Gemma is available at:
13th May, 2017
The E.P., Always Trashy in Fillydelphia, is available at:
FOLLOWING the tragic scenes in Manchester this week…
it has got me reevaluating a lot of things. Included in this list are music itself and the nature of togetherness. I think now, more than ever, we are holding together and strengthening as a people – against forces that have tried to divide and destroy us. In looking at Self Help, I want to explore the universal nature of music and how it brings the people together. After that, I will move on to Oxford as a city for music and the importance of distinction and straying from the pack; a bit on lo-fi, raw music and the Garage-Pop genre; things to consider when trying to make an impression and artists we need to promote to the mainstream. I want to look, without going into gory detail, about the past week and how we have had to adapt as a country. If the attack at the Manchester Arena has shown us anything is how unwilling the British public are to be cowed and frightened by terrorism. The bloodshed witnessed following the Ariana Grande concert has pulled people together and we all look to rebuild and move forward. It does not matter the nature of the concert, in terms of the music played and genres, because it has brought all of the music world together in defiance and solidarity. That is the power of people and music: it is strong enough to unify and conquer. It might seem irrelevant when talking about Self Help but, after the attack on Monday, I am looking more deeply at music and how this country will react. There are fears whether we should attend gigs and whether it is safe to do so. I feel we all need to embrace music more than ever but, naturally, show some caution and care. Self Help are a band who have a great live reputation and will not be deterred by events like the terrorist attack in Manchester. We are still hearing the details and emotional stories from people caught up in the attack. Those who died and those still in hospital: people who got away and those who helped those in need. It is a scary and anxious time to be in Britain – and many nations, in fact – but people from all walks of life, and all corners of the music industry, have spoken with that common mantra: we will not be moved or deterred. Looking at a band like Self Help; the guys provide the type of music guaranteed to put smiles back on face.
Whilst there are few links between Ariana Grande and Self Help, I feel a greater bond to music and celebrating the best out there. I am sure the band have been reflecting, like everyone else, and showing their support. Moving away from gloomier issues and it brings me, rather wonderfully, to Oxford. Usually, when an artist hails from outside a big city, I am hard-pressed to describe the music scene where they are. Recent subjects have come from Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire and, whilst there are a few venues around various towns/cities; it is not exactly overrun with heritage and availability. You don’t need me to tell you the great bands from Oxford: although, if I don’t, this review will be rather short! Supergrass, one of my favourite groups from all time, have put Oxford on the map and, in the 1990s, when a lot of attention was going to other areas, they ensured their home-city was not to be overlooked. The band have split (long ago) but have laid their marker and, in my mind, had an effect on Self Help. Although Self Help have a ‘wacky’/quirky brand of Punk-Pop; one can hear the energy and idiosyncrasies of Supergrass’ first couple of albums. That same lo-fi energy and interweaving experimentation draws a line between, say, I Should Coco, and Self Help’s new E.P. Perhaps there has been a bastardisation of Supergrass’ youthful, charming Punk/Pop blends – or mutated and modernised to suit contemporary needs – but Self Help remind me of the ragged rabble and addictive rush of Supergrass’ finest moments. Talulah Ghost and Ride are from Oxford but, in terms of young and modern bands, Glass Animals and Foals call Oxford home – although they probably reside elsewhere. I love Glass Animals because of their strange and beguiling sound. Like Self Help; there seems to be this thing in Oxford where one can take from mainstream tastes but add something spicy, colourful and trippy. Supergrass, even in their early days, did things differently: Glass Animals employ lovely electronic sounds and compositional elements that spike the imagination; lyrics and stories concentrate on the less-focused-upon areas of life and love.
