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BAMMsterdam Review: dEUS – Keep You Close

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label: PIAS (Play It Again Sam)

listen: Spotify

dEUS are a rare breed of legend in their native Belgium. They’ve been the authorative style icons in the Belgian rockscene for nearly two decades, creating an impressive slipstream of artists indebted to their alternative rock idiom. Meanwhile, the Antwerp-based outfit’s path has been riddled with stylistic turns, clashing ego’s, political engagement and artistic soulsearching, spread across five studio albums. While some argue that dEUS have reached their artistic peak at their jazzy/experimental 2nd album In A Bar, Under The Sea (1996), this third line-up is perchance the most solid and surely the longest running incarnation of the band. Having arrived in their late thirties, leading man Tom Barman and his compadres have lost little -if any- of their restless artistic vigour.

live performance (Pukkelpop Fesival 2008) of Instant Street (from The Ideal Crash (1999))


The coming about of dEUS’ sixth studio effort Keep You Close is a peculiar one. Their previous studio effort Vantage Point (2008) was criticised for containing too much abrasive, one-dimensional machismo and too little stunning songwriting. Despite such anthemic staples as The Architect and Slow, it was dense, industrial and distant. Simply put: it was cooler than it was honest. The band declared they recognised it should be the other way around. As such, Keep You Close is an attempt at rekindling the intimacy and immediacy they used to emanate. Moreover, it’s also the first album that was written entirely by dEUS as a group, abandoning Barman’s songwriter-pieces in favour of collaborative works.

live performance (Lowlands Festival 2011) of The  Architect (from Vantage Point (2008))

These changes are felt throughout the album. The organic key-driven productions are a breath of fresh air, with a more laidback and loose atmosphere than any other dEUS album. Barman’s voice is calm and supple here, quite a relief from the aggreviated groans and shouting heard on Vantage Point. Of course there are plenty of raging outbursts left, but these seem to be less about ego-play and more like Barman actually has something to get off his chest. Dark Sets In and Twice (We Survive) have a particularly heartfelt delivery. This is enforced in a great way by the appearance of none other than Greg Dulli (ex-Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers) as guest-vocalist on these pieces, his bone chilling outcries a perfect match for Barman’s gravely baritone.

official videoclip for Constant Now


But in the end the group efforts pay off most on Keep You Close. Leadsingle Constant Now encourages you to shout along to the standout vocal of bassist Alan Gevaert in the chorus, while the marimba-infected Ghosts sees the entire gang singing as one. Whereas many past dEUS staples revolve around dialogue and contrast between the vocalists, this time around they achieve a solid uniformity-in-variety. dEUS still contains very different characters with their own unique traits (insert culthero/leadguitarist Mauro Pawlowski), but they’re all thoroughly focused on their collective output. There are hardly any standout bits here that can be attributed to any one member of the group.

a live performance (Berlin Festival 2011) of Ghosts


Keep You Close is a clear statement about dEUS in 2011 BC. It’s one of their most cohesive efforts, with very clear artistic outlining from start to finish. The intimacy they were shooting for is very well represented here. Don’t mistake dEUS for a borderline popact, though. They’ve maintained a proper balance between the catchy sing-alongs and the chorus-free spoken-word bits (End Of Romance) or the long-spanning epic stuff (Easy). Will it please their old school fans? Probably not, but then again most of them made their minds up long ago. The music lovers whom have no problem giving a new dEUS record a spin can feast their ears on an inviting, nine song collection with an appeal that stretches well beyond the first dozen listens.

Interested in the recording process of Keep You Close ? Check out this short documentary below!

BAMMsterdam Review: Awkward I – Everything On Wheels

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album cover art

label: Excelsior Recordings

What does it take for a misunderstood, slightly whimsical songwriting genius to be recognised? Following his 2009 debut “I Really Should Whisper”, Awkward I (alias Djurre de Haan) was widely recognised as a talent of sorts that could go a long way in the (global) indiefolk scene. His mix of folk-song craftsmanship with bleak-romantic perspective and a healthy dose of pop sensibilities took him around Northern Europe and the United States, but failed to deliver him mainstream acknowledgement. He is established alright – thanks in part to his association with Alamo Race Track- but only just. For all the admiration he gets from his peers and connaisseurs, the larger audience just doesn’t seem to get his work.

