Spy From Moscow
Little War is available at:
Guitar/Vox/Harmonica – Declan Feenan
| Drums – Luca Romano
| Bass – Sara Klepp
| Flugelhorn – Mark Schorah |
Recorded & mixed by J.B. Pilon @ Wax Recordings, London
| Mastered @ Audioseige, Portland OR |
Artwork Jai Sewell |
Design Mandy Horton |
Thanks to Nicola & Carl for the gong | ©Copyright 2015
Rock The Church
The E.P. Little War is available at:
Little War– 9.5
It Never Comes– 9.4
THERE are a lot of upcoming singer-songwriters on…
the market now. Given the dominance and hegemony of the band market- a point I shall not labour again today- it is important to shift some focus onto the solo stars. I always love experience the depth and range of the sole star; the sheer personality and point of view- what goes into their music. It is important individuality and personality goes into music, as so many musicians seem to just copying others and lacking that necessary innovative. This is a point I am going to labour today. I have heard far too many musicians that go into music with the desire to be ‘The Next So-and-So’: They have an idol in mind and want to replicate their sound and reputation without anything unique or different. If you are going into the game of music, then at least have the intelligence to do something new. Too many new musicians are either ridiculously bland and unimaginative, or simply replicates and dilettantes. It is hard to get a foothold and make a name for yourself: Something that comes with time and sacrifice. If you are not willing to accept the realities of the business, you will never gain any respect and support. You do get some great up-and-coming solo artists in the mainstream, although there are far too many rip-offs and yawn-inducing types. When it comes to their underground siblings, there is better luck and inspiration. I am not saying all of the new underground solo acts are original- there are a wealth of insipid and foolish young artists- yet there is a greater desire and sense of emancipation. Whether you are looking for some vocal wonder or witty lyrics; some genre-fusing sounds or songs that dare to be different, then you have plenty of options. I raise this point (well, several actually) because my featured artist is a tantilising and stunning proposition. Having been described as “choirboy Grunge”, you get a small window into his sound and creative process. That mixture of purity and hardness; that beauty and dirt- all coming together in a head-melting blend of musical magic. For all the rather lifeless and aimless songwriters, it is good to witness someone that puts so much thought into their sound. Before I continue on my point, and raise a couple of new ones, let me introduce you to our featured act:
“SPY FROM MOSCOW is the moniker of Declan Feenan – an Irish alternative songwriter based in London. Coming off the back of a 7 date UK tour (where it never stopped raining!) he’s now releases his new EP Little War – a simple but intense follow up to The Mile End Sessions (2014).
Talking about what he sounds like: ‘Someone I know came up with ‘choirboy grunge’ and it’s kind of stuck. I just like messing around with textures and tones – I think about how all the other instruments will respond to my vocal sound and run with that. So I put the vocal at the centre and work everything around it. That’s how I make sense of the process. And as long as it’s in tune I’m happy.’
Recorded in Wax Recordings London and mastered stateside by Audiosiege in Portland OR, LITTLE WAR is delicate and intense trio of songs where simple guitar and melancholic vocals explode into heavy distortion and flugelhorn calls.
Thinking about what songs to include: ‘After gigging for a bit off the back of the Mile End Session I really wanted to release something in 2015, but I never thought I’d get round to it because I’d buckets of unfinished stuff lying around – half songs and bits of music – and all of it needed a lot of work. So I worked myself into a stalemate with myself, I didn’t really know where to start. Then a friend told me to shut up and just record the songs that were already written. Pretty obvious when she put it like that. So that’s what I did.’
…and a three track EP? ‘Yea, it just fell out that way.’
LITTLE WAR is available on iTunes and Spotify from 15th October 2015.”
