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THESE ARE THE BRAKES
Turin Brakes are a difficult band to define. Their sound tends to resist convenient classification, with the closest description being "acoustic folk rock". On their debut in 2001, they were credited in the press as being proponents of the "new acoustic movement" - which, given there was only one other act that merited the label (The Kings of Convenience) - turned out to be an ultimately meaningless moniker, symptomatic perhaps of the media's obsession with pigeonholing.
Whatever you want to call them, this two piece out of Balham, South London, have a habit of producing consistently quality music. Their sound is certainly unique, depending on simple instrumentation, superior storytelling, thoughtful lyrics and beautiful arrangements masterfully brought to life by Olly Knights unmistakeable voice. I have been hooked on the band since their outstanding first album "The Optimist" which has one of my favourite ever songs "The Door". Conventional wisdom has it that have never quite lived up to the promise of that impressive debut.
Conventional wisdom is an ass.
"Outbursts", released on 1st March 2010 is Turin Brakes fifth studio album, their first on the Cooking Vinyl label and the follow-up to "Dark on Fire" in 2007. The album has so far spawned one single - "Sea Change" - preceding the album by a few weeks and featuring the B-side "Heaven Is A Clear Horizon". The album has met with a mixed popular and critical reception, very much confirming the band's tendency to polarise opinion. They have a loyal, cult following. Their fans tend to love their music almost unconditionally, and think those who don't "just don't get it".
The band consists of duo Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian, who have been friends since childhood (Gale is a bloke in case you were wondering). Knights is the primary vocalist and songwriter, with Paridjanian providing the harmonies. Both play acoustic guitars, and the band draft in musicians to provide additional instrumentation.
Their name - Turin Brakes - is meaningless, consisting of two unconnected words that the pair thought sounded good - well, better than "Olly & Gale" or "Two Mates With Guitars" anyway. The album is currently available on CD and MP3 formats from the usual e-tailers. I downloaded mine from Amazon for an astonishing £3.00 for the whole album (as opposed to £8.99 for the CD). As such, I can't comment on the CD insert.
> The Sea Change
"It's just your back against the wall, now do you walk or run. Remember when you were a kid? those days are all but gone."
The first song on the album opens with the duo strumming on their acoustic guitars, introducing us to an upbeat, jaunty, catchy melody, with Olly eventually chiming in with his distinct vocals. The track gently begins to build. First with Paridjanian's harmonies, then with a subtle kick drum, before being completely swept up in an impressive wave of soaring strings. The song gains in power, depth and volume as it progresses, in contrast to Olly's lyrics, which are counting backwards - starting with "six billion backs against the wall" and ending with one individual when the song ends. As the title suggests, the song is arguably about facilitating change, but the lyrics are ambiguous. It's a cracking intro to the rest of the album.
> Rocket Song
"This love is a rocket bound for the stars..."
After getting comfortable with Knights voice in the first two tracks, it comes as a small shock to find Paridjanian take the lead in Rocket Song. His vocal style is not nearly as distinct as that of his partner, so it comes as a minor relief when Knights chimes in, initially playing second fiddle, before easing his long-time friend aside and completely taking over. Ostensibly a love song, it starts out with characteristic guitar chords and lyrical wordplay before providing the listener with a sumptuous, joyously rising chorus that enfolds like a warm blanket.
> Paper Heart
"Nothing has changed, only paper landscapes ripped and re-arranged by an angry girl, this torn paper world."
A stripped back song with a close, intimate feel to it, which starts out with just simple guitars and Knight's plaintive, almost androgynous voice, before an evocative piano and strings interlude ratchets up the passion and emotion. A lovely little song about an uneven relationship between two people, one of whom pushes, cajoles and manipulates the other into unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations rather like moving a paper figure around a paper stage. It puts me in the mind of a little girl playing with a doll's house. The singer, as the doll, sounds powerless to do anything but go with the flow. The song has a memorable, haunting melody and beautiful instrumental arrangements which linger in the mind rather like a shot of whiskey warms the insides on the way down.