Sophomore release “Everything On Wheels” does nothing to discard Awkward I’s wayward persona and bleak world view, but does so in a grander, more extravert manner. Recorded in several sessions with Excelsior Recordings’ producer-in-residence Frans Hagenaars, the album keeps the spotlight firmly on De Haan’s breathy vocals and crafty guitartunes, while creating a richer musical environment for him to prosper. There’s Beatles-esk string arrangements, hefty drum barrages and plenty of mandolines to go around. Songs such as Let’s Get Ready To Die, Hannah Hung Heavy and leadsingle/titlesong Everything On Wheels are little gems of folk-pop brilliance, striking a perfect balance between accessibility and depth. We also see some first steps towards more experimental songwriting, in the odd pair Your Oxygen Mask I & II. In part I, the drums and guitars duel in rhythmic patterns as De Haan sings of suffocation in a eerily calm voice, while part II seems like a church-hymn mourning a loss… it implies ‘murder’ without saying it in a very Hitchcock-like manner.

“The setting is perfect, but I just don’t belong here” De Haan sings on the title track. This statement seems to point towards to very different things. On one end it’s about inspiration: Awkward I’s sense of displacement and, in some cases, sarcasm towards the world around him fuels his songwriting in a strong way. But, instead of wallowing in sorrow or remorse, Awkward I brings light and comfort to his gloomy songwriting universe. What De Haan probably didn’t mean to say, is about the production of Everyting On Wheels. Perfect settings don’t always make for perfect recordings. One could wonder about the potency of these songs when stripped of their thrills, enrichments and additifs. There are a few sparsely arranged tracks present (Sat Pretty Lips Pursed, The Unknown Character), and they stand out because of it. But overall these songs are less in-your-face than his ealier work, the edges softened to please a larger audience. It seems forced in a way.

Still, there’s no need to be nitty here: Everything On Wheels is a keeper. There are very few albums as uplifting and deeply melancholic at the same time, fusing the immediacy of pop with traditional folk and a depth all its own. Awkward I pulls it off in a grand manner. Here’s to hoping everyone else will have the same realisation, the second time around.

BAMMsterdam’s Lowlands Festival 2011 Route

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The Lowlands Festival (full name: A Campingflight To Lowlands Paradise, happening August 19-21) is a hard thing to get away from on the Dutch festival calender. With some 55.000 paying visitors, and over 200 acts on more than 10 stages, you could say it’s the highpoint of the festival season. For some, it’s the closest you can come to the garden of Eden. BAMM.tv will be out in force to give you ample insight into and coverage of this monumental 3-day event. In order to get the party started, below is day-to-day list of acts to watch. We will also be shooting some footage for a very special documentary project the BAMMsterdam crew have been working on, more of which we’ll share early september (so watch this space!)

FRIDAY

The first day starts off strong with British goth-punk garage kids The Horrors at the India stage, an indie-dominated tent. From what I’ve heared, their third album Skying might really give these guys wings. Canadian songwizard Destroyer is another must-see at the small open air stage Lima. His 9th album Kaputt is a slick piece of 80’s jazz-pop-rock magic. I’ll definitely be hanging out there for the performance from Jungle By Night. Withouth doubt the revelation of this summer. Nine kids from Amsterdam, teenagers for the most part, playing insanely groovy afrobeat gems. Enough to put a smile on any Nigerian’s face. Furthermore, James Blake and Fleet Foxes are not to be missed for obvious reasons. They’re just the best at what they do, dub-pop and pastoral folk-rock respectively.

