Music Review 13/10/17 – Beck, St Vincent and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: The OOZ  – King Krule

Far from easy listening, and not something you can stick on as background music, The OOZ is a dizzying head trip inside an abandoned bar the size of a mansion. What King Krule does so compellingly is to beckon together genres that might otherwise have been afraid of each other, then gets them really drunk before slow-dancing with all of them. ‘Half Man, Half Shark’ gasps with sweaty punk, ‘Biscuit Town’ has the nourish gleam of neon in the rain with its Zawinul-esque keys, and ‘The Cadet Leaps’ is like that feeling of trying to hold in tears but they come out anyway.

He makes the distance between the next galaxy and the next pub seem almost comparable with how cosmic even the most downtrodden moments feel. On ‘Dum Surfer’, a night out getting ‘mashed’ in the bar sounds equal to getting your head stuck inside a comet; ‘Czech One’ makes the instruments in a seedy jazz bar seem as lonely as the vast expanse of space itself. But it’s all part of one distinct record, and by god that record is glorious.

Highlight: ‘The Cadet Leaps’

https://plus.google.com/100743427557480395487/posts/4wtwA4LXX9Z https://1xbet.zerkalo.bet Rating: 9/10

 

Colors – Beck

Beck can’t decide which side his bread is buttered on a middling selection of dance-pop tracks that alternate between joyful abandon and nasty, bizarre clashes of identity. ‘I’m So Free’ sounds like Smash Mouth trying to do DJ Jazzy Jeff, whilst ‘Dear Life’ feels like the weird lovechild of divorced parents that can’t decide if it wants to live with Paul McCartney or Josh Homme. That being said, Beck at least brings a crisp production to the proceedings, alleviating some of the more soupy material from complete cohesive dissonance from its other tracks.

Highlight: ‘Seventh Heaven’

Rating: 6/10

 

 

Morning After – dvsn

Where Morning After does work is in the anachronistic clash between deep, rattling R&B beats and elegant, wistful keys, conjoined to those vulnerable vocals from Daniel Daley. Such is the power of this pairing early on, between Daley and producer Nineteen85, that the less engaging middle stretch of the record comes as a disappointment. It becomes predictable with none of the bite of opener ‘Run Away’, or the two-pronged tough-to-generous duality of ‘Nuh Time/Tek Time’. It’s only on barn-burning ‘Body Smile’ does the inspiration return. It’s moody and murky, but there’s a very familiar 80s glow lurking in the darkness that makes it an instant highlight.

Highlight: ‘Body Smile’

Rating: 6/10

 

 

Beautiful Trauma – P!nk

P!nk’s production team rarely get out of the way of her great voice here. Where they do manage to, such as on ‘But We Lost It’ and closer ‘You Get My Love’, she doesn’t so much stretch herself as draw attention to the theatrics of her own voice. But elsewhere, schlocky writing and too many good sounds on top of each other choke her presence out of the mix.

Highlight: ‘You Get My Love’

Rating: 5/10

 

MASSEDUCTION – St Vincent

For an artist who deals in bizarreness, MASSEDUCTION feels oddly tame. It constitutes a series of build-ups that mostly have no payoff, like the bridge of ‘Los Ageless’ that’s far too good for the song itself, and the slow-burn opener of ‘Hang On Me’ that feels like a slow into at first, but actually seems like a blueprint for most of the rest of the album. The final stretch yields some wonderful stuff: ‘Slow Disco’ and ‘Smoking Section’ are as abrasive as they are poppy, and they get the best of both worlds. Alas, St Vincent’s wacky angular-pop gets largely left behind here.

Highlight: ‘Slow Disco’

Rating: 6/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

Too much is lost from both artists here; Barnett has none of the dry wit she had in her solo work, whilst Vile is mostly missing the self-deprecating drawl of his. Each rambling garage rock track is nondescript, save for opener ‘Over Everything’, the only track to fully capitalise on such a hang-dog pairing. Within those 6 minutes is the lofty guitar work of Barnett’s more melancholy work, her downtrodden optimism, Vile’s shrugging pessimism, and a glimpse of the better album this could have been. The rest is just lazy, and genuinely disappointing about it, too.

Highlight: 5/10

Rating: ‘Over Everything’

Music Review 6/10/17 – BUMPER EDITION, with Benjamin Clementine, Marilyn Manson, Liam Gallagher, Phoebe Bridgers and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.

Welcome to the largest edition of The Music Review we’ve ever done! Recently, with a larger frequency than normal, several albums have gone through some discrepancies involving the precise release date of the album, several were missed out over the last few weeks and none of the albums originally slated for this week seemed appropriate to miss. This week, we’re looking back at Phoebe Bridgers, Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine, and Torres, whilst also covering Kelela’s first studio album, Kele Okereke’s third solo album, Liam Gallagher’s solo debut, Marilyn Manson’s new record and The Darkness’ fifth studio album…

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Stranger in the Alps – Phoebe Bridgers

It feels like sadness has been done to death at this point. Nick Hornby put it best in High Fidelity that people worry about the exposure children get to violence or sex in cultural work, but nobody ever has concerns about kids listening to ‘thousands, literally thousands, of songs about pain, heartbreak, rejection and loss’. The central conceit of probably at least two-thirds of popular music comes down to a central theme of sadness.

What Phoebe Bridgers brings to that back-catalogue is partly so effective because it doesn’t linger. Instead of throwing platitudes at her listeners, Bridgers is frank with her words. On ‘Funeral’, she says matter-of-fact-ly, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time’, and on ‘Motion Sickness’, she states with a real heartbreakingly deadpan tone, ‘I hardly feel anything at all’. It’s pretty enough musically, with some standouts in that area, but Bridgers doesn’t mince words. When she says something, she means it.

Highlight: ‘Motion Sickness’

Rating: 9/10

 

I Tell A Fly – Benjamin Clementine

Clementine continues his trademark skill of flummoxing the music commentariat. Outside of some flavoursome references to prog-rock drum sounds and interpolations of ‘Claire de Lune’, his art-pop sound is as left-field as ever. Amongst the more definable qualities are Clementine’s really rich piano textures; a spacious, muscular production; and his ear for a really confounding couplet. I defy any music critic who says their imagination wasn’t piqued by, ‘For the difference between love and hate/weighs the same difference between risotto and rice pudding’. The rest is completely unclassifiable, just as Clementine likes it.

Highlight: ‘Quintessence’

Rating: 8/10

 

Pinewood Smile – The Darkness

A predictably crass album that still misses the mythic nuances of its forebears. Amongst its redeeming features are the entertaining show-off tricks on ‘I Wish I Was In Heaven’ being translated into something interesting, and the comforting possibility that it’s all one big joke. If that’s true, they got the parody spot-on. If not, it’s just rubbish.

Highlight: ‘I Wish I Was in Heaven’

Rating: 4/10

 

Fatherland – Kele Okereke

Despite ‘playing it safe’ not working on the measly Bloc Party record Hymns last year, Fatherland delivers a frequently engaging piece of work that perhaps sacrifices some of its sincerity for jaunty fun. The records best moments come when it’s the other way round. ‘Versions of Us’ and ‘You Keep On Whispering His Name’ are particularly probing, spare tracks that make simplicity sound alluring rather than dumb, and lay Kele’s relationship uncomfortably bare.

Highlight: ‘Versions of Us’

Rating: 6/10

 

Take Me Apart – Kelela

Kelela works best when forward momentum propels her tracks out of that heady, humid space that clouds the more impactful moments. How she gets those moments is actually quite a mystery: some might argue that her harmonies (lifted wholesale from TLC and Destiny’s Child) are her secret weapon; others would say the synths, which are thick and sound suspiciously like analog equipment, separate the cloudy from the clear. It may even be that the fusion of 90s female sexual liberation in her lyrics and influences as diverse as Arca and Toto make her a figurehead for R&B in the current year. Whatever the case, Take Me Apart sounds as steamy as it is brainy and places Kelela near the front of the pack.

Highlight: ‘Frontline’

Rating: 8/10

 

 

Heaven Upside Down – Marilyn Manson

Marilyn Manson sounds on this album as though he’s an atheist teenager who’s just started listening to Marilyn Manson and tried to start his own band. It’s cringe-y enough when people try to make alphanumerical spelling a thing again (‘SAY10’, ‘KILL4ME’), but when Manson does it, exhibiting less bravery than both his early work and his most recent, moodier, subtler record, it just sounds boring.

Highlight: ‘Blood Honey’

Rating: 4/10

 

 

Three Futures – Torres

For the most part, a stable marriage of interesting sonic choices and bizarre, but nonetheless compelling, lyrics. When Torres brings in influences from ambient music, they somehow make her direction clearer, yet her more frenetic, clipped material feels far too chopped to warrant repeat listening. It’s the lyrics that offer a consistent, wacky through-line for the record. Whether it’s bleak imagery (‘I busted my guts on the Myrtle viaduct/And those guts are nobody’s now’) or a fizzy piece of wordplay (‘I am not a righteous woman/I’m more of an ass man’), it retains its unorthodoxy pretty consistently.

Highlight: ‘Marble Focus’

Rating: 7/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: As You Were – Liam Gallagher

Liam Gallagher is like that popular school-kid that tells other kids their painting sucks then grows up and becomes a third-rate tattoo artist specialising in misspelling people’s names and shouting at the owner of the deli next door.

Perhaps that’s too specific, but I don’t care, I hate the guy and his music. If he can get away with running out of ideas, so can I.

Highlight: ‘I Get By’

Rating: 3/10

Music Review 22/9/17 – The Killers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.

New, multicultural collective Cristobal and the Sea release their debut and The Killers return with their first studio album in five years…

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Wonderful Wonderful – The Killers

What makes the new Killers album such a romp is the production. The songwriting, whilst not tepid, doesn’t necessarily have the instantaneous zest of their greatest moments. But the sound of the record is wonderful, filled with luscious, full-blooded callbacks to pulsating 80s pop and Springsteenian driving rock. The Boss even gets a namedrop on the album, although it’s clear from Brandon Flowers’ impassioned performances that Bono was the closer reference point for him. He nails a pitch-perfect impression, complete with arena-sized glides from note to note and a consistent tone that sounds far cleaner than the transistor-esque, grease-flecked drawl on the group’s debut all those years ago.

The fatal flaw is in the consistency of the thing: after 8 consecutive tracks of wonder and surprising soulfulness, the final two tracks feel pretty listless, offering little more than hokey stomp-rock (‘The Calling’) and vague arena rock (‘Have All The Songs Been Written?’). Steep finishing gradient aside, Wonderful Wonderful hits a lot of the right marks for an all-round solid effort.

Highlight: ‘Tyson vs Douglas’

Verdict: 8/10

Exitoca – Cristobal and the Sea

What starts as a bracing, cultural infusion of Afro-beat and Eastern textures, via Talking Heads’ brainy new wave, drifts into the dream pop equivalent of The Beatles’ ‘Within You, Without You’. It’s a shame because it sounds as though it could have been so much better: opener ‘Goat Flokk’ crackles with the excitement of a multicultural collective throwing their influences into a test tube and standing back for the fireworks. Minor interlude ‘The Leaf Isn’t Turning Red’ suggests that the melting pot was still going at some point during the recording of this album. But the group’s desire to create an antidote to the ‘cold and sexless Brexit reality’, as stated in the Bandcamp liner notes for the album, just becomes dull, even through the record’s economically short runtime.

Highlight: ‘Goat Flokk’

Verdict: 5/10

 

Luciferian Towers – Godspeed You! Black Emperor

I liked that Godspeed took a more rhythmic approach to this than to their previous effort, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress on this record. It propels tracks forward more often, such as on the entire ‘Bosses Hang’ suite and the final part of ‘Anthem for No State’. In fact, on the former, it almost contradicts the grandiose magnificence of their image with cheeky, just-shy-of-rock-and-roll momentum. On the latter, it’s possibly the most bombastic, and straightforward, they’ve ever sounded. But there’s a lack of invention in that, which, while not entirely diminishing the fun of the album, does strip it of emotional weight. Coupled with a droll production that doesn’t compliment the band’s penchant for celestial experiences, and the whole thing feels muted.

Highlight: ‘Bosses Hang Pt. I’

Verdict: 7/10

 

– The Horrors

If an album is filled with songs unable to break out of their stagnant chord progressions, making those songs twice as long as they should be doesn’t help the matter. On The Horrors’ latest LP, most of the tracks run in excess of five minutes, making the sluggish industrial glam-rock even more interminable than it is already. Their saving grace comes in the form of some neat production tricks, which at least create a richer texture of heavy percussion balanced with some nimbler treble instruments, and the closing track, ‘Something to Remember Me By’. As though it has leapt from some different album chock-full of neon-lit synth pop, the sharp drums on easily the best track from the record offer a counter to the more enveloping noise that precedes it, making it bittersweet and wonderful.

Highlight: ‘Something to Remember Me By’

Verdict: 4/10

 

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Ununiform – Tricky

Profoundly unappealing and dull, Tricky’s new album is little more than a series of indistinguishable guests singing indistinguishable hooks on largely indistinguishable songs. It’s dour, absolutely no fun, unimaginative and doesn’t stick after it’s finished.

Highlight: ‘Running Wild’

Verdict: 2/10

Music Review 15/9/17 – Prophets of Rage, Foo Fighters and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.

Rock behemoths Foo Fighters re-enter the scene, and Rostam launches his solo career in proper…

 ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Half-Light – Rostam

Unsurprisingly, Rostam’s first proper solo outing (after the charming, rustic collaboration with Hamilton Leithauser, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine) has a lot going on. Along the way on this rollicking synesthesiac’s wet-dream, we travel to New York, the ends of the earth, the cosmic expanse, India, and Rostam’s bedroom. Clearly, the guy has a lot on his mind.

It shows on every facet of this album: the production is busy, although never murky and unintelligible. Textures weave in and out of each other like a really packed club sandwich, except the sandwich is filled with sweets, all kinds of cream, fondue, chocolate, cake, chocolate cake and a lot of wine. But Rostam savours the moments that matter: playing in the same sort of vignette, snapshot style as Frank Ocean’s Blonde (on which Rostam was credited as a songwriter), the album goes from the dizzying and colourful (‘Half-Light’, ‘Never Going to Catch Me’) to the slow and beautiful (‘Hold You’). It’s a little disorientating, and like I said, there’s a lot to unpack. But Rostam’s vision is clearer than ever, and he’s given us a promising start to a likely-illustrious career.

