Self-proclaimed as “Newcastle’s shortest band”; the quintet compensate with epic evocation- that will only leave you short of breath.
The Stream is available at:
TODAY’s topics of discussion will centre around northern bands, as well…
as the male voice. My eyes have stared towards northern skies, for quite a while now. I have developed a fascination with the region (as well as Scotland), due simply because of this: some of the best and brightest in music reside there. I have looked towards Manchester quite fondly, simply because of the rich history the city has. As well as Liverpool, it is considered a modern-day mecca of busy and ambitious talent: bands and artists whom will be lodged in the collective mind in years to come. Liverpool has its bands and acts; yet seems a little quiet and muted as of late. It is Manchester that seems to be producing some of the most excitable and fascinating acts. As well as being band-heavy, the area is producing a distinct ‘sound’- something that strays between Indie and Alternative. Whilst it is great to have some choice (and believe me there are masses of Mancunian bands) it seems that the overall sound seems to be stray into familiar territories. A lot of the front-men are portraying the Liam Gallagher/Alex Turner paradox: slurring and swagger aplenty. The sounds of the groups- as well as being guitar-focused- are largely heavy-edged, yet not too heavy: flirtations with heavy rock and hardcore are attempted, yet mostly we hear Indie flavours. Aside from the likes of The 1975- a band whom have supersede expectations and risen to the fore, due to their immense talent- are an exception that prove the rule. I feel that there are too many similar-sounding acts here: not in terms of the style of music perhaps, more the sound made by guitars and voice. Whilst it is great to have an Indie surge (it is a genre that produces some incredible acts), there seems to be less mobility and variation; compared to say, Yorkshire. Bradford are producing great duos like Issimo (Abi Uttley and Marc Ottway); Sheffield have a clasp of rock and indie bands, trying to follow in the footsteps of their idols Arctic Monkeys. In cities such as Leeds, labels such as Cuckoo Records are taking care of diverse and far-reaching talent. From swing and doo-wop revivalists such as Cissie Redgwick and Little Violet; gorgeous female solo sounds of Annie Drury; through to U.S. blues rock stylings from Johnnythefirth- the county as a whole seems to be painting its native colours quite brightly. I have postulated widely and regularly, as to why this sensation is happening: how certain counties vary in terms of quality and range. I suspect that the harry and density of the larger cities such as Manchester and Liverpool foster talent; all keen to emulate and pay tribute to their local idols. Considering the talent that has passed through these two cities, from the early ’60s (The Beatles), through to the relatively-modern-day (Oasis); the abiding sound of the new breed, tend to stray fairly closely to past sounds. The anxiety of modern-life as well influences the type of music made: predominantly busier and pulsating; filled with energy and sharper edges. Whilst the band markets are Indie-focused and male-dominated, there is a swell and over-proliferation of talent: making it hard to detect and highlight the best of the crop. Yorkshire has greater arable climbs; a comparative lack of inner-city hostilities and fewer constraints. The acts here are less compartmentalised, and collaborations and cross-pollination is more common. Newcastle and the North East is a region that has produced its share of talent. If you consider Newcastle (as well as the conurbation of Tyneside) AC/DC’s Brian Johnson; Dire Straits; Maximo Park and Bryan Ferry hail from here. Hell, even Jimi Hendrix spent a lot of the ’60s busking in Newcastle! Modern up-and-comers such as Nadine Shah are going some way to putting Newcastle ‘on the map’; yet the band market seems quiet at the moment. Whilst the quality of the city’s current crop is extremely high; the output is not as fervent as that of other parts. When acts such as Crooked Hands come along, it is always more fascinating: seeing what the sound of the modern-day North East is. In the same way that geographical diversification has spiked my interest, the nature of the male voice is also a subject of intrigue. The northern band scene- by-and-large- is synonymous with a rich and enthusiastic sound. The tones can range from chocolate-coated to slightly-gravelled; tending to be energised and persuasive: a combination that is applicable to the core of northern bands. I am always fascinated when something unique and unexpected happens. Namely, when a group can fuse together an exciting and enrapturing sound: tying this sound to a voice that is stunning- and stunningly different. Whilst the solo artists tend to receive the majority of kudos- with regards to the potency of the voice- bands tend to have to settle for close-seconds.
