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Ned Blackburn

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The Meadowlands
The Meadowlands

5.0 out of 5 stars Seriously Overlooked, A Classic Of Modern Indie-Rock, 2 Jan. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Meadowlands (Audio CD)
Released after 7 years of serious label trouble, by the time of The Meadowlands, New Jersey's The Wrens were exhausted, dejected, and making the best music of their career by far. A giant leap forward from the smart pop-punk of Secaucus, the songs here, are slower, more introspective and shot through with a reflective melancholy borne out lyrically from the very start of the album - 'and I'm nowhere near where I dreamt I'd be/and I can't believe what life's done to me' is the closer to 'The House That Guilt Built', a short opener which says more about loneliness and regret than a thousand sunny day real estate songs. Thus begins an absolutely stunning 7-track run, starting with 'Happy', a raw and defeated lyric ('is this how you wanted me/to watch as you walk away')set to a rumbling bassline and chiming guitar work that builds to a brilliant and discordant climax - one of the real strengths of this album is the surprisingly complex guitar harmonies and arrangements - what may seem boilerplate indie after a few listens reveals unexpected dissonances and many layers. The record then moves through hooky, cerebral rockers like 'This Boy Is Exhausted' and 'Faster Gun', as well as the beautiful, elegiac slow build of 'She Sends Kisses', and the crunching feedback and hypnotic, circular melody of 'Boys, You Won't'.

Perhaps the two highlights of the album, however, are 'Hopeless' and '13 Months In 6 Minutes'. Possibly the two most cathartic tracks on the album (which is quite something), they couldn't be more different. 'Hopeless' rides a jagged quitar riff and soaring synths to indie rock heaven, accompanied by one of the bitterest and most angry lyrics on the album: 'Go thank yourself for nothing/It's really all you're good for/Every year you wasted/And every half ass offer' might sound merely spiteful on the page, but when set to one of the best tunes of the album, it gains a ragged power that is quite something to behold.

By contrast, '13 Months In Six Minutes' is the quietest, longest and most devastating song on the album. Telling (as the title suggests) the story of a failed relationship over 13 months, the lovely, simple acoustic arrangement follows the rising, unfurling, elegiac melody which remains static the entire time, which is all the better to divert focus to the lyrics. From meeting at a party ('not yet 21/with introductions done/a first slow dance just ends')
to drifting apart ('your 20's all mapped out/I'm in my driest drought/feeling old and shot and how') and the inevitable end ('I'm a footnote at best/I envy who comes next') a simple tale becomes captivating and desperately sad in its certainty. The track also contains a lovely coda/false ending bringing in some excellent guitar work, as if the previous 5 minutes weren't good enough.

On the downside (and alas, there's always a downside) the production is at times a tad muddy, with the vocals especially being very very low in the mix on certain tracks ('Per Second Second' is basically an instrumental even). Furthermore, the band's use of massively over-distorted guitar on occasion turns 'Everyone Choose Sides' from a piece of anthemic brilliance to being an extremely lo-fi sounding piece of slightly-less-anthemic brilliance. However, these are merely aesthetic choices by the band, and don't reflect anything more than my personal nitpicking

Since its release, this record has gained a huge cult reputation, and for good reason. Intelligent, emotional, interesting and accessible, this is the kind of rock album that doesn't come around very often. Make sure you don't miss out on this one.

New DQT Plain White Handkerchief / Pocket Square
New DQT Plain White Handkerchief / Pocket Square
Offered by DQT Ltd
Price: £2.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Value, 6 Oct. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
While these pocket squares aren't silk and won't measure up to a high quality equivalent on close inspection, they still look perfectly smart for everyday and formal use, and are durable and heavyweight to boot. The colours are many, varied, and are slightly darker than they appear in the picture (though not by much).

the main reason to get these, though, is the ridiculous price - an absolute bargain and by far the cheapest I've found anywhere. delivery is also prompt, so overall, highly recommended.