Highlight: ‘Hold You’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Dedicated to Bobby Jameson – Ariel Pink

It feels like there was a really good EP drowned by album-length filler on Dedicated to Bobby Jameson. Where it succeeds is in the tracks that sound far more like ‘songs’ rather than ‘jams’. Whether Pink is aping Morrissey (‘Feels Like Heaven’) or Ray LaMontagne (‘Another Weekend’), he makes melancholy sound beautiful again. Even on closer, ‘Acting’, the strange kitsch-y 8-bit funk sounds like it could have easily featured on a really great forgotten computer game soundtrack. But on strange offshoots like ‘Santa’s in the Closet’ and ‘Time to Meet Your God’, he sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of King Gizzard.

Highlight: ‘Feels Like Heaven’

Verdict: 6/10

 

Concrete and Gold – Foo Fighters

I think I must be one of the few music writers who genuinely loved Sonic Highways. What the Foo Fighters did on that record might have been an autopilot job, but it was rarely boring, the production-arrangement marriage was wonderful and the group performed brilliantly. Thus, the problems with Concrete and Gold reveal themselves immediately: they did exactly the opposite of what they did last time.

Well, save for the playing: all of the band members are great musicians, make no mistake. But pop producer Greg Kurstin (why on earth the group gave up Butch Vig, I have no idea) can’t get his production out of the way of the songwriting, which, while not overly interesting in itself, at least could have been elevated by a good sound. Instead the hammy classic-rock references (Led Zeppelin on ‘Sunday Rain’, ‘The Sky is a Neighbourhood’) get mired in a swamp of compression that takes away the dynamics and the boom of records past.

Highlight: ‘Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)’

Verdict: 4/10

 

The Aviary – Galantis

A confident, bouncy EDM sugar-rush that makes its vaguely familiar structures and patterns seem fresh with really strong production on all sides. What makes Galantis so distinct is that they seem to understand the melodic potential of pitch-shifted vocals like very few others in the business. On ‘Hey Alligator’ and ‘Love on Me’, the rush of a really soaring melody simply wouldn’t work without the elastic vocal stretching. The fact that Galantis know how to play to their biggest strengths (slightly zany, slightly cheesy dance-pop) might make them safe to some, but to others they’re unselfconscious and ebullient fun.

Highlight: ‘Hey Alligator’

Verdict: 7/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

The musical equivalent of Jill Stein shouting at you for 40 minutes and then graffiti-ing your house.

Highlight: Go away.

Verdict: I should have got a medal for sitting through this entire thing.

 

Music Review 8/9/17 – The National, Zola Jesus and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.

The National make their return…

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Okovi – Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus’ new album is stunning. For a start, her breathtaking control over her sound, which often sounds like she’s using mere tools of the studio to battle nothing less than the elements themselves, sounds even more assured than Ahnoni’s similarly primordial Hopelessness from last year. Indeed, much of her lyricism seems to be concerned with basal materials: blood, ash, water. Even more interesting is the fundamentally uplifting sentiment of the same lyrics, encouraging self-love, perseverance and optimism, even in dark personal turmoil. ‘Siphon’ acts as a motivational intervention in the thought process of a suicide, whilst ‘Exhumed’ pleads that you ‘don’t let it hold you down’.

But it’s the voice that stands proud above all else. Like an operatic songstress atop Mt. Sinai, Zola Jesus finds magnificence in her beautiful wail, and comes into her own as a true artist. Shaping her voice around the beautiful arrangements, she makes certain that every spectral moment on Okovi cuts deep. Verily, she succeeds.

Highlight: ‘Siphon’

Verdict: 9/10

 

Antisocalites – Alvvays

It seems to be becoming increasingly difficult in indie rock to write songs that actually jump out at you. Alvvays have proved that a melody still has the power to jump out and violently hug you whilst you playfully scramble to catch your breath. Indeed, breathless is a good way to describe the wistful 33-minute runtime of Antisocialites, which packs a tremendous amount of energy into its tight space, both musically and lyrically: heartbreak and resignation to a burnout have never sounded so excitable.

Highlight: ‘Lollipop (Ode to Jim)’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Sleep Well Beast – The National

Their twitchiest album yet, and a much grittier affair than their dreamy, liquidated Trouble Will Find MeSleep Well Beast finds The National still doing what they do best. Although it’s arguable that this is the weakest of their albums since the early stretch of their career (largely down to Matt Berninger’s much less complex lyrical fascinations), the group’s penchant for finding new avenues within their songs seemingly mid-performance is undiluted here. Feverish with quiet agitation and anxious production choices, Beast finds the group as uneasy as ever, and the album is a work less of extended dread than immediate unrest. Is it a mental discord or a sociological uneasiness? Possibly more likely is that Berninger is drawing parallels between the two, although this is not made abundantly clear in his opaque lyrics.

Perhaps the largest drawback of the album is the dampening of drummer Bryan Devendorf’s raw talent; the album’s percussion is either far more straightforward (the clattering ‘Turtleneck’) or electronic and chilly, meaning that his breathless, precise stick work is placed on the back burner, leaving the energy at the door in places.

Highlight: ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’

Verdict: 7/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Mountain Moves – Deerhoof

I have to admit that experimental pop is rarely my thing when it leans heavily towards the experimental side: I think it’s far better to make pop songs that sound weird and unexpected than to simply twist shapes and sounds and see what happens. Precisely the latter seems to have happened here, with Deerhoof’s directionless mess, Mountain Moves.

It should be a bracing exercise, and it sometimes is: the combination of spindly pop and zany noise is intermittently interesting, if not particularly gripping. The album’s best moments, though, are where it truly focusses on one particular songwriting strain and sticks with it, allowing for a more controlled malleability in the sound. Album highlight ‘Ay That’s Me’ is a perfect example, a lithe pop song that sticks and immediately jumps out amongst a muddy tracklist.

Highlight: ‘Ay That’s Me’

Verdict: 5/10

 

Music Review 11/8/17 – Kesha, The Districts and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.

Kesha’s new LP and the Downtown Boys’ first major-label album arrive this week…

ALBUM OF THE WEEK (SORT OF): You – Dodie

I’m cheating with this; I’ll admit that. You is most decidedly an EP, and barely cracks a quarter of an hour, despite spanning six tracks (for comparison, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here has five). But, frankly, I needed this EP after a two-week long dry spell. Last week brought no exciting releases, and the week previous proved a colossal disappointment, for the most part. This week was no different, and so it’s with joy that I welcome Dodie’s second EP, an understated collection bursting with potential.

I don’t like to use the word ‘aesthetic’ very much. The appropriation of the term by YouTube personalities and young hipsters has rendered it cloying to even read. But Dodie Clark’s control, and more importantly, her definition, of her particular ‘aesthetic’ is admirable, especially considering how young her music is (and, indeed, feels). She slips comfortably into her sound, whether she’s cheekily aping the indie-folk sound (‘In the Middle’, ‘You’) or swimming in more atmospheric waters (‘Secret for the Mad’, ‘6/10’).

‘Comfort’ might just as readily be used in criticism levelled at the EP: Clark barely steps out of her comfort zone into more tantalising areas (which, as a testament to her skill as a songwriter, she seems perfectly capable of doing). Indeed, the most exciting prospect of the EP is that Clark made the effort to include the stunning ‘Instrumental’, a beautiful, Newsom-esque composition that sits comfortably, almost secretively, in the middle of the EP. But the winding, but nevertheless focussed, melody of ‘Secret for the Mad’ would suggest that her ear for more expansive songwriting is starting to develop. Combined with her absolute control over style, Clark’s potential is just waiting to get out. For now, You is a joyous, tight collection, subdued but ultimately rewarding.

Highlight: ‘Would You Be So Kind’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Cost of Living – Downtown Boys

Even at a seemingly economical 34 minutes, Downtown Boys’ major-label debut still feels too long for a punk album. Ideas that work across a minute’s worth of time are instead stretched to fit three, with varying results. Indeed, the most exciting moments on the album are ones where the sheer bombast of some element of the song wakes the listener up again, a quality that becomes less and less apparent as the album wears on. By the tail-end, it’s understandable if many feel numb to their familiar flavour of political punk. Ultimately, the dourness and cacophony of most of the album misses what makes opening highlight ‘A Wall’ so great, and its success has one extremely simple reason: it’s in a major key.

Highlight: ‘A Wall’

Verdict: 6/10

 

Cage Tropical – Frankie Rose

Dream-pop will forever be a pet hate of mine, given how often artists lose themselves in mopey instrumentals. It’s hard for an artist to keep the focus on their voices, and everything folds in on itself in a sea of reverb-soaked instrumentals. For the first half of Cage Tropical, this much is true, with the exception of uptempo ‘Trouble’. On the second half, Frankie Rose at least finds some fizz and cuts through her instrumentals with faster tempos (always a winner with this kind of sound) and some harsher vocal performances.

Highlight: ‘Game to Play’

Verdict: 7/10

 

Rainbow – Kesha

Kesha’s comeback album receives the ‘comeback’ label not because of a particularly long hiatus, but because of what has surrounded her since her previous effort. Embroiled in a lawsuit against her former producer Dr Luke, wherein she alleged assault on his part, returning with anything resembling her pedestrian electro-pop sound might well have been a futile effort on her part. What we do get, however, is a competent, ballsy album that casually genre-hops to an almost infuriating degree. Between sombre numbers (‘Praying’, ‘Bastards’, ‘Finding You’, all of which lie at various points on a spectrum of successful songwriting), she hits country (‘Hunt You Down’) and some crunching rock music (‘Boogie Feet’, ‘Let ‘Em Talk’), but lets the album sag a little in the middle. It feels slightly indulgent at 14 tracks, and is noticeably less interesting the closer to the middle the record is. That, coupled with the suffocating, compressed production, dashes this album’s chances at feeling like a genuine milestone for her, but the lasting feeling is one of genuine delight at Kesha’s spirit, if nothing else.

Highlight: ‘Bastards’

Verdict: 7/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Popular Manipulations – The Districts

It’s so dispiriting when an exciting, upcoming artist throws away something that really meant a lot within their sound. For The Districts, Rob Grote’s gravelled voice, aged beyond his own years, was part-and-parcel of the group’s sepia-toned garage Americana, thrown away on their new LP to be replaced by a New Romantic, Brandon Flowers-esque croon. Quite simply, it doesn’t work, even when the music (‘Salt’) has a glossy strut to it that seems, on paper, to fit the aesthetics of the frontman.

Elsewhere, the relationship between music and lyrics is just as strained. Aside from the overblown production (again, not staying true to their earlier work), the dynamic song structures, interesting though they may be, become cancelled out when mashed together with the kind of repetitive lyrical structures employed here. Grote favours recurrence in his prose, and the album suffers as a result (how many times can one chorus-verse combination be used again and again?).

Highlight: ‘Violet’

Verdict: 5/10

 

Music Review 28/7/17 – Arcade Fire, Passion Pit and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published. 

Arcade Fire and Passion Pit, both 00’s indie darlings, make their returns, whilst freshfaced new artist Declan McKenna offers up his debut…

 

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Tremendous Sea of Love – Passion Pit

More clearly now than ever before, Passion Pit is the work of a singular mind, harnessed for personal ends here in a way that sometimes feels genuinely overwhelming. On the album’s stunning centrepiece, ‘Somewhere Up There’, Michael Angelakos, attempts to put into song the feeling of a panic attack (in three movements, no less!) and the result is beguiling, and quite beautiful. Yet, knowing the underlying subtext of the composition brings into focus the simmering paranoia beneath the surface, ever-present but only creeping in the distance. Elsewhere, the compositional side to Angelakos is given even more freedom, particularly with the instrumentals in the title track and (most of) ‘For Sondra (It Means the World to Me)’, both of which are fragile, but have a strong, beating heart beneath them.

Perhaps the main criticism of the record is that in the poppier moments, particularly on ‘Hey K’, the mixing sometimes takes away from the impact of the songwriting, simply because a balance is not struck by the mixing engineer that accommodates the busy-ness of the instrumentals. That being said, it’s also quite invigorating sometimes for there to be an unhinged chaos to the fizzing synths and percussion, and one that makes this another extremely enjoyable work from Passion Pit.

Highlight: ‘Somewhere Up There’

Verdict: 7/10

 

What Do You Think About the Car? – Declan McKenna

It’s pretty impressive how clear-cut McKenna’s identity is as a songwriter already, considering that he’s actually a month younger than I am at 18 years old. But, speaking as a fellow 18-year-old, I can honestly say there’s little about McKenna’s new album that specifically speaks to my experiences. There are some amusing barbs to some entitled adversaries of his, imitating the witty style of early Alex Turner. But, coupled with the ragged indie-pop sound that clicks so well with the current British zeitgeist that it sounds like anyone could have made it, What Do You Think is less memorable, though perhaps more fun, than it ought to be.

Highlight: ‘Brazil’

Verdict: 6/10

 

A Black Mile to the Surface – Manchester Orchestra

The lyrics on Black Mile sure do mean… something. It’s hard to tell precisely how the disparate threads of grandiose poetry actually fit together, but I’m sure there is a rational explanation. Between talking about fatherhood, suicide, love and domestic horror, Andy Hull seems to be making reference to something big; it’s just not clear what. That image isn’t exactly helped by the music, enjoyable though it is: its grandeur and operatic sense of scale carries a lot of weight, but becomes laborious over 50 minutes, particularly with such poor production that makes everything murky and grotesque.

Highlight: ‘The Gold’

Verdict: 6/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Everything Now – Arcade Fire

One reviewer recently commented on Everything Now by saying it was the first Arcade Fire album not to feel like a grand statement. In fact, the entire problem with the group’s fifth LP is that a grand statement is exactly what it feels like, and Arcade Fire have simply failed to deliver on it. It should be blatantly obvious from Win Butler’s heavy-handed, transparent lyricism that Everything Now deals with excess and overload (‘You want everything now’). But the complexities of their earlier work have dwindled and all-but-disappeared here: there are no anxieties or dualities in the expression of these ideas, only familiar criticisms of constantly wanting more, interspersed with some sappy and unimportant love songs that contribute nothing to the album.

All of my reservations about the musical side of Reflektor are here too, but are more consistently underwhelming and clumsy with most of the songs playing like bad Bee Gees knock-offs as covered by bad Arcade Fire knock-offs. Odd moments of inspiration then give way to repetitive, unimaginative chord structures that wouldn’t be half-bad if the melodies weren’t tailor-made to fit such awful lyrics. Arcade Fire’s fall from grace has been swift, but painful nonetheless, and this is now strike two. Strike three and… well you know the rest.

Highlight: ‘Infinite Content’ (both parts)

Verdict: 3/10

Music Review 21/7/17 – Lana Del Rey, Tyler the Creator and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published. 

