Lay Your Heart.
Lay Your Heart is available from:
The extended E.P. Howl is available via:
The Danish troubadour has the looks to distract; but don’t let that allay your focus. This 25-year-old offers sounds that soothe, seduce and stun- in equal measures.
WHEN I have looked ahead at what this year might offer us, a number of things…
Have stuck in my mind. The previous year has seen a spread of different genres and acts; each one offering something a little different. Within the quadruple intersections of the ‘new music Venn Diagram’, only a few acts have been seen within. It is not that all new music is- at best- mediocre: I have found that it takes a little time for the acts to bed in and get comfortable. I suspect that the following 12 months will see these musicians grow in confidence; burst high from the soil- and present songs filled with confidence and focus. I have postulated recently that it is the established acts that still accomplish the most (and have the highest quality music in their locker). New music is the progeny of what has come before and what we hear today, and if the future of music is to flourish unabated and produce the most distinctive offspring, then a few things need to occur. I have found that from what I have surveyed over the last year, a few patterns are starting to form. From the band side of things, there still seems to be some copycat posturing happening. Bands from the north- Liverpool, Manchester etc.- have still got it into their heads that the world needs a slew of Arctic Monkey wannabes. I am being harsh and a little all-sweeping, but there are still too many new bands that have so little originality and difference. If you are going to rip-off an established act, then you have to better them. None of the bands I featured (I shall not name-and-shame) could get to within touching distance of Alex Turner’s incredible lyricism and poetic glory. The overall sounds and songs seemed third-rate and lumpen. When I clawed through the greay sludge, there were some great alternatives on offer. I have mentioned the likes of Univeral Thee, ISSIMO and Crystal Seagulls a lot; and with very good reason. Here are three examples of what can be achieved if you break away from the norm.- and present your own colours and ideals. My recent feature-ees Los & the Deadlines- an international band based in London- have started the year with fierce intention. Their hints of Queens of the Stone Age and Led Zeppelin are the foundations of a hypnotic and pummeling intensity. Their music focuses on less heard-of topics, ranging from the wastefulness of social media; the financial crisis; tableaux of local alcoholism as well as caffeiene-fuelled delirium. All of their subjects- whether concerned with inebriation or poverty are infused with nuance and memorability. Their playing is tight and heavy; yet incorporated with softness and melody. Here is a group that are going on to big things in 2014, and will be playing many gigs beyond London. If the sound of their latest E.P. is anything to go by, then their crucible of monumental sound can genuinely challenge the musical cognoscenti and royalty. I feel that the band market will fare well this year as a whole- if one subjugates and rejects the factions of mindless drones. What I am more ambivalent and tentative towards is the fate of the solo market. As I write this, Sam Smith has been crowned BBC’s ‘Sound of 2014’ champion. I was brought to Smith’s shores by a friend of mine (Fran Galea) whom pay tribute to Smith’s smooth and sensational voice. His songs of unrequited love and longing are nothing new, yet the pivotal centrifuge certainly is: think of another vocalist whom has the same sound and effect. Smith certainly has the vocal prowess to make an impact, and create many new fans- when his new E.P./album is released. There is a sense of malaise in the back of my mind. Not mentioning the fact that when the BBC proclaims something as the ‘Sound of…’ it seems to be a poisoned chalice; and a sure sign that act will be hated (they said that Jessie J was one of the best acts around for Christ’s sake!). There is a bigger anxiety lodged in the back of my mind. When you think of solo acts, the only way that augmentation and longevity are achieved is through diversity, a restless mobility- as well as a palette that is multifarious and surprising. I just feel that Smith will burn out all too soon. His voice is his weapon of choice, and it will intoxicate over the course of an album (or