Dubbing themselves as “Newcastle’s shortest band”, a sense of humour is evident. They are not exactly homunculus; yet are not Queens of the Stone Age-tall. For the last few weeks, I have reviewed a surprising amount of bands with the word ‘the’ in their name. Crooked Hands sense of originality and surprise stretches far behind their choice of band name. Christopher Brown, Liam Smith, Robbie Houston, Nick Blaszczysyyz (I can imagine how often he has to spell out his surname) and Tom Booth are out endeavouring quintet. Although the guys play within the Indie/Alternative realm; their reputation seems to have been built on differing pillars. As well as their true and unflinching sound: encapsulating and memorable; it is their front-man whom has been garnering a lot of praise. The likes of KYEO.tv and Generator have noted at the exceptional soulfulness and shiver-down-your-spine etherealness of the voice. Being inspired by the likes of Sigur Rós and Grizzly Bear, it is perhaps not hugely surprising that vocal potency and projection is high up the list. In the way that the front-man’s has gravelled tones, that can mutate into spectacular soul evocations; it is a weapon and facet that Crooked Hands have utilised- and has got them some seriously impressive reviews. The other four chaps are certainly not second-fiddle: their talent and contributions are what make the band’s music stand out and stick in the memory. Many may be unfamiliar with the band: the guys have been quietly honing their sound, and electrifying local audiences; making their presence cemented in the North East. Whilst the groups of the North West are noted their similar-sounding nature; Crooked Hands are doing the North East proud: at the core of a scene noted for its evocative and spellbinding artists. I was staggered and stunned by Nadine Shah’s voice and songs not too long ago- a woman whom can produce eerie and haunting songs about the day-to-day. Shah’s Pakistani-cum-Norwegian heritage; combined with a rich group of influences, has been making some impressive waves: many critics are hailing her as a serious talent to watch. Crooked Hands are adding their unique flavours into the boiling pot of the North East- Manchester and London take note! With over 500 Twitter ‘followers’; 842 Facebook ‘Likes’ the group have an impressive (if slightly modest) following: one which is going to burgeon and expand over the coming months. Cracking the band market; making your way to the top of the pile, and swimming through music’s waves; can be tiring and near-impossible. With the increasing quantity and compaction of the modern scene; combined with the ease with which music can be shared and downloaded, it is an on-going battle to win ground: pull in fans, and get your music heard far and wide, and remembered appropriately. I have surveyed many acts whom I have been impressed by, yet know that they have a limited life-span. In the case of our five-piece, a tenure will be guaranteed: due to their individuality and work ethic. Their biography sections are sparse and to-the-point: making them accessible yet not too disposable. Our boys have an impressive online coverage; having managed to earn fans and stripes from all across the U.K. (and further afield). With connections to Glasgow and the Scottish music scene, the guys are steeped in quality and conviction; and modest about their achievements. Recently The Line of Best Fit profiled the boys; highlighting their fist-pumping and supernatural aesthetes. As well as mentioning their parables of densely-textured alt-rock outpourings; they were filled with praise about the single Under. The song was featured in the U.S. drama 90210 (and an impressive feat; a below-par show); with the publication heaping praise towards the song’s Bon Iver nature: For Emma, Forever Ago-esque swooping and swooning vocals; guaranteed to shiver the spine. Whilst it has been ear-marked as a defining sound and song for the band; plenty of attention has been heaped upon The Stream’s banks. Riparian serenity, wave-rushed energy and cooling sips enforce the track’s core; whilst its power will pull you in; drag you under; and drag you away. Chris Brown’s men are keen to make big impressions. The Stream is the first taste of their upcoming E.P., Penitentiary. It has been slated for early 2014, and in the meantime, its first-born is making its voice heard- loud and very, very clear.