British indie artists have a big week, whilst hip-hop trailblazer Tyler, The Creator returns…

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Scum Fuck Flower Boy – Tyler, The Creator

Although Tyler, The Creator’s record company has cautiously reminded listeners that the album’s name is actually Flower Boy, without the harsh juxtaposition of Scum Fuck attached to the front, it feels almost a betrayal of the album’s core thesis to call it by any other name. Like Beyoncé last year and Jay-Z just recently, Tyler has offered up an album crafted to reflect himself, capturing the complexities of his character and refracting them through the prism of his music. His abrasive, audacious approach regarding wider themes is here, and he gives way to some of the horror-rap aspects of his earlier work on ‘Who Dat Boy’ (‘That cherry be the bomb like he ran in Boston’) and ‘I Ain’t Got Time’.

Of course, it would be foolish to talk about Flower Boy without mentioning Tyler’s sexuality, confirmed with grace and unexpected poignance on ‘Pothole’ and ‘Garden Shed’ (‘Thought it was a phase/thought it’d be like the phrase, ‘poof’ it’s gone’); but there are deeper thematic avenues being travelled, ones of damaged masculinity, loneliness and how the two intertwine. Tyler’s coy admissions of deep desire and emotional melancholy are marked by a clear, and very male, reticence (‘They say the loudest one in the room is weak/that’s what they assume but I disagree’), and confirm that juxtaposition of harshness and beauty that runt throughout.

Yet, in some ways, the musicality of the record pushes it ever closer to being called Tyler’s Blonde. Yes, it sometimes rumbles with angular percussion, as much of Tyler’s music has in the past; but it also takes a huge amount of influences from soul’s lithe sunniness and jazz’ supple chord structures, so as to reflect the fragility brought to the table across the record. It’s a deft balancing act, made more impressive by how light the whole thing feels. ‘Midsummer night’s dream’ might be an apt description for such a featherweight atmosphere, particularly on an album that deals so intensively with such downbeat themes. Such as it is, with Scum Fuck Flower Boy, Tyler has given us his personal masterpiece, a bear-all, complex record that will likely define him and his vision when all is said and done.

Highlight: ‘November’

Verdict: 9/10

 

Universal High – Childhood

On Universal High, we see Childhood taking a huge step backwards. There was at least an enthralling currency to their debut, Lacuna, as there might have been here had they pushed their funk-influenced new sound into the moment. Instead, they woefully attempt to repeat the smooth ethereality of their debut by simplifying much of the structure in the songs to a two-chord motif, albeit switching keys from track to track so as to make it less obvious. It’s lazy, but noticeable from the beginning, and they lose their control on the influence of the 70s’ headiness by letting it define the songwriting as much as it does the atmosphere.

Highlight: ‘A.M.D.’

Verdict: 4/10

 

Emerging Adulthood – Dan Croll

Dan Croll’s sound is always surprising, blending some elements of the snotty suburban cynicism of Ben Folds with instrumentation lifted straight from Vampire Weekend. Emerging Adulthood finds him once again asking us to simply give into the cinematic sugar-rush of his music, which is sometimes easy, but is a big ask once the lyrical ideas become more obviously plain. The title Emerging Adulthood suggests a tantalising identity crisis, or a struggle to understand age, but often the lyrics are hopelessly bland, made up for by the dizzying (if occasionally overstuffed) arrangements.

Highlight: ‘Bad Boy’

Verdict: 6/10

 

Sacred Hearts Club – Foster the People

Foster the People’s newest album is a complete tonal mess. Amidst Mark Foster’s strange use of hip-hop meter in his lyricism and the overblown production that teeters between arena-indie rock and deep R&B, their indie credentials wane as each track passes. And yet, there is a sort of strange, awkward entertainment value in their garishly self-indulgent genre burst, like when ‘Loyal Like Sid and Nancy’ suddenly takes a complete left-turn in its final act towards a lush string arrangement and a mournful piano solo. Perhaps it’s lurid fascination with the laughable, Kanye-esque use of samples to structure some of the instrumentals that stops me from genuinely hating this album, but at least Foster the People sound like they had fun making it.

Highlight: ‘Loyal Like Sid and Nancy’

Verdict: 5/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Lust for Life – Lana Del Rey

What’s probably more depressing about ‘The American Morrissey’s latest album than her melancholic prose is the fact that there is a better album lurking in the back end of this record than the completed whole. A ghastly first half, awkwardly sloshing together two quite different, but just as boring, strains of music (Del Rey’s sinewy dream-pop and laboured trap music), is made worse by some equally ghastly features from A$AP Rocky and The Weeknd. However, despite also managing a pretty unaffecting performance from Stevie Nicks in the second half, Del Rey does at least claim back some modicum of the gloomy devastation in her other work for some rather pretty ballads, including an enjoyable feature from Sean Ono Lennon on the ‘Across the Universe’ lookalike ‘Tomorrow Never Came’. But, at an hour long, the album’s almost record-breakingly sluggish pace makes it mostly a chore to endure.

Highlight: ‘Heroin’

Verdict: 4/10

 

 

 

Music Review 14/7/17 – Mura Masa, Waxahatchee and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published. 

Hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces and indie artist Waxahatchee make their return, whilst upcoming British producer Mura Masa stakes a full-length claim…

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee

It’s massively uplifting to hear the progression Waxahatchee has gone through since the last album. Whereas Ivy Tripp lacked energy and grit, Katie Crutchfield’s songwriting here has both in spades, and, indeed more. For her, Out in the Storm is an emotional detox, a cleansing of a confining relationship.

She uses directness as an essential tool in her lyricism; she is fuelled by anger, but it seems to be rightly so. The subject of these songs has kept her restricted, probably without even knowing it, and as she elegantly condemns his faults, she also finds herself eventually breaking out of it. Whether or not this is a happy ending depends on ones reading of the album. Indeed, its title would suggest her being forced into the great unknown as a result of this breakup but, given the pain her other half caused her (illustrated with heartbreaking apathy), this might seem like the ultimate act of self-reconciliation.

All this sounds pretty heavy on paper, but thankfully Crutchfield embraces wistfulness. Her music is instantly more appealing with rugged indie rhythms, and she crucially doesn’t miss out on some beautiful balladry either (‘Recite Remorse’, ‘A Little More’).

Not only that, but she manages to imbue prosaic lyrical complexities with a pop joie-de-vivre (‘I got lost in your rendition of reality/All my offering/Rendered boring hyperbole’) and a vigourous desire to not be defined by the man’s actions anymore. Simple turns of phrase can break hearts (‘And I die a little more’) or reignite them (‘Does it make you feel good/To blend in with the wall?’) It’s liberating, and as a self-portrait of a woman breaking free of second-hand inhibitions, Out in the Storm cements her place as an indie rock poet of the finest calibre.

Highlight: ‘Recite Remorse’

Verdict: 9/10

 

Mura Masa – Mura Masa

As enticing as Mura Masa’s guestlist may sound, it is clear who he wants to be the star of the show. At 13 tracks long, his debut, self-titled LP is hugely suggestive of a state of self-indulgence that many modern producers find themselves in. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing: his production style is always admirable, even when the songwriting is not. The guest-less tracks feature him giving some competent vocal performances, and when the guests do seem to have a considerable influence on the songwriting (NAO’s fizzing melodic bounce on ‘Firefly’ or Desiigner’s fiendish ear for a hook on ‘All Around the World’) the tracks elevate themselves. But sometimes it can feel constricted, a rush to get to be the ‘next big thing’, with Alex Crossan lumping on pretty gross basslines and overstuffed rhythm sections.showbox apk download

Highlight: ‘Firefly’

Verdict: 6/10

 

Quazarz – Shabazz Palaces

DUD OF THE WEEK: Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines – On the first part of the duo’s dual release this week, there is some attempt at creating a narrative within the album, although this proves difficult when rapper Ishmael Butler applies his fundamental ideal of pure impulse to the lyricism. Certainly, there is something admirable and aesthetically interesting about his flow, brisk and twisty as it is. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually enjoy this album, since the production’s monotonous drone takes away the chance for an engaging hook or any memorable moments, save for a precious few moments on the tail-end of the album.

Verdict: 5/10

Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star – This is more like it; on the second part, Shabazz Palaces find a bit more life in their sound (although not so much as to take away from the smoky atmosphere on the first piece) by embracing more obvious rhythms and bringing some melodic tones to their hooks and instrumentation. Indeed, the best parts of the first half are expanded upon here, with the space-age sounds and soul/funk-influenced production serving Butler’s vocals better.

Verdict: 8/10

Overall – As a project, there’s a lot to be desired with the first half, and it remains depressing that the second album would have worked just as nicely on its own (originally, Born on a Gangster Star was to be the sole release). Even worse, the albums do not necessarily compliment each other. Instead Gangster Star is left to salvage the project from the arcane Jealous Machines.

Highlight: ‘Late Night Phone Calls’

Verdict: 6/10

 

Need to Feel Your Love – Sheer Mag

It’s surprising, given the ethos of Sheer Mag’s debut, that they show so much restraint. Given that we have never been offered such respite from many other 70s revival bands currently operating, Sheer Mag’s approach to songwriting, one that puts dynamic and cohesiveness above blind crash-bang-wallop rock’n’roll. But, and this is where they share a quality with their other 70s revivalists, they wear their influences on their sleeve so readily that they begin to fade into the background when real attention isn’t paid. It’s a shame, since lead singer Tina Halliday’s performances are such genuine powerhouses of vocalising.

Highlight: ‘Rank and File’

Verdict: 6/10

Music Review 7/7/17 – HAIM, Jay-Z and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published. 

Broken Social Scene and Jay-Z make their comebacks, and young, fresh bands HAIM and Telescopes return…

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: 4:44 – Jay-Z

A look in the rear-view mirror. A heartfelt apology after a seismic cultural event. A total change of character in just 36 minutes.

4:44 is Jay-Z’s first album in four years, and his first since the cultural world basically ripped his chest open and tore his heart out after Lemonade. Indeed, the two records sound like two sides of a discussion, with both even acknowledging their existence on different sides of the same coin. But whereas Lemonade was sprawling in its emotional kaleidoscope, 4:44 is focussed on one, apologetic tone, albeit with the same scope for reflection as the former album.

Jay’s real skill here is to acknowledge the primary conflict of the album (in this case, with himself) and then holistically explore all the things that make him act this way: the street, his mother, his family, and, indeed, the hubris that hurt his wife in the first place. It’s deft (like I said, it’s only 36 minutes long) but also packed with dense observations and sharp criticism. Yet, he never loses the humility that makes 4:44 feel like such a profound sea change; confessionals are common, sprawling, verseless prose even more so. But it avoids feeling specifically banal because of its honesty, and never loses focus on the personal purpose for the album’s creation.

Jay apparently described the title track as one of the best songs he’s ever written; producer No I.D. (who does a sterling job here) calls it the best. But neither smack of conceit. Instead, it feels like an acknowledgement of the rawness and humanity that Jay himself even believes has been eroded by his millionaire lifestyle. Not only that, but both of them would be right.

Highlight: ‘4:44’

Verdict: 10/10

 

Hug of Thunder – Broken Social Scene

Broken Social Scene’s comeback is better than it had any right to be. Largely relegated to the early 00s post-punk revival, the band’s resurgence is nothing short of a miracle, even more so now that the album that came with it is pretty fantastic. On the group’s instrumentals, there’s a clear desire to emphasise the atmosphere created by their sound. Influenced by post-punk timbres and ambient production methods, it feels fresh and up-to-date in the increasingly introspective pop world. Even on its louder moments (‘Gonna Get Better’, ‘Vanity Pail Kids’), the space created by the album is vast and shrinks the listener down to an almost microscopic size.

Similarly, the grandiosity of its lyrical references to the stars, thunder, mountains and the monstrosity of nature always gets pared back to the personal level, often with the vocalist speaking directly to someone. It’s startling, but the directness works and drives home the inward-looking smallness of the band’s perspective.

Highlight: ‘Protest Song’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Something’s Changing – Lucy Rose

Trying to work out one’s place in the world is a thematic staple of a lot of folk music (certainly the better kind). But it’s difficult to do that whilst bringing something fresh to the table. Lucy Rose manages to do just that, imbuing her latest album with a push-pull conflict in self-love and self-loathing. She flits from recognition of her own imperfections (‘I’m nothing like the vision you once formed’) to defiant, but nevertheless vulnerable, strength (‘I don’t want your diamond necklace/your disapproval cuts through’). It’s captivating, and though the musicality of the record can cause the songs to occasionally blur into one another, it’s possible to ignore that and just be taken by the music.

Highlight: ‘Floral Dresses’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Every Valley – Public Service Broadcasting

Public Service Broadcasting’s strange sound was originally born out of a love and passion for making education accessible. Placing historical samples over fantastic (albeit repetitive) music, the group’s passion has slowly moved closer and closer to the music, which here is an inventive, indefinable strain of alternative rock. Sometimes taking influence from more prog-rock sources, sometimes moving more into post-punk territory, but somehow always keeping that historical perspective pertinent throughout, they sound as though they are evolving hugely. Yes, the coal-mining plot of the album is crystal-clear, but never distracting from the simpler pleasures of the music itself.

Highlight: ‘Progress’

Verdict: 8/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: Something to Tell You – HAIM

The sister-act would hate the comparison, but the group’s lyrical lamentations couldn’t be more Nicks-McVie here. On some of Something To Tell You‘s best moments, as was the case with much of Fleetwood Mac’s, it’s the blend of shimmering pop with that maudlin lyricism that hits home. Even when the words become more upbeat, the LA comparisons do, indeed, continue: beach-ready jangle-pop (‘Little of Your Love’) and bright synth-pop (‘Want You Back’) can only bring positive memories of The Beach Boys’ orchestral roller-disco weirdness.

But the group falls into the same trap as Days Are Gone, and this time it kills the album dead: as the second half begins, the writing becomes more introspective and the instrumentals quieted, more angular. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that if they could pull it off, but even casual fans of the band will much prefer them in strutting hit-maker mode than as experimental studio gurus. Everything begins to drag in that second half, and it ends not only on a complete downer, but one that also sounds saggy and half-finished, calling time on the most disappointing album of the year so far.

Highlight: ‘Want You Back’

Verdict: 5/10

Music Review 30/6/17 – Calvin Harris, LANY and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published. 

