The Lemon Twigs ‘Songs for the General Public’ – Review

15 Sep

‘Songs for the General Public’, The Lemon Twigs third album in five years, is the follow up to 2018’s Rock Opera ‘Go to School’. Inherently less ambitious than its wild predecessor, its peaks and valleys feel less dramatic as a result. The prodigiously talented brothers, both barely out of their teens, have stripped things back to the core essentials. This glam, schlocky rock n roll album finds the band pitching somewhere between Todd Rundgren, Alice Cooper and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In a very real sense, it sounds directly teleported from 1973. At its best, ‘Songs for the General Public’ is thrillingly entertaining, at its worst it’s borderline distasteful.

Michael and Brian D’Addario remain two of the most captivating showmen out there. It’s not for nothing that Alex Turner personally selected the band to open for Arctic Monkeys on their most recent UK tour. These songs seem designed to showcase those talents. They are theatrical, indulgent, ridiculous; songs about red-hot heartbreak, domestic turmoil and, err, incest, brought to life with urgent, blistering power chords and flippant cock-rock. 

At points The Lemon Twigs can be very unpredictable. ‘Hog’ channels ABBA for its gorgeously opulent melody. The shmultzy ‘Why Do Lovers Own Each Other’ blossoms into a mini baroque-pop symphony in its second half. Cathartic album closer ‘Ashamed’ starts by pinching the tune to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ before dramatically upping the ante. It’s a platform boot stomping anthem for ‘little Tom and Jane’ who just want to ‘make it with each other’. If only they weren’t brother and sister.

Despite the strangeness, ‘Songs for the General Public’ is perhaps LESS musically surprising than their best album, their debut, ‘Do Hollywood’. The writing also feels paper thin at points. On the record’s most sentimental love song, ‘Moon’, they compare the moon to a toe nail and bemoan their ability to fit in and feel normal. Other points of emotional openness are blunted by harsh asides, misjudged humour and bitter barbs. Michael’s songs are frequently fuelled by a kind of petulant anger. He begins one by comparing his partner to a hog. ‘My hate knows no bounds’, he goes on to say. On the unsettlingly catchy ‘Fight’ he sings ‘I’m glad your mom is dead’ before asking ‘why don’t we have sex any more?’ On ‘Leather Together’ he tells her ‘you know you look like shit with glasses on.’ It’s a shtick, I think, but not a particularly flattering one, and one that does rather undercut his sincerity.

If Michael’s numbers are often alarmingly specific, then Brian suffers from the opposite problem. As talented a vocalist and musician as he is, his songs can be lifeless. He’s stuffed them with cliched platitudes and vague affirmations. The broadway melodies and rote themes also feel too easily picked. Early single ‘Live in Favour of Tomorrow’ is a good example, being totally short of personality. ‘Wait until you see an open door, joy is nothing without sorrow.’ It’s a greeting card approximation of romance that is forgotten as quickly as its heard.

All this is mostly forgiven by the time you get to the absurd finale ‘Ashamed.’ It’s hard not to have a smile on your face as this six minute ode to forbidden love accelerates towards, and then hurtles over, the cliff of good taste. Nobody else is really making music like this in 2020 and certainly not as fabulously. There is some point of comparison to throwback groups like Sheer Mag, Starcrawller, Advertisment and Anyl and the Sniffers but these groups don’t have the musical proficiency, subversive attitude or historical appreciation that the D’Addario brothers have. They definitely ham it up too much at points – ‘Hell on Wheels’ is little more than a trashy am-dram approximation of rock n roll, ‘Leather Together’ is just plain ugly – but generally the indulgence and extravagance only makes them more weirdly endearing. If they can find a way to rein it in slightly without losing their individuality then they really could be on to something. 

7/10

Disclosure ‘ENERGY’ – Review

12 Sep

It’s a pretty crummy time to put out house music. It goes without saying that clubs and festivals are out of bounds and the hightsteet fashion stores and shopping malls that play this stuff to indiscriminate consumers are also pretty short on footfall. If anyone can weather the storm then it’s surely Disclosure, a duo who have transcended those environments better than any other dance act (with the possible exception of Calvin Harris) over the last decade. Shunned by the bass community that initially celebrated them, Disclosure instead became chart-bothering, advert soundtracking, Sam Smith collaborating mainstays back in 2012/13.

It’s been five years since Disclosure’s underwhelming sophomore album ‘Carcel’ blunted some of the popularity they had accumulated. As its title would suggest, ‘ENERGY’ attempts to regain their early momentum by grooving away from the more muted, r&b tones of ‘Carcel’ towards a far brighter, beat heavy sound. And they’ve succeeded in making an enjoyable, low stakes dance-pop record –  one that is ultimately as hard to dislike as it is to adore.

