I recently read an article about things that people who were born post Brit-pop wouldn’t understand about growing up in that era. Whilst I hate any piece of journalism that has such an inbuilt sense of retrophilia, it did make a number of interesting points about the progress of the music industry in the 20 years that have passed since the death of Kurt Cobain and the rise of Oasis.
The entire way the world consumes recorded music has changed; as much as a small number of like minded individuals cling onto our records (and increasingly for no apparent reason, cassettes), the main stream consumer has without question moved on. Music is now streamed, downloaded and consumed with less care. I’m not saying this a bad thing, in fact I think it’s frankly amazing that on the day of an albums release, I can consume it without leaving my bedroom, even without turning on a computer!
Though like anyone who has lived through an era, part of me does miss a certain joy that came with the old fashioned way. It is pure nostalgia, it’s verging on nonsense. The fact my phone downloaded the Horse Thief album Monday morning without me even having to press a button does take away some of the old fashioned joy of trekking to the record shop. The fact I could stream it last week, before it was even out, is insanely brilliant, but also a touch sad. The fact I’m now knowingly depriving myself of pre-release streams to try and recapture the joy of that first unwrapping of the impossibly difficult plastic that accompanied the cd release of my youth is stupid, but so what? We consume music the way we want, we now have more options and that is brilliant, it doesn’t mean we have to always want it the modern way, anymore than it means we’re not allowed to try and recreate the joy that those formative years brought us.
There has never been a better time to be a music fan, because there’s never been so much choice!
HORSE THIEF – FEAR IN BLISS
While to many, Horse Thief remain entirely unknown, here at FTR we’ve been quietly getting ourselves into quite a frenzy about their debut album. Fear In Bliss has become arguably the most anticipated debut album of 2014. Indeed, following the brilliance of last years 5-track EP, Grow Deep Grow Wild, and a stunning live set supporting Midlake, it has become one of our most anticipated albums full stop. No pressure chaps…
The 5-piece from Denton, signed to the ever brilliant Bella Union, recorded the 11 tracks that make up their debut album in Los Angeles, and are now based in Oklahoma. It is then perhaps no surprise that the albums sound is rooted firmly in the eclecticism of America. That said it is hard to pin down the bands sound to a particular genre or movement, Human Geographer combines some Latin vibes with the collegiate rock of Vampire Weekend; Dead Drum is the sort of bombastic Americana Bruce Springsteen once called home, whilst closing number Warm Regards has the same buzzing synth palette championed by Beach House.
The band share a hometown, a record label, and recently a tour bus with Midlake, but in truth there’s little of wide-eyed prog-folk favoured by that band on show. Horse Thief are a more direct beast. That said, the album does start with a short burst of, what sounds a lot like a tape warming up, but once that 30 seconds are out of the way they get straight to the point. I Don’t Mind is the true starting point of the album, straight from the opening guitar line, covered in wobbling tape echo, they are bang on the money. The drums bound in with a sense of rhythm Wild Beasts would be proud of, and the clanking, distorted guitar chords, manage to sound incredibly loud in a world where so many records are mastered beyond the listener having a clue what’s actually being played. Here the track bristles with the acoustic energy that cannot be replicated by any amount of processed wizardry. The easy, shuffle of the drums propel the track along, till arguably the most Midlake section of the album appears; the guitars dropping briefly down to an acoustic and that most folkish of accompaniments: the humble flute. It only lasts for a matter of seconds before the drums come crashing back in, along with Cameron Neal’s stunning voice. An X-Factor contender he may not be, but his voice is powerful, and crackles with emotion. He does everything a rock voice should do but still maintains a reedy sound all his own. “We will not last forever, I don’t mind, I don’t mind” he sings, and lyrically it is one of many sentiments left to the listeners own interpretation throughout the record, there’s lots of emotion and a fair amount of anger on show, but where it’s directed is less clear, he’s certainly not from the Jeff Lewis school of telling it like it is.