There is a nice blend of casual and professional when it comes to Spy From Moscow. I like how Feenan experiments and tests sounds; sees how his voice and instruments blend- coming up with music that is both natural and unusual. A lot of artists are too rigid and disciplined with their working methods; they follow the pack and are rather predictable to be fair. As a result, the music itself can be a little limited and infertile: Not really that inspiring or nimble; it takes its time to hit the mark. Our Spy From Moscow has ensured the music he provides not only comes from the heart; it is the result of a man in his elements; getting in touch with what music means to him. I have witnessed a lot of E.P.s this year yet none- I shall go into more depth towards the end of this review- that offer something so fresh and surprising. My final point I guess- before I get down to specifics- is that which relates to differentiation and experimentation. Some of the finest music from this year has been the result of bucking trends and going against the grain. When I think of mainstream near-masterpieces, I think of John Grant and Royal Headache; Tame Impala and Sufjan Stevens. These are artists that have produced some incredible albums; ones that do not necessarily fit into moulds and the ‘in crowds’- they are creations that are unique and nuanced; revealing great beauty across repeated investigation. I am all for instant and engaging music. When you listen to a lot of traditional Indie/Alternative acts, you get great riffs and epic choruses; stunning jams and passionate pleas. How often do you come back and dig into that music? For me, it is hardly ever. That sort of music is a very primal and first-time thing. I barely feel necessitated to re-listen and see what I have missed/overlooked- the music is not that complex and mysterious. We need disposability and easy-to-understand music, yet the brain and heart craves something more studied and intelligent- whilst still retaining that core of accessibility into the bargain. Spy From Moscow’s music perfectly suites all needs and specifications: Both in-depth and intelligent, there are some terrific sleep moments and under-the-radar touches. Riding into the forefront is that special and stunning voice: One that could only emanate from a man with a clear direction and lashings of soul. All of these elements and factors go into making Little War as apt as its title. You get some heartache and uncertainty. You get a lot of strength and fortitude; the need for peace and resolution- at the very end, you come away affected and touched.
When it comes to assessing and reviewing Spy From Moscow’s current life, we must go back and see how he has progressed. Being influenced by the likes of John Cale, Neil Young and Stone Temple Pilots; the music of Spy’ has always been diverse and stunning. When looking at Feenan’s list of influencers, there is quite a mixed and interesting list. Few young solo artists have John Cale and Neil Young on their list. Fewer might have Stone Temple Pilots on there. Seemingly without link or lineage, it all comes together in the music. That Young/Cale-esque heart and masculinity comes through in the music. Similarly you get the stunning and emotive lyrics. Words and sentiments that drip with meaning and resonance. If we look back at The Mile End Session (Spy From Moscow’s debut) and you can hear how fully-formed he was. Across the four tracks you get soul-bearing and heart-bleeding; determination and focus.
River begins with pastoral and gentleness. It is not long before that voice comes to the forefront. Heartfelt and husky; emotive and pure, our hero lets his voice stretch and expand. With some scratchy and insistent electric guitar working between the notes, the song is evocative and highly compelling. Words about loss and struggle mix with vivid and stark images. As the vocal haunt and float the instrumentation ensures the atmosphere is filled with electricity and shiver. Shimmering and vibrating strings create something orchestral and Prog.-Rock. You get aching and spectral notes that hang in the air and get inside the head. A perfect and stunning E.P. lead-off, it is one of the most memorable tracks I have heard for a while. Back upon its release, the entire E.P. received warm and effusive praise. Writers were keen to highlight that original and wonderful voice.
Hold Me begins with a similarly reverent and tender beginning. Reminding me a little of Wildwood-era Paul Weller, that blend of guts and beauty comes out in the initial vocals. The song looks at a heroine, whoever she may be. Our man asks her to dream (of him) and he will take her under. There is tremulous desire and the need to be pinned to the sheets. “I am king” declares our man, as the tambourine and strings composition adds heartbeat and potency to the foreground. Like its predecessor, it is a slow-burning and dreamy song that compels you to be drawn in and imagine. Ensuring the listener is entranced and struck, it is a track that demands repeated spins. Upon first listen, you are caught inside the vocal and composition. When you come back again, you start to pick apart the words and scenes- everything starts to come together.
On The Way Home is another still gem that is built around a simple and effective composition. The guitar strings bubble and flow. The mood is sleepy and dream-like as our hero lets the song’s title create its own weight and gravity. Letting the words stretch and mesmerise, again you start to conspire and imagine. Allowing that hushed and chocolate vocal affect and strike, your mind begins to picture images and scenes. Moonlit and romantic, I got images of quiet and deserted streets. As lovers go hand-in-hand, a lone man wonders the avenues in search of answers and truths. Of course, the song itself has a definitive truth, yet it is another song that is open for interpretation. Not too rigid and clear-cut, the words allow the listener to come up with their own conclusions.
