This compilation is the result of a project set up by the Dutch label Animal Language. They describe it as "an experiment in gadget withdrawal”, and it's very good indeed.
Basically, get all your eager-to-please, music-making gadget mongers together, take their toys away, and tell them to make a record. They were left with nothing but a drum machine, and the result is a lesson in the creative potential of restraint.
OK, so I've made it sound as dull as dinner with Chris de Burgh, but it actually stretches the artists to make their music exciting and fresh, where previously they might just have given up on the drum machine and layered over the top something a little more tuneful.
To my ears, the project is an absolute triumph. Sure, you can't get away from the fact that everything is still just made from a drum machine, and it sounds it, but there's a certain competition that seems to have built up between the bands that adds to the life of the EP, and drives them on to ever more inventive places.
It's a lesson to us all really, not just electronic musicians. We all have the potential to become over-enthusiastic as bedroom producers, and the Playback archive certainly houses a lot of evidence of needless over-complication.
My particular favourite is 'Bam Bam' by Douze (sadly not a cover of the Sister Nancy classic of the same name), whose hair-comb-like waveform on Soundcloud should give you some idea of what it sounds like. In 'Dopler Beat' the Sneekers briefly discover 6/8, while also disguising it as four-to-the-floor (you'll have to take my word for that), and manage to make it sound great.
I'd be surprised if those involved haven't been inspired by the possibilities they no doubt discovered whilst working on this project. And that's quite an achievement. Nell McLeod
First impressions count for a lot, and while this album is, largely, very good, its commercial success will probably hinge on which track people with less time on their hands than me start with. This, I think, is a consequence of the way in which independent artists distribute their music these days. A physical CD makes it very likely indeed that your listener will start with what you want them to start with. And with so many different methods of delivering your music digitally, via the likes of Bandcamp or Soundcloud, there is no longer a convention for forcing the listener to experience a particular journey through your music.
For example, when I opened the Bandcamp page via which the album was submitted to Playback, it automatically loaded the album halfway through at 'Take Me In Your Arms (I Shiver)'. I couldn't say that this song has a bad intro, just that it has so many different intros. And so, as I moved onto the next, 'Pinprick', I was left with the expectation of total inconsistency and uncertainty.
Lucky for Steve, then, that my afternoon would otherwise have consisted of spinning in my chair and trying different hats on (I jest, of course; the SOS Editorial office is alive with activity!), so I was willing to put my reservations aside and listen to the whole thing, albeit with a certain wariness.
'Pinprick', in fact, is a gorgeous song, as are several from the album, which veers quite a lot from alt-country to all-out rock, leading me to suspect that my first impression of indecisiveness wasn't too far off the mark. Almost all have a healthy amount of electric lead guitar and strumming rhythm, gently rocked along by the required bass and drums. Steve's voice has a lovely quality, and his melodies are inventive and pretty.
My main criticism, then, isn't really levelled at the album, more the delivery. But I do have some musical reservations, specifically, that the instrumentation doesn't do justice to Steve's compositional skill. His songs can be clever and catchy, but his instrumentation is, at times, tired and predictable. That sounds like quite a criticism, which is a shame, because, at its core, this has the potential to be a great album. Nell McLeod
Bark Prelude seems to me the sort of hypothetical band name you might entertain with a wry smile for about half a second, before thinking 'Nah, that's rubbish.' Since this lot actually call themselves Bark Prelude, they presumably see something in it that I don't. Maybe they are all tree surgeons by day, or perhaps they run a dog sanctuary?
The slightly grating whimsy that underlies the name and title is given full flow in Bark Prelude's music, which is described as "Divine Comedy meets Ben Folds”. In practice, this seems to mean that (a) they play piano, and (b) they value jauntiness above all other musical qualities. They're always ready to adopt silly voices, sing barbershop, play castanets or add mariachi trumpet solos, and the inevitable result is to push their music into the realms of the novelty record. This tendency is exacerbated by the production, which trades the organic feel of Folds' music for a slightly plastic, hyped quality that gets tiring to listen to.
