james debate
james debate

Sunday 22 April 2012

Believe it or not, 2012 is off with a bang and whipping by at a lightning pace. The time has come for a little catch up and since I'm feeling extra generous, here's three hot off the press reviews of noteworthy new albums. Today we have for you the latest LP from American indie stalwarts The Shins, followed by two of the year's hottest debut releases in the UK Lana Del Rey and Dry the River:

"Port of Morrow - The Shins" Album Review
Genre Alternative Rock

port of morrow the shins With their humble indie credentials established through hits like New Slang and advertised through the medium of Zach Braff, James Mercer's band was the American indie darling of the mid 2000s. They released 3 albums in 6 years, then went on hiatus for the 6 years hence.

Following their debut the band has tried to expand their sound with each release more eclectic than the last, ranging from bubblegum pop-rock to psychedelia and prog-rock. Apparently dissatisfied with this as a creative outlet, Mercer himself has since dabbled in various side projects and collaborations, notably with elite producer Danger Mouse. Now he returns to the act that gave him prominence.

At times this latest effort might seem their most traditional sounding album so far, and yet the band have not sacrificed the indie edge that made them stand out. You have your classic fare here from the impossibly catchy lead single Simple Song to deliciously breezy acoustic numbers like September, while other standouts include the ultra funky, almost Bowie-esque Fall of '82.

There's no reinvention of the wheel here, but for fans of The Shins or just good catchy rock and roll here's another offbeat collection of summery tunes to enjoy.

"Born to Die - Lana Del Rey" Album Review
Genre Pop

lana del rey born to die One can't help but feel sorry for Lana Del Rey, dismissed as a one hit wonder months before her album even saw the light of day. Such can be the cruel effect of a wildly successful single like Video Games. Not to mention the spate of harshly negative press she's received in America.

The critics have been predictably polarised then, between those who hold this view and others who are more generous. As usual, I take a more middle ground view. This album is not bad by any means, but at the same time it's a victim of its own hype.

This album contains a handful of solid pop-noir songs like Born to Die and of course Video Games, along with a number of today's typical radio staple of hip-hop infused pop which are more hit and miss. The truth is that nothing on this album, even the good songs, comes close to matching the musical and lyrical richness of her lead single. Perhaps it is the curse of high expectations, but much of the album sounds bland, with genre staples that have been done better by other current artists, and lyrics that are very superficial.

I suspect that ultimately this is an album caught between two niches, that of mainstream pop and the more sophisticated singer-songwriter. As the former this is a perfectly serviceable album that ranks alongside the likes of Adele and Duffy that will no doubt find many fans of a certain demographic, but for those who heard Video Games and expected the latter, disappointment is inevitable.

"Shallow Bed - Dry the River" Album Review
Genre Indie

dry the river shallow bed It's traditional to start the year with a heavily hyped new British band, but this is something a little bit different. Dry the River have been around for ever it seems, touring, receiving favourably coverage and pride of place on "hottest new band" lists, and now finally we have the finished product.

Dry the River are a difficult band to define, in equal measures purveyors of whispy folk in the vein of Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes, and more bombastic chamber rock, taking a page from the likes of Thom Yorke and Arcade Fire.

It's impressive, then, that they manage to drift so seamlessly from one intensity to another, assuming the best elements of their influences while bypassing their faults. Lead single New Ceremony  is a fiery multi-instrumental epic of Freddie Mercury style flamboyance and radio friendly polish. By contrast we have Hammeran acoustic track of such elegance it could pass for Mumford & Sons if not for the fact that it sounds more interesting than watching paint dry. Other standouts include History Book with its luxuriant arpeggios and misty lyrics.

It's a solid effort overall with some fine songs and a consistently accomplished production. Unfortunately "good" never becomes "great". Much of the album is instantly forgettable, and one feels that even the highlights are destined for a short lifespan. This is a band that shows promise, but not yet ready to join the vaunted annals of the great British indie scene.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Genre Soul, Acoustic, Folk
Label Polydor Records
Producers Paul Butler

m83 hurry up we're dreaming review ephemeric

Here at the Ephemeric we are only too happy to admit when we are mistaken, as rare as that is. One such mistake took place not all that long ago when we bumped Mr. Kiwanuka's debut album off our top 10 most exciting albums of 2012 and gave it a mere honourable mention. It didn't take long for us to realise the error of our ways and you may consider this review the appropriate remedy.

Michael Kiwanuka seems strangely out of place receiving the sort of hype he has, as a soft spoken acoustic singer in an age of Lady Gaga and Adele; his music treads the well worn path of artists like Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman with a tint of 60s/70s soul, lacking both the sonic pomp and thematic melodrama of his most successful contemporaries. These are lyrics of a more existential context, about persistence and self worth, aimlessness and seeking clarity. It's a far cry from Adele's songs about failed relationships or Black Eyed Peas going out clubbing.

Yet almost by accident his debut album Home Again manages to be a bit of a crowd pleaser. Kiwanuka imbues his retro styling with a modern edge and likeable melodies that seem to appeal as much to the mainstream as to the more discerning music lovers out there.

The obvious examples lie in the titular lead single Home Again, a wistful strummer evocative of a grittier reimagining of early Jack Johnson, and I'll Get Along, which strikes a more jaunty, summery note.

Where the album really impresses, however, is with its capacity for the unexpected. Upbeat opening track Tell Me a Tale characterises this dynamism with its rich instrumentalisation and pleasantly unexpected tonal shifts, while slow burners like Any Day Will Do Fine and I Won't Lie lend real weight to Kiwanuka's otherwise feather-soft vocals.

