Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…
Dream Wife’s origins as a Spinal Tap-esque ‘fake band’ could’ve really come back to bite them if their debut wasn’t as good as it was. Indeed, that album still generally holds up today two years later, distinguishing itself from a lot of indie-punk of a similar tone thanks to riot grrrl energy mixed with the unmissably knowing coolness of bands like Sleigh Bells or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s also served as a tremendously solid springboard for them moving forward, not only with regards to acclaim but also in furthering the air of female empowerment that the band have become such fervent champions of. It’s also given them the wiggle room to expand and diversify their sound on their sophomore effort So When You Gonna…, now redistributing their sound to give their indie-pop side more representation within the mix. But for what seems like a workable idea on paper, So When You Gonna… ultimately winds up more like Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold, in an embrace of generally colder, more contemporary tones that sees a lot of the fire dulled emphatically. Granted, that isn’t the case for the entirety of the album, and Dream Wife do forge some workable moments, like the sharp shards of colour on Sports! and the rubbery Heart Of Glass riff on Hasta La Vista that both have a wealth of possibilities built into them. The desire to loosen some of the more rigid indie-punk boundaries is certainly laudable if nothing else, and at its most right, it leads to the fiery garage-rock of the title track and the utterly fantastic closer After The Rain, which looks to trend towards piano-driven classic rock balladry and does it brilliantly. But these moments make themselves clearer standouts because of how haphazardly Dream Wife take to a more modern pop-leaning style of production, like with the thinner, fiddly guitar plucks of Validation, the less powerful roundness of Homesick and Old Flame, or the very conspicuous synthetic percussion on Temporary that’s a harsh contrast within a generally light and airy song. Flexibility and versatility are certainly in mind, and Rakel Mjöll’s impressively malleable vocal performance does a lot to try and facilitate that, but it’s not something that sticks too much and generally leaves So When You Gonna… as feeling a bit inconsequential overall.
At least the writing can pull it back somewhat, in how Dream Wife haven’t watered themselves or their ethos down in any way, and there’s still a passion that comes through in feminism in a very triumphant and celebratory tone. Sports! feels like a good summation of that sort of joyousness and release, and with the bracing hook of RH RN and the coquettish playfulness of the title track, there’s an assertion of freedom and liberation that Dream Wife really can hit well. For as much as there are moments here without a great deal of weight (at least relatively), the sense of purpose in this album’s progression does need to be noted, particularly when it comes to After The Rain, the assertion on a woman’s bodily autonomy whose passion is underscored by the exasperation that the whole thing is still a discussion that needs to be had. The presence of a high of that calibre means it wouldn’t be fair to call this a failure in any sense, though it’s certainly transitional in ways that can’t be avoided. Dream Wife’s desire to expand themselves is clearly noted, but they haven’t quite reached a point where they’re fully there yet, moving incrementally towards that goal while still having ideas that need to be developed before they can really impress. So When You Gonna…’s best moments that already do a lot to really stand out. But right now, that isn’t the constant on this album, and for all the sounds and directions that Dream Wife are looking to incorporate, it can be difficult to escape the feeling that this could’ve done with a bit more time to fully nail their intentions and get the best results from them.
For fans of: Sleater-Kinney, Anteros, Sports Team
‘So When You Gonna…’ by Dream Wife is released on 3rd July on Lucky Number Music.
The Winter Passing – New Ways Of Living
Watching The Winter Passing not balloon into emo giants has been one of the more frustrating things associated with this genre recently. The potential has been there from the very beginning, with stunning compositional skills, melody construction and a seamless vocal dynamic between siblings Rob and Kate Flynn, and while those in the know haven’t been able to stop fawning over how fantastic this band is, the fact that hasn’t been replicated in the wider music world just seems profoundly unfair. That’s especially true when observing the fact that they’ve only gotten even better, as New Ways Of Living takes the tense, thunderous muscle that’s become the defining characteristic of US emo and alt-punk, pairs with the windswept bluster of the band’s Irish origins and crafts something truly great from those raw materials. The one immediate criticism is that maybe that’s not as consistently true as bands like The Menzingers or Spanish Love Songs with whom The Winter Passing can easily be placed in the same conversation as (such is the case with the twee child chants on Crybaby), but tracks like New York and Resist excel in how rugged and ragged their emotionality comes across, and simply how gigantic they sound as pieces of music. This is alt-punk where the alternative brings just as much to the table as the punk, be that in writing or the roughened bellow of the production, and it lends an unmistakably populist streak to The Winter Passing that really does benefit them.