While Radiohead formed, strictly, in Abingdon – eleven miles from Oxford – the Greenwood section of the band hail from the city. Oxford (and Oxfordshire) is synonymous with Radiohead and they, like Supergrass, are one of the huge acts from here. Aside from Foals; artists like Dive Dive, Stornoway and Dance a la Plage come from Oxford: Young Knives, Alphabet Backwards and The Dreaming Spires are adding their touches to the city. I have been looking around the search engines for new bands from Oxford and whether there is a new raft emerging. I guess there are a lot of good ones but there are few sites really shouting about it. I feel the local media need to do a bit more to expose their best artists and those making waves. Self Help are a band who have plenty of contemporaries and can learn from the legacy laid down by legendary bands such as Supergrass and, newcomers, Glass Animals. Always Trashy in Fillydelphia, with its cool name and possibilities, is an E.P. that has a lot in common with the history of Oxford music but is very forward-thinking and modern. I am curious to know whether there are bands like Glass Animals in the city and remaining there. I guess, with the rising rent/living costs, it is becoming less of a choice for artists – they are being forced to look elsewhere. I know London is pretty steep in general but I find, for the resident and musician, there is a lot more choice. I would be intrigued to know more about Oxford but know it has some downsides. Aside from being a cyclists’ Heaven – my idea of Hell, frankly – it is rather conservative and has that reputation as being a bit stuffy. It is a university city, obviously, so has a young crowd and that youthful energy and desire see a lot of its best venues thrive and expand. I have been seeking which bands are coming up through the ranks in Oxford.
I think Self Help are one of the best in the city and, in terms of the ‘Oxford sound’, seem to fit into that mould. There is a refreshing lack of commercialism and the ordinary in the city: most of the acts like to push the envelope and do not provide anything boring and obvious. Before I move onto my next point; it is worth looking at why Oxford is such a popular place and the sort of locations musicians can play. Bullingdon (or Bullingdon Arms) used to be the Art Bar and has a smaller stage at the front of the place but a larger one at the back – where a lot of artists can be found performing. It has a club-style feel and was refurbished a few years back. There are various different theme nights, and, with its cocktail bar, proves to be a popular option for a varied crowd. The Strypes are playing the venues very soon and are one of many acts who will be taking to Bullingdon in coming months. Go down Walton Street and you can pop into the Jericho Tavern. It promotes Pop and Folk sounds and has a rather unordinary layout. A good-sized area in front of a stage upstairs and, by the bar, there is enough quiet so you can order a drink without hassle. It is a cool and reputable venue in Jericho that attracts many great artists and a real range of sounds. Not only do the new artists come through the doors: Jericho Tavern has assisted some of music’s true heavyweights on their course to fame. 02 Academy attracts a huge array of international artists and houses nearly fifteen-hundred people. It normally plays host to larger acts but, in time, it is the dream local location of Oxford’s finest acts. It is great to see the range of larger and smaller venues: it means established artists play here but there are ample opportunities for newcomers. James Street Tavern, off Cowley Road, has open mic. nights and is an essential pit-stop for fresh acts looking to cut their teeth.
The Cape of Good Hope, on Iffley Road, has open mic. nights and live gigs; it is another terrific small venues and joins the likes of Old Bookbinders and Harcourt Arms as more intimate spaces – and ones that put on occasional events and live nights. Angel & Greyhound, on St. Clement Street, has acoustic gigs on Sunday and is a cosy pub acts can perform more chilled and laid-back set. Fat Lil’s, despite its classy and sophisticated name, is a bit outside of the city and located in West Oxfordshire. They, in Witney’s Corn Street, provide tribute acts and live artists to enjoy. It has the feel of a comedy club/small boozer but is proving fairly popular with bands in Oxford. Mason Arms, in Headington, has open mic. nights and is a lovely-looking pub that is an attractive option for local artists. We can see there are plenty if spaces that provide inspiration and impetus for Oxford’s brightest new acts. I have stated how there are opportunities for artists to do their thing and pick up crowds but, without that backing and guidance by the local press, one wonders whether we can correlate between the range of venues and the type of artists emerging – what style they play and whether they rely on local gigs or not. Self Help have performed around Oxfordshire but, one would imagine, are looking around the country for further gigs. Like Glass Animals and other bands from Oxford; they want to reach as many people as possible and have the sound to do that. Self Help, as I will explain, are not your usual, limited band and warrant widespread appeal. It is great to see so many venues survive in Oxford but I am curious whether they will be under threat as the price of living rises. We are told it is one of the more desirable parts of the country to live in but, if the rent is too much, will people move away from the city and other counties – that will threaten the music scene and force artists to go elsewhere.
