Live Review: Owen Denvir EP Launch – Sunflower Pub Belfast – 26/09/15

The intimate venue of The Sunflower bar made the perfect setting to showcase and promote some of the thriving musical talent that Belfast has to boast of. Although the evening was main act Owen Denvir‘s EP Launch, overall it felt more as though it was simply three friends getting together to play some music.

Kicking off the evening with a finger-picking guitar set was David Brown Murray. Right from the onset he manages to gauge that uniquely captivating quality that finger-picking guitar style has the ability to bring about, leaving the audience with no doubt as to his talent as a musician. Immediately fast-paced with a layered sound, it at moments has something of Latino influence but moves beyond this into an unashamedly creative sound that is extremely fun to listen to.

A highlight of the evening was his cover of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” from the film Flashdance. Not immediately a song that would strike you as working particularly well adapted to guitar never mind finger-picking guitar and without vocals. Yet it worked extremely well and the novelty of hearing such a popular song creatively reworked into the finger-picking style confirmed the audience’s investment in the music. Covers work particularly well for David Browne Murray due to how different the sound is from the original yet how seamlessly he has been able to translate the song into the finger-picking style.

Other covers included “Cavatina” from the film Deerhunter. Undeniably Simon and Garfunkel-esque, it provided a touch of repose from the up until now, fast-paced sound. He finished his set with a cover of The Beegees “Stayin’ Alive” which was immediately recognisable to the audience. It’s infectious rhythm even managed to get a couple up and dancing. Yet such a short set ultimately left the audience looking for more.

Next up was Hannah McPhillimy who started off her set with her song “Kindness.” Sang simply with the accompaniment of her ukulele, this ensured that her distinctive voice stood out. Simplistic but charming, her songs enthral right from the onset. Her voice and musical style are Gabrielle Alpin meets Regina Spektor, with a bit of Laura Marling thrown into the mix in places too for good measure.

In her second song “Heart” the influence of Regina Spektor rings out markedly through both her vocals and her piano style. With ardent, conversational lyrics that mull over relationships and our place in the world, her songs have a maturity and a relatable element that renders her music memorable.

Alternating between her ukulele and the piano throughout her set, Hannah showcases her talent as a musician in the space of her short set. You are left with the feeling that you have discovered an artist who is really something quite special.

The evening progressed from finger-picking guitar to piano and ukulele infused folksy vibes and over to acoustic goodness with the third and final act of the evening, Owen Denvir. His first song of the evening “Jack Hammer” is a slow but utterly infectious tune that flaunts from the onset, Owen’s impressive vocal range. With a simplistic but memorable chorus “My heart beats like a jack hammer” it is an undeniably catchy song that piques audience’s attention from the onset.

Although catchy, “Jack Hammer” sets the tone of good old bittersweet melancholia infused acoustic music. While Owen very much keeps to the musical expectations of an acoustic artist, he does this with evident talent and a passion that shines throughout his set. His emotionally fuelled singing on songs such as “Coast of Spain” and “Stones from Paris” has the ability to keep the audience rapt by verses that hope for better times in sunnier climes and the difficulty of keeping relationships adrift when geography gets in the way.

One of the highlights of his set however was his duet with Hannah for the track “Staring at the Sun” the second track of his new EP. With a chorus of “I still hold a light, a little light for you” this song approached a more lighter, feel good territory of sound with both Owen’s and Hannah’s voices complimenting each other right the way through the song.

This more uplifting theme is continued right into the next song that Owen explained was written and performed as the first song at his brother’s wedding. With an instrumental intro played on the viola it definitely has the feel of a wedding song as it is right from the onset both uplifting and emotional in sound. The addition of the viola certainly made for an interesting turn from acoustic expectations and added another intriguing dimension to the evening. Owen manages to hit the high notes perfectly in this song and with a chorus of “It’s easy to see that you and me are meant to be” it’s easy to envision this at a wedding.

Owen’s set goes above and beyond the expectation of him as simply an acoustic artist. While this element remains intact for most of his set, it becomes evident on certain songs throughout the night that he is exploring a more experimental and varied sound that rings more of Ed Sheeran than say James Morrison. Describing how he’s “Gonna go hip hop” on a ranty song about an old boss, you are met with a sound more likely to make you dance than to contemplate life and it adds an interesting layer to his sound. Overall it displays a progression as an artist and a willingness to explore sounds outside the sometimes predictable nature of acoustic music. It highlights a certain maturity as an artist and will ensure in the longrun that his sound retains and welcomes interest.

Album review: Darwin Deez “Double Down”

It has now been six years since New York band Darwin Deez bounded into the alternative music scene with their self-titled debut album. Best known for their first single ‘Radar Detector’, its up-beat and quirky sound has become synonymous of their music catalogue overall.