What’s more, this is a band who know how to use their sense of dynamic to its fullest, particularly when it comes to the vocals. The pairing of Kate and Rob is frequently inspired, particularly when they’re allowed to weave around each other without too much of a rigid structure, but to be perfectly honest, it’s Kate who’s easily the standout presence here. She has the sweeter timbre that lets a poppier angle nestle into songs like Melt or Something To Come Home To without being disruptive in the slightest, and sinking back into vulnerability on I Want You with the ebbing, echoing guitar before breaking those walls down on the stellar closer Mind Yourself brings that dynamism back in a way that totally works. It’s certainly predictable and won’t come close to being the last time that a band of this stripe will pull off the same trick, but considering it works every single time with a sense of power and triumph that never seems to diminish, it’s nigh on impossible to hold that against The Winter Passing. They’ve tapped into the magic that sends so much great emo over the top into borderline untouchable territory, and even if the argument can be made that this isn’t the first time they’ve captured that spark, it’s the best they’ve ever sounded with it in hand. This is the sort of strong contender for the modern emo throne that shouldn’t go ignored or unrewarded, particularly for a band like this who’ve spent the best part of their career in that very situation. It’s time to give them a lot better.
For fans of: The Wonder Years, Nervus, Free Throw
‘New Ways Of Living’ by The Winter Passing is released on 3rd July on Big Scary Monsters.
Phoxjaw – Royal Swan
Even within the rankings of alt-rock bands whose crossover potential is more limited than most, Phoxjaw have often been faced with a starkly steep uphill battle when it comes to nabbing that wider appeal. It’s reminiscent of earlier Biffy Clyro at times, even before the hints of becoming the modern rock behemoths they are today began to peak through, and on both the Goodbye Dinosaur… and A Playground For Sad Adults EPs, Phoxjaw have found themselves holding onto musical acumen and intelligence as their main selling point, rather than anything that could be easily shaved off to fit more neatly into a mainstream box. And to be honest, not a lot has changed on Royal Swan, though that’s hardly a surprise given a relatively quick turnaround time of around a year and the proximity in sound that a lot of Phoxjaw’s material has maintained. They’re clearly in no rush to branch out of their weird little progressive post-hardcore niche, and that can simultaneously elevate Royal Swan, but also hold it back. For one, it’s still impressive to see how far Phoxjaw are willing to push themselves creatively, now trading off between more daring post-hardcore and sludgier, low-end moments that can be a bit predictably structured in the alternation, particularly in the album’s first half, but shows a band with a lot to offer when it comes to breaking conventionality. It’s definitely an album that uses that to convey a mood above everything else; hooks on Triple AAA and Infinite Badness are slotted into the mix, but it’s in moments like the whirling organ on Bats Are Bleeding that Phoxjaw shine the most, showing a willingness to lean into the density of it all and let their progressive chops shine through. In both the composition and production, punchiness and substituted out for an ominous thickness, and it can be a brilliant heady listen in the right mood.
That’s also the issue though, as it pins down Royal Swan as a particularly difficult album to get to grips with at any other time. It’s primarily a result of how much raw material Phoxjaw are trying to cram in here, to the point where they can’t reasonably contain the overspill that’s so clearly stretching their boundaries. It’s most noticeable in Danny Garland’s voice which can lack some necessary audibility pretty much across the board, and with as thick and attention-demanding as this album is, that can be hard to look past and does severely hinder how far it can take itself. There needs to be a certain amount of ironclad steadfastness with an album like this, and the fact that Royal Swan can often lack it doesn’t necessarily make it bad or boring, but it highlights how much the smaller confines of an EP could mitigate damage like this in comparison. That might sound like an unfair criticism, but it’s worth bringing up to highlight how good of a band Phoxjaw have the potential to be. Even on this album, flashes of that greatness are abundant, and the fact that they’re less concentrated by design than they have been previously is what ultimately lets Royal Swan down. It’s by no means a failure, but it highlights Phoxjaw’s limitations more prominently than any of their releases have to date, and while that’s a necessary step to achieve on the learning curve, it stings just a bit more when coming from a debut full-length. There will definitely be some for whom this is easier to ignore, and it’s still one of the more interesting alt-rock albums of the year, but the fact it could’ve been a lot more is still kind of disappointing on the whole.