Travels With Myself And Another
Travels With Myself And Another
Price: £11.73

5.0 out of 5 stars Muscular, jagged, and often hilarious rock music, 2 Jan. 2012
Perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed bands no-one's heard of, and Wales' best musical export since forever, Andy Falkous and co. are on stunning form on album no. 2. Kicking off with the absolutely storming 'Arming Eritrea', the album beefs up the band's not inconsiderable attack while still adding more compositional variety into the mix, with acoustic guitars (!) even making appearance on massive album closer 'Lapsed Catholics', along with a hilarious monologue from Falkous about Rupert Murdoch, among others. On the almost poignant 'Throwing Bricks At Trains', their trademark distorted keyboards are utilized in more sophisticated ways than ever before, and album highlight 'You Need Satan More Than He Needs You' crunches and stomps its way to instant anthem status with massive drums and a shout-along chorus.

The real genius here, though, comes from Falkous' lyrics. Spitting more venom than a whole family of cobras, he takes on everyone and everything with a shedload of surreal, vicious and brilliant lines - whether railing against 'Rick' (c'mon rick, I'm not a prize!),dealing with relationship issues ('what kind of orgy leaves a sense of deeper love?'), discussing cutlery ('hidden in the mass of letters lies the awful truth, that emma's mum and dad use plastic forks) or even tackling existential questions ('it doesn't smell like a man, it doesn't talk like a man, but does it f**k like a man?'). His delivery is also perfect, full of bitterness and sarcasm in the best possible way.

Musically, the album hits like Ali on a good day, with some especially nasty distorted bass giving the album a grimy, feral sound that makes other so called 'heavy' rock seem pathetic by comparison. Moreover, the frequent use of distorted keyboards instead of guitars (which are still present however) adds texture and musical variety even when the band's attack is at its most unrelenting. 'Saviours of Rock' is a horribly cliched term, but after a few listens to this astounding album, it begins to ring dangerously true...

recommended tracks: Arming Eritrea, Throwing Bricks At Trains, Lapsed Catholics, You Need Satan More Than He Needs You

James Blake
James Blake
Price: £5.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Purest, unadulterated James Blake - for better or worse, 18 Dec. 2011
This review is from: James Blake (Audio CD)
Released to much hype at the time, and in the process of being nominated for a Mercury prize, Blake's eponymous debut is his signature sound distilled to its absolute essence, in a collection of ambient, melancholy dubstep far removed from more commercial exponents of the genre such as Skream or Caspa. Though they mainly use rather different musical palates to express themselves, the mood of the album tends toward the isolationist, introspective 2-step of enigmatic producer Burial, himself nominated for a Mercury in 2007.

Stripping down the music even further from the already sparse textures of his CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs, most of the tracks are built on pianos set alongside soft ambient loops, undercut by the distinctive half-time drumbeat that the genre is well known for. However, tracks like 'Lindisfarne I' take this minimalist approach to the extreme, relying almost entirely on Blake's layered and treated vocals - a gambit that's not entirely successful when combined with oft-meandering song structures and vague lyrics bordering on the equivocal. Too frequently, as on album closer 'Measurements', or the aimless cut-up 'Why Don't You Call Me', the songs lose their sense of direction and grounding, simply being content to drift, albeit pleasantly, to understated conclusions.

Despite these compositional flaws, when Blake works within more song-oriented strictures, his somewhat unique sound can reap stunning results. On the Feist cover 'Limit To Your Love', nimble piano riffs and an untreated, cracked vocal combine to subtle yet devastating effect, before dropping out to be replaced with shuddering sub-bass and metronomic drums, only Blake's isolated, lonely vocals remaining. Alongside 'The Wilhelm Scream', with it's beautifully rising melody and soft, jazzy backing, 'Limit To Your Love' represents the most pop-minded, and perhaps not coincidentally, most effective moment on the album. Having said that, equally worthy of note is 'I Never Learnt To Share', whose solitary vocal line grows into a glorious, multi-tracked mesh of voices, before further building to a sawtoothed crescendo of synth and bass - aural proof that Blake is more than capable when working with traditional dubstep elements. Such highlights as these more than make up for the occasional dip in quality later on in the album.

