as line up shifts wound up obliterating the ensemble’s membership. Over time, though, The Ex played with everyone from Tortiose to Tom Corra and Han Bennink. Most significant, though, was an experiment with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya for his album Moa Anbessa (Terp, 2006).

Already possessing a rhythmic acumen enabling the band to make punk engaging, working with East African jazz serves to define the ensemble’s Catch My Shoe. While this set, recorded with Mekurya and featuring new vocalist Arnold de Boer (formerly of Zea), reeks of hothouse jazz run through an Ethiopian mind set, it doesn’t do much other than to set forth a spate of compositions clearly meant to ape a punked up version of big band music. It fails.

Levying words like authentic on any work resounds hollowly and wouldn’t be appropriate here. The Ex truck in music it finds engaging. And while there are probably no more than a handful of listeners anxious to sit through compositions like “Bicycle Illusion” more than once – easily recalling an inept Tom Waits fronting Gogol Bordello – the band deserves recognition for its effort.

Yeah, that’s just a nice way of saying Catch My Shoe isn’t worth too much. But if you had a kid and he or she brought home a drawing of a cat looking more like a crocodile, it’d still wind up on the fridge.

MAKING COFFEE IN THE MORNING: Mostly, I just don’t want to take this for granted. When I’m not touring I have the luxury of getting up at a semi-decent time, casually boiling water, grinding beans, and allowing the coffee to blend in a French press. Don’t have to rush through some coffee stand on the way to work, or drink shitty coffee from… wherever the shitty coffee is made. I guess I enjoy the process, and again, appreciate the privilege of getting to do so.

NETFLIX INSTANT: Netflix Instant is amazing. A few years ago I said Netflix was amazing, then they bumped it up. It’s important to me because one of my ultimate daydreams is to live out in that “cabin in the woods” somewhere, but prior to Netflix, I could never accept (in my daydream) that I would have to abandon movies. But hey, Netflix will never take the place of actually going to the movie theater. Which brings me to my next favorite thing…

GOING TO THE MOVIES: I’m sure this seems pedestrian to some, but I swear: I’ve yet to go see a movie and not truly appreciate the size of the screen, the sound, and the feeling of sharing something out there in the world. My mother once debased my theater obsession to an inclination for popcorn. Mom, I only get popcorn every third movie. Makes me gassy.

NAILS AND HAIR: I just can’t believe they keep growing and growing! Kinda nice, right? Or, as far as hair goes, I guess I should also be appreciating that I still have hair, and that it still grows. Sure, we have to keep cutting and clipping, but look at me, I’m alive!! I just looked up whether they keep growing after we die. Apparently, that’s a misconception. Damn.

BUTTERFIELD 8: Just saw this film (1960, dir. Daniel Mann) the other night (Netflix). Elizabeth Taylor as an NYC call girl. I love seeing older movies tackling subject matter that was, at the time, pushing the limits of what was deemed acceptable. You have to take the time period heavily into account while watching it, the weight of the boundaries they were pushing. These days, a film like SherryBaby (2006, dir. Laurie Collyer) can seem commonplace. I also happen to love SherryBaby.

BEING ALONE: Oh boy, do I love spending time alone. Touring as much as I do, I am almost always with others, day and night, always. I live alone; I’ve come to prefer living alone but also make a point of it, as a contrast to tour. I am happiest when I’m writing, working on things – and I only do that alone. I love seeing movies alone, dining alone… can’t say I prefer sleeping alone, but have learned to adjust to it fairly well. And I have my dog to sleep with, which is pretty grand…

MY DOG, GUAKY: She is just… well, she’s one hell of a sweetheart. She’s more of a “dog’s” dog, rather than a people dog, as in she much prefers hanging with the neighbor dogs than, well, me. But that’s just her, that’s how she is. I think of her as a teenager; sure, she loves me, but I’m “Dad” – not cool – she wants to go hang with her kind. She’s faster than any dog she’s ever met!

OMAHA: I just recently moved back to my hometown of Omaha and can’t get any writing done because I’m simply having way too much fun. But that’s okay, we need to take these experiences in, relax a little, enjoy life. Right? I never intend to take my friends for granted; I often leave, go explore other places, other people – but I’ll never have a closer community than the people I’ve grown up with in Omaha.