Those new acts I am being inspired by are the ones who have a very rare sound and do not, necessarily, fit into the mainstream. It is understandable many want to be relatable and popular, hence a tendency to replicate chart sounds, but those who wish to remain relevant and evolving need to think about a sound that varies from the masses. Lately, there is an explosion of Electronic acts that mix in Pop and darker shades. There are few genuine Punk and Rock bands that get into the head. It is great hearing music that has that nuance and emotion but, away from that, one seeks something a little harder and more vibrant – songs that have a Rock/Punk kick with a little Pop undertone. Self Help are being noted because of their fantastic sound. It would be a disservice to call it ‘odd’ but it certainly does not conform to rules and the charts. There are so many artists that see what is proving popular and copy that. Whilst some add their own spin, and can create their own brand, there are many who do not distinguish themselves from anyone else. Music wants something fresh and artist that have their own mind. Those acts that surprise audiences and do something you weren’t expecting are the ones we should spend more time with. Self Help, in their E.P., have crafted a style of music that is distinctly their own. It may be rather vague saying someone needs to be original and interesting because that can mean something different to a lot of people. For me, I look for artists who can remain accessible and likeable but definitely are not easy to define. I have slated the mainstream a bit because there are a lot of acts who are quite generic and rely too heavily on technology and other writers/producers. I feel, the more people you have creating your music, the less personal it is. The sounds seem rather distant and anodyne and, because of that, seem to appeal more to the younger, chart-raised audiences. As I said, the most interesting acts are those who seem to craft their own little world. What I love about Self Help is the fact they have been acclaimed because of that rather fascinating sound of theirs. I suspect, on future records, they will expand and build it; record albums and E.P.s and add new elements into the pot.
In Self Help, one hears lo-fi sounds and Garage-Pop mixing with some Punk shades. That all sounds quite vintage and older-days but is becoming more popular. Against the culture of technological advancement and crisp, polished sounds; there are those who prefer to take things back and nod to artists like Jilted John. The band put you in mind of those classic acts who had to make do with what was around at the times in terms of recording equipment and spaces. Because of that, there is no preciousness in regards gigging. They are happy in smaller spaces but capable of enthralling larger-sized audiences. I love big bands that can bring the grit and give you a gut-punch of Rock. Every now and then, I long for something a bit unusual and unheard-of. Whilst Self Help have been compared with The Modern Lovers and Plastic Betrand Band but, not being that familiar with them, judge it on its own merits and am fascinated by all the odd colours and suggestions in their music. When I come to review Emma, as you will see, it is unlike most music out there. I know there’s a danger, when artists separate themselves from the mainstream, to be seen as a bit too quirky and unusual. Before you know it, they are being played on niche stations and confined to those with rather ‘particular’ tastes. That is not the case with the Oxford band who are perfectly understandable and grounded but distinctly skip past the arcs of conventionality and predictable. All of this, combined with their solid live show and fantastic songwriting, marks them out for greater things. Their Always Thrashy in Fillydelphia E.P., as the name suggests, is not your ordinary serving. It has a sentiment and flavour that pleases the senses and encourages repeated listens. I would like to see the boys continue, sonically, down the path they are on but expand their horizons in regards E.P.s – include a few more tracks or shoot for an album. Given the variations and adventurousness of their songs – tied to a simple production sound and wonderfully unseasoned kick – the band have plenty more life and potential in them. What they have planned for the coming months, touring or recording, I would love to see them capitalise on Always Thrashy’ and keep that energy alive.