At the end of the day, the album falls under the wing of that old cliche - 'showing potential'. Damming with faint praise that may appear to be, but in this case the potential is merely a hair's breadth away from being realized - If Blake can tighten up his songwriting and expand on his highly distinctive core sound, he could have a long and productive musical career ahead.

Pithecanthropus Erectus
Pithecanthropus Erectus
Price: £5.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mingus' First Great Statement, Aging Gracefully, 16 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Pithecanthropus Erectus (Audio CD)
1956 is, by most accounts, an overlooked year for Jazz, both as genre and cultural phenomenon. The previous year had seen the untimely death of legendary saxophonist and resident jazz superstar Charlie Parker, and many players were beginning to tire of the rapid, complex changes of the be-bop style that was prevalent in the early 50s. Conversely, the second golden age of Jazz had yet to be ushered in by the Davis/Coltrane/Coleman triptych, whose convention-smashing classics (Kind of Blue, Giant Steps and The Shape of Jazz to Come respectively) wouldn't come out until 1959 - It would seem, musically, that the genre was 'stuck between stations', so to speak. Despite this, the year played host to at least three stone-cold classics: Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners, and of course the subject of this review, Pithecanthropus Erectus, perhaps the greatest of the three.

Literally meaning 'Upright Ape-Man', when translated from its poncey Latin, the album kicks off with the brilliant title track - a 'concept song' of sorts, dealing with man's rise and evolution, from growth and happiness to complacency, arrogance and eventual downfall - hence the title. Composed in the form of a 4-part, 10 minute tone poem (but don't let that put you off), the track begins in a subdued fashion, with Mingus' pulsing 4/4 bassline augmented by the occasional filigree of horns, before slowly building to one of 4 raucous interludes, which grow progressively louder and more sinister as the piece wears on. Immediately noticeable is the remarkably selfless playing of everyone involved - Mingus, as on many of his albums, used relatively unknown session musicians, who do a fine job of employing the texture and timbre of their instruments to add to the whole, rather than overpowering it, lending a feeling of cohesion absent from many 'supergroup' Jazz albums of the era. As the track fades out with ominous drones and squealing strings, Mingus' genius is clear in his clever deconstruction of jazz cliches, re-assembling them in such a way that his music sounds forward-looking and familiar all at once.

The other three tracks can't quite match up to the same impossibly high standards, but are still for the most part sublime explorations of mood and feeling. 'A Foggy Day' begins and ends in a heady swirl of cars, police whistles and sirens, in between segueing in and out of a brisk but relaxed section of prime hard-bop, almost as if to show that he could still do the traditional stuff, and better than anyone else to boot. Once again, the magic lies in the interpolation of these two sides of his music, which would be improved upon even further in later albums - when the effects fade out and the band enters (or vice versa) it feels as natural as, well, evolution. (see what I did there? huh?)

'Profile of Jackie' is a short, elegiac piece in the vein of later landmarks such as 'Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat', off Mingus Ah Um. Though it doesn't measure up to later explorations in terms of style or ambition, the sensitive piano playing, rich, idiosyncratic harmonies, and the jigsaw-like way in which every part contributes something toward the whole is classic Mingus, whilst also offering us a change of pace before the epic album closer, 'Love Chant'. Ok, so maybe it doesn't make quite as amazing use of it's extended running time as the title track, but it still oozes class from every pore, from the understated syncopation in the intro, to the multitude of dynamic changes, bass solos, and dual saxophone breakdowns (br00tal). If it never really explodes in the way the the title track does, there's plenty of great sonic details to marvel at, like the short, almost orchestral crescendos that appear periodically, and of course Mingus' instantly recognizable bass playing, at once propulsive and adventurous.

