Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 Chop Chop by Bell X1

Another Irish band. Can’t quite shake the Irish theme of recent years, and once again I was a little slow on the uptake. Although I had never heard of Bell X1 before coming across a video of “The End is Nigh”—one of the singles and my favorite song from CHOP CHOP—Bell X1 has been in operation for fifteen years, and this is their sixth album. They were a frequent opening act for U2, and although Bell X1 remain very popular in their native country, they are much less well known in the U.S.

Although this is definitely my Album of the Summer (and the year), once again I have had to fudge a bit on the happy criterion. Several of the songs are quite dreary in both sound and lyric—the band is Irish, after all—and the songs that sound upbeat and danceable tend to be about depressing topics such as the end of the world or “death by a thousand little downers.” So the happy criterion is deeply problematic once again. 

I think I like almost every song on this album, but there are a few that are worthy of specific mention. The long, wan chords of “Starlings Over Brighton Pier” (track #1) make it an intoxicatingly wistful piece that conveys a sustained sense of depressed longing (“They take me away from this place/From the buzzing of half remembered fails”). Here is the official video of "Starlings Over Brighton Pier":

“Careful What You Wish For” (track #3) is a great song for which Bell X1 has provided an artsy video (see the AOTS webpage), but I confess to not having a clue what it is about. The lyrics repeat the phrase, “Careful what you wish for. / ‘Cause these bulbs are the fluorescent kind / And no one looks good in this light.” It is easy enough to agree with this assertion, but there must be more to the lyric than meets the eye. At least, I hope so. Here is the artsy video:

The last song, “The End is Nigh,” is the one that clinched it for me almost before I’d heard the rest of the album. It is a raucously warm and loving song about—yes—the end of the world. In a kind of Irish fatalism, the song anticipates a final apocalypse by plague, asteroid, or nuclear war, but it uses this backdrop to think about love and friendship. The song asks the simple question, if the end were coming, whom would you want to hug for the last time? “Who would make the cut, when our time is up?”
Whose arms would I seek?
Whose eyes would I meet in the final throes?
And say it was good to be human.
To be a human with you here. 
Rather than being a downer, the music and the song are driving and exhilarating. I get teary each time I hear it. There are several videos of “The End is Nigh” available online, but my favorite is a live performance recorded last Christmas at Vicar Street in Dublin. The end of the video—which I have posted to the AOTS website—includes photo booth pictures of lovers and friends who would presumably “make the cut.”

As it turns out, Bell X1 is touring the U.S. in September. 



This is the self-titled debut album by a group of six high school friends from Baraboo, Wisconsin. Phox emerged in 2013 and has been touring in support of this first effort, released just this June. The group recently received mainstream recognition in the form of a very positive review in the NY Times (, so they are starting out well. Phox is led by singer Monica Martin, whose lilting breathy voice soars and dives in unpredictable ways. The songs are quite upbeat, including “Shrinking Violets” (track #8), “1936” (track #4), which includes some nice banjo backing, and the single “Slow Motion” (track #3). In contrast to the actual 2014 winning album—PHOX comes much closer to satisfying the AOTS “it must be happy” criterion. There is also an impish, artsy quality to the entire album, which is reflected in the band’s videos, all of which are very creative and appealing. “Slow Motion” is the kind of song you find yourself singing involuntarily, without warning.

Here is the official video of "Slow Motion":

In addition to the lighter numbers, PHOX has its more somber moments. I would not call any of the lyrics (all written by Martin) particularly inspired, but she takes on the infidelity of a lover in “Evil” (track #5) and a friend with problems in “Laura.” The seven-minute-long “Raspberry Seed” is a particular favorite of mine. It is a Ravel’s Bolero-like slow build that begins with a sad lyric for the first three minutes and then goes entirely instrumental, continuing the long crescendo driven by a rhythmic, almost Western-sounding guitar line.  

The final song is a happy but sly little ditty about an avoided relationship. It includes the refrain: “And for years to come in the mornings / You may think I'm the best thing that you almost had.”

Overall, PHOX is a fun album that reveals much midwestern talent. Martin is an infectious singer, and the rest of the band provides very strong instrumental backing. Highly recommended.

Here is the official video of "Kingfisher":

I will leave you with a repeat extra feature from last year. A song that has become a favorite anthem of summer: James Maddock’s “When the Sun’s Out.” I’ve appended a different video of the song this year, complete with its happy chorus:

When the sun’s out,
I wanna be with the one I love.
I wanna know what she’s thinking of,
Is she still in love,
When the sun’s out. 

When the sun’s out, 
I wanna go where the people go. 
I wanna fire up the stereo,
Hear that song I know,
When the sun’s out.

I hope you have a few more chances to fire up the stereo and be with the one you love while the sun is still out.

See you next summer.


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