> Will Power
"You are turning from a whisper into a scream..."
By now, the listener should be familiar with the band's MO of building tracks, brick by brick, from the simplest and most basic of foundations, ratcheting up the power and angst, adding in more and more instruments, and topping out with ever more earnest vocals and harmonies, to ultimately deliver a satisfying and involving pay-off. This is another one of those tracks, and despite the risk that these songs will ultimately sound too similar, somehow, the band manage to imbue each with an individual identity. This song will not immediately catch you, but rather like a cat toying with a ball of yarn, eventually it grabs you and sucks you in.
> Never Stops
"Sing another song for me, fill your lungs with history..."
I have a thing for songs that start with "1,2,3" (one of my favourites being "Catch" by the Cure). They tend to portend raw, stripped back songs and Never Stops" certainly qualifies. Unlike many of the other tracks, the song stays pretty much on the same musical level throughout with only Knight's voice left to power the song along. This bluesy song harkens back to Turin Brakes in their earlier days before they started experimenting with complex musical arrangements and sweeping harmonies. This track is a good barometer of whether you will get on with this lot - it's the core of their sound.
> Radio Silence
"Have you ever had your heart broke? Have you ever tasted the sweet smoke?"
From the simplicity of Never Stops, the album graduates to a more classic rock sound with Radio Silence, which has more than a hint of the psychedelic Bowie and Beatles about it. It coasts along, in typical style, but just when you think it has ended, up pops a totally unexpected crescendo of noise as the band rock out with a nod in the direction of 70's prog rock. I found it jarring the first time I heard it, but it has grown on me since, providing an unlikely Wayne's World head-banging moment from the least likely of sources.
A WORTHY OUTBURST?
"Outbursts" is an accomplished effort with several stand-out tracks, but it won't be to everyone's taste. Turin Brakes are rightly critically acclaimed for their musicianship and subtle and interesting lyrics, but they are a niche band with an extremely loyal fan base - a fan base with a dilemma. Whilst they clearly want the band to get the recognition they deserve, they also fear too much success will spoil them. The band are currently on a tour of small venues in support of the album, and given their folksy, intimate sound, it seems the right level for them.
The move from the Source record label to the smaller, niche Cooking Vinyl label has clearly stood them in good stead. There was a feeling that their creative direction and style was being influenced a bit too much by commercial concerns, a state of affairs that fettered their talent and sound and led to observations that they were yet another promising band that had lost its way, failing to fulfil their undoubted potential. Having recently dabbled with song writing for others (notably providing Take That with "Here" - a bonus track on the 2008 "The Circus" album) "Outbursts" represents a welcome return to form for the Balham-based duo.
Although not quite at the same level as the outstanding debut album "The Optimist", this thoughtful work - a slow burner - deserves to do well. Parts of it can be a bit samey, and one or two tracks suffer in comparison to the high points. However, along with the six tracks picked out above, "Mirror" and "Apocolips" are also worthy of special mention. The eponymous track, a thoughtful ballad, seems oddly placed, as the energetic "Radio Silence" would have been a more logical bookend with the outstanding opening song.
On first listen, I was worried that the rest of "Outbursts" would fail to live up to the cracking opening number "The Sea Change". Whilst the rest of the bunch don't quite hit those heady heights, they more than hold their own. At the ridiculously low download price of £3.00 it almost seems like getting something for nothing. I'm not arguing, and neither should you.
FULL TRACK LISTING
1. The Sea Change (4:02)
2. Mirror (2:56)
3. Rocket Song (3:23)
4. Paper Heart (3:46)
5. Invitation (3:29)
6. Will Power (3:59)
7. Apocolips (3:39)
8. Embryos (3:11)
9. Never Stops (4:11)
10. Letting Down (4:03)
11. Radio Silence (4:06)
12. Outbursts (5:07)
© Hishyeness 2010
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Sea Change
3 Rocket Song
4 Paper Heart
5 Invitation, The
6 Will Power
9 Never Stops
10 Letting Down, The
11 Radio Silence