Human Geographer is sadly not about Demographic Transition Models. More about wanting to explore inside humanity, and even to look inside oneself. “Am I good? Am I fine? I can’t tell this time” Cameron sings. It is all set to an undeniably jaunty sound. Starting with buzzing organ chords, it comes alive to the sound of a kick-drum and a guitar line that’s straight out of Graceland, but we’re talking Paul Simon rather than Elvis. As he coos “Tell me the truth” we are into a full on Afro-beat break down, and with the flourish of what sounds like a harpsichord; it’s straight out of the Vampire Weekend playbook without the knowing sense of intelligence. It is thrilling!
Single Devil, is a standout track and would be on any album! The bass line is fantastic, propulsive and delightfully scuzzy. The vocal crisp, clear and bristling with energy. “It’s getting better every day now, but we are all going to die, sometimes” is as typical a lyric as Cameron has, there’s a sense of both the pointlessness of life and also enjoying what you have that permeate the album. Throughout the album too is a very open discussion of faith, both it’s flaws and it’s assets. Here we see Neal admitting, “I don’t think about the devil, but he shows up every night”. This theme is explored still further on the brilliant “Little Dust”, to the sound of a slinky plodding bassline, strummed acoustic, and delightful Neil Youngish slide guitar, we find Cameron noting “I never grew up believing in the bible, I’m sitting at the pew as I listen to the choir, I never heard the voice of my youth on fire” and there is real anger, that sounds like it could as easily be directed at the church as an individual “well don’t you tell me I am sorry, I don’t need your sympathy to be sorry, time and time again, I felt sorry for a friend, well not for you, well not for this”. As the lyrics pick up intensity, the playing does so too, it’s a truly thrilling second half, the vocals almost yelped, the drums pounding, and that slide guitar is truly stunning, wailing out like a beautiful scream!
Best of all though is Dead Drum, it is a pure slab of America! Starting with a simple strummed acoustic, it gives way to a gently meandering electric, snare heavy drum beat and a rumbling bass line. Everything about the track: lyrics, music and vocals all drip with the sound of the America you see in movies; it’s pure panoramic wonder. There’s even some beautifully scuzzy slides at the end, and lyrics about “special girls” and “the end of the world”, an heir apparent to Bob Dylan in Springsteen’s bandana. We again find Cameron “questioning my disbelief” – quite what conclusion he makes he keeps to himself, but there is the sound of an existential crisis hidden in what sounds like a ballsy song about driving real fast, for a girl who’s “goddamn beautiful”, there’s a wonderful sense of hidden meaning throughout.
Let Go, is pure bile for the doubters, set to the sound of wonderfully entwining guitars we find Cameron wailing, “I will show them, show them what they’ve made of me” and whilst he starts all pomp and attitude, we later see a softer, sadder side “all these people, people can teach us what to know, but no-one can teach you, teach you to grow up on your own”, in an era where many try so hard to show little or no emotion there’s something wonderfully ernest about this band, heart firmly on sleeve. It all ends with a wonderfully rapid, trilling guitar, it touches upon The Walkmen, which is always a wonderful thing.
Come On, starts of pairing a dance beat with some guitar slides, it sounds a bit like a jilted groom, who went on the honeymoon anyway, only to realise he’s the only single man at the beach party. Whilst Already Dead, in this post Mumford and Sons world, with it’s picked acoustic and vocal harmonies, will be written off by some as trite, however, in the surroundings of the album it’s a wonderful break from the heavy instrumentation elsewhere, a campfire sing-along for the cold cynics amongst the group “when you’re born, you’re already dead, it takes a soul to wake your head, and when you die, you happily say I’ll be good I’ll be safe for the rest of our days”.
If closing track Warm Regards is a hint of the next phase for Horse Thief, it’d be a very positive things. It’s all atmospheric, Beach House like synths and a delightfully low-key vocal. “This music makes me sad, but I cannot help myself” Cameron sings, surely everyone who’s still reading knows that pain. It fades with a warm buzz, it could almost be a church organ, it’s wonderful.
What we have here is a tremendous debut; a trip through folk rock in all it’s multi-faceted glory, picking and choosing from subtly different styles without ever sounding entirely like anyone but themselves. Not without flaws, but perhaps all the better for it’s minute imperfections. It’s simply stunning!
Fear In Bliss is out now on Bella Union. Horse Thief play at Oslo in Hackney on May 22nd as well as the Dot to Dot Festival and End Of The Road