For its time, this album was groundbreaking in its musical synthesis. Though the man would go onto even greater heights, in the same style and others, this stands as one of his great early works, and as an important and worthy contribution to the genre.

Price: £8.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Monolithic Achievement, 16 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Epitaph (MP3 Download)
Never performed during his lifetime (except for one infamously disastrous attempt in the 70s), this 500 page, 4000 measure masterwork is Mingus' most ambitious and perhaps even greatest achievement, encompassing music from every period of his career - it was written over a span of about 20 years. Painstakingly pieced together after his death by german composer and scholar Gunter Schuller, this is a live recording of one of its few concert performances (it is over 2 hours long after all). Comprising of a double big-band (around 30-odd players), the 19 varied movements showcase mingus' genius for harmony, arrangement and texture, never failing to interest from soft, lyrical sections to noisy dissonant crescendos. Comparable in status to some of Duke Ellington's greatest work, this is one of the few groundbreaking jazz albums of recent times. Though it's not the most accessible of introductions (pick up Ah Um or Blues and Roots first), it stands as a towering work of third-stream jazz, and a must for any serious mingus fan

Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro Headphones - 80 Ohm
Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro Headphones - 80 Ohm
Price: £111.95

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best in their price range, 18 Oct. 2011
Pros: - fantastic sound quality, especially the mids. bass is controlled, highs are great (even on ipods).
- Loud enough to use with mp3 players (the 250 ohm version needs amp'ing though)
- Build quality is ridiculously good for the price range - these 'phones are built like the proverbial brick outhouse
- V. Comfortable, the velour earpads are a nice touch
- Sound leakage is minimal (good for public listening)

Cons: - Bass is perhaps a little TOO controlled if you are used to headphones like the Beats by Dre range.
- Heavy, bulky, somewhat industrial looking (if you really care about that sort of thing)
- Cable is perhaps a tad too long, for ipod listening at least
- Sound, like all closed back headphones, is a little 'boxed in'. Trebles can be a tad harsh at high volumes.

Compared to the Grado Sr-80s: the sound is less bright, and warmer. Bass is more prominent but has a soft. 'pillowy' feeling. Trebles are not quite as crystal clear, but overall sound is more cohesive.

Compared to the Sennheiser HD 595s: Sound has similar warm tone, but mids are fuller and not as harsh. Trebles are a tad sharper and less muffled on the Beyers. Bass is similarly controlled and subtle, while still having an impact. Build quality is far superior to the Sennheisers.

If you don't want to go over 200 quid/pounds/pesatas, get these. Simple!

Set Your Head On Fire
Set Your Head On Fire
Offered by uniqueplace-uk
Price: £6.91

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, raw blues rock from Belgium's finest, 2 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Set Your Head On Fire (Audio CD)
Sounding much like the hives on steroids, BBR play high energy, catchy-as-all-hell blues rock, in the vein of early White Stripes. So no, this is nothing new or groundbreaking, and the music can be simplistic/immature, but the songwriting is consistently top-rate, the supremely catchy 'I Think I Like You' and the stomping trad of 'Gravity Blues' standing out in particular. The laudably ambitious album closer 'I Don't Want It' unfortunately doesn't quite come off, slipping into blues pastiche over its 8 minutes, but it shows a welcome desire to experiment outside the confines of their core sound. For anyone wanting a solid, uncompromising blast of heartfelt rock music, this'll do just fine!