Their list of collaborators feels almost comically random, particularly in comparison to ‘Settle’ where the guests were a perfectly curated cluster of rising UK vocalists. Here, a mixture of faded mainstream stars (Kelis, Common) of the moment rappers (Channel Tres, Mick Jenkins, Amine, Slowthai) and obscure international acts (Fatoumata Diawara, Blick Bassy) combine and clash with  varying degrees of success. Some make the most of their moment – Channel Tres is brilliant, Mick Jenkin’s soulful performance stands out – while some fizzle from the mind almost instantly. Common provides some utterly faceless verses to the album’s forgettable closer ‘Reverie’ while Khalani and Syd’s contribution, ‘Birthday’,  is disappointingly short of originality

Considering that diverse roster of talent, the album does flow quite nicely. My main complaint with ‘Caracel’ was that it was front-loaded with songs straining desperately to be hits. No space was left for ambiance or texture. Disclosure have clearly tried to remedy that here. ’ENERGY’ starts off confidently as well but it keeps a momentum. The second half contains a couple of relatively minor instrumental/sample based palette cleansers that serve as calming interludes. Partly as a consequence,  ‘ENERGY’ doesn’t burn out after only a couple of tracks.

That said, it’s true that the real bangers come early on. ‘Lavander’ and ‘Watch Your Step’ are breathless house pop songs that firmly announce the shift away from the milder tones of ‘Caracal’. The inexplicably popular Slowthai turns up with one of his more incendiary verses on ‘My List’ while its Kelis who provides her most urgent melody in years on ‘Watch Your Step’. Disclosure team up with preacher Eric Thomas once again on the album’s title track, a lively, samba style rave that could cynically be interpreted as an attempt to rebottle the good vibes of ’When a Fire Starts to Burn’, the standout track from ‘Settle’. The song is uncannily similar but its dulled impact speaks to how, sometimes, subtle differences in texture and cadence can conspire to make a world of difference. Far from being an effortless floor-filler, ‘ENERGY’ feels, like much of the album, a little too contrived to be truly transcendent.

Generally though, Disclosure do enough to at least make ‘ENERGY’ the kind of relatively mindless, high octane album you’d stick on to make it through a quick work out. It’s not going to have the lasting influence of their debut though – indeed it’s hard to imagine any electronic record having such a seismic impact anytime soon – but it does a job well. But perhaps ‘ENERGY’s greatest achievement is in how it serves, through point of contrast, to remind you just how flawless ‘Settle’ truly was.

6.5/10

The Magic Gang ‘Death of the Party’ – Review

5 Sep

Naming your album after a Blur song that signalled the Britpop band’s shift away from spiky pop to something darker feels too on the nose to be a coincidence. The Magic Gang’s follow up to their effervescent self titled debut certainly takes itself more seriously than anything they have put out before now. Maybe this is an inevitable consequence of growing up or maybe the band who named their debut single ‘No Fun’ have decided to live up to that promise.

‘Death of the Party’ is certainly a whole lot less enjoyable than that perky debut. The back half in particular feels a little too sluggish and dour for a band who built their reputation on smiles and major chords. They themselves describe it as a record that ‘slowly gets more and more grim’ and they aren’t wrong. It’s self consciously ABOUT something – alienation – and each songwriter (there are three) dials in to that feeling in a pretty visceral way.  

The Magic Gang have made a big noise about their lyrics this time around and it’s true that the writing feels more defined than in the past, but I find their new approach to be far less effective. They’ve replaced endearingly lovesick lyricism for a more hard-boiled, diaristic style. Alex Turner was a key influence apparently and you can kind of hear it in the conversational, spoken word verses that frequently prop up the anthemic choruses. But they certainly haven’t developed anything like Turner’s wit or eye for detail yet and, as a consequence, these descriptions of parties, panic attacks and metaphorical drives down long roads are lacking colour and nuance.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. On the whole ‘Death of the Party’ is more varied than the pretty one dimensional predecessor. Tempos fluctuate, the mood thickens and the band frequently break out in to a groove. Several songs are fleshed out by soulful string arrangements and horn breaks, which work well, particularly on the title track. A northern soul influence is clearly discernible here and on ‘Think’, ‘I am Sunshine’ and ‘Take Back the Track’.

The album opens to the sound of the band picking up and plugging in, which is fitting; in its best moments ‘Death of the Party’ feels alive with energy. Despite the prevailing somber atmosphere, there are still some unashamedly urgent indie pop tunes to keep the band’s predominantly young audience happy. ‘Think’ is likeable despite the nagging, imperative tone. ‘Take Back the Track’ likewise, if you can look past its very obvious resemblance to Chic’s ‘Freak Out’. Best by a country mile is bassist Gus Taylor’s contribution ‘What Have you Got to Lose’, an initially moody, post-punk number that bursts to life in the chorus. It could be the missing link between Squeeze and Joy Division. 