It’s also worth checking out Belgium’s top rockband dEUS playing the main tentstage Alpha (cap. +/- 20.000). Their newly released single Constant Now hasn’t really settled in yet, but their live show is second to none. Expect it to be loud, groovy and deeply melancholic for the most part. For some nighttime entertainment, LA’s very own The Gaslamp Killer is our break-psych-rock-step-hop maniac of choice. The Netherlands and mr. Killer have certainly hit it off recently, resulting in a string of his characteric anarchistic DJ-sets in recent months.

SATURDAY

We’re starting early today with BAMM.tv staff favorite Palmbomen in X-Ray, the place to be for fresh bass sounds and awesome weirdness. Now Berlin-based Dutch producer Kai Hugo is hoping for the sun to draw the crowd out of their tents early. He’ll have some appropriately sunny chillwave/italo tracks ready for them in his spaced-out LED timemachine. BAMM.tv is hoping to hear some new tracks of his to-be released debut full-length. To learn more about Palmbomen, check out THIS INTERVIEW BAMM.tv had with Hugo in March. We’ll stick around there for Canadian psych-rockers Suuns, as well. Their wild, left-field alternative drones and fuzz is a more than ample way to clean out your ears for the second half of the festival.

Another top-favorite is Berlin producer/prodigy Sacha Ring AKA Apparat. While his regular MO is as a dj and laptop act, today he’ll be taking to the stage in a band formation, giving way to his more indie and ambient tendencies. Belgian sirene Selah Sue is also not to be missed on Alpha stage. Fusing soul and singer-songwriter with hiphop and dubstep, this talented young superstar has been catching soaring reviews and ecstatic audiences. The live program at Alpha stage finishes in style with Elbow. These venerable grandmasters of soft-spoken indie melancholy will bring a touch of subtlety and civilisation to this hedonistic event.

SUNDAY

So we’re two days in, soar and hungover and perhaps a tad muddy (even though the predictions for the weather are very good, you can never count on it down here!). What’s the best way to get us going on this final day? Perhaps some tail-shaking to Antwerp Gypsy Sky is your remedy, or you take it slow with Montréal’s dub-minimalist Deadbeat. Our choice is Little Dragon. The quartet from Göteborg, Sweden were already hitting the scene pretty hard in the past couple of years, but their recent album Ritual Union should be their big break. What better way to wake up than dancing to some really smart 80’s electrofunk tunes. Don’t ask us!inflatable water pool

Choices are a part of festival life, and we’ve got a few to make. Rock out with dutch pride De Staat and hiphop legends The Roots, or go deep with Trentemøller’s atmospheric electronic orchestra? Perhaps the latter, as we’ll be getting plenty of guitars from The Kills and Warpaint later on. Both bands have a pretty sweet pairing of lush female vocals and gritty guitarwork. And let’s not forget Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa’s heavy grooves! We’ll get our share of hipster vibes from the likes of Twin Shadow and Jamie Woon, but those might be easily forgotten if and when mr. Richard D. James is having a good day. The main man behind legendary Aphex Twin and WARP label is notoriously unpredictable in his performances. Will he go all conceptual artistic on us, take to the skies or get down and dirty? Check out at own risk!

BAMMsterdam Review: I Am Oak – Oasem

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The release of his second full-length On Claws in 2010 heralded a remarkable development for Thijs Kuijken aka I Am Oak. The shy Utrecht-based singer-songwriter suddenly faced spotlights and rave reviews, a kind of attention he wasn’t used to deal with. Even if it was fully deserved based on the lush vocal harmonies and subdued folksongs that sprouted from his voice and guitar, he was more than a little ambigious about his rise as a public figure. You could say Kuijken matured as an artist in the year that passed, in full light of the public opinion.

