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

 

Reading and Leeds 2015: The Big Review – Friday

Waiting and hour to get on a boat taking you to likely another hour’s worth of waiting may not sound like a particularly informative experience on paper but somehow it was. It seems that every time I go to a gig I step into a culture I never knew existed, and such a culture is never as thriving or ridiculously alien as Reading festival. Filled with uni students, massive friendship groups (none of which I was a part of), emos, hipsters and about a billion and one GCSE results-celebrating teenagers (I was the “and one”), it’s a place where cool people finally get to prove how cool they are to other cool people. The boat itself was not cool; it was dingy and ramshackle, feeling like it could just split right down the middle at any moment. And yet it felt like a gentle cruise compared to the pilgrimage, almost mild exodus happening along the riverfront outside the window. Probably passing nigh on about a thousand people on our way to Green camping, it was like watching some sort of apocalypse movie where everyone had to leave their homes with everything they had in the world. Except, in this case, everything they had in the world, evidently, was booze.

Such was the case for my neighbours in the camp, whose troupe consisted of a strange, slightly deranged long-haired guy called Bryce (who I would go so far as to say was like what I imagined my uncle to have been like about 20 years ago), a quintessentially middle-class sportsman whose primary annoyance was that he shared his name with the frontman for LCD Soundsystem, their welcoming friend Charlie, who was the most normal out of the group, and her boyfriend Nick, the last person you would expect at a festival, for whom the first hours of our friendship consisted mainly of him being asleep in his tent. I was called over whilst eating my first scotch egg, since they noticed I was lonely, and after explaining my predicament to the twenty-somethings (I had wanted to go with a couple of friends but they didn’t get their ticket in time), I was deemed the innocent baby of the group.

Such was the nature of my trip to the festival, I had been told numerous times that going on your own is a bad idea, and subsequently being regaled with stories of rain, drugs and even death. Word of advice for anyone who assumes going on your own is a bad idea: it’s not. The worst that can befall you if you are alone is that the mornings before the arena opens are unspeakably boring if there’s nobody to talk to. For me in particular, going on your own can turn out to be a blessing: the sheer diversity of acts that I wanted to see would have meant that, had I gone with friends, I would have been ditched half the time by them anyway.

And so, Friday kicked off, for me at least, with The Struts. It would be easy to pass of the Derby rockers as a simple re-jig of Guns ‘n’ Roses, and yet there is something electrifying, if a little old hat, about frontman Luke Spiller’s Motley Crüe-esque stage demeanour. Leading the crowd in classic chants, even at one point venturing into the audience for a little moment of idolisation (everybody essentially bowed to him), it’s undoubtable that he commands the crowd rather well. However, it’s also easy to see that the band can barely save themselves from self-parody, such as in the drummer’s ridiculously over-exaggerated strokes of the kit or the guitarist at one point doing an expression that was a pitch perfect impression of the face held by Nigel Tufnel at several points in This Is Spinal Tap. And so things don’t kick into high gear until The Districts take the stage.

Following their marvellous EP and full-length A Flourish and A Spoil, The Districts wildly outdo The Struts simply because they actually feel like a real band. To look at Rob Grote, you wouldn’t think of him as a particularly invigorating frontman but his gravelly voice and distinctively odd look (his long curly hair sticks out underneath a cap and he has a purposefully undergrown moustache) propels him further than any Axl Rose lookalike could. Launching straight into ‘4th and Roebling’, the set doesn’t let up until the climactic ‘Young Blood’ when Grote made an almighty leap from the monitors, but the highlight of the set was undoubtedly ‘Long Distance’, inciting a crowd sing-along and featuring the most festival-ready moments in the band’s oeuvre, as well as giving Grote a chance to come into the audience during the breakdown. With any luck, The Districts’s Americana-infused rock ‘n’ roll will have moved further up the bill next year.

The sorest disappointment, both of the day and almost certainly the weekend, was Drenge on the main stage. I was a big fan of Drenge’s second album Undertow, which was a vast improvement over the debut, was darker and more distinctive, and featured a sound like no other garage rock act around. It’s precisely this which drags them down on the main stage: their sound just isn’t suited to somewhere as wide open as this. Had they been in the NME tent, where not only would the sound have been better but everyone would have known them, then the atmosphere and general feel of the set would have been significantly more powerful. As I said, the sound was abysmal, essential reducing the beastly thunder of the second record to little more than a bunch of guys playing some pretty basic instruments on a stage too big for their boots. Never mind the fact that the only person in the band who looked like he could be arsed to be there was drummer, Eoin Loveless, or that they chose songs that simply didn’t work at a festival (Standing in the Cold went on for way too long). It remains to be seen whether their supporting slot for Wolf Alice will save them but for now they merely constitute a disappointing live performance.