At points though the band fail to pierce through the fog. I’ve heard the album several times now and the darker songs, the likes of ‘Fail Better’, ‘The World Outside my Door’ and ‘Go Moving’ still fail to register. It’s not that they don’t know their way around a sullen ballad – the expansive ‘Life Without You’ from an early e.p leaned softly into the ‘Pet Sounds’ influence and worked beautifully – they just (understandably) want to reach beyond that low hanging fruit now. Magic Gang clearly want to be taken more seriously. Sometimes though, it takes something more than hiring Animal Collective’s producer, playing some minor chords and writing lyrics that don’t rhyme. It’s something that’s hard to pin down or explain. And It’s something Magic Gang haven’t quite discovered yet.

6/10

The Killers ‘Imploding the Mirage’ – Review

30 Aug

The wide open skyline is an important motif for The Killers, one that connotes their soaring ambition and expansive sound. Five out of their six studio album covers have prominently featured one. On ‘Imploding the Mirage’ two faces form out of the clouds, looking down on the desert – another distinctive motif for this Utah based band. In the opening verse Branden Flowers sings ‘Oh I tried diving even though the sky was storming, I just wanted to get back to where you were.’ This is The Killers looking upwards, reclaiming the horizon and finding their way back to being The Killers.

Down on earth, Brandon Flowers has always been caught between kitchen sink realism and absurdist melodrama. His early song titles – ‘Andy you’re a Star’, ‘Smile Like You Mean It’, ‘Jenny was a Friend of Mine’ – betrayed Morrissey’s influence. But beneath the surface was a flamboyance that suggested Pet Shop Boys or even Queen. ‘Jenny was a Friend of Mine’, for example, which depicted a police interrogation following the murder of the titular character, was the conclusion of what’s become known as the ‘murder trilogy’. In the post-strokes indie realm, this stood for trashy pomposity; you can take the boy out of Vegas but you can’t take Vegas out of the boy. Since ‘Hot Fuss’ Flowers has fluctuated between states of being, embracing camp theatricality on ‘Day and Age’ but indulging his overwrought admiration for Americana, and, particularly, The Boss elsewhere.

Whichever outfit you find him in, be it gold lame suit or leather jacket and jeans, he tends to play the part exactingly, which is why ‘Imploding the Mirage’ feels like something of a breakthrough. It finds the band marrying the blown-out arena-rock of ‘Battle Born’ with the throwback pop production of ‘The Desired Effect’ and the down to earth character profiles of ‘Sam’s Town’. It certainly still sounds like The Killers, but a more fully realised and definitive version.

Guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mary Schumer retreated during the ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ sessions, which turned that album in to a solo Brandon Flowers project in everything but name. It found him scaling down and honing The Killers sound in to something more accessible. It was also the first Killers album that felt like an honest personal excavation; Flowers addressed his insecurities, writing candidly about masculinity, PTSD, personal disillusionment and faith. In that sense, ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ was a progressive record for the group, though in the rear view mirror it does resemble a whole album built around a couple of great singles. You can certainly say the same for 2012’s often sleepy ‘Battle Born’, while many would go as far as to levy the criticism at even their early albums – too much filler and not enough Killer.

Certainly, the drop off in quality from ‘Mr Brightside’ to, say, ‘Midnight Show’ was always notable but the band’s reputation for being a singles band (their greatest hits album has literally not left the chart since it was released several years ago) is perhaps superseded by their increasingly cemented position as one of the few live bands capable of selling out stadiums. It’s telling that tickets for their (now postponed) 2020 live tour proceeded details about the album itself. When they headlined Glastonbury last year, and by all accounts stole the show, they hadn’t put out new music in nearly two years. These days, The Killers are a live band first and foremost, and all the songs on ‘Imploding the Mirage’ are clearly designed to max out every inch of Wembley.

From the opening notes of ‘My Own Soul’s Warning’ to the final strains of ‘Imploding the Mirage’ this is an urgent album. There’s barely a moment to catch your breath. Their version of 80s pop as presented on ‘Hot Fuss’ was a linear one; the synth lines were simple flourishes atop a pretty strict new wave palette. But they expand that understanding here. The arrangements are thick and luxurious. These songs are fully realised stadium rock songs, rich with cushiony acoustic guitars, sweeping strings, stacked harmonies and oceans of reverb. You’re bound to be reminded of ‘Born in the U.S.A’ era Bruce but you’ll also hear shades of less canonised acts: Duran Duran, Journey, Simple Minds and ‘Tango in the Night’ era Fleetwood Mac.