For fans of: Biffy Clyro, At The Drive In, Black Peaks
‘Royal Swan’ by Phoxjaw is released on 3rd July on Hassle Records.
DITZ – 5 Songs
Another week, another upstart post-punk band riding off waves of buzz, except DITZ is a name that’s a bit more recognisable. Their particular hype has been easier to see play out over the past couple of years, especially with a number of singles built up by all the usual establishments, but actually seem to have paid off in forging a reputation as a genuinely exciting new band. You really get a sense of how true that is from 5 Songs too, effectively a compilation of those singles that showcases them in a fuller context, and serves as a more expanded piece of evidence for the promise that DITZ have displayed. For one, it’s definitely rougher and gnarlier than a lot of modern post-punk; the band’s origins in the hardcore scene are evident, given how easily the transposition between the two styles comes to them on the scuzzy grind of Seeking Arrangement, or Total 90 with its raucous discordance that’s borderline atonal in places, but always brings a bug-eyed thrill when those moments come. This is a band who wear their rough edges proudly, and Cal Francis’ misanthropic deadpan feeds into the idea even further of a bleaker, more unhinged representation of where this sort of post-punk is heading.
What’s more, there’s a believability to DITZ that a lot of their ilk can lack, and channelling a clearer picture of dirt-under-the-nails grimness makes their material feel even darker and more enclosed. Of course the penchant for being wry and out-and-out taking the piss lingers around (the thing ends with a Peaches cover, for God’s sake), but there’s genuine rage and violence that underscores the takedowns of bigots and homophobes on Gayboy and Total 90 that have such a consistent righteous energy. The balance between the two sides is a lot better than with a band like The Murder Capital, and DITZ feel a lot tighter and sharper because of that. It’s to a point where it’s genuinely surprising that this is a collection of loose singles rather than a ‘proper’ release, because the focus and single-mindedness that DITZ display really is impressive here. Perhaps they could do with a bit more flexibility to avoid some of their genre’s more restrictive pigeonholes, but for the time being, 5 Songs is evident of a band whose reputation for being something special could be justified much sooner rather later. This is definitely one to get excited about.
For fans of: Idles, Protomartyr, Bad Breeding
‘5 Songs’ by DITZ is released on 3rd July on Alcopop! Records.
Paper Mill – Past The West Way
Time has only gone to show more and more how ephemeral the wave of mid-2010s Britrock was, given that almost all of the stars of that scene are now gone, AWOL or have had their profiles severely deflated. And sure, that sort of polished, ready-for-radio fare had a very defined shelf life, it’s still somewhat surprising how few of those artists have used their pre-built leverage to move onto new musical ventures post their biggest successes. Up to now, Paper Mill are one of the few examples that spring to mind, the new band of ex-Lower Than Atlantis guitarist Ben Samson who really doesn’t seem to have let go of what he was doing with his old band, because Past The West Way has spades of Lower Than Atlantis DNA coursing through it, for better and for worse. It’s mainly for worse as well, because not only are the similarities on Past The West Way as blatant as can be, but it’s generally nowhere near as compelling as the sound of LTA at their prime that it’s trying to emulate. It’s not a bad thing that Paper Mill are looking to adopt a more rough-and-tumble approach to the Britrock formula (particularly when there’s even a dash of Hot Water Music-esque alt-punk thrown in on Bruce) but this branch of the Britrock sound just isn’t all that invigorating anymore, and the sort of progressions made on Dens In Your Front Room and Black Mirror sound like they were plucked from five years ago with negligible advancements made. It’s an EP that can be catchy when it wants to be, but that doesn’t count for as much as Paper Mill might think when everything else doesn’t sufficiently support it.