When approaching any song(s); having familiarised myself with the band: their codas, ambitions and background, I separate these facts from the music: judging the sound on its own merits. Newcastle is very much folk-centric at the moment, orientated around a scene that favours softer and tender sounds; so I was expecting something that tied these lines. Gently mesmeric acoustic guitar arpeggios soundtrack early scenes, offering sights such as: “dirty faces in the mud” and “All of lives/Raised by wolves”. Our hero’s voice is impassioned and gentle: drawing your mind to the log cabin landscapes of Justin Vernon. Whilst there are touches of Bon Iver, as well as Jónsi (of Sigur Rós; sans ‘Hopelandic’ oddity); our hero’s voice has touches of the legends of the ’60s and ’70s (Gram Parsons; Crosby, Still and Nash)- although you would not pick up on influences unless you were quite anally-retentive. Such is the striking originality of the voice, it is near-impossible to compare it to someone else’s. A fair few modern-day solo troubadours present a sensitive and haunting vocal projection; yet few stick in the memory in the same way. Whilst you are settled into The Stream’s initial wistful and touching peacefulness; the tide soon changes. Words expounding “Father’s cruelty…” lead-in a rush that is a startling sea change. Now, we are cast under the spell of twanging and swelling guitar lines (that could easily fit into Portishead’s Third). The percussive clashes and crashes, seemingly acting as a metaphor- as do the guitars and bass. At first the water was calm and safe: we lay on our back in the sun, floating serenely down stream. Acoustic guitars and a gorgeous voice eased us along stream; navigating turns and twists- promising a memorable and uneventful afternoon. With little warning, a bow wave washes over; you fight for breath and struggle as the current dares you drag you under. There is a moodier and darker edge: storm clouds, rain and inner turmoil unleash a forbidding weather- both persistent in its intention, yet measured and rhythmic in its sound. Before our front-man returns to the mic. (to survey the scene), the rattle and lightning of the guitar and bass-combined with an epic and spiky percussive smash- is a cold splash of water to the face. When Brown returns to the fold, his voice is reliably convincing and touching: going from a whispered seduce, through to a heady rush. With the central vocal and the hallmark sounds: guitars that go from arpeggio, to twang; through to metronomic brood; bass and percussion that shivers and shakes, there are flavour notes of Sigur Rós, as well as Two Dancers/Smother-era Wild Beasts. I particularly love the almost quiet-loud dynamic of the song. You can never really sense what is around the corner, as the song swings its mood and force so quickly (and unsuspected); it takes you by surprise. When lines are disseminated (“I loved you/But it was not enough” for example) the vocal rises and falls gracefully, as the band inject an energetic riffling of emotion; mixing percussion, bass, guitar, (and jubilant) piano. ‘Anthemic’ and ‘epic’ are hardly hyperbolic, when describing the song. It is the constant energy and shifting, that gives it such a relentless gravity and snowballing effect. Sharply deployed musical parables are unleashed with nary a warning: lasting a few seconds before retreating. The vocal can shift from a measured and playful (?) nature; before a word is held- repeated and redeployed to provide maximum emotional resonance. Mood and the nature of atmosphere seem important to Crooked Hands. Lesser- and in fact, most- bands would keep with a single line or thought (maybe deviating slightly), yet our quintet constantly keep energy and intrigue at the fore. One would have the Devil’s time trying to keep up with the shape-shifting and mood-switching evocations. By 2:44 a gorgeous and romantic guitar coda is presented- with shades of Five Leaves Left-era Nick Drake). It is a calm-before-the-storm-after-the-storm break; and one which allows our hero to sing; layer his voice and harmonise with himself- creating a mini-choir; a round robin of etherealness. I may have misheard the line (at times the intelligibility of a line gets lost in the sound); but “Out in my eyes” is repeated mantra-like (the band will forgive me if I have misquoted slightly). With a brief piano-led bridge, a final swell of emotion and mood is whipped up: a last wave that brings you back to life, and deposit you safely onto the riverbank- where you lie in the sun, stunned at what has happened. The Stream never really lets up, when it comes to suspense and unexpectedness. I hate the over-employment of the word ‘epic’; yet is seems very apt and apropos when summarising Crooked Hands’ approach. The song contains at least five or six distinct sections; blending and existing within one another; mutation and evolving to create strange and wonderful surprises. Like modern classics