Calvin Harris mines dance history for gold dust whilst Floating Points debut the soundtrack from their experimental film…

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Reflections – Mojave Desert – Floating Points

At first the idea of an album like this can seem insufferable, and given that only one of its centrepieces (‘Kelso Dunes’) really opens itself up over its relaxed, lengthy runtime, one would be forgiven for switching off halfway through. But as the aesthetic comes into sharper focus, and the imagery of stillness in a desert landscape begins to become clearer, everything begins to fold outwards and reveal itself. Of course, there’s the suspicion that the music works better with the visuals to accompany it, but the idea of using a natural space for a recording environment does give weight to the music by itself, and conjures those visuals easily without literally attaching them to the record.

Once that becomes clear, the tracks do begin to elevate each other. The repetitiveness of ‘Silurian Blue’ becomes less a lazy songwriting choice and more a conjuring of atmosphere; the structure seems designed to give breathing space between the larger compositions (despite some of the most interesting sonic experiments of the record happening in those interludes).

Highlight: ‘Kelso Dunes’

Verdict: 7/10

 

Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 – Calvin Harris

It’s an honourable decision to break from tradition as Harris does here, leaving behind his decade-defining EDM work in favour of more soulful, ‘human’ music, inspired by the likes of Chic, Sly and the 70s. But it’s only really on ‘Slide’ that he is able to fulfill his grand vision of combining those more hip influences with vocal performances lifted straight from the chart-toppers. Frank Ocean’s presence on the track lifts it, as do the members of Migos; but, unlike the other tracks, some of which feature formidable talent, others of which do not (Future’s really doing the rounds this year), ‘Slide’ has an enjoyable instrumental in the first place. Elsewhere, this hybrid of decadent club music and groovy 70s knockoffs feels manufactured, the two strands of its being too disparate to feel cohesive.

Highlight: ‘Slide’

Verdict: 5/10

 

GN – Ratboys

On an incredibly mature record, produced to allow breathing space for these baggy compositions, Ratboys come through with energy and confidence. Yet, their breeziness is loose and laid-back, infectious with their crisp drums and chiming guitars. Moreover, as the album moves into its quieter moments, particularly the beautiful closer ‘Peter the Wild Boy’, there’s a suggestion of a sepia-toned Americana creeping through the youthful, timely indie rock.

Highlight: ‘Peter the Wild Boy’

Verdict: 7/10

 

Mister Mellow – Washed Out

On a strange trip through the basements of acid houses and around The Stone Roses, Avalanches and Air, Washed Out throws as much as he can at this chillout record without cluttering it (the record spans just under half an hour). There’s fluffy chillwave (‘Burn Out Blues’) and some funkier moments (‘Hard to Say Goodbye’), but crucially, Washed Out’s man-behind-the-mask Ernest Greene doesn’t set out to make an album of ‘tunes’: the interludes and mini-tracks melt together into one languid comedown that just happens to sample ruminations on American stress-related health and stoner ramblings. Passing with the same pleasurable listlessness of a cooling summer breeze, Mister Mellow makes for a passable spiritual companion to The Avalanches’ discography.lucky patcher for ios

Highlight: ‘Zonked’

Verdict: 7/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: LANY – LANY

The words ‘dreampop trio’ were enough to tip me off as to the low enjoyment level this album would bring, but I was surprised to dislike it even more than I thought I would. LANY’s problems on their debut are twofold: first, they take the quieter moments of The 1975’s I like it when you sleep, make it completely pallid, and stretch it out for an hour. But even more begrudgingly, the group’s Tumblr poetry odes to love (‘Let’s drive around town holding hands’, ‘California, it’s different out here/no hericane’), complete with the sinister implication of coolness being derived from depression and emotional pain, suck the rest of the fun out of the equation, making LANY pretty much an empty shell.

Highlight: ‘It Was Love’

Verdict: 3/10

 

Music Review 16/6/17 – Lorde, Fleet Foxes and more…

The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published. 

It’s a big week for new releases, with the comebacks of Lorde and Fleet Foxes, Kevin Morby following up his fantastic record from last year, and Royal Blood crashing back from 2014.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Melodrama – Lorde

When listening to Melodrama, the sophomore LP from the depressingly young Lorde, I hear Kate Bush; Billie Holiday; Beyoncé; the architects of female heartbreak. But, unlike them, her maturity and reflectiveness feel earth-shattering here because of how young she is. Few young adults are able to breathe this much experience into a record like this – a pop record, and unashamedly so, but one where even its most obvious moments of FM radio sweetness are imbued with either a heartbreaking stanza or a brave sonic magic trick. Even in the moments that, by rights, should come off as pretentious teenage ramblings (‘Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark’, ‘Our days and nights are perfumed with obsession’), she sells it because you truly believe that this is less a thoughtful rumination on love and more the gushing of previously unspoken feelings. Not only that, but as a long-player it unexpectedly demands a full listen to appreciate the build from its more subdued first side (with the exception of full-blooded opener ‘Green Light’) to the more explosive second half, which is were that pent-up anger really bears the thorniest fruits of the album. Hindsight, and patience, are key to the album’s success.

I don’t throw the word ‘classic’ around, particularly about new albums, and I’m hesitant still to attach it to Melodrama. But it feels as though, in a decade’s time, the album will stand alongside the great break-up albums. Its, and, indeed, Lorde’s, unique personality could be mentioned in the same breath as For Emma Forever AgoSea ChangeJagged Little Pill, maybe even Blood on the Tracks. As a statement of a person in a singular place and time, both shaping and shaped by the world around them, it definitely deserves the comparison.

Highlight: ‘Supercut’

Verdict: 10/10

 

“Abysmal Thoughts” – The Drums

I’m not normally one for the kind of raggedy slacker pop on “Abysmal Thoughts”. You know the type: the sort of thing that Ratboy prides himself on making, something that indie kids get on board with because it has electronic rhythms, but also has GUITARS?!!?! That kind of sound has always felt pretty lazy to me, but here there’s something about the melodies that lone member Jonathan Pierce twists around these zany post-Britpop zingers. His ‘ooh’s and soft-spoken harmonies (particularly on ‘I’ll Fight For Your Life’) actually give the record a lot of bounce, despite it being mostly quiet elsewhere. A couple of duds don’t take away from the weary displays of affection on a pretty fun indie record.

Highlight: ‘I’ll Fight For Your Life’

Verdict: 7/10

 

City Music – Kevin Morby

An Americana album for the disaffected; a road album for those with no location in mind. Kevin Morby is certainly better at doing his intimate folk-rock thing than he is at unrestrained all-out rock, which just comes off as goofy. Largely, that’s down to just how wonderful he sounds when he has breathing space. His arrangements and production choices have enough space for all of us to reside in. Yet, you feel as though if anyone else were there it would ruin the experience; at its best, City Music is you, Morby and nobody else.

Highlight: ‘City Music’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Crack-Up – Fleet Foxes

For the first time, I found myself invigorated rather than mystified by Fleet Foxes on Crack-Up. The lyrical affectations of their previous works are admittedly better crafted and more concise than the abstract poetry here, but at least there’s an exhilaration in the not-knowing, the unpredictability of Robin Pecknold’s dark new avenues. Longer, more intricate structures and an occasionally constricted sound make this a record of ashes and darkness to the debut’s snowy forest and Helplessness Blues‘ summer cabin.

Highlight: ‘Third of May/Odaigahara’

Verdict: 8/10

 

Iteration – Com Truise

Flitting far too often between genuinely creative and uninspired synthpop, Com Truise at least brings some tantalisingly cheeseless retro synthwave to the table. It’s pleasurable enough just to hear the cogs in his musical brain working in a way not dissimilar to Kaytranada’s 99.9%, but Iteration functions significantly better as background music for the most part: once one focusses on it, it falls apart or bores the listener.

Highlight: ‘Propagation’

Verdict: 6/10

 

DUD OF THE WEEK: How Did We Get So Dark? – Royal Blood

Rarely have I heard an album nosedive so badly after its opening stretch. The first three tracks are by turns muscular, darkly funny and kick-ass. The harmonies suggest a fuller sound for the group and the meticulous crafting of the production makes it crisp without losing its dynamic. But after that, we’re treated to complete sludge for about 25 minutes, wherein the duo showcase all the things their detractors hate about them: unimaginative use of their instruments, dull song structures and a transparent lack of understanding of their own genre. Writhing heavy rock is something Royal Blood can do; sexy funk music isn’t.

Highlight: ‘Lights Out’

Verdict: 4/10

Humanz by Gorillaz – Album Review

The world of the Gorillaz has huge possibilities, and artist Jamie Hewlett finally seems to have realised the full extent of these possibilities with the announcement of a TV show to come next year. Damon Albarn also managed to twist the Gorillaz world into a potentially titillating shape here: Humanz deals with a hyper-realistic, Gorillaz version of Donald Trump’s ascent to power and, of course, the apocalypse that came with it. An ironic, dark take on that idea, akin to Plastic Beach‘s discomforting look at the lifelessness of luxury, would have probably come out extremely well. But, on the album where all the worst features of Gorillaz’ past have been bloated to a totally indigestible size, the concept falls flat.

Here’s the problem with creating a piece of art that is supposed to directly parody something horrific: you run the risk of the art not actually being enjoyable enough to engage any kind of response, basically making it as bad as the original target of parody. There are some parodies that have managed to avoid this (The Cabin in the Woods and Danger Five come to mind); others have horrifically missed the point of parody and just been plain bad.

With that being said, Gorillaz’ representation of themselves as supposedly a caricature of the MTV band is admittedly more on the money here than ever before. Humanz replicates the voicelessness of many current producers, the exhausting length of most modern pop blockbusters, and the ridiculous expectation on all pop artists that they must feature the hottest new rapper or singer on the scene to be successful. It just misses the part where it’s actually supposed to be good.

Part of the problem is in the painful underdevelopment of most of the instrumentals. The same squelchy bass pops up on meh-tempo ‘Momentz’ and uncomfortably drugged-out ‘Saturnz Barz’ (which might as well be Popcaan ft. Gorillaz); the same moody synths heave the track forward on dull pseudo-gospel ‘Hallelujah Money’ and sluggish R&B muddle ‘Let Me Out’; songs that should be one thing instead turn into distorted versions of themselves, probably in an attempt to make it weirder than it actually is. Grace Jones-featuring ‘Charger’ sounds like it should be a Prince-esque stomp funk orgy but instead sounds like a bad demo tape for a Grace Jones song. ‘We Got the Power’, which somehow wastes the incomparable Jehnny Beth, on loan from Savages, could have been an arm-raising rally cry, but just comes off as childish and clumsy.

Indeed, ‘wasted guests’ is probably a good way to describe the sort of disappointment that comes with a party defined by its invitees: it’s not like the music is doing that job by itself. It feels almost criminal to put Danny Brown, Kelela, De La Soul, Jehnny Beth and Benjamin Clementine on an album together and come out with something that, in its more acceptable moments is pretty dull, and its duller moments (‘Busted and Blue’, ‘She’s My Collar’) is simply awful. Even lone highlight ‘Ascension’ owes most of its hair-brained success to Vince Staples’ live-wire performance more than what Albarn’s tinkering away with in the background.

Albarn himself described it as a party in itself just as much as it’s a party record, but this feels less like an apocalyptic bender and more like a house party that a load of people forgot to turn up to, so everyone smokes bad dope on dirty sofas whilst drinking orange squash. Humanz, in itself, feels like orange squash: it’s pretty flavourless, tepid and a pale version of the real thing. The worst part is that I’m not even sure anymore if the real thing is Gorillaz or the people they’re trying to parody.

Verdict: Maudlin, uninspired and clunky, Humanz is easily the disappointment of the year.

3/10

Divide by Ed Sheeran – Album Review

WARNING: This review contains extreme vitriol, bad language and references to tastelessly coarse lyricism from Britain’s most prominent songwriter. You have been warned.

I will be the first to admit that I like Ed Sheeran. I’ve always held him to be a solid performer, an at least competent songwriter and a charming figure (the rags-to-riches narrative is certainly attractive to us all, despite how manufactured it might feel now). Therefore, the narrative that I expected to take away from Divide, after hearing ‘Shape of You’s disparity with fellow single ‘Castle on the Hill’, was simply a sell-out story. Both those singles, slotted into the first half of the album, are painfully ubiquitous, shamelessly ripping off Sia, Maroon 5 (the kings of ripping other artists off) and Shawn Mendes. For the first five tracks, all this was true: Sheeran seemed perfectly happy with liberally flitting between onerous sentimentality on ‘Perfect’, which will undoubtedly soundtrack a thousand arduous wedding dances, and bizarre psycho-sexual club music on ‘Shape of You’. But then the wind changes. Hark, do I hear an Irish folk tune? Why, yes, it’s the ultimate WTAF moment of 2017 pop music, a song so mind-bogglingly stupid that I could barely comprehend what I was hearing. A moment came where I had to contemplate my existence. Am I actually listening to the work of a genius? Is this song a pre-eminent genre-bending masterpiece and I just can’t see it?

Then I snapped out of it and realised that ‘Galway Girl’, with its outlandish Irish pop lunacy, was, quite simply, bullsh*t.

However, what it signalled was the transition that Divide undergoes from being the worst album of the year to the best bad one. Before this, lines like ‘we are still kids/but we’re so in love’ could only bring the written reaction of ‘UGH!’ on my notepad. But after this point, I actually found myself having fun as the record descended into madness. I laughed out loud a full four times during the first listen, and quite honestly, how anyone can not laugh at the line ‘I walked her home and she took me inside/to finish some Doritos and another bottle of wine’ is beyond me. I actually spat out my drink when Sheeran sang ‘He’s got his eyebrows plucked and his arsehole bleached’ on ‘New Man’.

Has someone checked on Sheeran to make sure he’s still sane? Has he finally reached senility? Perhaps Divide is a subconscious expression of immense pain, even torment. Maybe he’s being held captive by his record company and there’s an insane man feeding him lyrics to put to tape. All these thoughts had crossed my mind.

But I’m a focussed man. Once the buzz of hearing such a delightfully awful album had worn off, the fact remained that Divide is painfully derivative. Aside from the obvious lyrical mayhem described above, the rest is more akin to Hallmark greeting card inanity. ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ peaks at cookie-cutter-level (‘I feel safe when you’re holding me near’) and troughs at genuinely shocking. If his idea of romanticism is to say that his girlfriend ‘shakes [his] soul like a pothole’, then romanticism might finally be dead. After that line, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Slowly, the realisation came to me that this wasn’t just sell-out fare. That would have got him a 4/10, maybe a 5. Frankly, ‘Galway Girl’, ‘Shape of You’ and particularly the arsehole line in ‘New Man’ should have been career-killers. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one where this album exists. What lurks beneath it is something much more sinister, an actively loathesome black hole of pop music that sucked in the bright souls of John Mayer, Pino Palladino (?!), even Eric Clapton, whose gracious contributions to the record are the saving grace of an otherwise nauseating affair. I didn’t expect to hate it as much as I did; that much has to be conceded. But make no mistake: Divide is a laughable, clinical and sometimes vomit-inducing turd.