Call In The Morning ends the E.P. with a woozy and swaying underpinning. At the forefront our lead let’s his voice rise to its highest-pitched best. Allowing his heart and soul to show its colours, you get an impassioned plea to a lover. Whoever is being ascribed, you always root for satisfaction and coming together. With a sensual and gorgeous composition, it is a perfect way to end the E.P. Never becoming overwhelmed and forceful it is a short and sweet track that is economical and memorable. The words are honest and sensitive; the music is lush and swimming.
Released in 2013, Spy From Moscow has developed his sound a little. All the key components are still in place- that fragile yet strong voice; the rich and beautiful compositions- but there is expansion and increased confidence. There is a little more overt upbeat across this E.P. Perhaps with harder edges and a bit more grit, there is a definite step forward. Whereas The Mile End Session was mainly riparian and becalmed; we get a bit more energy and panache on Little War. The electric guitar comes more into the forefront, as songs see that voice opened-up and more vibrant. With clearer and crisper production values, it is very much the sound of 2015- yet it differs and separates itself from the pack. Feenan comes into his own as a writer and singer and shows new inspiration and meaning. This all bodes well for any future sounds and releases. Developing and progressing with each release, it would be wonderful to hear more from Feenan in 2016. His latest cut is the most complete and rounded set of songs to date.
Little War’s title track is a song that begins with some minimalist strings and direct words. Our hero has been “waiting so long” as you begin to wonder the inspiration behind the song. Sounded tired and emotional, maybe desire and passion are being assessed. Perhaps our hero has been waiting for happiness and completion; a chance to achieve dreams and follow his heart. That inimitable vocal puts you in mind of the likes of Paul Weller and Guy Garvey without really dipping too far into their territory. What the Irishman offers is a voice dreamier and more seductive than both. It is a voice that could score the phonebook and make it sound utterly essential and meaningful. Initial exchanges see Little War really build and create weight. Maybe he has seen too much and knows that each day will bring disappointment and struggle. Maybe the realities and honesty of love has its drawbacks. In those sapling moments, your mind is transported somewhere serene and safe; somewhere you can drift away and forget yourself. Stating “I don’t want you to break”, that sense of mystery and intrigue begins to build. Whilst the strings and percussion create a flowing and evocative backdrop, you are concentrating on that vocal. Our hero talks of a soldier with “more dogs at his door”. Tomorrow will always bring another little war; things will always be hard and fraught. Perhaps the strains of love are taking their toll. Whilst the strings provide a sturdy bass and sense of movement, the percussion lightly clashes- giving a sense of heartbeat and harshness. Riding into the equation, a delightfully tender and majestic flugelhorn cuts through the mist. Perfectly realised and balanced, that beautiful and colorful instrument creates more imagery and scenery. Ensuring every listener and ear is pressed to the speaker- the vocal is almost whispered meaning you have to lean in to listen- it is impossible not to surrender to the graceful and heartfelt words. Soul-nourishing and honest, Spy From Moscow has created a song that could heal the lonely and make the most rain-lashed night tolerable and magical. Something that could fit into a Nick Drake album, I was amazed by the musical innovation and sound.
The strings build up and then retreat with their lullaby-like sway. That percussive beat remains firm and controlled; able to add weight and force when called upon. At the mid-way marker, I was trying to imagine the origins and history behind the track. Being familiar with Spy From Moscow’s debut, I know he has seen his share of heartache and loss. On Little War there is that mixture of everyday reality and a very personal insight. Half of my mind was concerning romantic struggle and battle whilst the other half was looking into personal anxieties and stresses. Maybe our man has reached a plateau: Caught in the mire of a romantic break-down, the arguments and recriminations keep coming. Whether his heroine is casting her eye elsewhere- looking for another soldier and hero- you start to symptahise with our lead. It seems like they have reached an impasse and must decide how they will proceed. On the other hand, one could look at a personal struggle and that desire for answers and happiness. The rest of the E.P. looks at commercial desires and the need for fulfillment. It would only be natural to think Little War looks at the day-to-day battles and realities. Being a musician and songwriter, our hero has to face wars on a daily basis. That need and desire to be heard and understood sit alongside the strains and fatigue of music-making and getting recognition. Whilst the casual listener lets the music tell the story, I love how the vocals, instrumentation and lyrics perfectly mesh and conspire. Towards the closing stages, the vocal gets harder and more emotive.