such as Paranoid Android, the pace and fascination is planted by the song’s multi-part mood shift. Our hero drapes his voice around the song’s lyrics; going from a softer and more tender side, to a soulful burst of passion. It is an instrument and facet that is striking, bold- and above all- distinct. Homogenisation and over-familiarity are bywords one thinks of, when considering (vocals) from bands of the North West (not that I am on a downer; it is just an observation). Our front-man’s silky tones and seductive charm give the track a sense of energy and momentum, that is nobly galvanised by the band. As the song does leap from phase to phase- tenterhooks are indeed baited and dangled in choppy waters- the guys are constantly on top of the situation. Bursts of sound are stuffed with rampant percussion, stormy guitars, and evocative piano and bass; lighter and darker shades are mixed to elicit a heady brew. Whilst not in the same mould or league as Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece, it is a key and worthy comparison; as few bands attempt anything that have the same sort of potency. The Stream is a tantalising and atmospheric cut, that hints at what their future E.P. will sound like. Whereas previous singles such as Under are available- and possessed of the same sort of brilliance as The Stream– the quintet are constantly pushing themselves to improve and grow; keep their sound pure, but improve from song-to-song.
It is hard to fault the band, or hint at constructive criticisms. At times it is hard to decipher some of the lyrics (apologies if I have quoted incorrectly): the strength and force of the composition does overwhelm the vocal at times- maybe bringing the voice higher and clearer in the mix would counteract the issue, and keep the potency high. I have heard only a couple of the band’s tracks; yet am already compelled to dig further; find out more and discover- they could well be one of the best bands of the moment. As much as kudos and celebration has been levied at Brown’s pipes, the entire band deserve equal credit; as each play an integral and vital role. I have longed bemoaned about how difficult it is locating great bands (without a lot of luck and help). Social media as well as music channels and avenues need to tighten and improve, so that it is easier for the likes of me (as well as the general music-lover) to locate bands such as Crooked Hands. With the disposals there are at hand, and the amount of resources available, there seems no excuse for such issues- we are in 2013, not 1997. The proliferation and unabated rise of social media is making it easier for stranger to connect (as well as friends), yet there is not a comparative music site. I have been formulating a website that can take care of all of the needs and necessities not currently offered; and have been stymied and depressed by the lack of appropriate network and social websites for musicians. Anyway… before I go on an interminable rant, my point is, that too much vanilla and sub-par music is shoved in our faces; where as serendipity and dumb luck are required when happening upon golden nuggets. For now (and until I can bash some heads together) I am grateful to have ‘come across’ the Newcastle five-piece. They may joke (I think) about their shortness/hirsute nature; yet what they lack in terms of height, they make up for it in stature. Newcastle may be renowned still for its folk scene; yet Indie and gothic pop artists such as Nadine Shah and our five-piece are diversifying the scene, and making sure that a wealth of new (and different) talent are noticed. There is still too much focus on Manchester, Liverpool and (God knows why), London, when looking at new music and acts. Whilst the likes of Manchester promise enough, the most electrifying and memorable music is found in less-obvious spots. When Crooked Hands unleash their new E.P., and gather some more reviews and plaudits; they surely will have venue managers and festival owners at their feet. What with the sheer mass of new music- unregulated and free to roam- it is vital to proffer and raise the great (and bury the bad). If Crooked Hands’ pace and potential continues like it has, then they will be making some serious impressions in the future. The Stream is an intent and modern anthem; with sharp and atmospheric lyrics; stunning composition and a memorable central voice. It is the tight kinship of the five boys, as well as the tight sound, which make their songs seem effortless- as well as infused with sweat, tears and blood. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote (in the poem, The Eagle): “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands”. The lands (of similarly-proportioned bands) may be lonely; the current scene may seems like an azure world (underwhelming); yet our Newcastle men should fear not: the sun will not burn or harm…
IT will help them grow and flourish; high above the current crowd.