At a time when many record labels are folding, restructuring or simply losing the plot in the unforgiving digital age, it’s relieving and comforting to find a relatively new one that is steadily expanding, broadening horizons and – most crucially of all – delivering never-less-than-interesting or lovingly-packaged musical artefacts. Since its approximate inception around 2005, as a means to put out tour-CDs for its flagship band, Last Harbour, Manchester’s Little Red Rabbit Records has been making gentle but relentless waves upon the shores of the self-sufficient music world. Embracing the lush aesthetic consistency of prime-4AD (with the rich art/design skills of Last Harbour’s Kev Craig), the fan-and-artist-run-friendliness of Merge Records (with Last Harbour’s David Armes fulfilling the Mac McCaughan/Laura Ballance role simultaneously), the envelope-pushing eclecticism of Thrill Jockey’s fledging roster (with ego-less personnel intermingling across releases) and the benevolent regionalism of Dischord (with most bands currently residing in the label’s Manchester neighbourhood), LRR is a traditional but forward-thinking enterprise well worth watching. However, great labels cannot survive on just sound business practices and alluring sleeves, so it is reassuringly that the three below recent, current and forthcoming LRR albums suggest that 2010 could be the year of the rabbit, not the tiger…
Lazarus Clamp – Against Entitlement (Vinyl+CD/download)
By virtue of forming way back in 1994, Michael Larkin’s resilient collective is a veritable veterans society compared to the rest of the relatively fresh-faced LRR roster. Endearing survivors of the UK vs. US post-rock wars of the late-‘90s – outliving fallen British contemporaries like San Lorenzo, Bob Tilton, Appliance, Rothko and Reynolds – Lazarus Clamp’s almost-retro angularity can’t help but stir up fuzzy memories, circa 1998, of gangly men with guitars crowding up the stage in Leicester’s Physio & Firkin, locking into battle as if Slint grooves were about to turn the rock planet inside-out irrevocably. That’s not to say that Lazarus Clamp’s latest wares sound anachronistic to contemporary ears though, given that the group’s diversifying evolution over the last decade and latter-day cross-fertilisation with the LRR crew (with Clamp members moonlighting in Last Harbour line-ups) has certainly helped to draw in a more rustic edge. So although the sinewy guitars, low-slung bass and polyrhythmic drums duck throughout the band’s first LRR LP (and fifth in total) with an energy worthy of Billy Mahonie’s wonderful What Becomes Before, winsome violins and banjos weave in earthier yet elegant strands worthy of Tara Jane O’Neil, Amiina and Rachel’s. Larkin’s Karate-indebted lyrical/vocal obliqueness remains a constant too, but it’s warmer and more affecting than ever before, especially when beautifully bolstered by a group sing-along on the stand-out “Canon.” Although Against Entitlement does perhaps fit a little too closely to the same stylistic combinations throughout, initially causing this scribe to dismiss it due to repetitiousness, somehow the heartening familiarity becomes a magnetic selling point after a half dozen spins. Wrapped in the most inviting Kev Craig sleeve to date, only amplifies the need for the album’s repeated retrieval from audio library shelves.
Hard Work Of Simple Things by Lazarus Clamp
Anna Kashfi – Survival (CD/Ltd. 2CD/download)
As possibly LRR’s most acclaimed, acknowledged and transferable talents, Anna Kashfi co-founders Sian Webley and James Youngjohns have undoubtedly gained themselves the confidence and resources to stretch beyond minimalism and restraint, as this third long-player proves. With Youngjohns increasingly flexing his multi-instrumentalist muscles and skilfully directing a gathering of regular/irregular extra accomplices (including members of Last Harbour and Samson & Delilah) and Webley deepening her leading-lady role, Survival is an ambitious but still subtle step forward after 2008’s potently plaintive Procurement. Moving through lethargic Lambchop balminess (“A Lonely Place”), bewitching near-gospel a capella (“The Loser’s Prize”), sliding rattling acoustic blues (“Red Rag Doll”), bluegrass balladry (“Bumblebee”), interwar kitsch (“Your Baby”) and urbanite darkness (“String Loop”), Survival vigorously cross-cuts genres with only a hint of dizziness. At the heart of it all remains Webley’s eerily cool presence; dreamy yet distant, touching but deadly. With increasing prowess she slips in barbed couplets into the sweetest sounding songs (notably on the seemingly innocent “Bumblebee”), cranks-up the claustrophobia in already desolate pastures (“1936”) and holds her weight against the baritone gravitas of Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher (on the duet “Devil’s Bridge”). Occasionally, there’s a feeling that the rampant eclecticism of Survival misses the collective mood-setting of its precision-poised predecessor, but there’s clearly no harm done in widening Anna Kashfi’s appeal with multiple-entry points and opening-up rooms for future career-lengthening development. An impressive new calling-card all told.
Red Rag Doll by Anna Kashfi
Last Harbour – Volo (CD/Ltd. 2CD/download)
Last Harbour may have earned the freedom to develop firmly at a self-set pace as LRR’s founding family, but there’s far from any laurel-resting on this fourth consistently accomplished full-length collection. Rather than sail again on the same stormy seas as 2008’s live-orientated Dead Fires & The Lonely Spark and 2009’s sibling Saint Luminous Bride EP, this fresh platter finds the forever expanding Last Harbour head away from stage-fixated waters in favour of deeper studio exploration. But that’s not to say the melodramatics have been toned-down monumentally, it’s more that they’re used more sparingly and differently. For whilst escalating epics like “Mount Analogue,” “The Fever” and “The Loon” still churn with raging Crime And The City Solution-saturated violence, they feel more like they’ve been recorded in a dimly-lit subterranean theatre than on the deck of a storm-ravaged pirate ship. Tellingly however, the stronger passages of Volo come through the quieter, gentler and stranger sides of the Last Harbour lexicon; previously explored on the ensemble’s Hidden Songs and October EPs. Hence, the frankly gorgeous organ-driven ambience summoned-up for “The Blood Is A Compass” is worthy of comparisons to Nick Cave’s seminal Your Funeral… My Trial. Elsewhere, “All Of My Triumphs Are Written In Your Hand” feels like a tear-stained ‘70s Stax soul-ballad lost down the back of Tom Waits’s drinks cabinet; the beatific yearning acoustic “Don’t Fall” could be an unplugged slow-mo Joy Division and the dank majesty of “Chosen Vessels” recalls the atmospheric moments within The Birthday Party’s Bad Seed and Mutiny EPs. Whilst the brimstone fire is a key part of Last Harbour’s collective DNA, perusing a less openly aggressive approach evidently serves to increase the range of the band’s abilities as true studio artisans rather than just intuitive performers. Given time, Last Harbour will no doubt build much further on the fresh possibilities present here, until then Volo is still an assured addition to the Last Harbour canon that existing fans’ hearts will embrace emphatically.
Sunken Bells by Last Harbour