By far the best track on the album is a plaintive piano ballad called 'Swedish Snow', and it's no coincidence that it's the only song where Bark Prelude keep things simple. Elsewhere, the endless musical and lyrical gimmicks serve mainly to obscure any emotional impact the songs might otherwise have had. I think Bark Prelude would be a better band if they had the confidence to play it straight more often. And if they weren't called Bark Prelude. Sam Inglis
There's a certain sense of Coldplay circa-2000 about this, perhaps more so if you replaced Chris Martin with a less-shouty Brandon Boyd (of Incubus fame? You know!). And I really hope that the Coldplay part of the album is blatant enough that this comment is not taken as an insult, because it's not meant to be — I bought Parachutes, and listened to it several times!
I also bought all of Incubus' albums, which leads me to the conclusion that I'm not really describing this band, but describing a band that reminds me of 13 years ago, and maybe that says more about it than a detailed review ever could.
I hope Abbotsford's gig-goers see through the somewhat out-of-vogue setup here, because the songs and musicianship are lovely. And just because it reminds me of a time when you could still smoke in pubs, that isn't reason enough not to appreciate it for the skill it displays. Nell McLeod
Patawave's first album makes for a frustrating experience. It maintains a pretty relentless 120bpm throughout, and takes a 40-minute journey through a not-particularly-large library of cheesy soft-synths.
What makes this so frustrating is that, just when you think Patawave is about to hit upon a musical theme of some kind, he almost wilfully moves sharply away from it. If this is deliberate, I hope he finds enough people who share his passion for the amorphous that he gains a healthy audience.
A rare glimpse at sub-100bpm gave me momentum to continue to the end, but it soon became clear that this was literally just a slowing down of what had gone before and was, as such, even more aimless.
The lack of structure is a real pity, actually, because Patawave has obviously decided to embrace the sounds he likes on this album. It would have been nice to hear him really bring out what he enjoys about them, rather than just hear them all at the same time. Incidentally, those sounds are mainly the kind you might find on an unfathomable Japanese computer game. And there's definitely some essence of Street Fighter in there. In fact, if I assume that Patawave is about my age, and grew up playing the same relatively primitive consoles that I did, the name Planet Memory starts to make sense.
And at the end of all this, I realised I had actually really enjoyed it. I can't say that it was quality or inventiveness that brought me round, more that 40 minutes of it made me understand Patawave's world a bit more. And it turns out that his world is quite a happy (if hypnotic) place. Nell McLeod
The glass-half-full way in which this album starts sets the tone for the rest. Even if it's not all plain sailing, there's a pleasing jolliness to Ancient Lights that feels like a rare treat.
It's folk in the sense that James Taylor or Cat Stevens could be described as such: strumming and plucking acoustics, subtly incorporated guests on banjo and pedal steel, and even the occasional trumpet. This is all tasteful and sweet, if a little on the twee side, but some aspects of the production represent questionable decision making, in my opinion. Synth parts crop up occasionally that feel unnecessary and cheesy, for example.
Generally, I do like this, but I feel like some padding has gone on that's distracted the project from its core material. I don't think it's a masterclass in songwriting, either, but the enthusiasm is tangible, and for that Vincent deserves praise. The origami-like packaging suggested from the outset that this was a labour of love and, by the sounds of it, Vincent's gigging regime over the last few years are testament to that, also. He deserves some success for that alone, so good luck to him, I say. Nell McLeod
Ah, they're all 21 — OK, now I get it. Still, it's a risky title, and one that they don't still want to be peddling at pub gigs in 20 years' time. I doubt that's what's in store for Arabella, though. Purveying distinctly funky, vibrant rock, of a Maroon 5 type, these lot are well on the road to success. Despite their youth, this is a sophisticated project that plays to their strengths, and demonstrates some real talent. Also, having been made 21-year-olds, there's a pleasing cheekiness to the package, which is very appealing.
It's not musically groundbreaking, but who cares when the songs are this catchy? Nell McLeod