The Alternative To Love
The Alternative To Love
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £2.85

4.0 out of 5 stars A Tuneful Pop Gem (Mostly), 30 Sept. 2011
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Alternative To Love (Audio CD)
Ok, so getting out of the way the fact that Benson's power-pop masterpiece 'Lapalco' was pretty much impossible to follow, 'The Alternative to Love' is a solid album in its own right, boasting some stunning songs. It kicks off in great style with 'Spit it Out', a driving, airy rocker with a killer chorus and whirling synths - in fact remarkably similar to Lapalco's opener, 'Tiny Spark', perhaps even surpassing it in terms of songwriting . Though none of the other tracks can keep the pace of the opener, there are riches to be found in 'Cold Hands (Warm Heart)', with it's pretty, McCartney-esque melody and lush, gently shuffling arrangement, emphasizing the retro pop influences present all over the record. The country-tinged title track teases for almost 2 minutes before drifting into a lovely bubblegum-folk chorus, and the sprightly 'Gold Into Straw' re-invigorates the album somewhat after a string of so-so ballads, which unfortunately dominate the middle of the album - light drifting psychedelia is OK for a few minutes, but ultimately serves to dilute Benson's irrepressible sense of melody. That said, 'The Pledge', with its cavernous, Phil Spector on steroids drums, chiming bells, and BIG, OBVIOUS CHORD CHANGES actually sidesteps cliche and ends up as welcome detour into pure 60s fetishization.

However, despite the occasional style shifts, this is not Benson's own personal 'Kid A' moment - the music is power-pop through and through, with the requisite chiming guitars, gentle palm-muting, and angelic harmonies. Such formulaic arrangements would normally fall into the abyss of ultimate blandness under most people's watch, but Benson's sturdy songwriting and attention to detail thankfully prevent this. The Elliot Smith-alike intro to 'Flesh and Bone' and the pleasingly ramshackle closer 'Between Us', which harks back to Benson's earlier work on 'One Mississippi' are both welcome additions - subtle variations on the overall mood without feeling out-of-place or like token experiments in genre.

Lyrically, despite the odd entertaining barb such as 'you give a whole new meaning to the same crap' (on 'Spit it Out'), Benson can come across as too mawkish and earnest. Though it's nice to hear a record so free of cynicism in this modern age, there's only so many ways you can write about being jilted, and Benson can sound contrived and awkward at times, as on the otherwise excellent 'Feel Like Myself', where he intones 'I won't forget/gonna make you regret/the day you were born/I'll leave you forlorn'. However, he creditably avoids slipping into mawkishness throughout the album, dodging the old power-pop cliches even when writing about the same old subjects. In short, he's no Dylan, but the lyrics really aren't the focus here, pretty much serving as something for Benson to hang his irresistible melodies on.

And that's the problem. Benson is apparently incapable of writing a bad melody, and the first thing you come away with after listening is the sense that he could craft great, tuneful pop albums for the next decade or five. Thing is, is he capable of doing more than that? Because in this day and age, when genre-blending artists are commonplace, grinding yourself further into a niche is the last thing you want to do, and it would be sad for Benson not to be more highly recognized for the top-rate pop songwriter this album proves he is.

Price: £4.49

5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Instrumental Album Ever Released, 25 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Endtroducing..... (Audio CD)
...Seriously. Despite only using samples, Shadow has crafted an incredibly deep, detailed and sophisticated melange of horror-movie piano, slithering guitar and those oh-so-perfect drum breaks. If I may utilize an old cliche, it works best listened to as a whole, the tracks segueing into each other perfectly, from the flying breakbeats and organ of 'The Number Song' to the poignant, beautiful 'Midnight in a Perfect World'. If that wasn't enough, you get plenty of leavening humor (mostly stemming from the interludes) and some great vocal samples thrown into the mix, most notably the opening 20 seconds of album highlight 'Building Steam With a Grain of Salt':

"From listening to records I just knew what to do,I mainly taught myself. And, you know, I did pretty well,except there were a few mistakes,um, that I made,but I've just recently cleared up. And I'd like to just continue to be able to express myself as best as i can with this instrument. I feel like I have a lot of work to do still, I'm a student - of the drums. And i'm also a teacher of the drums too" *cue epic drumbeat*

Just get it!

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