Verdict: Worthy of an apology.

2/10

Infinite Worlds by Vagabon – Album Review

‘I feel so small’. A simple declaration, but one that many of us are familiar with: being unable to exist in a space without feeling as such has probably affected many of us. In Lætitia Tamko’s case, though, it seems there is no going back from this. For her, it doesn’t matter whether the space is as large as Vermont or Minneapolis, or as small as a cold apartment or ‘the smallest spaces’: they all feel the same on Infinite Worlds.

Tamko rejects narrative here. Each expression of discomfort, or fear, or vitriol is vague and timid, which is kind of the point. In fact, perhaps the only thing we can pinpoint about her is that home remains a strong emotional ground zero, although again, this remains unexplained. On ‘100 Years’, as she cries that she won’t go ‘if we sell this house’, the attachment she has to that space becomes clear; yet, she seems certain that she ‘can’t go back to the place where [she] once was’ on ‘Minneapolis’, some unspeakable entity holding her back. Is she addressing the entity (an ex or an old friend) on ‘Cleaning House’ when she calls them ‘just a casualty’? We can never be too sure, but the expressionism of that uncertainty is what makes her lyricism so fascinating as it unfolds throughout the record.

Of course, it would be wrong to then neglect the fact that there is a lot more inconsistency when it comes to the instrumentals. Although the stunning centrepiece ‘Mal á L’aise’ is complimented by hushed indie pop on ‘Fear and Force’ and affecting folk in much of the second half of the album, it is blatantly obvious from the sloppy rock’n’roll of ‘Minneapolis’ and ‘100 Years’ that Tamko’s real skill lies in the subtler moments. It’s there that her songwriting skill shines, and the more fast-paced aspects of the album significantly let the side down.

This being said, Infinite Worlds remains an interesting debut, and Tamko certainly displays enough poetic contemplation to suggest that the future holds bright things for her.

Verdict: An uneven but still mostly enjoyable and weighty exploration of how one’s demons can quietly haunt them.

7/10

Gang Signs and Prayer by Stormzy – Album Review

Much of the chatter surrounding the grime revival has centered on the unabashed aggressiveness of each rising star to come to prominence, a discussion that culminated in the brash and outwardly Konnichiwa from Skepta. Despite all the focus on machismo, however, one track stood out to me early on as being an entirely different beast. When Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’ (presented here unedited from the original release in a remarkable honouring of the past) became a phenomenon, where others heard vitriol and braggadocio, I heard nuance, deftness, and one of the first genuine expressions of British poverty in grime since Boy In Da Corner.

It’s a testament to Michael Omari’s skill and sensitivity that he chooses to carry much of the vulnerability of ‘Shut Up’s now legendary instrumental through to every aspect of his debut. Although injecting every syllable with the same intensity as his peers, his voice remains as wisened as it first did, his dynamic baritone enunciating words with the weight of an old sage. With this, even blunt attacks like ‘But if it weren’t me you would never let my n****s in the club’ hit so much harder when he delivers them. They have authority and feel informed by years under the tight grip of the series of issues explored on Gang Signs: depression, poverty, racism, religion and how it complicates his morality, motherhood.

It takes immense bravery to be as nonchalantly vulnerable on the record as Omari is, much more so than simply mindlessly spitting about weaponry and fake friends or the establishment. How often does one hear lines like, on Nao-sampling ‘Velvet’, ‘Baby, I can barely breathe/can you suffocate me now?’ on a grime record? How often does an MC declare their utter awe of a deity as openly as the two-part ‘Blinded By Your Grace’, and with such love for full-blooded jazz organs and soul-influenced vocal performances? And, while camaraderie between family has always been prevalent of grime (JME and Skepta are brothers, after all), such an honest, poetic dedication to Omari’s mother as ‘100 Bags’ is enough to floor any listener with a line as simple as ‘Your son did good, Mum/swear down, man, your son did good mum’.

Stormzy’s control and fearlessness is a revelation, and, despite being only 23, his acumen stretches way beyond his years both musically and lyrically. As far as genuine craft and the use of art on which to project oneself, Gang Signs and Prayer is the real deal.

Verdict: A startling, affirming document of grime’s enormous potential for storytelling, exploration and, dare I say it, emotion.

9/10

Drunk by Thundercat – Album Review

The spectre of Thundercat has loomed on a number of releases from the wave of digitised jazz hip-hop coming out of LA, particularly on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Stephen Bruner’s signature pinball-style of bass-playing was always an obvious through-line connecting Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and, indeed, Lotus himself. But, listening to the paradoxically honed-in Drunk (an ironic title, in retrospect), it’s apparent that Bruner’s influence stretches lazily into other parts of the arrangements: the idiosyncratic chord sequences, the aquatic synths, the spiky IDM in Flying Lotus’ solo work. When all that becomes gloriously melted together in a way as relaxing and quietly dark as Drunk, it becomes an enjoyable, if sometimes quite distant, treat.

Of course, every strange concoction needs something to bind it together; here, it is Bruner’s weird, almost funny obsession with 80s neon cheese (just look at the references to classic video games like Diablo, or the zippy 8-bit crunch of ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’) that stretches the music along a thread of creeping desperation and sinister humour, although the listener may not even be sure why they are laughing sometimes. Perhaps it’s the captivating artwork or the liberal structure, playing like a snapshot tour of Bruner’s inventive brain. The title becomes fitting when one likens the structure to a hammered Bruner spewing tidbits of ideas at everyone before moving onto his next hair-brained idea.

Thats’s not to say that the songs feel unfinished or underdone: 25-second long ‘I Am Crazy’ feels more complete than half the R&B around these days, and the LP isn’t devoid of distinct highlights. Among them is thick, shuffling Tribe-throwback ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’, characteristically nutty ‘Uh Uh’, sun-baked LA ballad ‘Show You The Way’ and what might be the album’s centrepiece, the instantaneous and deceptively simple ‘Friend Zone’. With the album’s latest single, Bruner shows off his an awesome sense of space, twisting a muggy synth arpeggio around a squelching bass noise and cutting right through it all with hilarious sass and searing anger.

However, it’s rare for Bruner to be as passive-aggressive or direct across the rest of the album, instead reserving much of the anxiety exuded in the dense music for a more sombre tone, particularly on Kendrick Lamar-featuring ‘Walk On By’, a stoned rumination on human conflict, both between people and, in the case of Lamar, in war. Neither, however, acts with vitriol. ‘At the end of it all/No one wants to drink alone’, laments Bruner, whilst Lamar plays the wry observer: ‘From my eyewitness binoculars/To Argentina and Africa’.aptoide for pc

It’s this refusal to sharpen himself up that both brings out ‘Friend Zone’ as an easy highlight and makes the rest of the album so fascinating. Instrumentally, everything else remains dense and swampy, but not so much that the fatter instruments overbear on everything else. It doesn’t stomp, it struts, albeit casually and with a creeping sense of anxiety that doesn’t so much sneak up on the listener as just sit in the dark corners of the music, unseen but not unnoticed.

Verdict: It’s certainly not any kind of leap-forward, but in terms of creating a heady concoction of tried-and-tested ingredients, Bruner does it with style and an uncommon poise.

8/10

Viola Beach by Viola Beach – Album Review

viola-beach-albumIf there’s one death this year that really did feel like it came too soon, it was the one nobody saw coming, and nobody could have predicted the outcome of: Viola Beach, on 13th February 2016, plunged into a river in Sweden in a van with their manager and sadly passed away, leaving behind a shocked music world to pick up the pieces. It’s a genuine shame that many people learnt about the band and their music as a result of this tragic accident, but, nevertheless, ‘Swings and Waterslides’ peaked at number 11 on the charts after their deaths, and now their album is here, albeit in much more morbid circumstances.

It’s interesting to gauge the reactions to the event. Many tributes poured out of music publications, NME in particular, all highlighting how vibrant and sunny their songs were and how much promise they showed as a summery indie band that could be shooting for the headline slot someday. And yet, listening here to the songs we hadn’t heard before, and taking the ones we had along with those unheard tracks, it’s very easy to get struck by a sense of melancholy that feels as though it would have been there whether the band were alive for this release or not. On ‘Drunk’, a downtrodden night-time invite, lyricist Kris Leonard latches onto the kind of drinking designed to send someone down instead of up, tapping into a surprisingly resonant part of presumably his own experiences. ‘Call You Up’s heavy instrumentals give it a weightier feel than you would expect from a band with ‘Beach’ in their name. Even ‘Boys and Girls’, a closer that will move many to tears, but one that was promoted as their big hit, feels just as gloomy, its plucky riff evoking more a feeling of mid-evening rain than bright sun, its rousing chorus now feeling crushingly bittersweet.

The arrangements are even more surprising. With the exception of belting opener ‘Waterslides’, the group opted to eschew the full-blooded guitars or distorted energy of their indie-pop contemporaries in favour of sparse, xx-esque guitars weaving in and out of each other, with Tomas Lowe’s mellow bass and Jack Dakin’s bouncy drums providing the backbone. ‘Drunk’ with the fragile chords that open the song, ‘Go Outside’ with its overlapping riffery, ‘Boys That Sing’ with the impressively restrained group performance; as each song becomes drenched in reverb, it becomes increasingly clear that Viola Beach were reaching for something more than just ‘t-shirt weather’ and ‘a race through soundcheck’. Perhaps their slightly vague portrayal of themselves as people was simplistic, but in a way that’s quite refreshing, and any woe they illustrate through their songwriting and lyricism is, of course, made all the more poignant by the events surrounding the album.

Who knows what would have happened next? I get the feeling that with their unique control over volume and energy, their grasp on what really makes people tick when it comes to the more sorrowful side of life and their unexpectedly unique sound, they could have been a symbol for how a group can bring indie rock back into reality again. It’s so sad to think that it may never turn out that way. Still, anyone with a heart can’t deny the importance of this record at least existing. What’s more uplifting, and equally depressing, is how wonderful this little snapshot sounds, a snapshot of a group of artists taken from us too soon. At this point, we were wise to find everything we could from this group.

Verdict: A tribute their families should be proud of, a debut the band would have been proud of. Charming, lugubrious and now an endless source of heavy hearts to us all.

8/10

Summer 08 by Metronomy – Album Review

121007_originalLike M83’s Junk earlier this year, Metronomy’s (or what’s left of them) latest relies heavily on the saving grace of nostalgia. Joseph Mount’s hushed tones dart around a backdrop of 808s and dusty synths to invoke some sort of feeling of a time which doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, as with Junk, it falls shy of the mark by quite a way. See, as much as I’m a sucker for nostalgia, Summer 08‘s particular brand feels hollow and uninspired. There’s a fizzy synthpop run here, but it’s completely weightless. There’s a playful melody there, but it’s fleeting and familiar. It’s almost as though, with this new record, Mount’s first as the solo member of the band, he’s grasping at ideas and not developing on them as fully as he could.

Worse than that, it’s almost all rehash of previous works, only this time with more focus on the low-end, the rounded bass and the thickness of the drums. Everything’s just a bit of a retread: prime Metronomy, for sure, but nothing that makes me sit up and take notice. There’s no sunny cynicism like on The English Riviera: there’s just emptiness. It’s almost as though in between all those synth jabs and basic drum machine patterns there’s too much space yet to be filled in by something truly impressive.

Auto-pilot can work, of course, if the artist is good in the first place, which Metronomy are. It’s at least undeniable that Mount has put a lot of work into getting great-sounding synths and drums, and the production is fantastically warm. And it’s not as though he’s lost his songwriting skill; everything’s pretty tight in the arrangements. It just feels like it’s missing substance. With English Riviera, there felt like an unspoken motif running through the album, like the final echoes of the seagulls at the beginning continued throughout the record. This feels like the crusty inside of an old synthesiser that sort of works but is long past its sell-by date.

Verdict: Mount’s newfound independence hasn’t done him any favours, and the yearning for a simpler time feels half-hearted and lacking in true voice.

Rating: 6/10

Coloring Book by Chance The Rapper – Album Review

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It’s all there on those album covers. On Chance’s first outing in 2011, 10 Day, Brandon Breaux’s wonderful run with Chance as his cover artist began as a picture of the fresh-faced young lad discovering the world. At the time, he had recorded the mixtape during a ten day suspension from high-school for marijuana possession. That art is the picture of him coming out the door and into the world, awestruck at its size, at its promise. His face is full of wonder, his mind is treating the world as though it was full of promise. As it turned out on second mixtape Acid Rap, though, the joke was on him. 10 Day, as it turned out, was still Chance looking at the world from inside a safe place. On Acid, he was being slowly crept up on by the pressures and responsibilities of adult life, about to be thrust into a world he now knew he didn’t want to be in. Despite the warm colours of that cover, Chance stares straight down the camera with a sort of quiet anxiety, like the exact moment before he loses his mind. He longed for the cocoa butter kisses of his youth, but knew he would never get them, eventually accepting that he would have to just suck it up and take it. Coloring Book picks up the story three years later, and as it turns out, he’s doing fine.

Actually he’s doing better than fine. In fact, Coloring Book is the sound of someone who is incredibly happy. The first thing you hear when Chance steps up to the mic on ‘All We Got’ is him chuckling a little to himself before announcing almost nonchalantly ‘and we back’. You can imagine him smiling with the same idiotic grin as he has on the wonderful cover, and it’s an image that will make you do exactly the same, like seeing that one old friend for the first time in ages. Then, in a choice mirroring opening track of the other most anticipated rap album of the year, The Life of Pablo, up popped a Kanye. But he’s not rapping here, instead lending his distinct autotune to Chance’s track, displaying the first signs of the inner peace he has found.

That peace lends itself to a vast array of things found in the album: the fact that The Social Experiment, responsible for last year’s wonderful Surf, keep making appearances (‘Finish Line’, ‘Blessings’) on an album that, when looking at the exquisite guest-list, should be the last place we find a jazz-fusion band; the fact that Chance employs either a divine church soloist or a full gospel choir in some of the catchiest songs on the record (‘How Great’, ‘All I Got’); the fact that there are times when he doesn’t even need to rap, trading in his distinct flow for slow crooning with a lone piano on ‘Same Drugs’; and the fact that, although there are thematic elements shared with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly about the moment one finds themselves at the top of the cultural zeitgeist in the early days of adulthood, it is interminably happier and calmer about everything than that.