A notable asset of I Am Oak is the group’s productivity. Since the release of On Claws in 2010, I Am Oak recorded two albums – one of which came into being in Finland. The first to be released is Oasem (pronounce: awesome) an album that sounds very distant from his previous work, but at the same time hugs the most important quality of his music: the vocals. The warm melancholy and sweet harmonies (often dubs of his own voice) survived the transition from traditional folkee to edgy indiefolk artist. As engaging a record as On Claws was, it somehow felt like an exercise into a style of songwriting he admired in his idols: Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes being the predominant associations. On this new release, Kuijken finds a style all his own. Lo-fi organ sounds play an important role, as well as a battered old electric guitar. Drums and bass are louder and distorted at times, making for an intruiging contrast with the vocals.

Oasem cover art

Lyrically, Kuijken still looks to nature for inspiration. In many ways, his lyrics reflect tendencies associated with the late-Romantic era in arts and literature. Having said that; it doesn’t take much imagination to link the album cover (Kuijken is photographed from the back as he looks out across a lake) to Caspar David Friedrich’s trademark painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. A fitting image, as Oasem is a record that ponders the wonders of life as much as it celebrates them. Meanwhile, the slightly more bombastic approach is another area where I Am Oak overlaps – at least in intensity – with Romantic era music esthetics. Listen for instance to the song ‘I’, where Kuijken sings with a deeply emotional tremble in his voice that resembles the great Antony Hegarty. If there ever was a great modern Romantic, it’s Antony.

"Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer" (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich

Oasem will speak to I Am Oak’s folk-loving crowd, but it’s also an album that clears the playing field for explorations into a host of new musical directions. Keeping in mind the background of his fellow bandmembers (whose other projects range from post-hardcore to electropop), it’s only fair to expect the unexpected from I Am Oak in the future.

Considering it’s productivity, quality of songwriting and young age (Kuijken is still in his early twenties), I Am Oak is only at the beginning of what might become an impressive catalogue. But that’s a thing of the future. For now, Oasem is a new landmark in I Am Oak’s young existence: a wonderful album that is both soothing and daring. Impressive stuff.

info/tourdates: iamoak.com/

social media: @iamoak

[Snowstar Records – 2011]

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BAMMsterdam Review: Alamo Race Track – Unicorn Loves Deer

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When Alamo Race Track released their breakthrough 2nd album Black Cat John Brown (and eponymous hit single) in 2006, its main songwriter and singer Ralph Mulder was immediately recognized for his ability to craft songs like wonderful little miniatures, bereft of any pretence or grand gestures. The crossover doo-wop / indie the Amsterdam quartet put out was playfully arranged and deeply melancholic at the same time, the fusion of which sounded quirky but very familiar. BCJB created a sizeable audience for the band in the Netherlands, France and the United States, including airtime on the hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy. No small feat for these modest Dutch craftsmen. Unfortunately, they hit a few roadbumps on the way to their third studio release. The band went through a series of changes in the line-up (bringing drummer Robin Buijs and vibes/percussion player Rik Elstgeest -of Eckhardt fame- into the mix), as well as numerous side projects. There were whispers Alamo Race Track was no more – a rumour the band dispelled in 2010 when they appeared as composers and musicians in the theatre production Innenschau by acclaimed Swedish director Jakop Ahlbom

With the release of Unicorn Loves Deer, their third album in eight years, there is no doubt Alamo Race Track is still alive and kicking after their long hiatus. A lush collection of 11 new songs, the album features some of the strongest songwriting we’ve heard from Mulder to date. Again, the band’s colourful arrangements stand out from the get-go. A noticeable change is the somewhat lighter, upbeat mood emitting from the album. On the opening song Apples for example, Mulder repeats the line “We’ve got hope for the future”, which can be seen as a statement that despite all its setbacks, the band is looking up instead of down.

Unicorn Loves Deer artwork

There’s a remarkable transparency in the production of Unicorn Loves Deer, tuning down the unruly rhythmic patterns and scruffy guitars of BCJB to allow more space for Mulder’s intricate (vocal) melodies. This is especially apparent in the infectious The Moon Rides High and the dreamy Motorman And Owls. The band’s shift to more roots-oriented grounds had been foreseen in the many acoustic sessions they’ve put online, in many cases reshaping their songs for the better. Still, there’s no lack of drive or energy on this album, with the cool boppin’ tune Lindyshop and groovy titletrack as prime examples.