maybe two). I just feel that we have seen too many singers that have been proclaimed and lofted high- only to capitulate and fade away. The only way Smith will see albums two, three (and beyond) is by stretching his voice; diversifying his themes and subjects; as well as making sure the accompanying sonic evocations are fresh and interchangeable. As much as I have faith in Smith’s ability, you know what: I don’t think he will be popular in a few years. I hope I am wrong, yet have seen (in my 30 years) all-too-many similar acts that have started with promise, only to recede into the annals of retrospection. My reticence is vulnerable to disambiguation it is a real and clear warning. If the solo sector is to produce acts that are capable of inspiring others as well as staying in the memory, then there needs to be a paradigm shift. When I looks about the solo stars that have inspired me, I find that most of these icons are ‘older’ stars. I am thinking of artists such as Bjork, Kate Bush, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and the like. In the last decade or so there has been no one that has really measured up to the merits of the aforementioned: a disturbing and potent forewarning. The above acts all have terrific and unique voices, yet they offer so much more. Bush and Bjork have what can be described as a ‘kookiness’, yet their compositions are diverse and wonderful. They cover themes that deal with transcendence, afterlife, teenage love; human behaviour and horror are also included. In their projections, they incorporate orchestras, strange sounds as well as organic beauty as well as having personalities that are hard to ignore. Jackson was a prodigious and genius songwriter that was not content to stay still and rest on his laurels. He had the intelligence to ensure that his sounds and mannerisms were going to be near-impossible to replicate and match. The same can be seen with Dylan as well, whom (perhaps axiomatically) was- and is- one of the greatest lyricists ever to have lived. These wonders are not unstoppable monsters of music- everyone can aim to their heights. The point I am making is that all of these artists have more than just the voice to enthrall. I shall leave aside the complicated issue of Mr. Smith, and conclude my opening thesis. The solo realm is one of the toughest and most challenging arenas there is. In order to maintain public focus and ensure future prosperity, then you cannot rely on a single facet (or even two) and think that you will have long-term success. The band market will always be popular, and- in spite of the ineptitude often seen- the overall force, sound and range offered up supersedes that seen in the solo market. I feel that this year can see a slight improvement in terms of the imbalance we see- but clear lessons need to be learned; vast carbon footprints need to be made in order to create new legends of song.
Perhaps offering some atonement and food for thought, is Alex Vargas. I shall delve into our subject’s biography and lineage a little further on, yet want to make one point now. One of my biggest joys that I experienced (when reviewing new music) was the artists of Cuckoo Records. I am in frequent communication with one of its founders, Phil Cass, and have had the pleasure of receiving emails from him- with tracks attached from a Cuckoo artist. For those familiar with these pages, you will have encountered a few examples from this Leeds-based stable. Last year I reviewed the likes of Little Violet and Cissie Redgwick. These two stunning females brought something very unique to the table. The duo incorporated swing and jazz elements into their music. Aside from Caro Emerald, these sounds have not been heard much since the ’40s and ’50s. It is perhaps no surprise that the tones of swing, electro-swing and jazz have remained in the past. Many new artists have a sense of influence and history, yet few pay consideration to the past when thinking of their sound. There is still a reliance on modern-day and the present tense, so I was excited and enthralled when reviewing two artists whom not only managed to reintroduce some wonderful sensations of past days, yet did so with so much conviction. Annie Drury was another artists I featured last year. Her tender yet powerful voice, coupled with stunning and impassioned compositions means that she has stuck in my mind firmly. Johnnythefirth’s ’90s Detroit blues-rock-via-modern-day-Yorkshire blend was another striking firework that I