ELVIS COSTELLO: I’ve been meaning to tell Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice how jealous I still am that they have gotten to write and record with him. I have a rotating list of songwriters I study/research, and Elvis is currently back in that number one slot. I’ve been picking up records of his from the early/mid-1980s, an era that it seems some people don’t appreciate as much? I don’t think I’ve heard anything of his that I haven’t liked. “Punch the Clock” and “Goodbye Cruel World” are the two I’m currently investing in.

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: I own all of the seasons and watch them over and over like some sick Larry David obsessed pervert. Such an acute sense of social deconstruction. Quite possibly the worst person one could/should look up to, yet I do, unabashedly.

Tim Kasher is the singer, songwriter, and guitarist of the Omaha, Nebraska-based post-hardcore bands Cursive and The Good Life. Most recently, he released his first solo album, The Game of Monogamy (Saddle Creek, 2010).

Photo: Jess Ewald

Arab Strap just re-released their freshman and sophomore efforts, along with the attendant goodies you’d expect with these sorts of projects nowadays – in this case, an extra live disc with each album. Those four disks provide a solid retrospective for this dark, unique Glaswegian band named after, uh, a sexual device.

The Week Never Starts Round Here (even the title oozes ennui) was The Strap’s freshman effort and opens with a track, “Coming Down,” which despite some allusions to drugs and violence, refuses to reveal what’s next. It’s a relatively vague song with hints of the mundane, to be sure, but devoid of day-to-day specifics and the sort of dark and dirty thoughts we’ve come to expect from Aidan Moffat. With the following song, “The Clearing,” accompanied by fuzzed out, booming drums,  the band settles into songs which make those references manifold and into the syrupy intonation. Cut to “The Smell of Outdoor Cooking,” previously a stand-alone single, which opens the accompanying live disk, and Moffat’s protagonist takes in the smoke of a BBQ while getting loaded on cheap booze. “Please don’t bend over like that again in my face again,” he sings on one of the most upbeat songs to be found here, “‘cos I’d like to get you in bed.”

It’s these filthy, drawling tunes The Strap slathers all over Philophobia, their sure-footed, sophomore effort. “One Day, After School,” for example, sounds almost quaint with its lapping harpsichord, until you scrutinize its lyrics about a school boy getting a good wanking from his girlfriend, who then stabs herself in the arm and tells friends the boy beats her. It’s accompanied by a (surely) intentionally pathetic drum machine cadence. Similarly, “Afterwards” wallows in the delicious, drowsy aftermath of sex, yet, remains arrestingly bleak with visits to Family Planning throwing cold water on any illusions of eroticism. And the title of drowsy “Packs of Three” referring to the number of condoms in a package, concludes the narrator’s girlfriend was one short of complete protection. That ditty begins with one of the more enticing opening lines in rock ‘n’ roll history: “It was the biggest ever cock you’d ever seen, but you’ve no idea where that cock has been.” At its heart, however, “Packs of Three” is a song about infidelity and grief. Similarly, for all the seeming debauchery on display, listen closely to a song like “New Birds,” and discover the simple act of choosing a separate taxi highlighting a moment of sharp moral clarity. Moffat walks listeners through that song until the narrator reaches his epiphany, then the band erupts into a storm of guitars. It’s as if to say, yes, there’s glory in these everyday moments, these seemingly small, but tremendously impactful everyday events.

The original cover [left] for Philophobia (which means “fear of love”) features two nude figures by Marianne Greated, both raw and pink, not sexual so much as visceral. These bodies are presented frankly much in the way Lucian Freud might’ve captured them, but their presence becomes all the more poignant when one learns they represent Moffat and his girlfriend at the time. We can be forgiven then for imagining the songs on this album being heavily autobiographical.

One reason to revisit Arab Strap is their songs frequently offer crystalline short stories. More Irvine Welsh than Raymond Carver, I suppose, but there’s something of the latter’s economy there. They’re also often noir-inflected, a tendency which “Love Detective” on The Red Thread (Matador, 2001) would later embrace more explicitly, if still metaphorically. Exemplifying this story-telling territory, reveling in day-to-day mundaneity, the supreme specialty of Arab Strap’s oeuvre, “The First Big Weekend” from their debut, a song which Moffat essentially talks through—and at great length—discuses nothing more than drinking, football, watching the Simpsons and passing out. Well, Moffat typically talks through all The Strap’s songs and in the same characteristic low-affect fashion. Still, as his vocals grow more hurried during the refrain while a piano climbs beside him, the song attains an elegant urgency.