I have stated the artists that want to remain and survive are those who create their own sound and innovate but how easy is that in an industry where so many artists are wrestling for success. I have heard a few bands like Self Help but none that have the same mixtures and strands. On that same topic; there is still that demand, in the mainstream, for something quite easy and uncomplicated. How, then, are modern artists supposed to stand out among their peers but fit into a market that is decidedly disorganised and commercial. Self Help are not a band who will compromise their ethics in order to fit into the charts but, at the same time, have that desire for success. Garage-Pop is an odd coming-together that, when in the correct hands, can be among the most pleasing music around. I am a big fan of Garage music and, from the earliest recordings by The White Stripes to a modern equivalent, alway find that lo-fi sound very alluring. Self Help have a bit of Pop shine buffing their music but seem much more comfortable when recording in a very simple, home-made way. I look around modern Rock bands and there is still too much gloss and over-production going on. It is good making sure your music rings clear but there is a loss of authenticity and meaning when things are too refined and machine-fed. The artists who provide something, essentially live-sounding, show a bravery but a nod back to a time when this kind of sound wasn’t optional. Many might say they are being nostalgic and throwback but, to me, it is the blast of fresh air music needs. I am still a fan of your traditional polished song but do find something curious and fascinating about songs stripped-back and basic. In those confines, it can be harder to exact as much potential and force as songs at the other end of the spectrum. In the case of Self Help; they evoke memories of days past but keep everything modern and primed for today’s market.
Gemma starts with some scratched strings before somersaulting in a concrete mixer. It is like a classic 1990s’ riff going about its own business before being liquidised in a modern-day snarling cement mixer. There is a trip and some sonic festination: it lurches than races with a distinct drunken swagger. It is an unexpected and unpredictable introduction that drags your brain through the left-hand speaker and the soul through the opposing. The introduction is a fantastic and flourishing thing that has a catchiness and consistency that gets right under the skin and will instantly ingrain in the membrane. For those who like things instant and memorable will find much to recommend and bond with right off. You sing along and tap the feet but get drawn into the complexities and colours that burst. The percussion rumbles and races but stops at moments and changes directions. One hears bass and guitar notes that weave and flirt with rapture and sexuality; it then calms and contorts before springing all over the place. The infusions and contradictions make it such a vibrant and fascinating thing. When the vocal does come in, there is a sound of the ‘90s – not sure why that comes to mind but I detect sounds of the Indie and Shoegaze masters of that time – and a real sense of command. The vocal has a haziness and sense of somnambulism which can make it hard to detect some of the lyrics but that does not matter. What one does get is a frontman who is affected by this central figure and someone who is casting her spell. In terms of the origins of the song; it is a little difficult pinning-down where it might have originated but one can hear the emotion and urgency in our hero’s voice. The band conjures a wonderful soundscape and, in terms of sounds, you can hear bits of The Stone Roses, The Levellers and other bands – but never think too heavily of them. It is a wonderful array of classic artists and originality working in unison.
Into the next verse, the composition is less overwhelming which gives the lyrics a chance to shine more. Our man asks the heroine a question: how she thought things would end. It might relate to a relationship that has hit the skids or a conversation that has turned sour. The hero seems in a good frame of mind and not too aggrieved at what is happening. Whether there has been some sort of natural dislocation I am not sure but there is casualness and cool that starts to come through. The background is less intense which leads me to believe there is some inner-harmony at the very least. Again, the band is terrific as one is bowled by that indelible spring and alluring concoction of notes and nuance. It is a fantastic cocktail of sounds that is never too heavy or under-produced. The band has that lo-fi greatness and a raw edge but there is something professional and fully-realised about Gemma. It is a song that could easily win over those who love their music polished and accessible but thrill others who prefer their music properly epic and live-sounding. I can imagine Gemma gains a great reaction when performed live as, listening to it in the context of the E.P., it seems like you are in the studio with the band. The heroine lives down by the riverside – that is where she resides – and is hiding herself away. One gets the image of the girl as a troll: sitting in fetid water and yelling at people walking across the bridge. Maybe it is something more human and modern: a rebel who spends time there causing trouble or looking for conflict. Perhaps she is reserved and hidden and someone who is best left alone. If you thought you could predict the composition and its course then you are in for a surprise. The track slows and almost stops near the end and has a calm and sense of intimacy to a point. Contrasted against the rushing and abrasive nature of the introduction; it is quite a switch and one that provides the song a greater range and sense of complexity. It is rare hearing a band that takes this much trouble crafting something rounded and considerate.