After missing Reginald D. Hunter, I traipsed back to the main stage to catch the Palma Violets, who were just as crowd-pleasing as they were at the NME Awards Tour in March. Metallica described themselves as the “house band” at Reading but the Palma’s might as well have that title. Whether you enjoy them or not is a different matter. Not knowing their songs is a large hinderance in enjoying a live set and heir unpolished sound may not be particularly appealing to a newcomer, although it’s hard to believe that by the end of Best of Friends, there’s still people in the audience who don’t know the words. Despite this, for all their festival mileage, the main stage, as was the case with Drenge, just wasn’t a suitable environment for them. You can’t flaw bassist Alexander Jesson’s stage presence, though.

Emo-jazz quartet American Football were next and what a set they delivered: though a small crowd turned up, the band delivered the most beautiful, technically proficient and arguably best sounding set of the entire weekend. A personal highlight of the setlist was the closest song the band has to a sing-along: I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional. Don’t judge the song by its title: it’s beautiful, musically complex, and yet startlingly simple in comparison to some of the other ones if only in terms of its sing-along qualities. Frontman Mike Kinsella manages to strike an almost perfect balance between being the mysterious, brooding singer and just a hint of showman, introducing himself as ‘Metallica’ after opening number, ‘Stay Home’. It’s unclear whether this is the beginning of a renaissance for the band but anyone who was there can agree it doesn’t get much more beautiful than this.

After mounting peer pressure, I decided to take a walk to see All Time Low’s set on the main stage. However, rather than being struck with a self-indulgent, overlong show, I was met with a pleasant surprise. Yes, Jack Barakat is incredibly immature and inappropriate but when you rush about the stage with the same kind of exuberance as he does, who cares? All Time Low, for all my reservations, always know how to play to their strengths: give the audience a damn good time. “I think that’s the first festival crowd ever to chant ‘dildo farm’ ever!” yells Barakat, much to the banterous annoyance of frontman Alex Gaskarth, whose much more straight-faced but earnest performance didn’t detract from the fun of the set. Much like their recent album, Future Hearts, All Time Low may not be groundbreaking but they sure as hell can be entertaining.

I had a lot of time on my hands after this so I decided not to waste it waiting for Bastille and simply head over to the NME tent. An unexpected surprise came in the form of Swim Deep.

Although I had listened to a small portion of their material in preparation for the festival, I had merely passed on them thinking they were just more indie landfill. I was proven wrong by their wonderful set on Friday afternoon, propelled by frontman Austin Williams’ strange voice and a marvellous visual show. Easily the highlight of the set was the absolutely marvellous 8-minute freakout, ‘Fueiho Boogie’, which showcased a dancing girl and an extended jam session from the band.

However, possibly the best set of the day (although American Football might have been better from a music critic’s perspective) was Peace, and a brilliantly surprising one at that. Drawing an absolutely humongous crowd, although I didn’t particularly like the new record, it’s now obvious to see what all their songs were written for. Not only did almost everyone know the words, everyone who didn’t (including me) could find a way to sing along to every single one. The band tear through banger after banger until the stunning climax: as they finished final number ‘World Pleasure’, every person in the audience threw their fingers up in the air and signalled ‘peace’ to the aptly named band. It was arguably the most communal vibe of the weekend, and that moment was an instant highlight for this year’s festival.

With a thousand fans signing ‘peace’ only 20 minutes beforehand, it was interesting to see the change as Run The Jewels took the stage. “If you’ve got prescription glasses or a prescription phone, put them in your pocket, because shit’s about to get fucked up,” warns Killer Mike before the duo launch into ‘Banana Clipper’. Over the course of the set, Mike and El-P prove they are two of the baddest guys on the planet. The uncompromisingly badass chemistry between the two never lets up over the entire set; it’s so good, in fact, that no fancy light shows, visuals or costumes were needed. Just the two rappers and their DJ onstage ripping the damn tent, their beats and almost any other live rap performance out there into shreds. In on of the only parallels to Peace’s set, everyone in the tent gave the rappers their hands for the RTJ sign and the duo left the stage just a little bit hotter than when they had entered it.

And so we come to first headliner, Mumford and Sons. Coming under varying degrees of scrutiny across their career, I was still sure that at least their new material would be great live. Right though I was about that, in some cases the ‘at least’ in that statement rings true for several moments of older material in the set. ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘I Will Wait’ were undoubtedly great moments, as were all the song from Wilder Mind and I’m sure anybody who came for a Mumford show got what they wanted. But, quite frankly, if you’ve come to Reading just to see Mumford then you’re at the wrong damn festival, and they just could’t escape the fact that their setup is just four guys on a stage playing their instruments, well though they were played. This, coupled with a disjointed structuring of the set (why put your two biggest hits right next to each other at the beginning and then not play ‘Hopeless Wanderer’ at all?) made for a headline set that was pleasing to myself and the other Mumford-ites but a bit dull as far as anyone else might be concerned (which I doubt they were).

After catching glimpses of Knife Party’s set, I decided to call it a day on the first, suspiciously sunny day at Reading 2015. But the best was still yet to come.