Unicorn Loves Deer is a wonderful album, that goes from strength to strength without missing a beat. And just to add icing on the cake, it bears the promise of great live renditions, too. There’s enough intimacy to cherish for theatre audiences, but plenty of vivacious rhytms and folkrock-stomp as well to please festival crowds. If Alamo Race Track kan keep up with their recordings in a live setting, they could give acts like Fleet Foxes, Local Natives and even Calexico a run for their money. All in all, a great comeback from one of the Netherlands’ foremost indie-folk-rock champions.

Unicorn Loves Deer is available as a stream on their website. Also, check out their live set from the OOR 40th anniversary party at Paradiso HERE.

BAMMsterdam Review: Das Pop – The Game

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When Flemish band Das Pop made a comeback with their self-titled 3rd album in 2009, it seemed as if they had never left. Das Pop (the record) delivered some of their best cuts of the infectious seventies pop that made them so enjoyable in the first place. Their airy, upbeat energy, mixed with bittersweet undertones and crisp sonorities, feels like it’s been around forever. Yet, the band’s quality songwriting, plus the instantly recognisable voice (and daft stage antics) of singer Bent van Looy make Das Pop one of the top brands in Belgian pop music.

The Game (artwork)

Times are changing however. These gentlemen have progressed well into their thirties, and a new generation is itching to take their throne as catchiest popband in the Benelux (Dutch electropop  outfit Lola Kite and Flemish indiepop prodigies Balthazar among them). The Game, Das Pop’s fourth studio effort, could be seen as an answer to the question of their ambitions for the next 10 years. In it’s own right, it’s another pretty upbeat collection, with plenty of clever popsongs. But there’s also a more pensive state of mind that surfaces on The Game. It seems Das Pop has slowed down to take a look at it’s situation; past, present and future. You can almost hear them wondering “can we still get away with acting out teen dreams like we used to?”

The answer is somewhat ambiguous. While some songs on the album keep up the energetic, partying-on-a-saturday-night-in-the-seventies vibe they’re known and loved for, but there’s also plenty of room for new -more intimate- musical directions. Consider “Flowers In The Dirt” for instance, a mid-tempo lovesong, in which Van Looy seems to play on more down-to-earth, mature motives. He examines a troublesome relationship with a calm and collected perspective than in his days as a spokesperson for teenage dreams and angst. Along the same line, “Fair Weather Friends” trades-in despair for the kind of sarcasm you would expect from a wizer, older guy looking back on teenage tribulations. Meanwhile, “The Thunder” is the kind of piano-ballad you’d expect from Joe Jackson, one of the quoted sources of inspiration. The other is ABBA, whose intelligent, songwriting casts echoes throughout the album (listen to “Gold” and tell me you don’t hear it, I dare you!).

Sonically, The Game is a bit darker, and more layered than it’s predecessor. The guitars are scruffier, the drums (courtesy of the amazing Matt Eccles) dryer-sounding and the overall sound a lot less breezy than on Das Pop. It’s a risky step, but they’ve managed to keep it within FM-radio bounds for the most part. No surprises here: They’re not the types to go overboard on soundscaping or self-indulgent introspection. Das Pop are nothing if not craftsmen with an eye for their audience. When Van Looy commented in an interview: “in making this album, we tried to be as uncool as we could be”, it’s hard to believe. These guys are still earning plenty of cool points for their efforts.

Das Pop

The Game might be a more mature record, with less straightforward audience-pleasing cuts. But it also capitalises on the kind of self-awareness you need to keep making music and stay credible even beyond your teenage-heartthrob years. The album is unmistakenly a part of Das Pop’s evolution from frantic disco act to a more serene, adult pop outfit. It left a few hickups on this album, but I guess that’s all in The Game. In any case, it leaves nothing to wonder as to whether Das Pop will come out victorious the other end, ready to create many more gems of popmusic over the next decade or so.

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