However, this is the problem with latest album Double Down – it sounds almost exactly the same as their first… and second album. While it is somewhat admirable to hold on to their unique, up-beat sound it is also slightly tiring to hear songs that have little variation. It feels like they are going after the safe option and sticking to what they know works. While there is no denying that Darwin Deez can write irresistibly catchy songs, a large majority of the songs on Double Down feel like attempts at attaining the same degree of catchiness that has worked so well for them in the past. The result is an album filled with songs that are difficult to differentiate from one to the other.

Yet, this isn’t to dismiss the album without merit. Darwin Deez have released two singles from Double Down, the first being ‘Kill Your Attitude’. It is easy to see why this song in particular was chosen to be released as a single – it retains that ever-beloved element of whimsical guitar riffs while also building another substantial layer of musical exploration that most of the album feels bereft of. Overall, it feels like a much more confident song because it isn’t so reliant upon the energetic sound that brought them attention as a band in the first place. With an impressive guitar solo incorporated and more vocal range than the majority of the album, ‘Kill Your Attitude’ is the most ambitious offering within.

This isn’t the limit of musical experimentation however. ‘Rated R’ has a lo-fi, heavy sound that contrasts sharply with the sound we have come to expect from the band. Having front man Darwin Smith’s voice against a grungy guitar and drums combo is what makes this ‘Rated R’ stick out so much. His voice and the obligatory guitar riff have become part and parcel for Darwin Deez’s fan base. With lyrics “We can slip into the theatre showing Fight Club, who cares about nightmares anyway?” and “You can kiss me on the mouth, I like the way that feels,” this song is a nostalgic reflection on the awkward transition from being a child into being an adolescent, having a crush on someone. These lyrics combined with the unconventionally heavy sound serves to encapsulate a rebellious, experimental sense to the song that pairs with the subject matter in a pretty clever way.

Penultimate song ‘Right When It Rains’ manages to catch the Darwin Deez speciality – irresistibly chirpy and infectious, positive vibes. It’s these moments that make Darwin Deez’s music so impressive and almost makes you want to excuse the handful of other songs that somehow just feel like rip-offs of this sound. With simplistic lyrics that include “Let’s go dance in the storm, if lightning strikes I’m ready for it” it is the kind of song that has the capability to lift your mood right away and bring even a tiny grin to your face.

‘Right When It Rains’ beside ‘Kill Your Attitude’ really hits the nail on the head for Double Down and ensures that the band undoubtedly has the potential to get that balance of retaining their unique sound whilst exploring other sonic avenues at the same time. Fingers crossed for album number four.

Also published on state.ie

Internet trolls are a small price to pay for engaging comment sections

Upon reading Jessica Valenti’s recent article for The Guardian “the case for ending online comments” I was aghast to read her argument against keeping online comments sections running. It seems to me the equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing to block out hearing other voices.

Nonetheless, it has got me thinking about whether “cyber-bullying” and internet trolling are indeed enough to legitimate her case. Valenti argues that “comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage” yet I have frequently found the opposite. Like many, I cannot wait to read the comments sections after reading an article as, I feel, they extend the narrative beyond the parameters of the article itself and probe subjects that word counts perhaps simply couldn’t allow for. More often than not I see engagement in debate as opposed to “a sea of garbage” but then again, perhaps one man’s garbage really is another man’s treasure I suppose?

Comments sections are like driving. Perhaps a strange comparison but stay with me. Most of the drivers you encounter on your commute are reasonable and abide by the rules of the road. But eventually you’ll come across a driver with a crazed sense of entitlement and importance, in a rush somewhere and willing to speed, beep, overtake and endanger others to get there. Still with me? Great. Like communicating via the web there is a (wind)screen between you and the outside world that means you can get away with a bit more than you would in a normal face to face encounter with someone.

Having been on my R plates for almost a year now and making some small driving errors with other drivers’ eyes on me, I am almost fully convinced that the real ugly, nasty cores within (some) people are awakened whenever they get into that drivers seat. And the same goes for typing up a comment under an article, there’s ultimately nobody else to stop you. Like a vehicle, you’re completely in control of it.

CONVOLUTED DRIVING COMPARISONS ASIDE, despite the “garbage” in comments sections there is some real gold among comments and that shouldn’t be undervalued because some ridiculous stone age, sexist comment is posted among it. Most of the time narrow mindedness reaps what it sows whenever a multitude of people urge a troll back into its cave through retaliation. I mean, if said troll posts his/her comment they are equally taking the risk of criticism also. As someone who trawls through many, many comments in articles simply because I find them fascinating to read, I’ve seen more discouragement of trolls than engagement with them from other commenters. But, it’s completely dependent on the article.