Most would sling together a (comparatively) simple composition and not really think about emotional and dynamic shifts. The hero lets his voice stutter and repeat: such a distinct personality and presentation that gives the music such a sense of class and quirk. In a scene where there are few individual and standout frontmen; it is refreshing discovering such a great and fascinating voice. Towards the final moments, the tempo changes pitch and speed and, again, catches you by surprise. It is another unexpected element in a song that keeps things interesting throughout. It will be impossible ignoring the hooky guitar and bass; that rumbling, intriguing percussion and an incredible vocal performance. Even if you misunderstand some of the lyrics or guess its origins – there is no denying it is a fantastic song and one impossible to compare with others. Gemma is the star of Always Trashy in Fillydelphia and shows what a consistent and brilliant band Self Help are. I cannot wait to hear more from them and see where they go from here. I can imagine they’d be an exceptional live proposal so that is something I need to do – go see the band in the flesh. If you only listen to one song – why would you do that?! – then Gemma is a great in-road to Self Help. It is a terrific song and one that will stick in the mind many days after you hear it. That is a tough thing to achieve in a packed music industry: the impressive thing is how easy and effortless the band makes it sound. That might be far from the truth but means many will be interesting knowing what their secret is. Whatever it is, I hope they do not reveal it and continue to record exceptional songs like Gemma.
Always Trashy in Fillydelphia suggests a band that have a sense of humour but keep their music serious. I have looked into the E.P. and love every track on it. A lot of bands produce an E.P. and have every song sounding similar: trying to create their ‘sound’ and show a consistency. Even if it is your first recording; there is no reason why you cannot be a bit varied and try different things. Gemma is the opener and I wanted to review the song as it kicks things off and is, for many people, the first thing they will hear of the band. The remaining three songs are distinctly the work of Self Help but each have their own personality. Before I come back to earlier points – Oxford’s music and lo-fi, Garage music; distinctive music and artists that are making an original statement; fitting into, but differing yourself from, the mainstream – I wanted to talk about the band and where they might be heading. Taking a look at The Oxford Times’ article at the start of March and Self Help were involved with a very important gig. Quoting from the article:
“OXFORD musicians and venues have urged music lovers to take part in the UK’s first nationwide live music survey tomorrow.
Tom Keogh, Rob Maclennan, Jamie Corish and Nat Jones of Flatlands are launching their new EP at the Library pub on Cowley Road in the city tomorrow night. They’re just one of dozens of acts playing across the city have and encouraged gig-goers to join the UK Live Music Census, dubbed ‘Springwatch for live music‘”.
It goes on to say…
“The census, a world first, has been orchestrated by professors of pop music at Edinburgh University”.
That Springwatch-for-live-music event is something that should be done every year but, on that particular gig a few months ago, there was a packed bill:
- O2 Academy, Cowley Road: Ashanti (R’n’B)
- The Cellar, Frewin Court: White Kite (ambient synth-pop and indie-funk)
- The Bullingdon, Cowley Road: Dot’s Funky Odyssey (Soul covers including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson plus originals)
- The Jericho Tavern: Masiro + The Hope Burden + Ghosts In The Photographs + Lee riley (Math rock; instrumental post-rock; atmospheric post-rock and drone music)
- The Library, Cowley Road: Flatlands + Slate Hearts + Self Help + High Tide Royals (Upbeat indie rocking and ferocious grunge noise)
There were coordinating events in Glasgow, Newcastle; Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton; Brighton and, naturally, Oxford, designed to see what challenges face the modern music industry and help it flourish. Researchers claimed Oxford punched comfortably above its weight with bands like Supergrass and Radiohead defining the city. The patrons and acts performing that night agreed Oxford’s music scene was hard to beat – good enough to rival the likes of London and Manchester. I have never visited Oxford so would not know where to head first of all. If recent events show anything: we need to take risks and be bold. Events of the past few days have shocked many but, out of the tragedy, has come this unity and extraordinary togetherness. The music industry has seen its best and brightest join forces to speak against the evils we have all witnessed. Music is a loving community but it is rare to see so many disparate and diverse artists appear alongside one another. The underground music community has been reacting as there is this increased defiance: the desire to keep performing and plug on. There might be some delays with gigs and some fears but before too long we will see things return to normal. Self Help are among thousands of artists who are looking ahead and planning their summer. I would expect them to appear in one of two line-ups but it seems they are getting a lot of reaction in Oxford.