The entire song augments and enraptures as that indelible and memorable chorus comes back to strike. Reminding me of early-days Elbow, Spy From Moscow allows the composition to create something symphonic and highly dramatic. From its somewhat tender and minimal beginnings, the song turns into something enraptured and haunted- a song that screams its name in the final seconds. You never know what to expect when it comes to the music of Little War. Having been comforted and settled into the song’s sound and direction you are wrong-footed and redirected. That latter-day burst of life takes the song in a new direction and gives you much food for thought. As you try to take in all the compositional notes and nuance, you start to wonder how the story worked out- and whether there was a comforting resolution or satisfaction. It is a song that makes you smile and sigh; a moment that creates vivid speculation and pictures- one of the most direct and emotional songs I have heard for a long time. Clocking in at just over four minutes, Little War never seems over-long or too unfocused; it just remains compelling from beginning to end. At the very end, you are motivated to go back and check the song out again (and again). Upon each fresh listen something new comes to light. One of the hallmarks of a great songwriter is nuance and you get that in spade-loads.
Little War perfectly kicks-off the E.P. and shows Feenan has lost none of his ability to seduce and amaze. The finest cut from the E.P., what you get is a young artist who sounds like no other. I have mentioned the likes of Paul Weller and Elbow, yet in reality you would be hard-pressed to really link them together. You get a little of Guy Garvey and Paul Weller’s voice, but Spy From Moscow is more entrancing and beguiling then both. His imagery and songwriting is more compelling than most of his peers and shows a great amount of intelligence and maturity. That vocal is perhaps the star of the show that ensures it would be hard to let the song escape the memory. Backed by a terrific band and clear production, you get a song that oozes tranquility and soul; passion and fears- ensuring every listener is left with their own impressions and sense of interpretation. The flugelhorn is a masterful addition that allows some sunshine and beauty to weave between the fabrics of anxieties and love-gone-wrong. Bass, guitar and percussion push the vocal and ensure each word and sentiment is giving a stunning backing and guidance. Those compositional elements never encroach on the foreground and seem too high in the mix. On that matter, everything is balanced and mixed perfectly to allow every strand and facet to hit with maximum attack. A stunning track that holds as much mystery as it does truth; you cannot the effect it has on the brain. Not a simple thing that drifts along and does its thing, you can hear the detail and thought that goes into its creation. Due to Spy From Moscow’s unique and original working method, it has resulted in a song that sounds unlike anything else, yet remains accessible and easy to love. A rare feat in a music industry where you get scant originality and nuance, it is fantastic to witness a talent that has all the necessary ingredients for long-term appeal and success.
Having immersed myself in Spy From Moscow, it is refreshing and pleasing to hear an artist with a definite future ahead. Too often I listen to musicians and feel uncertainty about their longevity and future moves. Some just retreat and take years to come up with something memorable. Other artists follow-up pretty quickly but suffer diminished returns. It may be the early days, yet there is ample evidence to suggest the Newry-based artist has quite a packed and prosperous future ahead. Little War is a three-track collection that displays a truly special voice. Woven into its fabrics are words of longing and wonderment; vulnerability and passion- themes and sentiments that will resound with all listeners. Before I wrap things up- and give a review of the E.P.’s other two tracks- I am compelled to return to my point about longevity and innovation in modern music. Maybe there is a fear and sense of fatigue with some new musicians. That is the only explanation I can find to explain a willful lack of energy and motivation. Too often I hear music that either parodies the past or simply does the bare-minimum. This is especially true in genres like Pop and Alternative. Band and artists seem content to rock up to the party and put out music which, let’s be honest here, is the same as everything else out there. On occasions I have reviewed artists so similar (to others) that you struggle for words. If you look at the end-of-year lists and the best albums/moments from music, you will always find artists with the utmost consideration towards innovation and originality. In 2015, the likes of Jamie xx and Beach House will be nestling for top honours. These artists and albums are defined by their flexibility and originality. A lot of fresh acts coming through seem too scared of laying themselves on the line. Scared of potential failure, they hang onto the coattails of their heroes and influencers- without saying anything new or personable. Our man has ensured Little War is an E.P. that betrays a debt to nobody. Brimming with a mixture of confidence and soul, you are helpless to resist its charms and strength. It is an E.P. I am compelled to dig into today- and will continue to do so tomorrow- to get to its roots and core. The current scene is hot and heavy. Filled with so many eager artists, it is always hard to decipher who will make the grade, and which artists will fall by the wayside. I have a good radar when it comes to quality control and spotting those with inborn potential and natural ability. Have no fear when it comes to Spy From Moscow. As apt and fitting as his moniker, this stealthy agent of secrecy will be hard to take down and defeat. With a mission statement that few will be able to top this year, it sets a great marker for the coming year. Whether Feenan decides to expand his voice across an album has yet to be seen, yet it would be great to see something full-length. Such is his talents and abilities, the music world will be keen and interested for sure. For now, we must study what is already here: That is the stunning trio of songs across Little War. If you want to find music that hits the heart and makes you think; that which resonates with passion and beauty, then look no further. That central voice makes everything sound essential and compelling, and stands out as one of the most gripping on the current scene. Having been influenced by everyone from Tom Waits to The Beach Boys, that eclecticism and diversity comes through in the music. Not just your average workaday songs; what you get is an E.P. overflowing with personality and insight. The future looks bright for the young artist indeed.
