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On first acquaintance, Belle Tropez threaten to be one of the many Zero 7 soundalikes clogging up the Playback files. They blend soft vocals, easy‑listening grooves and tasteful synth beds in a fashion that's highly skilled but, on the face of it, hardly revolutionary.
As their music develops, however, it slowly becomes apparent that Belle Tropez have something that's missing in so many of their rivals. All too often, bands in this vein focus their energy on the production, with no regard for the actual material they're producing. The great thing about Belle Tropez is thus not the excellent male and female vocals, nor the sumptuous brass playing; nor is it their clever drum programming or neat integration of glitchy manipulated samples.
No, what stands out above all is their musical sophistication, which stretches way beyond usual dull three‑chord tricks. The third track, 'Pull It', for instance, sounds so smooth and natural that it took me an age to realise it's actually in 7/4, while elsewhere, lengthy chord sequences develop with a richness and confidence that's so often missing in electronica. Frustrating, then, that they've sent their demo in on a dodgy CD‑R that will only play for half a track at a time without skipping! Sam Inglis
Is that Yange as in 'flange', or Yange as in 'mange'? I know not, but the good Captain's war record in the Stoke On Trent campaign of 2007 earns him a medal for bravery in attempting to rescue falsetto vocals from the teeth of ridicule. He gets away with it, too, and it's refreshing to hear a band who have the songs to carry an entire album.
Captain Yange also have a definite production aesthetic, which they carry through with impressive consistency, although I'm not sure that their take on modern rock will be for everyone. The sound is uncomfortably claustrophobic, with a million distorted and fiercely compressed sounds fighting for your attention. If your idea of rock heaven is being stuck in a lift with Muse, Captain Yange are the band for you. Sam Inglis
"Hey big rock star show me how to write a song,” go the lyrics of the opening track on Charlie Baxter's demo. Unfortunately, what's missing from his plea, in my mind, is the word 'good'. What follows track one is an uninspiring collection of sort of nu‑rave‑flavoured tracks treated with a dollop of pop‑like production, for which Charlie should be commended. The tonal balance and clarity of the instruments is pretty good, especially considering the sheer number of synth‑based sounds that have been employed.
However, the timing is awfully loose (if it's deliberate, it's a bit too lazy for my ears), and Charlie's voice is, well, rubbish. In conclusion, I can see some potential in Charlie Baxter, just not behind the mic. Chris Mayes‑Wright
Andy Harrison and Peter Harris are, it says here, "two musicians summoned to the shed of truth in Wolverhampton”. I'd say they've been led up the garden path. In fact I'd say they've been led up the garden path, round the compost heap and straight into the Gazebo of Rubbish Synth Presets. And I wouldn't be entirely surprised to learn that they'd spent time in the tree‑house of ugly guitar sounds and the Nissen hut of cheesy drum patterns, too.
It's a shame that Conker's material had to be sacrificed on the altar of home‑keyboard string patches, because they have some nice songs, some of which recall XTC in their more pastoral moments. I was going to add that their two voices harmonise astonishingly closely, but then I noticed that Andy did all the vocals, so perhaps that's hardly surprising. I will, however, say that in "wizardry”, they have chosen too strong a word to describe the "Cubase engineering skills” on display here. Sam Inglis
On opening this package and discovering that Frisbee is actually the surname of Aaron Frisbee, SOS reader and singer‑songwriter, I was hoping for a compelling back story. You know the sort of thing: inherits vast fortune from grandfather's flying plastic disc empire, squanders fortune on drink and drugs, finds redemption in vaguely Elliott Smith‑esque AOR, emerges poorer but with a cult following in Belgium.
No such luck, but fortunately Frisbee's vaguely Elliott Smith‑esque AOR is strong enough to stand on its own. The whole album is beautifully recorded and mixed, and Aaron is possessed of a fine voice, which is tastefully augmented with backing vocals and supported by thoughtful and varied instrumentation. In fact, if I have a criticism, it's that the whole thing occasionally feels too smooth and polished, and might have more emotional impact if it were a little rougher round the edges. But that, frankly, is nit‑picking, because this is high‑quality stuff, and there are plenty of major‑label releases that struggle to match it. Sam Inglis
Graham Robinson, aka Cellsonik, has been producing electronic music since 1992. He admits that he's not the fastest songwriter (he only finished this CD in 2007), but, curiously, there are elements here that I feel he should have spent a bit more time on.
Unspoilt By Daylight is a 15‑track album covering an assortment of electronica bases — including breakbeat, trance, drum & bass and house — to varying degrees of success. I have to say I'm not too keen on some of the synth parts, which smack a little of lazy preset‑tickling and, to my ears at least, lack the kind of attention to detail that sets a really good dance tune apart from the rest.
It's not all bad though, fortunately. The drum programming, particularly on the handful of jungle tracks (definitely Graham's forté), sounds much more authentic and 'pro' — it's just a shame that the percussion is pushed so far back in most of the mixes. My advice to him would be to develop that side of things and make the drums the main focus in his music, as this would allow him to be a bit more sparing with the (none‑too‑convincing, frankly) synth sounds that pepper this album. Chris Korff
Something about Stickboy's music reminds me of Colin Vearncombe, who scored a series of hits in the late '80s under the name Black. In both cases, melancholy vocals and jaunty musical backing are juxtaposed in a way that ought to jar, but actually works surprisingly well. However, it's a shame about the mastering on Stickboy's effort, which sees an otherwise decent mix pushed to the point where it becomes crunchy and uncomfortable to listen to. Sam Inglis
South African duo Natascha Roth and James Scholfield were lucky enough to borrow some particularly tasty gear for the making of this album, and they've made full use of it. Their sound layers arpeggiated guitars from Schofield with Emmylou Harris‑style warbling from Roth, and since the overall feel is very gentle and downbeat, there is precious little room for bad sounds to hide. Happily, then, the playing, singing and recording are all excellent, and despite the slow pacing, there's enough instrumental variety to stop it getting too samey.
We Happy Few describe their music as 'alternative blues', and they have a garage‑y, British take on the genre, reminiscent of bands like the Bishops. It sounds as though it was recorded live, which is definitely the way to go, but it seems to me that We Happy Few need a producer to crack the whip over their rhythm section.
Upright bass is a notoriously difficult instrument to record well, and whether it's the room, pickup, mic placement or the instrument itself, some notes here boom uncontrollably, while others are barely audible. Kick and snare, likewise, disappear into the mix, and the kit as a whole sounds gutless and lacking in weight. The resulting sound could politely be described as 'rough and ready', and seems to exaggerate small timing discrepancies between bass and drums, so that the feel is often lumpy rather than locked‑in. If We Happy Few can find a way of sorting this out, they'll be able to do full justice to their material. Sam Inglis
Now this is a bit special. Libelula are like the White Stripes of electronica, insomuch as they are a male/female duo who share a surname but don't discuss their marital status. Musically, they take a well‑trodden electronica‑with‑dreamy‑female‑vocal path, but do so with rare skill. Sarah Villarous has a gorgeous voice, and deploys it to full effect over backing tracks that are by turns lush, brutal, sinister and atmospheric. You could soundtrack a year's worth of car commercials from the four tracks included on this EP. And I mean that in a good way. Sam Inglis
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This month's winners are Belle Tropez.
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