was lucky enough to witness. Throw in the majesties of Rose and the Howling North and Raglans, and you have a label that is offering up some of the best and brightest on offer. Their solo artists are not contented to be like everyone else and commit as little diversity to tape as possible. Past sounds are infused into the mix, and the overall sound is richer and more original as a consequence. I am hoping to be working a lot more closely with Cuckoo Records this year, and am featuring one of their artists today. Alex Vargas may be unfamiliar to most, yet he is a name that should be more commonplace as the year progresses. The first thing one notices from looking at Vargas is that the man himself is very good-looking. It is perhaps unsurprising that Vargas is a successful model; he is born with an aesthetic and look that is reminiscent of the old male screen icons- rather than the male solo artists of today. In a society that is too focused on looks and beauty, it is maybe a mixed blessing for Vargas; the fact remains though: he has look that will see him on magazine covers and in the focus of the media. For this reason, he perhaps will be one step ahead of many of his male contemporaries. It is perhaps a facile merit (looks and beauty) when we think of music, yet it is a hard fact to ignore. The man behind the exterior is not someone whom wants to rest on his laurels and have his looks do the talking. His music and biography are going to be the sum total of his successes and triumphs. Vargas is a 25-year-old born in Denmark. He was born to an English mother and a Uruguayan father. This rare genetic blending has influenced Vargas’s mandates and his music has a similar bold and rare commingle. In pages of the music press, Vargas has been compared to the likes of Stevie Winwood and Robert Palmer- due to his soulful and bluesy vocal strike. Beyond this, I am not too aware of Alex Vargas. His music has been brought to my attention, yet when it comes to the man himself, the music is going to do most of the talking. Vargas might want to rethink his social media output this year. When it comes to new artists and bands, it is vital that social media is well represented. It is always easier to review a group or act and learn more about them, when there is more information at hand. Vargas’s pages seem a little sparse at the moment, and I hope that more will be included as we go through 2014. It would nice to gleam influences of our young idol; some snippets from his past, as well as some reviews as well. These are perhaps minor quibbles, as the artist himself is impressive indeed. After relocating to London at the age of 17, Vargas made immediate strides to make his name known. Vargas began playing nightclubs and performed as widely and hard as possible. Soon after, his debut and self-titled E.P. was released, which introduced the U.K. to the his unique sound. Vargas formed the band Vagabond, and the group toured the U.K. throughout 2009- culminating in a prestigious slot at Glastonbury. Once the band disbanded, Vargas perused his solo ambitions, keen to focus on a rawer sound. Splitting his time between L.A. and London, our young protagonist has been putting together the movements and inspirations that has led to his latest work. Howl is a ‘extended E.P.’- it is an eight-track collection. The Daily Telegraph have claimed that Vargas is a “stadium rock act in the making“; yet the songs within Howl are more tender, soulful and fascinating. Vargas himself states that his songs are “for my loved ones, and some lost ones“. That statement could well have been an alternative title for the E.P., which deals with topics of loss, love and longing- all packaged and centred around Vargas’s incredible vocal. The aggregation of YouTube views, critical outpourings and personal history do not maketh the man: it is the sounds that he is putting out here and now that let you know all you need to know. I have listened to the entirety of Howl and been left with a sense of relief and wonder. I was expecting to hear something similar to everything else out there, but the fact of the matter is this: Vargas dares to be different; he dares to be himself. When selecting a track to review, I was a little spoilt for choice, yet wanted to choose something that was a perfect distillation and representation of the E.P. Lay Your Heart sets out Vargas’s stall perfectly, and is an ideal starting place for anyone interested in pursuing the trajectory of the restless young artist.