Chance is here to essentially tell us where he is now and how he’s changed up to this point, and looking at the ‘events’ of 10 Day and Acid Rap through hindsight, he is able to find a point of view that isn’t ridden with fear and doubt. Even through his laments about how much he and his girl have changed on ‘Same Drugs’ (which, in a perfect display of how the pop audience will likely read a lot of this album totally wrong, he defiantly stated was ‘not about drugs’), through his quiet reminiscence of a relationship innocent, when all they had to do was ‘roll at the rink’ and that would be enough, on ‘Juke Jam’, through the Acid Rap-esque remembrance of days spent in ‘socks on concrete’ with ‘jolly rancher kids’ on ‘Summer Friends’, and through the earnest attempts of Chance and his girl to find time for each other and the things they enjoy on ‘Smoke Break’, it all feels imbued with a shrugging ‘I’m doing alright’, a stark contrast to his feverish and increasingly paranoid sophomore mixtape.

There are times when everything is better than alright, though, and that’s when Chance reveals to us that he has found God, and it’s because of him that Chance is okay with all of this newfound responsibility. ‘Don’t believe in kings, I believe in the Kingdom’, he humbly drawls on ‘Blessings’, possibly in reference to the pompous self-professed divinity of many of his contemporaries, some of whom are on this very album. Perhaps the single most shockingly holy moment on the album is when he ditches all the pre-tense of the album being about his own journey with God and simply offers up his own arrangement of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great Is Our God’ on ‘How Great’, and despite my own Christian persuasion perhaps giving me a slight bias on the exact amount my smile widened at that point, it’s delivered with such gusto and, dare I say it, soul that it’s impossible to not at least understand the rampant devotion on the record.

Chance’s presence in the public eye recently has been overwhelmingly welcome: his appearance on SNL was wonderful and he seemed to be having the time of his life. Similarly, at his album announcement appearance on Jimmy Fallon, his contentedness was apparent from the moment he raised his finger towards the heavens. Coloring Book is merely definitive proof of what we had all been thinking for a little while anyway: in a world populated by melancholic Drake’s, greatness-striving Kanye’s and increasingly introspective Beyoncé’s and Rihanna’s, Chance is an astutely joyous and warming star to be blessed with albums like this from, and now he’s actually starting to surpass them; every single word from this album has been tweeted, for goodness’ sake, and it hasn’t even been a week since its release. Let’s put it this way: for him to stay unsigned after this would be both a crying shame and an artistic independence triumph.

Verdict: The most fun, glorious and hands-in-the-air joyous hip-hop album you’re likely to hear for a long time.

9/10

A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead – Album Review

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Poor James Blake.

Despite the fact that his newest album, The Colour In Anything, is just a little bit better than this one, he kinda had his thunder stolen a bit. Remember that episode of Friends where Monica gets engaged and then has to get through people instead focussing on Ross and Rachel’s possible rekindlement for the twentieth time? I bet it feels like that. Blake had a whole cool surprise release planned, the album dropped at midnight, everyone’s happy and then what does he see when he checks Pitchfork at 5 in the evening? ‘Radiohead’s album is being released in two days time.’ “Dammit,” he mutters. He shouldn’t be so downhearted though: he and the band have collectively made this arguably the best weekend for new music since I started doing this gig.

People have been asking me recently if I think A Moon Shaped Pool lives up to expectations, but quite frankly I think that they’ve brought themselves to a place where expectation is not the name of the game: by now, we can take it as an absolute certainty that the new Radiohead album is gonna knock some socks off. The single anomaly? The King of Limbs. Although ‘tuneless’, ‘morbid’, ‘sometimes totally inaccessible’ and ‘overstretched’ seem like odd criticisms for a band who have been known to blatantly reject doing anything else, TKOL has always felt like it was the loss of Radiohead, and that maybe their collective powers had waned. The moment I heard ‘Daydreaming’, that notion was totally dispelled.

The album opens with ‘Burn the Witch’, a track that works infinitely better as a sort of introduction rather than a standalone piece. It’s like the overture, a suitable description for the intro to an album that feels like the most organic thing they’ve done since Amnesiac and also, perhaps with further evaluation, the best. However, where Amnesiac was very much the sound of a group of people stretching their musical muscles, close-up and personal, and was made to sound as though they were all in that room together, A Moon Shaped Pool has the warm, calming effect of feeling like you’re looking up at the sun coming through a window in an indoor swimming pool from underwater. Every guitar, every piano, every shuffled drum, every shimmering or beeping synth sound, every wail of Yorke’s voice has been engineered to be as introspective but also as inviting as possible, and although the album has its quietly menacing moments (‘Burn the Witch’, ‘Ful Stop’), ‘quiet’ is definitely the operative word there.

The organic nature of the record is something we can attribute to the presence of the orchestras and the pianos, the soft shakers and the acoustic guitars. Instead of forming the trappings on a backbone made of synthesisers, it is now the other way around: now, for the first time in 15 years we can hear the muscles working on Phil Selway’s limbs as he quietly brushes the drums, or the gears in the piano as Thom Yorke mournfully slides over the keys, or the joints on Jonny Greenwood’s hands as he picks at his guitars. Even the sweat on the orchestra members’ brows can be felt in the bones of this record, and I think it taps back into the group mentality of Radiohead in a different way to how something like, say, In Rainbows did. On that, the members sounded like a singular unit, but here they feel like a group of individuals coming together to create something really beautiful.

But thematically, it’s Yorke who takes the mainstage. His lyrics touch on diverse topics like global warming (‘The Numbers’), paranoia about securities and communications (‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’), societal autonomy (‘Burn The Witch’), anxiety (‘Daydreaming’, ‘Glass Eyes’) and aching love (‘True Love Waits’) but they are all from an intensely personal viewpoint. His lithe piano lines, as much as they fit into the membrane of the sound on the album, are still the beating heart of everything here and these lyrics click like pieces of a jigsaw fitting into each other. And although the lyrics are poetic, they manage to restrain themselves from becoming too abstract. Yorke has understood the impact of those little snippets of dialogue, and you could argue that in a way he’s been doing it for a while anyway: over half of the album is made up of previously tested material. Wisely, the studio has entrapped everything within its gentle grasp so that nothing sounds familiar, nothing sounds old-hat. Keep moving forward, as the members would almost certainly always say about their music.

Perhaps the most striking development from TKOL is not the feeling of there actually finally being life again in these previously robotic phantoms, not the fact that the album feels like a fuller experience built from concentrated care and attention, not the fact that it’s both more accessible and more sonically explorative but the fact that it is all these things at the same time. The melodies and riffs, the lyrics and themes, they’ve all been shaped to be full-blooded and direct, instead of vague or too impenetrably weird. Yes, ultimately fans will appreciate the album more because they have seen the rise of the band from the timid, awkward Brit-grunge act they used to be to an artistic behemoth. But this is not something that feels like it was created specifically to alienate listeners, like TKOL was. It’s honest, it’s down-to-earth, an odd description for a band that could easily be described as on a totally different planet nowadays.

This album is too many things to talk about this soon after it has been released. Bold, approachable, warm, heartbreaking, slow, pointed. I think most of all it could be seen as a culmination. The moment I saw the tracklist for the album (released an hour early), I was absolutely certain it would be a masterpiece. Why? Because it ended with ‘True Love Waits’, a song that has been around since 1995. It’s taken many forms and been given many voices, but it has always remained the one song that stayed hidden. Would a studio version ever see the light of day? An oft asked question. So why now? Asking myself that question in my head, I could only come to one conclusion: this album has to be brilliant because it was the right time to release ‘True Love Waits’. The track ties the knot on so many things: the ultimate maturation of Thom Yorke, the peak of perfection for studio-engineering a spare song like this into an actual arrangement, perhaps even the career of Radiohead as a whole. How wonderful would it be if the final, aching lines of their career were ‘Don’t leave’, delivered with such hushed nakedness that it can reduce one to tears?

So is it fair to give the album a 10? Some would argue no. Maybe it’s cheating because it’s Radiohead. But then isn’t that the point to all this? This is a band over the system, above it, beyond it. I cannot truly give this album anything less than a 10 because the feeling I get hearing the band bouncing back after such a lull, such a large absence, and appreciating such a fitting bow wrapping up everything up to this point, it’s indescribable. But then, that’s Radiohead.

Verdict: The place beyond judgement that the band now occupies has somehow produced an album that is contradictingly accessible, hushed, organic, rich and beautiful.

10/10

The Colour of Anything by James Blake – Album Review

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James Blake’s win for his 2013 album Overgrown at the Mercury Prize 3 years ago was a surprise to many, not least himself. “Well, I lost the bet,” he said ruefully, astounded that his fragile, spare album beat out the likes of British giants David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys, Foals and Disclosure, all of whom can definitely say that if they weren’t major British stars then, they certainly are now. But looking at Blake’s address book right now might shock anyone who had taken him as an outsider all those years ago: not only did Overgrown have the help of Brian Eno and Wu-Tang member RZA, but this time around he’s hot off the heels of a guest writing spot on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, he’s had the help of two of the decade’s most accomplished artists, similarly troubled souls, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean and he’s even said that Kanye West almost had a spot on ‘Timeless’, although anyone who’s heard Blake before will probably agree that his icy, haunting work is no place for West’s egoistic antics.

The Colour of Anything, announced as a surprise release earlier this week, is instead Blake’s more precise and finely-tuned follow-up to Overgrown, an album on which his chilly sound has finally found its way. On this, every subtle chord change that evokes a thousand jazz compositions and Steve Reich pieces, every strained cry for help that rasps its way past Blake’s lips, every sonic blip and hum, has been sharpened to be as effective as possible. And for something as sparse as this, for something that is so intrinsically linked to its craggy and foggy artwork by Roald Dahl illustrator Quentin Blake, it is as full a work as I think we can expect from an artist as pained as Blake clearly is on this record.

But Blake’s calls and cries for pity, for help, don’t feel like they are to anyone in particular. Rather, that they are passing phantoms and shadows that sit at your window and wait for you to see them, only to hide when you turn your head. Little hooks and lines, on paper, can seem like insignificant little sentences to be written sideways in a tear-stained journal but here they are twisted and contorted into wrenching pieces of poetry. ‘Radio Silence’s refrain of ‘I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me’, in its broken-record repetition, could be taken as either sharp, harsh words thrown in the throes of an argument or a tormented scream inside an anxiety-ridden head. When Blake whispers ‘as lonely as you feel, put that away and talk to me’, you feel almost guilty to be hearing it, as though you yourself have wronged him and made him this way. Some of the lyrics are almost so fragile Blake could be writing from the female’s point of view rather than the male’s, like in that passive-aggressive chorus of ‘Put That Away and Talk To Me’.

As a single work, though, the album’s greatest strength is in the things leading up to it to get to this point. It feels like not just the biggest hurdle yet of Blake’s career, but the continuation of the work of several other artists as well. Blake’s collaboration with Justin Vernon, beautiful album highlight ‘I Need A Forest Fire’, is a home-run for both Blake and Vernon in equal measure. Although it’s probably the closest the album has to a standard chord progression, within its roots and DNA is something complex and poetic. ‘I hope you’ll stop before you build a wall around me’ is probably the most poignant lyric either of them has come up with up to this point; they seem so made for each other that their atomic structures could fuse together at any moment, and there are points in the song where it is difficult to tell them apart: they have become one.

But now I make the biggest leap of a comparison for the album. As anyone who has even a passing interest in music probably knows, Radiohead release their new album in just a few hours, their first in five years. In those five years, quite a few artists have been passingly described as ‘similar to Radiohead’ or ‘the next Radiohead’. Detestable pretentious ‘art-rockers’ Alt-J immediately spring to mind, having been completely erroneously referred to as such because of their vague interest in, get this, electric guitars AND electronic instruments. But could it be, and I say this in hushed but confident tones, could it be that James Blake really is the spiritual successor to Radiohead? Think about it: there really are few others, if any, that truly sound like Blake, his eerie falsetto is unsettlingly similar to Thom Yorke’s and the band’s most recent single, ‘Daydreaming’ could fit snugly on this album and you wouldn’t notice. Perhaps we need to wait a few years before we can truly adorn him with that title, and I somehow doubt that everybody in this business is going to agree with my opinion, but I felt not entirely convinced by the cohesiveness and focus of the previous album. Now I am confident in Blake that he can, and maybe will, go further than he has here. He’s practically found himself in the midst of those who will most likely be featuring on end-of-decade lists anyway, but it’s here that he makes an incredibly powerful bid to join them.

Verdict: A plethora of strained pleas, computer ghosts and haunting piano passages, the precision with which the album is executed makes this an easy contender for one of the best so far this year, and surely Blake’s best ever.

10/10

I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it by The 1975 – Album Review

9CouvHKlAfter the frankly revolting funk disaster of ‘Love Me’, you’ll understand my apprehension going into I like it when you sleep (I don’t think we need the title in its full, pretentious stupidity) upon first listen. Anyone who has heard the album will, therefore, understand my utter bafflement at the inclusion of ‘Love Me’ in the first place. Beyond that second track, there is nothing of the irritating squeal that bemoans it, instead what at first glance seems like a place of warmth and serenity. This is only at first glance, though.

Let’s start with the positives: once the initial constipation of ‘Love Me’ has dissipated, there is a marked change of pace across another 15 tracks that sound, in varying orders and degrees, like George Michael, Michael Jackson, Sigur Ros, Brian Eno, Calvin Harris and Owl City. When taken at face value, the album’s ambition is extremely far-reaching and, more importantly, brave. To hear a band who wrote a song only a few years ago called ‘Girls’ expand their horizons to include experimental, ambient soundscapes is a bold move, and yet not so bold as to offend fans of the band. These fans are likely, of course, to slam their hands down on the table and call this a masterpiece of an album, but that’s beside the point. There are moments of brilliant songwriting peppered across the album that really do make you sink into your seat at how wonderful they sound: album highlights such as ‘She’s American’ with it’s retro 80s sheen being revamped with the crackling intensity of modern indie rock and ‘The Sound’ having its house piano chords kicked around by an infectious chorus. In the airier moments, there is real emotional tugging going on, such as the beautifully spare ‘Please Be Naked’ and the title track’s filmic shimmering synths darting around like fireflies.