And sadly, that’s where Past The West Way falls so regularly, in that for as much of Lower Than Atlantis’ appeal as it wants to replicate, it’s doing so with incredibly broad strokes that don’t capture the details needed. As a vocalist, Matt Rider tries for the unkempt brashness that made Mike Duce such a recognisable personality, and even if his throatier pipes get some of the way there, the quality of writing that elevated that performance isn’t present on Past The West Way to do the same. Again, there are clear attempts to replicate Duce’s penchant for making cool lines and images out of the mundane on a track like Lock And Key (which subsequently does the most in that regard), but as has already been established with Paper Mill, they don’t go far enough, and thus songs about yearning for simpler past memories on Get Real and Dens In Your Front Room, or mental pressure in a turbulent world on Bruce and Standing On The Edge feel disappointingly boilerplate. It’s a very tried and rote sound that isn’t made less so by another iteration of it, and while the air of genuineness that radiates from Paper Mill makes it impossible to actively hate, it’s still worth recognising that this sort of rock isn’t going very far anymore, and even in its heyday, Paper Mill might’ve have a fairly rough uphill battle in front of them.
For fans of: Lower Than Atlantis, Mallory Knox, Decade
‘Past The West Way’ by Paper Mill is out now.
Lady Bird – Brainwash Machine Setting
An early association with Slaves was always going to place Lady Bird under some rather serious scrutiny. The fact they’ve been taken under the wing of a band whose brand of garage-punk is among the genre’s most limited and quick-to-decay is immediately a bad sign, and those concerns only keep coming when, up to now, a lot of Lady Bird’s sound seems to have been dictated by the sort of beats that Slaves have popularised. Probably the best thing that can be said about them in that regard is that Brainwash Machine Setting is looking to move from directly inside of Slaves’ shadow, but the issues of a band without a whole lot of longevity still prevail in a rather unavoidable way. At least Lady Bird aren’t quite as fixated on building every facet of their sound around crashing, knuckle-dragging minimalism, as themes of platonic male / female friendship on Got Lucky, imperialism on WWW. and the general societal dismissal of physical and mental overwhelm on BEEP BEEP are a bit more adventurous than broad politics and roughneck posturing. The wordier writing style also gives Sam Cox a bit more to do as a vocalist, in a move that actually justifies the snotty half-spoken, half-rapped delivery that’s largely likable in what it’s trying to do (even if the brighter hook of WWW. can sound almost unbearably obnoxious).
That at least shows a conscious effort to fill in some of the empty space that a sound this simplistic leaves by design, but it’s the inherent lack of dynamic within it that still makes Brainwash Machine Setting less than engaging. Instrumentally it’s not that far removed from Slaves at all with the grubby, scratchy guitar tone and emphasis on staccato progressions, but it’s all oddly quiet within the mix here, especially Joe Walker’s drums that desperately lack any sort of body or punch. This is already a minimalist sound, and reducing it down even further with a production job like this does no favours and only makes the whole thing seem weaker. And for a band like this, that kind of defeats the object; regardless of their relatively greater depth, Lady Bird are reliant on a bruising, everyman swagger, and paring that back to where the power that brings is weakened by such a stark amount (and ending the EP on the acoustic track Nice DLC which is fundamentally fine but, again, doesn’t fall in with the image trying to be conveyed) feels like a bafflingly counterintuitive move. That’s not saying that something louder or more raucous would’ve made this automatically better, though; Lady Bird are hardly testing the limitations of this style as it is, and regardless of how many more words they can cram in, the limitations are still pretty evident regardless of how it’s spun. It’s short enough to warrant a listen, if only for the taste, but just like Slaves before them, repeated listens aren’t something that Lady Bird can withstand, and it only makes the strains more evident.
For fans of: Slaves, Sports Team, Spring King
‘Brainwash Machine Setting’ by Lady Bird is out now on Purple Stains / JagerMusik.
Words by Luke Nuttall