If you’ve never thought of Arab Strap ascending from its indie and post-folk roots, give “I Work in a Saloon” a listen and consider the long history leading up to Moffat’s brief, wonderfully tawdry tale of bar life. Then listen to the live version to hear their punk take on the same composition. With its measured cello and violin bowing under Moffat’s lonely, filthy lyrics, the frightening and lovely “Phone Me Tonight” sounds like an ancient dirge if not for the artificial, syncopated beat accompanying it. The song’s essentially a forlorn booty call, which also fits perfectly into the folk genre. After all, much of Arab Strap’s music focuses, with considerable nuance, on drinking and fucking, two pursuits people have been eagerly engaged with for eons.

Vertigo’s never really steered me wrong.

It was with that long-running trust I picked up the first volume of The Unwritten (collecting the first six issues of the series as written by Mike Carey and drawn by Peter Gross) in January 2010. Thankfully, I’d somehow managed to avoid much of the press surrounding the graphic novel’s release. I went in knowing little of the plot, apart from the story centering, in some way, around literature and writing. I wasn’t expecting meta-fiction or magical realism. I wasn’t expecting anything to be honest, but received another engaging and thought-provoking story from DC’s mature-minded imprint.

So, while I more than enjoyed The Unwritten’s first volume, entitled Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, there was a part of me that hesitated when picking up the following installment. Released in August 2010, the second volume collects issues 6 through 12 of the ongoing monthly series. It picks up shortly after the first volume’s conclusion when a truth about the series and its subject is confirmed for the reader. In picking up volume two, there was a small part of me that feared too much had been answered at the end of Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity. But the “how” and “why” of Tom’s existence are further embellished in this second graphic novel, more than just a small expansion of what was set out in the first book.

Imagine if Harry Potter were based on a real person. That’s the first and one of the most important pieces of the story. Tom Taylor is a twenty-something who travels the convention circuit signing books written by his father – books in the “Tommy Taylor” series. The fictional set of books is a thinly veiled send-up of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter work, with titles like “Tommy Taylor and the Golden Trumpet.” But The Unwritten is more than just Potter parody. It turns out, Tom Taylor wasn’t the inspiration for his father’s books. He somehow actually is Tommy Taylor. The book’s made him real. Or his father wrote him into reality. Or there’s something else at play, but only hinted at by Carey and Gross. This is where the second portion of the anthology, entitled Inside Man, takes the secret which was confirmed at the end of the first volume and pushes it further. Tom Taylor is fiction made reality, but he can also make reality with fiction.

This second volume is also when The Unwritten begins to unfold with Carey weaving in other fiction and literary histories, posing questions about what actually contributes to the creation of our favorite books. At its core, The Unwritten is a series detailing the construction of reality. More specifically, it’s a series of how stories shape reality and the immortal forces selecting which stories are allowed to be told.

Like television shows, most comics weave small story arcs into larger ongoing plots. Frustrating, though, is The Unwritten‘s rushing forward at the end of this second installment. By the collection’s conclusion, things are snowballing for Tom. Questions and issues raised at the start of the series still have yet to be fully answered, which will hopefully make the final payoff all that much more satisfying. As disheartening as such a lengthy arc can be, it does make for great reading, despite the time between seasons, so-to-speak. March of this year brings The Unwritten’s third trade paperback, Dead Man’s Knock, from Vertigo collecting issues 13 through 17.

Nearly everyone complains about something. It is universal whether someone is American or Algerian, a 10-year-old Poughkeepsie boy or a 60-year-old Pakistani grandmother. In 2004 Tellervo Kalleinen from Finland and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen from Germany – a husband-and-wife performance art duo – developed the idea of the Complaints Choir, based on a Finnish expression, valituskuoro, which describes situations where many people come together to complain simultaneously. The couple’s original performance art project was a simple design that caught worldwide interest and resulted in Complaints Choirs being formed from Alaska to Japan and from New Zealand to Russia.