However, the album also has its drawbacks: for a start, there are also clumsy moments in the tracklisting, ‘Love Me’ notwithstanding. Despite having my favourite lyric on the album (‘and if I live past 72, I hope I’m half as cool as you’), elsewhere, ‘Nana’ falls into self-parody and weirdness later on in the track, which quite frankly doesn’t need to be there. ‘Paris’ doesn’t exactly work either, and is the only time on the album that frontman Matt Healy’s idiosyncratic snotty-British accent really gets annoying (imagine having to watch him say ‘stop being an arsehole’ in front of you and you’ll understand). Unfortunately, it also boasts a similar problem to the first album which is that it is absolutely too long. Despite its scope in how it combines together the oh-so-cheesy operatics of George Michael with the broad ambitions of someone like Brian Eno, I have conclusively proved that they can make the same sort of impact with their wide-ranging influences in 10 tracks, eliminating the overstuffed 7 tracks that surround those real highlights.

All this can be attributed to the band essentially trying to run before they can walk: they’re attempting to stretch their ideas across a huge length and to experiment with great ambition before they’ve actually settled on a consistent identity. They had barely settled on being the torchbearers of indie rock into the electropop age before throwing in the ridiculous influences that they have here. And yet, there is a feeling that the group is too intelligent for that kind of confusion. So what are they really doing? Well, it’s no secret that the group are wildly self-deprecating recently, what with their bizarre ‘Love Me’ video and the painfully ironic video for ‘The Sound’. So, despite the ridiculousness of the saxophone solo in ‘This Must Be My Dream’ being so over-the-top that I almost laughed out loud at it, or the almost oxymoronic double-sided coin of ‘Please Be Naked’s title and its content, maybe that’s precisely what they were going for.

Regardless, if they’re going to progress as a band, they need to decide on an identity ASAP: are they going to be an indie pop band, an ambient experimentalist group or a more fluid, seamless combination of both? One thing I will say about the pleasantly surprising sophomore album is this: it makes me at least curious as to which option they will choose.

Verdict: An interesting new step for the group, and undoubtedly surpasses expectations, but the overblown length and occasional messiness with which they do so is a genuine shame. They can do better, it simply remains to be seen when they will do that.

7/10

The Life of Pablo by Kanye West – Album Review

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Everyone knows the story by now.

I mean, anyone who’s reading this review will probably care enough to already know how we got to this point. The name changes, the expansion of the tracklist, the delayed release, the confounding last-minute (or post-last-minute) jiggery pokery, and, of course, the confounding and rather depressing decision to only release the album through Tidal. Like so many, for the sake of actually writing this thing, I’ve had to create a Tidal account for a free-trial which I shall be promptly deleting once I’ve given Pablo a few listens.

But anyway, here we are at last.

When coming into this album, West had two paths he could choose for how he structures this album, and he gave us a flavour of both: the first is a tight, compact, filtered set of songs á la Yeezus and 808s and Heartbreaks. The second is a sprawling, kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of tracks which shows no restraint and simply gives the impression of a free-flowing fountain of creativity, in the vein of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or The College Dropout (although, what he’s doing here is so far removed from the latter that it’s barely the same person anymore). And so, it says something about what Kanye wanted to do with this album that he chose the latter.

What is he trying to do? Well, as I’ve attempted to explain to many people on numerous occasions, West has passed the point of living a real life, and is now living as a cultural icon, whether we like it or not. His persona, his backtracking, his omnipresence in the cultural consciousness is all a part of him building his character, his figure. West is the Internet age incarnate, as was proven by the endless tinkering and change-around of The Life of Pablo leading up to its release. Such things would never have been possible without Web 2.0, without the immediacy of following this man’s every move and his decisions being updated to the second by his Twitter feed, and then being reported on by every major music news outlet in the world. A single tweet from West can spark a thousand different articles about something less than 140 characters long.

Pablo is his way of expressing that. It’s a personal album that seems to give us a glimpse, although it’s unclear in what shape or form, of the man’s psyche. Songs ebb and flow from one idea to the next with exhilarating spontaneity, never settling in their own spot for too long. The album is, for the most part, a thing of bits and pieces, of fragments and snippets. The amount of times people have used the word ‘unfinished’ when discussing this album is understandable, and yet it should be blatantly obvious by this time in the narrative surrounding the album that this is precisely the point of it. It’s supposed to be something that feels unfinished, that feels as though the whole thing could shapeshift at any second. I felt a near anxiety that the whole thing would be taken down from Tidal once again whilst I was listening to it. And perhaps it says something about who West is and what he wants out of fame that I can totally imagine him doing just that.

What’s on the album is mostly great, as usual. The show opens with ‘Ultra Light Beam’, an uplifting gospel number that sets the precedent, in case any of us were in any doubt, for something a lot more tuneful than Yeezus. From there, we are treated to an album that one second can be wildly melodic and the next can be darkly morose, sometimes a cross between the two. Oddly, West chooses not to reveal himself in quite the same way as he did on the previous efforts: whereas ‘On Sight’ had him straight in within a few seconds of that squelching, scratching beat, he chooses not to fully unveil himself properly until ‘Famous’, giving small glimpses of his figure like the Xenomorph of Alien, in the shadows of an autotuned hook that may or may not be him,  but never showing the beast properly until he comes storming in with the already-immortalised-and-scandalizing ‘I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.’ The jury’s still out on the creativity and wit of that line, but it’s hard to deny that he knows how to make an entrance.

As we walk through the halls of Pablo, glimpsing the crunch of ‘Feedback’, the soulful declaration of love in ‘Low Lights’ (which, heartbreakingly, may be about Kanye or may be about the presumably fictional Pablo), the largess of Chance the Rapper’s championed track ‘Waves’, The Weeknd’s moment in the spotlight on ‘FML’ and the stormy, melancholic emotional punch of album highlight ‘Real Friends’, I actually had to double check that the album wouldn’t finish soon. Indeed, it’s telling that the original tracklisting had the album finishing just one track later with Frank Ocean collaboration ‘Wolves’, the dark and largely beatless freakout which was supposed to be the album’s epilogue after ‘Real Friends’ crushing climax.

To then follow ‘Wolves’ raw, achingly human postscript with the weird skit on ‘Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission’ is decidedly jarring. What is even more jarring is that the final stretch of the album, mainly made up of previously released tracks, feels oddly like a bonus section. Admittedly, as a bonus section, I can’t find many faults in it: ’30 Hours’ is just as explorative and disconcertingly soft as it was when we first heard it, ‘No More Parties in LA’ still sees Kendrick Lamar rapping so fluidly and brilliantly it’s as though the beat is struggling to keep up with him, ‘Facts’ is a dizzying A-side to a single we will likely never see and ‘Fade’, built off an eclectic sample of Rod Stewart’s underrated masterpiece ‘I’m Losing You (I Know)’ is shuffly and menacing in the best way. But anyone who is inexplicably unaware of the events leading up to the album would look at these four tracks and either think ‘Oh wait, I think I’m listening to the deluxe version’ or ‘Those tracks just feel like he’s slapped them on the end’. The latter is all the more likely, of course, because that is exactly what he did.

The duality of this is that had he gone with the original tracklist, the album would have been infinitely more compact and punchy, but would have lost the wider-stretching metaphor of its place as a cultural artifact. However, as it stands, the album is messy and obviously hasn’t been properly thought about. Except it has, because Kanye was still mastering it after the first-listen reviews were dropping everywhere. So why is it like this? Well, like so much great, or at least memorable, music, its flaws and imperfections become just as important and fascinating as the strengths in the work. In this case, they become more than just windows into a personal connection with the artist, more than just part of the fun: they are Kanye West, and the album itself is probably the first to fully embody what it is that makes West so important.

In the end, the actual music on the album would never have really mattered. If it did, then people would be arguing over whether lines like ‘Now if I f**k this model/and she just bleached her asshole/and I get bleach on my T-shirt/I’mma feel like an asshole’ are brilliant or trash (the latter is most definitely the case here). But they’re not. They’re arguing over what tracklist would have suited the album more, whether West should put the album on Apple Music, whether his Madison Square Garden launch was a catastrophe or a landmark, and most importantly, whether West is an artist or an asshole. And by the detractors’ and critics’ own actions, with this album, he is most definitely an artist. Maybe he’s an asshole as well, but then would he be as interesting if he weren’t? And to make the point even more firm, whether we are haters or diehards, do we not all always know exactly what is going on with West the minute it happens? Would it be possible without the Internet, and without the immediacy of what is now The House That Kanye Built?

Well, like I said, everybody knows the story by now.

Verdict: No single album could better sum up West and the rest of his career in less than an hour: expansive, riddled with flaws, messy and exhilarating to watch unfold as time goes on. In this case, as with many involving the rapper, the good does definitely outweigh the bad.

9/10

Blackstar: David Bowie Album Review – Brilliant Bid For Artistic Return

Being wildly unimpressed by the Sainsbury’s top 50-rock of The Next Day, which ebbed and flowed from decent to utterly poor songwriting throughout its overstretched runtime, it was a startling surprise when Bowie released ‘Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)’ in 2014. We were suddenly introduced to Bowie-jazz, a weird and wonderful type of jazztronica that is a staple of the Blackstar sound. As we see Blackstar‘s release come about, one can be sure that we finally have an album that, if I’m being nice, is his best since Heathen and, if I’m not, his best since Scary Monsters. Or, at least, his first true appropriation of the chameleonic qualities attributed to him since then.

See, Bowie’s great skill with his most epochal albums was to anticipate and feel the conscious musical directional shift that was happening around him, and then integrate it into his music straight away. Glam reached its peak around Hunky Dory, or maybe the album was made because glam was about to reach its peak. Similarly, Low and the other instalments in the Berlin Trilogy, Heroes and Lodger, were released just as the weird and wonderful tones of Krautrock began to cross the borders and seep into the underground musical consciousness elsewhere. Scary Monsters embraces the new wave, New Romantic movement two years before it happened proper. And now, Bowie is acknowledging the re-entry of jazz into the social Zeitgeist that may not have its influences widely spread, but certainly at least being utilised by the top players in the current landscape (Kendrick, Fly-Lo, Kamasi etc.). However, the closest actual comparison that we can make between this and the rest of Bowie’s career is with Station to Station, possibly the only completely stand-alone album in the entire history of Bowie’s career up until now. Released in 1976, Bowie reportedly has no recollection of recording it due to his high consumption of drugs at the time, and so the album becomes this subconscious dreamlike wonder. On Blackstar, despite sharing the intense freakishness of Station, Bowie’s completely sober this time around.

In having this distinct identity as more than just a new Bowie album to be filed under ‘dad-rock’ like, say, Rock or BustBlackstar reminds us of what Bowie was always trying to do, which was to be an artist. A commercially viable artist, sure, but an artist nonetheless. It sees Bowie finally adjusting to the light after his long time in the darkness, delivering an album that sounds closer to Polar Bear, to Flying Lotus, even to Radiohead. It’s the first since the early 1980s to truly feel like it can fit right in with his 70s work as more than just an afterthought, or a contract fulfilment. Perhaps ‘sacrificing integrity’ is the wrong phrase to use, because, let’s be honest, there’s always going to be a Bowie fan somewhere, but regardless, it is brave for one to release an album like this as an all-timer who has only just reintegrated themselves into the public conscience. An even larger difference between this and The Next Day is the clumsiness with which Bowie tried to abrasively barge into the modern music landscape has been done away with so that he can slide much more smoothly into the role way more suited for him: that of a high-end player in the creative industry.

The record demonstrates a strong desire to deviate from expectations. Take the title track, for instance: it switches rather quickly from a sonically rich jazz-house-rock hybrid to slow-blues number, neither of which are precisely terms one might imagine being associated with the guy. Such a distinctive artistic drive is a light slowly dimmed for Bowie since his heyday, and it’s invigorating to have it back, finally. And the excitement doesn’t stop there: whereas The Next Day was way overstuffed and bloated, Blackstar economises: there are 14 tracks on the former and 7 on the latter. Blackstar doesn’t concern itself with just writing the songs and putting them out; it shows craft, thought, care. Tracks stretch out for what feels like a breathable time, giving them space and flexibility that The Next Day, for the most part, just didn’t have. The weird trippy rhythms of ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Sue’ are a sight more interesting and exciting than even their stylistic counterparts elsewhere, anchored by a wonderful awareness of accessibility. It never loses that credibility that all great art-rock should have, but never becomes unlistenable or abrasive. It feels fully-formed and artistically potent in that sense.

It’s not his best album at this point, although in 50 years when we look back on Bowie’s career, this will probably be seen as one his most important. Perhaps one might feel a little underwhelmed by the second album in the Grey Priest era (yes, that’s what I’m calling it now, after Ziggy Stardust and then the Thin White Duke) but for the sheer grace and ease with which it finally reintroduces Bowie back into the artistic realm of music, rather than just the commercial, Blackstar deserves all the praise it gets. Bowie’s finally back, baby.

Verdict: His weirdest since Station to Station, his most compact since Low and his most compelling since Scary Monsters, Bowie makes genre-bending shenanigans seem so easy, it’s occasionally quite dazzling.

Rating: 8/10

Dodge and Burn: The Dead Weather Album Review – Stick With Your Day Job, Jack

As much as I love Jack White, I have never been a fan of The Dead Weather. It’s always seemed like a measly attempt to pull another White Stripes out of the bag, but more ‘mature’ and ‘complex’. Ever stopped to consider that the lack of such qualities might be why people loved the Stripes so much?

Following White’s solo stint last year with Lazaretto, he has returned with something much less interesting in Dodge and Burn. Coming out of the gates with measly opener ‘I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)’, the album never really picks up any steam, remaining pretty stagnant throughout. The suggestion that you might get from the mid-tempo ground that a large amount of the album occupies is that the band are going for a more smooth sound, attempting to channel the Southern roots in their blues-tinged rock. Instead, it comes off as weary, not helped by Jack White’s abysmal production that turns everything into a dampened piece of clean instrumentation. Such a technique worked on Lazaretto, since that was a tight slice of R&B-infused blues rock that sounded like a Jack White solo record with an awesome backing band. This, however, is a more collective affair, and one that feels as though it should be louder and punchier. It’s not.

Such a situation is simply a case of several things not working together at the right time, i.e. a mix where everything seems to be lost, a production which softens the grit that something such as this should have and a style of songwriting that seems too underdone, too spare. It’s rough around the edges but not in an endearing way; instead it’s as if the band barely took any time to think about what they were putting onto tape and just whacked it out in a day or two. Most rock’n’roll purists would suggest that this is the right way to do a record, and in some cases it can be. Unfortunately, The Dead Weather seem to not have the collective consciousness to sound cohesive. Such a notion seems stupid considering the role call we have here: White, for one, but also Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs, not to mention Alison Mosshart. A disappointment from a supergroup like that is much more crushing than that of an upcoming new artist, if you could even call it a disappointment after the previous works the Weather have given us.