Paul Butler's production of the album is sublime throughout, with perfectly pitched and suitably satisfying melodies and a wide range of instrumental textures, but it is Kiwanuka's voice that really makes these songs so special. That it's malleable enough to hit the jazzy smoothness of Bones and the R&B soul of the superb I'm Getting Ready highlights a truly unique talent.

This is just a taste of an album where really every song is worth listening to. Home Again manages to accomplish what few others are capable, a balance between the sincerity of a substantial work and the accessibility of a music sensation.

Must Listen
I'm Getting Ready

Tell Me a Tale

I'll Get Along

Home Again

Monday 2 April 2012

Everyone enjoys a good cupcake, on this we can agree. If you don't, then clearly you just haven't found the right cupcake. That's where we come in; this is the Ephemeric's ultimate guide to cupcakes in London, running the rule over the most notable luminaries of confectionaries that this great city has to offer. For those of you with a sweet-toothed disposition, consider this the I Ching of frosted treats.

London town is no stranger to this distinctly American creation, but as with many transatlantic imports few establishments manage to really nail the subtleties of what makes a good product into a great one. Cake that is dense and moist, soft but not crumbly; icing that is neither rock hard nor pure liquid but rather strikes a suitably pudding-like consistency that melts in the mouth; and above all a flavour that is not too sweet, a tragic yet common mistake.

This guide has been a while in the making, and a lot of good cupcakes have been eaten in the name of science. So read on and enjoy as we cover the key dispensaries of which any cupcake aficionado should be aware.

6. Peyton & Byrne
Where: 196 Tottenham Court Road, W1T 7LQ
Price: From £3.00

peyton and byrne cupcake The self proclaimed rose of British baking, P&B somewhat off-puttingly labels their cupcakes by the British moniker of "fairy cakes". Nevertheless their reputation is such that it warranted a visit. At first I was somewhat worried about the variety of flavours here, eschewing the basic standards in favour of more exotic ideas such as "frou-frou" and lemon meringue which don't always work. Fortunately the cupcake itself is solid, with the icing in particular quite artistically crafted. However if P&B has one major flaw, it's that the cakes err much too far on the sweet end of the spectrum, another very British trait.

Rating on Cupcake-O-Meter:

5. Buttercup Cake Shop

Where: 16 St. Albans Grove, W8 5BP
Price: From £2.50

buttercup cupcake londonSadly not the same Buttercup as the excellent cupcake chain from New York, but clearly finds its inspiration in the American ethos of caked treats. The buttery, creamy icing is everything it should be in terms of texture and flavour, but the cake batter itself is a bit on the dry and crumbly side. More impressive is the periodically changing variety of flavours on offer which always ensures something fresh and new for returning patrons.

Rating on Cupcake-O-Meter:

4. Primrose Bakery

Where: 69 Gloucester Avenue, NW1 8LD
Price: From £2.00

primrose bakery cupcakeThe Primrose Bakery is something of a local favourite for those of us from north London, and gains points for being one of the more reasonably priced entries on the list. Cute, colourful and with near perfect icing, the cupcakes nevertheless lose standing with the rather more dry cake batter. Still, the variety of flavours and general yumminess ensures this will be a fixture for years to come.

Rating on Cupcake-O-Meter:

3. Peggy Porschen Parlour

Where: 116 Ebury Street, SW1W 9QQ
Price: From £3.50

peggy porschen parlour cupcakeFormerly a designer of bespoke cakes for weddings and events, Peggy Porschen opened her delightfully pink and chocolate parlour in Belgravia a little over a year ago. This dispensary is as expensive as one might expect, but warranted by the quality of product. The cake is light, but moist, with the icing delicious but a little bit on the thick side. The menu serves as a great example of how to non-standard flavours correctly, with the likes of strawberry champagne and vanilla chiffon displaying a fine balance of creativity and tastefulness. PPP also receives the highest commendation here for presentation and decoration; artistic without taking away from enjoyment of the cupcake.

Rating on Cupcake-O-Meter:

2. Bea's of Bloomsbury

Where: 44 Theobalds Road, WC1X 8NW
Price: From £2.50

bea's of bloomsbury cupcakeBea's is famous as one of London's favourite tea shops, and also widely known as a purveyor of wonderful cakes of varying descriptions. Buy your cupcake individually, or alternatively wander in and sit yourself down for one of their afternoon teas, which comes with a cupcake of your choice. The cupcake itself is very tasty, with a rich darkness to the icing that resists the urge to go too sweet. But the lack of sugar means the cake batter is perhaps not quite as moist as it should be, though by no means too dry. Bea's is another establishment which excels in the aesthetic side of cupcakery, and the range of flavours will keep you coming back to try something new. Keep an eye out for their cookies and cream cupcake.

Rating on Cupcake-O-Meter:

1. Hummingbird Bakery

Where: 133 Port0bello Road, W11 2DY
Price: From £2.00

hummingbird bakery cupcakeThe undisputed daddy of London cupcakes, and comparable to the very finest anywhere in America, Hummingbird is required eating for anyone in this town. The cake is delicious and moist, the icing of perfect texture and sweetness. The sprinkles are delicious but non-intrusive, and the presentation as a whole is top rate without going over the top, as one might argue is the case with Peggy Porschen. Their selection of cupcakes may not be the biggest, but the quality can't be beat. As a bonus note, most of their products can be bought gluten-free if necessary.

Rating on Cupcake-O-Meter:

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