The group has created a fantastic E.P. that definitely cannot be compared with any of their local rivals. Oxford has those exceptional alumni like Supergrass and Glass Animals but it is the new crop that are really interesting. I opened by asking whether the local press in Oxford and promoting their local artists but it may be a problem with the national press. Usually a music website or publication like Time Out does a ‘top-ten’ of bands from various cities. I am surprised there has not been one compiled for 2017 Oxford. It appears there are some great young acts emerging that need to be highlighted. Regardless, the city itself has that great mix of big venues and smaller spaces for all types of artists to perform. Ashanti, a U.S. R&B star, has played at the 02 Academy recently whereas Self Help have played at more intimate venues. There is nothing to suggest the guys will not be hitting the big arena in years to come and have that right on their doorstep. Maybe the cost of living is quite high so one wonders whether they will choose to live somewhere else in Oxfordshire. There are enough venues around the county but the real buzz and activity can be found in Oxford – easy commuting distance for Self Help should they decide to relocate. Oxford is not a city that dines out on its past glories without being able to offer anything new: plenty of eager and exciting new bands look set to keep the city’s rich and impressive music scene alive. Similar to masters such as Radiohead; the best bands in Oxford are ambitious and experimental but you can imagine their music surviving and inspiring many years down the line. I feel the mainstream media should do more to emphasise the music culture of various towns/cities. Whereas Glasgow, London and, say, Leeds have articles dedicated to their best acts of the moment – there is little on Oxford’s new music by comparison.
I shall leave things shortly but will talk a little about lo-fi, raw music that puts you, in a way, in a live context. Self Help’s primal but professional Garage-Pop is gaining them new fans but they have a lot of music ahead of them. I can see the guys touring wider afield and tackling international markets. A lot of artists produce glossy and well-produced music and then struggle to adapt it to a variety of live audiences. Replicating that sound on the road, whilst stripping some of the layers back, is a challenge and it can be hard figuring that out. Garage and Garage-Pop is a genre that is perfectly serviceable and popular but I am not seeing as much as I’d like. Self Help have a great sound and attitude and should, one hopes, they inspire other acts to follow their lead. Already respected in Oxford and making big strides in the city; I know the guys will not want to tamper too much with their established sound. I feel there are too few acts who have that lo-fi, exposed sound that appears like it is coming from a gig but sounds professional and nuanced. That is not easy to accomplish so full marks must be given to Self Help for crafting something unique. There are, I guess, a fair few other acts who have that same discipline and way of working but none have the exact sound and quality as Self Help. The band have a distinct and fantastic brand that is sure to see them taken far from Oxford in future years. They are in top form and have created an E.P. that will appeal to those who know Garage-Pop and people unfamiliar.
I shall finish up by congratulating the band for creating an original statement and separating themselves from the mainstream. They have the popularity and potential to fit into the mainstream but do not really conform to what is going on there at the moment. I guess every artist wants the chance to get under the spotlight and have the acclaim and respect of their heroes. Getting there, sometimes, involves compromising and turning your music into something radio-friendly and foreign. Some are okay with this but I do not think one should dispose of their identity in order to become popular. I can see Self Help being one of those bands who hits a rich vein and finds themselves being played by some of the biggest stations around. Whether that means they will be picked up by a big corporate record label – and asked to change their music – I am not sure but I hope they remain independent – or at least independently-minded. I guess the mainstream is not all about Pop acts and that commercial sound – there are plenty of artists who can retain their own sound and fit into the charts without too much loss of integrity. In the case of Self Help, they have such an original sound, I would love to see how they adapt and acclimatise to the modern mainstream. Until that day, one imagines it is coming, they are doing well in Oxford and lucky to be in a city that has a rich and impressive history. I hope too, when people hear Self Help, they look deeply at the Oxford music scene and the type of artists there. They have this attitude and ethos that shows pride for the city and supports one another: artists often keen to highlight their peers’ good work. Always Trashy in Fillydelphia – and the highlight, Gemma – is a fantastic work from one of those young bands you know will be a big deal down the line. Make sure you catch them whilst their (relatively) inexpensive because, before you can blink, the gang…
WILL be a pretty big deal.
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