Scottish Music to listen out for this November
- David Pollock
- 9 November 2017
New albums from Smackvan, Annie Booth, The LaFontaines and more
We're playing catch-up this time out with a busy autumn's worth of new album releases, so bear with us while we pile them on. First of all, we welcome back little-recognised but enduring Glasgow group Smackvan with The Palace of Varieties (★★★★☆, sans culottes), a record which bears an impression of the city's sound throughout the twenty-five years of their existence, although there's a particular sense of the broodingly lo-fi which was the flipside to the late '90s post-rock movement. The title track is a standout, a squall of serrated studio atmospherics with a touching delicacy at its heart, while singer Michael Feeney's tender but weary voice is a perfect accompaniment to the dreamlike indie-rock of 'The World Closed Down' and ragged guitar and piano ballads 'Waltz' and 'Home'.
Also welcome back to another old favourite, with the strangely inactive-of-late Chemikal Underground (other careers have kept them busy) swinging back into action with the release of Adrian Crowley's Dark Eyed Messenger (★★★★☆, Chemikal Underground), the follow-up to 2014's Some Blue Morning. Recorded (and lyrically set) in New York with Thomas 'Doveman' Bartlett, a previous accomplice of Sufjan Stevens and The Magnetic Fields, it's a minimal, fragile selection of atmospheric, piano-led soundtracks – the absence of guitar was a deliberate choice, and one which works – which takes in the gothic nocturne of 'And So Goes the Night' and the frankly gorgeous song-based storytelling of 'The Photographs'. That the Dublin-based singer bears the same deep, soothing baritone as The National's Matt Berninger is no bad thing, either.
These are halcyon days for Lads in Bands from Scotland, as you'll read all about below, so before the testosterone wave crashes ashore, let's tell you all about the debut album from Annie Booth, An Unforgiving Light (★★★★☆, Scottish Fiction/Last Night in Glasgow). A recent tourmate of Mt. Doubt, her sound is fleshed-out and fully-formed, and the comparison to Jeff Buckley made in her press materials isn't far off the mark. There's a grungy rawness to some of the tracks here, but the afrobeat guitar groove of 'Over My' and the vaguely post-punk chime of 'Chasm' are all used in service of a gorgeous, expressive voice, whose natural folk tone can clearly bear a bit of pushing in different directions.
There's also the eponymous new album from Best Girl Athlete (★★★☆☆, Fitlike Records), aka Katie Buchan (information about where she's based is elusive, but we're guessing Dundee with that label name). Recorded with her dad Charlie before she turned eighteen, the follow-up to 2015's Carve Every Word is a smoky, electro-acoustic fusion of gothic folk and baroque pop songwriting which bears comparison to Lana Del Rey; in intent, if not in execution, for the sense persists that this talented teenager is still building her abilities towards something potentially special.
In more laddish news, Motherwell's much-loved The LaFontaines also return with Common Problems (★★★☆☆, A Wolf At Your Door), the follow-up to the 2015 debut Class. Part of a new breed of Scottish artists who are whipping up homegrown success without having to lean on London media support (see also: Gerry Cinnamon), Kerr Okan and his crew return to their unique combination of muscular indie-rock beats and forcefully Lanarkshire-accented rap delivery, with welcome diversions into Highlife-style guitars on the title track and lush, soulful electronic grooves on 'Torture' and 'Total Control'. They're rarely subtle, but they certainly are a defiant, uncompromising voice from the streets of Scotland, and that's a band we want to keep filling the Barrowlands and moving forwards, without doubt.
Catching up on some of the best already-released titles, we could be forgiven for thinking that Neon Waltz are from the North, such is their way with a chiming, guitar-and-keyboard-driven pop hooks and the power of Jordan Shearer's cheek-flapping wind-tunnel vocal. We're talking about the North of England, with the poignant but ever-uplifting procession of anthems on their long-awaited debut album Strange Town (★★★★☆, Ignition) reminding of The Charlatans or Doves, but the sextet from Wick are from the Real North – the furthermost tip of Scotland, where splendid isolation has produced a bristlingly lovely pop album which fuses folksy, bucolic elegia with a sharp and youthful sense of sharply-produced wanderlust, particularly on standout radio song anthems 'Sundial', 'You & Me' and 'Bring Me to Light'.
Don't let their lovely piano title track at the start fool you, Pinact's second album The Part That No One Knows (★★★☆☆, Kanine Records) is a raucously muscular assembly of grunge, indie-rock and power pop, with selected stand-outs from an infectious but very similar array of tracks channelling the raw, transatlantic DIY sound of Dinosaur Jr or Sonic Youth alongside the joyous Caledonian pop heart of Teenage Fanclub or Biffy Clyro at their least overblown. Elsewhere, it's rare for an Optimo-affiliated label to release a record we don't love, and the new one from Tafi Allstarz, Outside Rhythm (Autonomous Africa, ★★★★☆) is no exception; a gorgeous alternative trip into the heart of Africa via Glasgow, as Thomas Lea Clarke (Mr TC) and Conal Blake of Whilst team up with Ghana's Tafi Cultural Institute from some dark, dub-heavy electronic explorations.
As ever, let's also look at a few EPs from bands we want to show a bit of deserved support to. The Ninth Wave's 'Reformation EP' (★★★★☆) is great, a four-track calling card from the Glasgow band which mixes the arena stadium pop of Simple Minds just as they started to cross over with a, unselfconscious, shoulder-padded New Romantic aesthetic to air-punching effect. Saint McCabe, meanwhile, is the new alias of the Northern English but now Scotland-based Ste McCabe, and his 'Saint McCabe EP' (★★★★☆, Manekineko) is a lo-fi, three-track account of being gay in Britain since the days of Thatcher, a raw but resonantly personal '80s-referencing fusion of Billy Bragg-style folk politicking with a devil-may-care Hi-NRG sheen.
Finally, let's have some Lewis Capaldi, and the 'Bloom EP' (★★★☆☆), which is set to cement the promise of a 21-year-old artist from Bathgate who must be Scotland's surest thing since Chvrches. Featuring streaming hit 'Bruises' and 'Fade', created with Frank Ocean's regular collaborator Malay, it showcases a mightily distinctive and impressive vocal roar. We like it, although here it's deployed only for winsome, Rag 'n' Bone Man-style balladry. An indication of versatility to match Paolo Nutini's would also be most welcome.