It feels as though the risk of criticism from internet trolls is a risk worth taking if it brings a fresh perspective and one that is perhaps not always agreed with but ultimately valued in bringing colour to an issue and stimulating debate. A friend of mine recently stopped himself from unfollowing Twitter profiles that were at odds with his own point of view. His reasoning behind this was that if you block out everything that is at odds with your own point of view you will be surrounded by only that which you consider correct and bring about the illusion that a certain stance on an issue is the only one that matters. The same is applicable here. Blocking out voices isn’t a viable option for news platforms such as The Guardian.

As someone who edited the opinion section of my university’s student newspaper for a year, I thrived upon reading others opinions on issues. I still (evidently) really enjoy reading opinion articles even the ones that make my blood boil through how (SUBJECTIVELY) wrong I think they are. But surely that is the beauty of opinion writing? I am slightly shocked that as a columnist Valenti would be discouraging engagement from her readers. Her own writing is dependent upon her opinion and opinion articles exist to provoke debate and stimulate thought, they ultimately thrive upon reaction.

The part that hit the hardest in Valenti’s article however was the notion that “Outside of the few places that have rich and intelligent conversation in comments, what is the point of engaging in debate where the best you can hope for are a few pats on the back from strangers for that pithy one-liner?” What’s deemed rich and intelligent is completely subjective and while most aren’t paid to air their opinions, that doesn’t undervalue them. It also seems that a lack of pats on the back from strangers has been the very fuel to Valenti’s fire.

It would appear “the never-ending stream of derision…that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved” which Valenti complains about is simply being re-applied to those delivering such notions to her. She’s simply engaging in a never ending “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?” battle.

Ultimately, internet trolls who post ridiculous comments simply for the fun of it are a small price to pay for the stimulation of real online debate. And with individuals being able, more than ever, to engage with issues online, de-sensitisation to trolls is imminent if not already happening.

Over-qualified but no Experience: What is a Degree Worth Nowadays?

The way we understand a university education is changing rapidly. The idea that a university degree is the ticket to your dream job is not one that is relevant or true to a large extent now. With more than half of UK graduates in non-graduate jobs, it feels pertinent to stop and ask whether university is actually worth it nowadays. Have we reached a point where school leavers should turn their backs on the assumption that university is really the next logical step?

Okay, there is no doubt that university is a great experience. A first taste of real independence, meeting new people and getting involved with societies can teach you a lot about yourself, bring you out of your shell and simply change you for the better. The university experience is, and always will be, a positive one for personal development. Yet of course this experience comes with an exceedingly large price tag – tuition fees, student accommodation and everything else in between.

While it’s true that student loans don’t have to be paid back until you’re earning over a certain amount, it can still feel pretty demoralising to know that there is somewhere between ten and thirty thousand pounds of debt hanging over your head before you have even reached your mid twenties. So, it is really no wonder that graduation day had a certain bittersweet feeling to it. All the hard work paid off in achieving the grades I wanted but I feel I speak for many fellow graduates in saying that I don’t feel any more employable than I did before I completed my degree, combine that with the pile of debt and you have a very bitter feeling indeed.

The assumption that university is assuredly the best option for school leavers is one that should be altered. Although, I’m glad I completed my degree and thankful I had the opportunity to do so, I also feel I would have benefited at the time I was applying to uni from some advice that a degree is not the only means of attaining a “good” job or indeed your dream job.

We have all faced the deflating moment checking the criteria for a job only to find that it is essential to have a certain amount of experience to even be considered for it, no matter how enthusiastic you are about it. Indeed, a mere glance on the requirements for a job you’re interested in will show that there is much besides a degree that will make you a desirable applicant. As a graduate I bitterly have come to understand that work experience and skills really mean a lot more to a prospective employer than simply a degree. And that isn’t even to say I don’t have work experience either. I’ve worked part time for the guts of five years whilst studying.

While a degree shows you have the dedication and hard work to persevere with something difficult, it is just common sense that your degree won’t measure up beside someone who has A-Levels and three years’ extensive experience in the field you are applying for. Would it have been better to leave school, try to get some work and work your way up from there? Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development chief executive Peter Cheese has stated that “It’s crucial we as a nation take stock now of whether our higher education system is delivering desired returns for graduates, for organisations, and society,” further outlining that apprenticeships may be a better option for school leavers than higher education. You can earn money, learn workplace skills and gain valuable work experience all at the same time. Yet, an apprenticeship wasn’t even something I had heard of until recent months, it was never something I’d came across in careers classes at school.

Yet with a record number of students heading to university this September in the UK, the university option for school-leavers is not losing any of its popularity. While workplace skills and experience count for a lot when applying for a job, the abundance of young people in the UK who will have a university education will very likely, in the long run, have an impact upon qualifications criteria for jobs. This means that with work experience held in high esteem combined also with education expectations being raised, jobs are very likely to just get harder and harder to attain.