So despite the star power of White alone, it is White on whom the blame mostly falls. To some he might seem to take a backseat in the whole thing (‘he’s just the drummer’) but he really is the de facto leader of the group in some sense, and the main selling point. It’s him who was in charge of the godawful production. It’s him who has given the group its main appeal. And, presumably, it’s him behind that godawful squelchy bass sound that has blatantly been recycled from Lazaretto. Mosshart is the only saving grace of the album: despite the fact that the mix doesn’t give her much by way of a presence in the group, her growling performances seem to hint at what the album was meaning to say and do the whole time. But, much like Mosshart’s voice, the purpose just gets lost in the thick of it all.

Verdict: A slump of a record that chugs along wearily to the finish. Stick with your day job, Jack.

5/10

Zipper Down: Eagles of Death Metal Album Review – Sex, Booze and Rock ‘n’ Roll

When listening to any Queens of the Stone Age album, there was always hints of smaller ambitions amidst the expanse of the dark desert that much of their music inhabited, of this desire to, just for a moment, make something less complex, less constructed, something that revelled in its own lack of coherence and its own filth. The Eagles of Death Metal seem like that desire incarnate in two dirty, drugged up rockers, one of whom is a rock superstar and the other of whom looks like that one guy in a bar who would have no problem kicking in your teeth and turning straight back to his whiskey. Also, he’s an ordained reverend.

Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme’s team is one of veritable danger and, despite what the band name may suggest, the affair is much less one of thrashing about with a group of tattooed skinheads and more one of a bar room brawl with Tennessee’s most wanted. It’s more sultry, and the two band members seem to know this: as that marvellous cover art would suggest, they’re going for a cheeky look, which concurrently makes you want to stay the hell away from the lairy lads and makes you want to be drinking buddies with them.

It’s notable the love and care that has gone into this album, despite the fact that at first listen it can seem like the core aesthetic of it is complete recklessness. I mean, what sort of dangerous rock’n’roll band would cover a Duran Duran song (‘Save A Prayer’, in case you’re wondering)? Like sister band Queens of the Stone Age, there’s an offset from the dirty, grease-flecked guitars in Homme’s haunting falsetto backing vocals. It’s an album that knows how to make a real impact but never shouts too loudly for its own good. Similarly, it also never outstays its welcome: it’s over in just under 35 minutes. And yet, despite the debt the sound owes to the more cheeky side of the QOTSA ouvre, the real star of the show is Hughes himself, with his immense swagger and hip-swinging persona that is captured in this record. He’s carefree, and it almost feels as though, despite the raucous lifestyle you might assume he leads (like I said though, he’s a reverend), he has a lot more fun than you do. In a way, that’s the point of the project: to have immense fun and bring a certain nostalgic primal instinct to the rock landscape as it stands today. Yet, I’m wary of using the word nostalgic in this case because I get the sense it would weaken people’s impression of the group: see ‘nostalgia’ implies there is some form of longing in the band’s sound but Hughes’ persona suggests quite the opposite. He’s not longing for the old days of rock’n’roll, he’s living them.

Verdict: A scuzzy, boozed-up offshoot of Queens’ slightly dirtier side, the album is short, sweet and snappy with absolutely zero ambition. Just how it should be.

8/10

 

Ryan Adams: 1989 Album Review – A Sublime Americana LP

For all the reservations our readers may have about Taylor Swift’s original album, and indeed Swift in general, I think she’s great. She has an adept understanding of what it is to make good pop music, even though that doesn’t mean jack to anyone who dislikes pop music. But one of the things that is noticeable about the original 1989 is that, despite a consistently good level of songwriting throughout, the make-or-break quality for each track was in the arrangement: ‘Style’, ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Welcome To New York’, among several others are great tracks because the instrumentation is full and punchy; conversely, ‘Bad Blood’ is not so good a track because it is the exact opposite: it’s spare, it lacks impact and stumbles about without ever properly resolving itself. So the lesson we’ve learned here is that the songwriting can mean nothing if the arrangement isn’t good; here’s where Ryan Adams comes into the picture.

Adams’ version isn’t so much a cover album as an adaptation, in much the same way that GoodFellas was an adaptation of a Nicholas Pileggi book called Wiseguy: essentially, Scorsese (you know, the GoodFellas director) found details in the book that are barely touched upon with more than a sentence and expands them into celebrated sequences of film-making (the one take entering the club being the perfect example). Similarly, Adams finds things in the original lyrics that one might never have expected to be there, Taylor Swift included: he twists ‘Welcome To New York’ from a peppy pop track into a Springsteen-esque anthem of hopes and dreams of the big city; he recasts himself in the role of the carefree youth and turns ‘Shake It Off’ into a mournful, dark mid-life crisis; and he flips the female role of tracks like ‘All You Had To Do Was Stay’ and ‘Bad Blood’ to his own point-of-view. And yet, despite how much the vibe of the album changes in the conversion, the new style doesn’t detract from the original’s presence: Adams may have made the songs his own but in the case of almost every track, I find myself wanting to go back and listen to the original, which I’m sure in turn will convince me to change over again and listen to Adams’ cover.

Even calling the songs ‘covers’ doesn’t feel right. It feels more like the songs themselves are all old pop standards that just happen to have been done by someone else in a different style. It’s like Frank Sinatra doing a load of swing covers: they’re not his songs but nobody really cares because he does it so well. So to call this version of 1989 a covers album, despite the fact that I would technically be correct in calling it that, feels like calling Little Richard’s first album a covers album, in that the songs have now become as much a part of Adams’ DNA as they are Swift’s.

It also now feels like a more singular experience, like the songs are loosely connected in some way by the aching hope for better things to come, and the pain of the things that have already past. Such a thematic weight would never have been possible on Swift’s original, since part of that threading together in the tracks comes from the music itself; Swift’s aim was to collect together some great pop tunes and put them out as a collection. Adams instead weaves the songs together by making sure the vibe and his instrument choice is meshed together across the tracks. The great thing about that is that it is still possible to enjoy the tracks separately, since he’s clearly thought about how to adapt each and every one of them carefully, and unexpectedly in some cases. Who would have expected him to redo ‘Blank Space’ as a sparse, restrained acoustic number or to do ‘Out of the Woods’, a pulsating, bass-driven anthem into an emotional, teary ballad?

The album transcends the original and instead presents itself as an individual experience, with a unique persona totally separate from that of the original. But Adams clearly has a major respect, understanding and love for the source material. To see a work as honest and heartfelt as this (it is, really, a passion project) makes the album just that little bit fresher than the original.

Verdict: Adams has demonstrated a remarkable skill in arrangement and instrumentation here, creating a wonderful piece of work that will be remembered as both a reminder of how great Swift’s original is and a career highlight for Adams.

9/10

 

Kurt Vile: B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down Album Review – A Disjointed Space-Out

Kurt VileIt’s a shame that former War on Drugs alum Kurt Vile’s new record starts off so well and then drifts into obscurity and meandering lightheadedness, since it does start off really, really well. ‘Pretty Pimpin’ is a wonderfully downbeat track, and features a very earthy sound, as though you can hear the rust on the old strings of the guitar and the tension that the drum skin is under when it’s hit. It’s very natural and heavy, weighty even, cleverly matching the world-weary disillusionment of Vile’s lyrics. Unfortunately, the record never has the wings to get off the ground from there onwards.

‘Dust Bunnies’ and ‘I’m An Outlaw’ both feel as though Vile had an idea for a song that was never fully fleshed out, and 6-minute tracks ‘That’s Life tho’, ‘Wheelhouse’ and ‘Lost My Head There’ all outstay their painfully underwritten welcome. It feels as though perhaps Vile has been too scared to do anything particularly radical with his arrangements, staying at a steady mid tempo pace, with a noticeably thin instrumentation overbearing on most of the tracks.

Perhaps it’s just because ‘Pretty Pimpin’ is such a wonderful track but the rest of the album feels as though it doesn’t go anywhere, as though it’s a stodgy collection of unfinished tracks that see Vile seeming a little spaced out and not quite aware of what’s going on. Maybe that’s his point, but then where’s the enjoyment in that?

Verdict: Despite a good start, the album loses a lot of steam very quickly and feels underdone in too many places.

6/10

Foals: What Went Down Album Review – A Triumphant Return

Holy Fire was a great album.
Not necessarily as a coherent, consistent collection of songs (though, it’s undoubtable that ‘Inhaler’, ‘My Number’, ‘Late Night’ and ‘Milk and Black Spiders’ are career highlights), but as a fully-fleshed out statement. It was simply an album’s worth of proof that the Foals are now practically synonymous with British indie rock. It’s a brilliant example of ways in which indie rock can be twisted round into new shapes and, much like ‘Spanish Sahttps://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAcQjRxqFQoTCJTr65O_6scCFcZAFAodvUoFuA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnewsbeat%2Farticle%2F33101214%2Ffoals-announce-details-of-what-went-down&bvm=bv.102022582,d.ZGU&psig=AFQjCNHdXi0g8Fr6yzTpI-A5TG9Ki6RnBg&ust=1441906689267586hara’ before it, came off as an active attempt to progress the flow of indie rock in the UK. But there was room for improvement, as always. Here we have that improvement.

Before even going into What Went Down, what do we notice about it kids? 10 songs. Not 11, 10. Now this may not seem like a big difference, particularly considering the fact that one of the 11 on the previous album was a ‘Prelude’, an
d even before that, Total Life Forever contained ‘Fugue’. But the compactness of this album is felt not only through the track listing but how tight every single one of the songs is; one of frontman Yannis Philippakis’ biggest weaknesses, certainly on the first few albums, is occasionally not being able to hold down a melody. It always sounded too wishy-washy, too spontaneous. Unhelped by the fact that several of the song’s arrangements and productional sounds reflected much the same qualities, there was a looseness to some of the material on the last two albums that has suddenly vanished with What Went Down. From the opening moments of the title track with its slightly psych-y guitars and pummelling vocals, we know that there’s something different going on here. It’s more grounded, more natural-sounding.

Arguably the thing that makes this album soar is, ironically, that more grounded production from James Ford. He has clearly made the band hone in their skills and focus on each track as though it were a single. Each individual song feels planned, tight, calculated. It doesn’t feel, as was the case with the previous two, that the second half slips just a little, in fact some of the album’s best moments come from the second half: ‘London Thunder’ and the aforementioned album closer ‘A Knife In The Ocean’ both feature extraordinary moments of catharsis that even some of their most powerful moments couldn’t hope to ascertain. The album’s pointed purpose of having a single winning streak running through it makes for an all the more well-rounded, satisfying experience. And so, we have consistency.

That’s not to say they all sound the same, quite the opposite. The album darts easily between vicious, heavy rock songs (see: ‘What Went Down’ and ‘Snake Oil’), sun-soaked chill out music (‘Birch Tree’ and ‘Give It All’), their usual indie-pop fare (‘Mountain At My Gates’, ‘Lonely Hunter’ and ‘Albatross’) and heady psych-tinged jams (‘London Thunder’ and ‘A Knife In The Ocean’), but never loses sight of precisely where it wants to get to. Part of its distinct feel in comparison to the previous two LPs is that it has no distinct feel. Holy Fire‘s songs to an outsider can be almost indistinguishable, sometimes more so on Total Life: how many times do you think the casual listener might have confused ‘Everytime’ and ‘Out of the Woods’ or ‘Blue Blood’ and the title track? Not the case here. What Went Down is an album which operates under the very opposite of the thing that saved the previous two records: it is not a singular statement, it is a stellar collection of brilliant songs.

For the most part, it is easy to see why they chose the singles that they did for single release: ‘What Went Down’ marks the noticeable change from the last record and ‘Mountain At My Gates’ reassured die-hard Holy Fire fans that there were inklings of the funk-rockers they knew before. ‘London Thunder’ is the closest this album has to a ‘Late Night’, so there’s no surprises there, and another important quality of the album to mention is that there is no telling what song they could release next: ‘Birch Tree’, ‘Albatross’, ‘Lonely Hunter’, the possibilities are endless. But then there’s ‘A Knife In The Ocean’, which we’ve mentioned already but I just want to discuss once more: there is only one other song which could compete with this for the best Foals track and that’s ‘Inhaler’. There’s something genuinely surprising about ‘Ocean’s hazy guitars and earthy drums, and yet it feels like a very natural progression for the band, and while their moments at using this kind of formula should only be a rare occurrence, it’s one hell of a moment. The track climaxes about three times over and might as well literally be labelled ‘Album Closer’, it’s so end-of-days-ish.

All of this is anchored down by a subtle but absolutely vital improvement over the previous albums: Yannis can now create a set-in-stone melody that sounds like it’s been written and not improvised, and he can do it more than twice. He’s chained down his melodies, even if he can let his performances off the leash sometimes and that is the thing which takes What Went Down from great Foals album to their absolute best.

Verdict: Disparate but of one mind, and easily their best album yet, the new record is more focussed, tight, concentrated and compact without ever sounding rigid, shy or twitchy. Mercury Prize victories may be on the horizon (finally).

9/10

Mac DeMarco: Another One Album Review – Shrugging Off His Woe

Mac Demarco, Another One
Mac Demarco, Another One

Mac DeMarco’s new mini-album (it can’t be an EP or a full LP), woeful as it may be, rarely lets its own lamenting, weepy nature get in the way of being a dazy delight to listen to. Opening with the contrastingly jumpy The Way You’d Love Her and ending with contemplative My House By The Water (not sure precisely what he was going for there but I’m sure it’s very deep), it is 7 songs of quite a serene and lovely disposition.

He hasn’t lost his lyrical charm, or indeed that of his weird, annoyingly lazy persona (I say annoying because, fundamentally lazy though he may be, he’s damn good at what he does), wandering around not sure what do with himself. There’s still the tired, exhaustive nature that gave Salad Days its weight but in this case instead of being a staple for the album, it is a lot more abstract, more conceptual. You feel the weariness simply by listening to the album and not its lyrics, most of which address heartbreak in that same shrugging way that we found so endearing on the previous album.

Perhaps its only flaw is that it may be a tad too short, despite containing one track that isn’t really anything (My House By The Water) and one song which is meandering and unfocussed, sloppily rather than blissfully (A Heart Like Hers). Ultimately it’s not really to do with the lyrics, although they do add an unassuming hang-dog feel to the whole thing. Instead it is about hearing Mac DeMarco do his thing, listening to this person who almost seems like a character on a TV show, a weird, laid-back caricature who doesn’t seem to care about anything, as though the music just kind of happens, without a second thought. Maybe he knows how good he is but, honestly, he doesn’t really care.

8/10