From the opening seconds, impact is laid down and made. Vargas’s smooth and whispered voice enters the scene. There is passion and tenderness as our hero promises his lover he’ll “keep (you) warm“. Accompanied by a minimalist and evocative acoustic twinkle, Vargas creates a touching tapestry to a woman who is clearly very dear. Whether Lay Your Heart concerns a present lover or a sweetheart of past days, is unsure, yet it is axiomatic that someone’s soul has been captured. When you think of Vargas and his voice, there are meditative undertones of Patrick Watson and Bon Iver. In the same manner as these sensitive vocalists, Vargas combines a smoky timber with a chocolate-rich croon to create both warm and shivers. When our hero speaks of scenes where “darkness roams your veins“, the cohabitation of delicate guitar and whispered vocals are quite spellbinding. Vargas clearly is someone keen to convey as much emotion as possible, and this is certainly achieved. Whereas a lot of solo artists and acoustic flavours tend to portray a ponderous and lacklustre vocal, Vargas injects soul and sensitiveness into every note. His music and projection has a lot in common with the acoustic masters of the ’60s and ’70s, and in a sense Lay Your Heart has an old-fashioned and classical backbone. It is codified by imploring honesty, redemptiveness and innocence, and is a striking coda to a treasured darling. When the line “Lay your heart on me” is repeated, the message and intention are forced into your brain. The conviction and directness with which the line is delivered adds to the evocative gravity. Our hero’s lover has clearly been through an emotion ringer, and has a world-weary weight on her shoulders. With some Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake romance at its heart, Vargas weaves tales and scenes of a dislocated woman in need of salvation, affection and happiness. You are always simultaneously rooting for a satisfactory ending, as well as being caught up in the sedative lullaby. There is never anything saccharine, cloying or heavy-handed about Vargas’s lyrics: words are carefully chosen, personal and not subject to cliché. Whilst tremulously calling through the fog, our hero is a man with a fortress heart- determined to find, salvage and keep ensconced his heroine within its impenetrable walls. I admire the way Vargas lets his vocal and words say the most- the song is not cluttered or overwrought. Perhaps strings or a slight piano line may have added an extra shiver, but perhaps not. It is because the song is so captivating that this thought is dispelled and filed- what is on display does its thing with maximum potency. The song’s title is a pivotal and repeated interjection, and builds imagery and vivacity in your mind. When you listen to Vargas’s voice, you are not instantly drawn to another singer. There are underpinnings of some modern-day singers and talents, yet one is never reminded too heavily of any particular examples. In an era and scene where originality is something in danger of dying out, it is impressive that Vargas has not tried to package himself as a Ben Howard/Bon Iver/James Blake-like talent- although this is not to suggest that he is an inferior species. Our man is doing his own thing and has had his own heartache and experience, and is keen to be recognised and respected in his own right. Lay Your Heart clearly has its roots in personal episodes, yet our hero does not name the central beau: she is kept a mystery, yet everyone will have a clear idea of what she looks like and how the story progresses. Towards the 2:00 marker, Vargas unleashes a delicate and gorgeous falsetto- holding onto the note and letting it soar into the stratosphere. In a sense there are elementary shades of Buckley. If you listen to songs such as Last Goodbye, Hallelujah and Calling You (from Live at Sin-e), then you are reminded of him. It is an effective and mesmeric note, and one that is held, elongated, oscilated and stretched in all directions. As well as being an impressive and rare vocal feat, it is also a potent and delicate kiss that says as much on its own as any of the lyrics before. Once the note fades and a final acoustic line is delivered, the song comes down to fade- and our tale is told. Brevity is one of the keys to its success, as everything is done and finished with in under two-and-a-half minutes. In this way, there are no wasted words, overindulgence or blurred focus: everything that needs to be said is said in as little time as is needed. An impressive achievement in its own right…
