Record review: Collar Up – Ghosts [Permwhale]

a0978403838_10If it’s possible for sound to look like something, then the layered harmonies of singers Stephen McLaren and Nina Noonan are ink dripping in to crystal clear water; mesmerising and eerie.

Half-way through your first listen, you’re torn between whether you find the unusual contrast of powerpop piano with ghostly vocals to be a jarring clash or a unique, complimentary sound; I now whole-heartedly favour the latter.


Piercing, chime-like vocals echo over minor key piano chords, the aptly named title track ‘Ghosts’ is a haunting introduction that lies somewhere between uplifting and spooky.

McLaren’s vocals range from smooth, soft, elongated sounds, to blunt and powerful, demanding messages.

Ethereal modern day power ballad ‘Every Man For Themselves’ is a real air-grabber.

The balance of gothic, gloomy piano, heart-breaking harmonious chords and Placebo-esque lead vocals produce the most theatrical offering from the Edinburgh based trio so far.

Reminiscent of Air Traffic, the piano builds to an improvisational jam vibe in many tracks but remains a heart-rending partner to moving vocals in others.

It’s features like this – the creative piano, McLaren’s slightly crackly vocals – that give this album life.

A gem nestled half way through the album, ‘A Jam Jar Full of Wasps’, allows Collar Up’s lyrics to take centre stage, coupled with a welcome rockier vibe.

It’s the most upbeat song from the album, with a belter of an intro – a firm favourite.

Beautiful and brutally honest lyrics match the ghostly powerpop balance perfectly; ranging from lost love to social inequality, public sector cuts and the North Korean dictatorship, they are a refreshingly frank reflection of our society.

‘I Wanted To Hurt You’ is another highlight, which develops steadily in to a booming anthem thanks to the punchy rhythm and raw, crackly vocals.

Wrapping up, final track ‘Let It Go’ echoes on from opening track ‘Ghosts’ with the same pool of un-resting spirit vocals tangled in piano power chords.

Trippy in the best possible way, soothing yet invigorating, and with a signature psychedelic, dream-like quality, Collar Up’s second album is consistent without being formulaic.

‘Ghosts’ is not polished, it doesn’t need to be; it sounds like a real live set, warts ‘n all.

That’s what makes it believable.

Words: Jessica Brown


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