The DVD plus triple-CD Smog Veil Complaints Choir compilation – housed in a gatefold plastic-free digipak – assembles several Complaints Choir efforts. Ada Bliggard Søby’s one-hour documentary film, also titled Complaints Choir, poignantly captures the transformative attempts of three choruses’ journey from conception to culmination as German, Chicago, and Singapore groups tried to follow the necessary nine steps to a finished achievement. While the stages were not too difficult, the momentum proved problematic for some participants. The Singapore gathering discovered considerable governmental resistance to the undertaking. They managed to get through most of the steps – the invitation for people to complain; finding a musician to act as conductor and shape the song; organizing the many complaints into a cohesive list; creating the lyrics; producing a song and rehearsing; preparing for the performance. For the Singaporeans there was no final realization and no grand performance; both singing collectively in a public space, and videotaping or filming the completed endeavor for posterity, faced insurmountable roadblocks. Due to bureaucratic red tape and courteous but stern censorship that had segregated immigration restrictions (immigrants with worker visas were blocked from being choir members) the best laid plans were fractured. Conceivably the lyrics that reflected truthful minds were also a consideration:

I’m stuck with my parents till I’m 35 ‘cause I can’t apply for HDB.
We don’t recycle any plastic bags but we purify our pee.
What’s wrong with Singapore?
My, oh my Singapore
What exactly are we voting for?
What’s not expressly permitted is prohibited.

The Chicago assemblage’s song includes some peculiarly humorous lines that provide insight to the Windy City members’ point of view:

The amateur Jethro Tull cover band practicing around the block will never rock.
People text, eat and do their make up while driving in the bike lane.
The more efficient I am the more work they pile on me.
I am drowning in student loans.
And my gums are receding.

Throughout the film, Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen explain how and why their art-oriented creation germinated and spread. As viewers learn about the artists, each group’s identity and specific character are also dramatically revealed through interviews and interaction. An underemployed pumpkin seller and a housewife, students and retired people all gather as one unit, despite societal, cultural, sexual and economic divisions. In the end, after all, almost everyone has something to complain about.

The Smog Veil package also compiles three CDs under distinct groupings. The first disc includes the documentary soundtrack – with contributions from The Analog Girl, Stitch, and Lamburgh Tony, although oddly none from the documentary’s primary composer Trentemøller – as well as the songs done by artist-initiated choirs from Chicago, Singapore, Hamburg, Tokyo and more. The second disc has DIY (do-it-yourself) choirs that formed spontaneously in New York City, Budapest, Hong Kong and other locales, as well as PDF files that share the perceptive and often personal lyrics. The Dostoevsky-esque Petersburg text confirms some conditions have never withered away, “Petersburg – I’m not ready to die yet, to drown in the waves of your river Neva,” which is a close reference to scenes from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, as are the feelings inherent in another line from the same song, “Why is this painfully familiar city causing only migraine and boredom?”

The third disc collects more of the DIY choirs from far-flung places such as Gabriola Island in British Columbia, Canada; a Juneau, Alaska choir who aptly sing a skunk cabbage complaint chorale (anyone from Southeast Alaska will appreciate the joke); and other choirs from the Baltic Sea area of Aland and Melbourne, Australia. Each choir’s contribution provides unique and location-specific details that sometimes exhibit common appeal and other times offer items only locals might understand.

The Complaints Choir DVD+CD set is an absorbing look and listen at what coworkers, friends, family and strangers grumble and criticize about and demonstrates that a straightforward notion can have an enormous impact all over the world. Of course the DVD and CDs represent only a small part of the ongoing process. The Complaints Choir Worldwide website, as well as YouTube (type in Complaints Choir) attests to the fact that people from all sections of the globe – from Manila to Spain – are continually partaking. Even a cursory glance or search makes a fascinating visit.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the most interesting but overlooked. This is one of those.

To warp William Carlos Wiliams, so much depends on a red-faced singer – in this case, sweaty Beefheart-via-Bolan crooner Sam Herring, figurehead and main attraction of Baltimore’s Future Islands. Formed in 2006 from another band’s ashes and associated with Dan Deacon’s “future shock” cohort, Future Islands began life as one of the East Coast’s many mildly-depressed-yet-cheery synth enthusiasts. Herring, croaking over tracks like In Evening Air’s spartan motorik ballad “Tin Man” and maunder-epic “Swept Inside” in a stricken growl makes for a beguiling genre escape hatch. Hell, just his tumbling sass on “Long Flight,” delivered with rhythmic reversals making TV On the Radio facepalm with envy, is worth the price of admission.  Fronting a competent electro-pop outfit, Herring’s a startling presence and the kind of rare entertainer who rewards active listeners.