It Never Comes begins with a Folk-influenced kick that differs from a lot of Spy From Moscow’s work. Whereas most of S.F.M.’s work begins more measured and serene, here we get something quite energised and upbeat. The harmonica breezes and combines beautifully with the percussion. Reminding me a little of Bob Dylan and the 1960s Folk scene, there are touches if Neil Young and his Forever Young-era work. Looking at the sun and beautiful morning, it another of those songs that leads me in a couple of different directions. Maybe yearning for true recognition and success- and investigating the realities of music- and how that rightful success never truly comes. Here we get the E.P.’s richest and fullest composition. The subtle and effective bass conspires with a stunning percussive beat that twirls and mutates. We get a nice quiet-loud dynamic that sees the song explode and then retreat, allowing our hero’s voice to reach its absolute peak. It Never Comes has an endless evolution and sense of mobility that ensures you are transfixed until the vey end. Perhaps our man is looking at love and personal satisfaction and feeling dissatisfied and short-changed. One of those songs that can mean different things to different listeners and leaves you with a smile on your face. Whether that is the intention or not, you have a song that mixes upbeat and emotive; blending introspection with something overt and very passionate.
Persephone leaves the E.P. with a triumphant and wonderful song. Starting with a calm and focused vocal, we get some haunting and affecting words in the early stages. Our hero has been chasing applause for years. Not an angel hair, “not the bride” you get a sense of resignation and dissatisfaction. Attesting that it will sound be over, our hero seems to be in defeatist mode. The song harks back to his debut-E.P. days and that sound and gives the listener a nice mix of current-day work and past glories. The finale is a song that actually subverts expectations. From its quiet beginnings, Persphone builds and starts to mutate. That percussion gets louder and more primal as the guitars build and strike. The composition raises the emotions and then comes down as quickly as it begun- allowing that vocal to come back in and soothe. In-between the bursts and flourishes, you get some soothing harmonica and guiding bass lines. It is a memorable and layered track that not only sums up the E.P. but leaves the listener wanting more. So captivating are the trio of songs, you are hoping more will come.
Overall, the E.P. sees Feenan expand his sound and take a natural step forward. More band-focused and inclusive, the songs benefit from that compositional range and fullness. That is not to say our man gets buried in the notes as that is far from the truth. Our lead is very much at the centre and his voice seems more developed and urgent this time around. With greater confidence and depth you get so much gravitas and emotion from every note. Reviewers have noticed how soul-etching and affecting it is; it is one of the E.P.’s most obvious take-aways. Throughout the trio of songs, you get so much insight into the young man and his life. Those relationship questions and life struggles mix with optimism and hopes; wars and battles come into the fray. Stunning songwriting and wonderfully evocative compositions ensure Little War is an E.P. everyone should get hold of. Marrying dreamy with potent, you get caught by the compositional shifts and insightful lyrics. It is impossible to deny and refute the power of the central voice which makes sure every track is essential and of the highest caliber. If you have not encountered Spy From Moscow’s latest creation…
MAKE sure today is the day that wrong is righted.
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