In a way there is no immediate media pressure or expectation resting on Vargas’s shoulders. Unlike a lot of solo stars of the moment, Vargas has managed to make music, perform his gigs and take his songs to his fans- without a huge media glare. In a few months from now I am confident that there will be a lot more attention and expectation awaiting our hero, but for the moment there is enough room to breathe and maneuvers. Lay your Heart is a short and stunning song from a talent that has a lot of musical years ahead of him. Howl is an E.P. that captures from the outside in. The cover of the record is a striking and memorable image (depicting Vargas as a half-man half-bird hyrbid- an ironic contradiction on the E.P.’s title). It is quite a rarity to have an E.P. out there that contains eight tracks. In a sense is a mini-album, but whatever category you put it in, it is a triumph. The song’s titles are clear indication as to the content. Winter Snow and Tears In The Water build their images and intentions splendidly, whilst How, Oxygen and Sweet Nothing are a stunning trio of songs. Lay Your Heart is the swang-song to a collection of personal and effective songs, that deal with love, loss and personal heartache. There is light and positivity nestling alongside introspection and reflection. As Vargas said himself, the songs are as much paens and dedications as they are to lovers and friends lost, as they are testaments and declarations to sweethearts current. I know I have been (perhaps) dismissive of the future-potential of Sam Smith and newer artists, I still acknowledge that they are stunning talents that deserve attention. In Vargas there seems to be plenty to suggest that he can obtain durability and keen adore. If he can sort out his official site and give us more of a glimpse into his influences, life and future tour dates, then it will draw in even more fans. I know from his social media pages that Vargas has a lot of support and admiration. Clearly his music connects to a great deal of people- from all around the globe. It is hardly surprising that so many take Vargas’s music to heart. His songs speak to everyone, and are not excluding. The themes contained across Howl will be relatable and familiar to many, meaning that the music is all-embracing and vote-winning. Our idol is much more than good looks and charisma. His music is stronger that his outer beauty, and the overall sum total is quite heady. When thinking of Vargas, I think a little of Jeff Buckley. As much as I despise the way that every reviewer compares a male singer to Jeff Buckley- assuming that a vague generic falsetto means they are good as Buckley- the fact remains that there are some slight similarities. Vargas is not as strong a singer, but that is not to say that he shares nothing of Scotty Moorhead’s D.N.A. There is a similar moody pout when one sees photos of Vargas. The way our hero delineate his heart and soul (and bare bones) is admirable, and the songs are constantly moving and mobile. It is perhaps Vargas’s voice that will gain the most frequent plaudits. Many have stated that it is an instrument unlike any other. It is a soulful and sexy weapon that is rare amongst white singers. Vargas has familiarity with the soul legends of old, and provides inspiration to many others. In a scene that is synonymous with voices which can implore but rarely overwhelm, it is impressive that Vargas does not take the easy way out. It is still early days for the young man, yet Lay Your Heart shows enough muscle and soul to suggest that a long-term future is not beyond comprehension. I hope that this year sees our young idol making plans for a fully-fledged album, as it would be interesting to expand Vargas’s templates and themes over the course of 10 or 11 songs. Within Howl we have an octet of impressions that document where Vargas is at the moment. I have spent a little while now looking ahead to all the new releases this year. In terms of the dominant order, I have not heard of too many impending releases. There is doubt as to the plans of Radiohead and Blur- whether either will release an album. The makers of the greatest albums of 2013 will possibly take a year off to record and plan, and all the new acts whim have made the biggest strides, will possibly be thinking along the same lines. This leaves a large territory and chunk of real estate up for grabs. Vargas is a macroscopic example of what direction the music of 2014 can take. With many of the big boys and girls taking a brief sabbatical, there has never been a more opportune time with regards to vying for attention. In my mind I am certain of some of the new acts that will be making big waves this year; yet there are spaces available for many more. Diversity and difference need to by the bywords for this year, and in Vargas there is a distinct breaking away from the pre-defined ‘norm.’. Our hero has an original sound and a clear idea of where he wants to be. He is not contended with just making a few songs and leaving it at that. Vargas wants to break away from the artists whom offer diminished returns; instead set himself up as a mainstay whom provides rewarding dividends. As I say, it is early days still, but these infant and embryonic steps are the ones that signal whether an act will walk, run or fall. If Vargas can keep the pace going and offer enough range and diversity across future E.P.s and albums, then we could be in for a real treat. For now, divulge all within Howl, and absorb its words and meanings. Our central figure is someone who wants as many people as possible to enjoy his music. No matter what happens, he wants to make an impact. As he says himself (In Lay Your Heart):
“IF ever you shed one single tear/My arms will meet you in need” .
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