Still, if Herring’s voice throws down a gauntlet, there’s something to be said for synthmaster J. Gerrit Welmers’ and bassist William Cashion’ less provocative charm. All told, much of In Evening Air’s immediate appeal comes from the pair’s cozy, low-tech approach to a worn music.  At his best, Welmers has a knack for wringing elegiac fuzz from unlikely sources, including endless sub-808 clicks and a cheapo steel-drum keyboard setting on the aforementioned “Tin Man.”  The spectral “An Apology” nervously burns with a Casio haze worthy of early Creation Records or 4AD, conjuring the Cocteau Twins’ genius with limited means.

Where revivalist bros-in-arms like Twin Shadow and Zola Jesus aim for 1980s-style airlessness, Islands work the same textural topography lending Deacon’s Bromst such organic thrills, letting their equipments’ whirrs and imperfections speak for themselves.  In a sphere dominated by cold-packed drama, the group’s yen for the elemental  – Air’s lonely air, Waves Like Home’s seascapes – feels refreshing, like Future Islands hit on a new sort of sadness.

It’s unfortunate, then, neither Herring nor his band can wrest In Evening Air from reliance on heartbroken lyrical mush, though they try.  Like certain Charm City counterparts (Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Celebration’s Katrina Ford both leap to mind), Herring sells cliché through pure force of groaning will, but even he can’t save a record full of one-note navel gazing. And by the time closer “As I Fall” rolls out its desperate two-chord vamp and endless refrain, it’s hard to imagine any but the most woeful college sophomores hitting repeat.  It is a shame since Future Islands really do seem to be onto something, a ripe grey area between Pere Ubu’s screeching synthetic potential and the well-oiled pop craft of, say, Depeche Mode.  Still, whether a band so stuck on love-song lockdown could manage (or even attempt) a Modern Dance or Violator seems unclear.

Future Islands may have chops and a remarkable mouthpiece, but, for all the band’s environmental imagery, their take on Air appears to be more mood-setting tableau than exploratory. Given their trove of talents, one wonders what self-imposed boundaries Future Islands’ll stretch and when they actually have something to say.

Ever since The Beatles launched their British Invasion back in 1964, Americans have long been fascinated with the noises emanating from across the pond. From The Sex Pistols’ influence on early American punk to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s impact on contemporary indie rock, UK outfits have been instrumental in shaping the sound of some of America’s finest music. And it goes the other way, too. Most recently, The Strokes debut album lit the touchpaper for one of the most exciting periods in UK guitar music since the 1970s, giving rise to The Libertines, The Arctic Monkeys, and many more. Transatlantic cross-pollenation is, after all, the lifeblood of modern rock ‘n’ roll. So, welcome to The Kids Are Alright: Rising Stars of UK Indie, a fortnightly column on emerging British indie. Every two weeks, Skyscraper contributor Toby Rogers (a Brit and the editor of Toonwaves) will interview a new band or artist making waves on English shores.

Here’s column number one and an introduction to EGYPTIAN HIP HOP, one of the most exciting bands to emerge from Manchester since The Smiths.

Reinforcing the old punk adage that musical ability need never hamper creativity, Manchester-based four-piece Egyptian Hip Hop are a band everyone in Britain is talking about. And that’s despite their own admission that, live, they’re pretty rubbish. On record, the teenage outfit rock harder than Ramses’ chief pyramid builder, letting fly with a furious barrage of forward-thinking electro-pop eschewing the lumpen lad-rock their hometown has become synonymous with.

The name is a misnomer, though. These kids don’t deal in hip hop at all. Fusing disparate influences with an attitude actively shunning the city’s musical past, these visionary young upstarts are molding a bold new future for Manchester rock ‘n’ roll. A million miles from the usual touchstones of The Smiths, Joy Division and Oasis, alongside fellow scenesters WU LYF and Dutch Uncles, Egyptian Hip Hop are at the vanguard of a thrilling musical reinvention for the city.

Describing themselves as an ever-evolving mash-up of the last fifty years of pop music, Egyptian Hip Hop’s hyperactive naiveté belies a mature aesthetic drawing inspiration from Talking Heads and The Pixies. Blending bruising funk-styled bass with razor-sharp electronica, the band have already found their own off-kilter identity. Formed while at college, Egyptian Hip Hop have been performing together for little more than a year, yet the explosive indie-disco of early buzz track “Rad Pitt” and their recently-released debut EP, Some Reptiles Grew Wings, has firmly established them as one of the UK’s most exciting young ensembles.

Skyscraper: Firstly, how are things going?
Egyptian Hip Hop: S’all good. Our twelve-inch record is out now which is pretty awesome, pre-historic-swampy.

