Smoke Fairies
From: London, UK

Jessica Davies
Katherine Blamire

Sounds like: sorrow, pain, and beauty.

I came across the Smoke Fairies completely by chance when they opened for somebody else at a tiny gig over a year ago. I can't for the life of me remember who they were opening for. That's in large part due to the fact that I was too busy falling absolutely head over heels for Jess and Kaf's aching, heartbreakingly lovely songs. Songs like 'Living with Ghosts' and 'Troubles' built moody, complex stories with little more than two-part harmonies and American roots guitar playing. It was, in a word, magical.

Fast forward a year or so, and the Smoke Fairies have acquired a drummer, spent time touring with Bryan Ferry, gotten Ed Harcourt to play in their backing band, and have recorded a bunch of new songs, which are currently making me fall for them all over again. A little more instrumentation (most notably, bits of piano melodies), a little different orchestration, but the same folksy textures and gothic storytelling combine to make powerful, irresistable music.

Favorite song: Wake You Up

Other reading:
Smoke Fairies interview on TuneTribe
Lobster Quadrille Magazine review


Factory Floor

From: London, UK

G. Gurnsey

M. Harris

D. Butler

Sounds like: it's 1979 and it's still neu

To read the bio on their MySpace page, Factory Floor has gone through a number of lineup adjustments in their time, so there's bound to be a variety of different sounds in their music. There is...sometimes they sound like Joy Division, sometimes they sound like the Fall, sometimes they sound like Wire.

I am teasing, just a little bit.

The core duo of Factory Floor, G. Gurnsey and M. Harris, clearly share a musical heart with Holger Czukay and Mark E. Smith, and lineup changes or no, there's no escaping those influence pumping through their veins. With the addition of D. Butlery, they've solidified as a trio, so we add, perhaps, a bit of John Cale, and run with it.

In songs like "Francis Francis" and "BiPolar," sparse beats create tensions which minimalist guitar and bass structures strain and break into explosions of anti-pop energy. In some sort of contrast, the instrumental "And Stood Listening to Anxiety" is a lush, cinematic soundbite; a snippet of a CAN diversion that simply must have a super-8 film attached to it somewhere. The dynamics will be familiar if you were up on Factory Records "back in the day," but there's a reason so many of those bands are still influential today. Factory Floor goes far beyond paying tribute to the infamous label's post-punk sound but instead creates it entirely anew, with great results.

Favorite song: Francis Francis


No Picasso

From: London, UK

Ronnie Joice - Vocals
Dan Fatel - Guitar
Jo Xorto - Bass
Ben Hutchinson - Drums

Sounds like: good old fashioned swagger rock.

Y'know, sometimes you can just tell where a band is from, and if ever a band sounded like a London band, it would be No Picasso.

With a driving rhythm section and sparse guitars unencumbered by heavy effects, No Picasso hearken back to the 60s London scene, with an absolutely infectious abundance of young, raw energy and talent. If the Strokes claimed the legacy of the Ramones and the New York Dolls, No Picasso are claiming the early days of the Stooges or the Kinks, and it's fabulous.

The lyrics have a loose, stream-of-consciousness attitude, but never get sloppy, and are bursting with raucous, punk bombast and confidence. Ronnie Joyce's cavalier vocals contrast with shout-along harmonies to create a dynamic that almost demands you join in.

The sound is a bit rough around the edges (they are currently unsigned, and all the MySpace tracks are listed as demos), but that's a huge part of what makes it work. At the same time, it strikes me as sound that would come off as manufactured and artificial coming from anywhere but London. Exciting stuff.

Favorite song: Paprr Bag


Port O'Brien

From: Oakland, CA (and Port O'Brien, AK)

Van Pierszalowski - guitars, vocals
Cambria Goodwin - banjo, vocals, keys, mandolin
Caleb Nichols - bass, vocals
Joshua Barnhart - drums, vocals, autoharp
Zebedee Zaitz - guitars, vocals, keys

Sounds like:

The spin on Port O'Brien goes that the Oakland band spend their summers working in the Alaskan fishing industry, and those long days of grueling work and isolation on Kodiak Island have fed the creative rat. While maybe not completely capturing the essence of the Alaskan archipelago in the same way that Calexico evokes the desert southwest, the similar influence of location is patently clear. The short newspaper blurb I saw which prompted me to look up Port O'Brien said this:

"If Calexico capture the widescreen, lonesome dustiness of scorched America, Port O'Brien are like their damp, more intimate equivalents."
It's a nice image.

But thematically, I find a better parallel in Death Cab for Cutie's album Transatlanticism: where Death Cab explored the isolation of fame and yearning for intimacy during long stretches on tour, Port O'Brien tackle the same loneliness, longing, and disconnection experienced in weeks and months at sea. The jangly, folk-tinged pop, stylistically akin to REM or Sun Kil Moon, is a perky contrast to the gray images of boats, rain, and exhaustion of being at sea which dominate the lyrics. The romantic notion of the Alaskan fisherman is contrasted with the danger, the exhaustion, and bleakness found in the day to day grind of being there.

In desperation is hope, though, and far from being moody music for a rainy day, I find even the slower songs like "Tree Bones" to be full of life and spirit. It's easy to imagine the simple acoustic sounds coming out of a fishery dorm late at night in celebration of getting through another day. As suggested by the title of their debut album, All We Could Do Is Sing, what else is there to do?

The cannery probably hasn't been a source of much more than cash for most, but Port O'Brien has found it a rich inspiration for creating great music that will appeal far beyond the remote Alaskan towns from which it grew.

Favorite song: Alive for Nothing

Video: Port O'Brien interview and concert footage