Skyscraper: Tell me about Egyptian Hip Hop. How’d you get together?
EHH: It just started as a little fun thing we’d do every so often. Once people took notice, it was time to become a real band, I guess.

Skyscraper: Where’d the name come from?
EHH: The name chose us really. Fate or something.

Skyscraper: It seems like every new band emerging from Manchester gets unfairly compared to Joy Division, The Smiths, or New Order. Why’d you think the music press is so obsessed with the idea of a Manchester sound?
EHH: It’s just some weird thing journalists like to talk about all the time, insisting location has a huge impact on songwriting. Maybe in some cases, but I’m sure we would still be making this music had we come from anywhere else in the UK.

Skyscraper: Music blog Ohh! Crapp called you “The Horrors grandchildren on Prozac.” How would you describe Egyptian Hip Hop?
EHH: I definitely would not describe us as the Horrors grandchildren on Prozac, because that’s pretty awful, lazy, and inaccurate. We could probably tell you a whole load of things we wouldn’t like to be described as, but we struggle to summarize ourselves.

Skyscraper: There’s a pretty diverse scene in the city at the moment. Where do you see yourselves fitting in?
EHH: I think we’re part of a vague movement, pushing pop music somewhere interesting. It’s great to see Everything Everything doing so well since what they’re doing is actually pretty challenging and almost completely original. Dutch Uncles are really great, too, for as abstract some of their ideas are within the pop/rock-group format.

Skyscraper: You only started gigging in 2009. What’s it like to get so much press attention so quickly?
EHH: We kinda assumed for a while that this was the pace all recently successful bands moved at. But I think it’s definitely a more recent thing for people rushing to do their first gigs or first releases, because of how quick media has become. It’s definitely positive, so far, but we just have to face the test of developing our make-or-break debut album in the public eye.

Skyscraper: Apparently, the band have a bit of a connection with Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr. What’s the deal with that?
EHH: Oh, nothing. Stupid, really. None of us actually know him. Nick did for a brief period when he was twelve. That’s it.

Skyscraper: Sam Eastgate, from Late Of The Pier, produced some of your stuff. How’d you get together?
EHH: A few of us have known Sam for ages, long before Egyptian Hip Hop. We all knew how much he ruled at production and that-kinda-thing. So, it was nice not to jump in at the deep end for our first proper recording with some super-producer. Still, more of a friend with a fairly DIY set-up.

Skyscraper: What are your plans for the future?
EHH: Hopefully, create some kind of LP which is both really credible and hugely successful. That’s the dream though, huh?

Top photo: Tom Cockram

On the heels of Skyscraper‘s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked. This is one of those.

My daily commute’s not much, but it’s enough to hear half the tracks on Male Bonding’s Sub Pop debut. Of the few albums stashed on my phone, Male Bonding’s Nothing Hurts has been the inevitable choice for months now. The noise-laden pop punk is a psych-up for the day. The songs are short, energetic, and catchy. What keeps me listening, though, is the diversity of trio’s music. Don’t get me wrong, Male Bonding aren’t genre-hopping masters. Far from it. They pretty much do one thing: fast-paced punk rock with a bit of No Age’s experimental, fuzzy bent and Abe Vigoda’s tropicalia-leanings. But they just happen to do it really, really well.

It’s the little things clinching it for me, like how the guitar drops out and builds back up alongside the drums on “Franklin.” Or the Woody Woodpecker cowbell on “T.U.F.F.” But as limiting as a guitar, bass, and drums combo could be in the hands of some, Male Bonding’s songs on Nothing Hurts are all clearly distinct from each other. This one’s a little more sped-up. That one’s a little more slowed-down. This is the one with the driving bass riff. That’s the one with the line, “All this won’t last forever.” The feat brings to mind former Welsh neighbors Mclusky, though there’s a good bit of difference between the two groups.

If you’re listening only to the album’s pace, Nothing Hurts is going to feel like a herky-jerky race from beginning to end. For those interested, though, Male Bonding’s music can prove a more complicated listen. So many times I find myself tapping along to the beat and humming lyrics I don’t actually know. All the while my subconscious shifts focus from crashing cymbals on one track to guitar feedback’s ability to create space on the next. The album’s been my inevitable choice for months now, as I said earlier. After only a few spins, Nothing Hurts sounds familiar mainly due to its songs being simple enough to  remember and complex enough to warrant repeat listens.