On a musical level, Flowers does actually attempt to fill the hole left by Keuning and Schumer this time around. He’s roped in a host of creatives, making ‘Imploding the Mirage’ the most collaborative Killers album to date. Shaun Everett and Jonathan Rado, two of the most inventive producers working today, are behind the boards with the dependable Stewart Price and Ariel Reichsted also lending a hand. The album features memorable guest appearances from The War on Drugs, K. D Lang, Weyes Blood and Lyndsey Buckingham (whose guitar solo on ‘Caution’ is surely the best thing he’s recorded in years?’). This expertly  curated list shows just how in tune The Killers are to their strengths. These guests were selected because of what they could give to The Killers – not the other way around.  

If the music and melodies can occasionally feel derivative (of War on Drugs, of 80s Pop-Rock, of The Killers themselves) then nobody could throw that accusation at the lyrics. Nobody else writes like Brandon Flowers. These are the kind of lyrics that make absolutely no sense till you’re singing them aloud with thousands of other fans in a field somewhere. In the current climate, that proposition feels even more tantalising. While there’s nothing quite as memorably daft as ‘I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier’ or ‘are we human or are we dancer?’, these songs are laden with faux-profoundly, so ridiculous as to be appealing. ‘She doesn’t like birthdays, they remind her of why / she can go straight from zero to the Fourth of July.’ Who knows what that means but you know it in your bones to be true.

Although nothing really comes close to displacing Mr Brightside, When You Were Young or Human from the karaoke machine, these songs are elevated by a newfound sense of adventure and daring. After ‘Battle Born’ and  ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ where so many songs sounded underdressed, the production of these tracks finally matches the band’s pop ambition. The weird and wonderful sonic tricks throughout ‘Fire in Bone’ enhance what would otherwise be a fairly rote Killers track. The restraint shown on ‘Dying Breed’ means that the drum break halfway through supremely pops. On ‘My Own Soul’s Warning’ the build and momentum is such that it feels like the band are galloping along a cliff edge, one wrong step away from tumbling over. Producers Shaun Everett and Jonathan Rado have really inspired The Killers to push right to their limits. At points they’re on the verge of going too far but they never quite do. Perhaps the lyric that best describes this feeling – the feeling of uplift and euphoria teetering on the edge of ridiculousness – comes on ‘Running Towards a Place’: ‘Give me a song that I may sing, that cuts like a canyon and rides on a wing.’  The Killers are experts at writing those songs and with ‘Imploding the Mirage’, they’ve just given us ten more.

8/10

Biffy Clyro ‘A Celebration of Endings’ – Review

28 Aug

Biffy Clyro have been Rock mainstays for the best part of two decades now. They’ve had a remarkably adventurous run for an arena filling act, keeping the quality and consistency high. But ninth album ‘A Celebration of Endings’ doesn’t hold a candle to their cathartic peaks ‘Puzzle’ and ‘Opposites’, nor does it match the energy and intensity of their early output. This is a low stakes pop-rock effort that will harm their trajectory as little as it will advance it.

With their best work, Biffy melted emo, grunge, prog and math rock into a distinctively Scottish brew. They tackled fiercely emotive themes such as grief and separation with frankness and originality. With this in mind, ‘A Celebration of Endings’, can’t help but feel distinctly watered down; predictable chord changes, predictable tempos, predictable melodies. Even the jagged left turns and odd time signatures that Biffy are known for have become too common place to be exciting. Too many of these songs have direct and obvious presidents on prior albums. There’s nothing here that they haven’t done before (with the unfortunate exception of ‘Instant History’, a truly terrible big tent E.D.M monster) and done better. ‘Opaque’ is ‘Medicene’ is ‘God v Satan’ is ‘Machines’ etc. Of course this isn’t unusual territory for a band entering their 25th year as a band. But it does feel disappointing from The Bif, who have always pushed boundaries and taken names. 

Lyrically, the album is more experimental – but in unflattering ways. A Celebration of Endings’ finds songwriter Simon Neil looking outwards for the first time In a long time. His reasoning for this transition away from the personal towards the political isn’t very persuasive. “I feel like I’ve investigated myself more than I probably should – more than is probably healthy!” While such an outward change might be seen as ambitious or necessary, I would contend that it plays against Biffy Clyro’s intrinsic strengths. The problem is that Biffy’s most stirring music has been autobiographical in nature and this shift feels awkward and unwelcome. 

There are exceptions. Opening track ‘North of No South’ introduces themes of betrayal, disillusionment and disappointment. It’s rich in a pessimism that is initially intriguing if ultimately off-putting. ‘There’s nothing below, above only darkness…there’s no brightness coming back.’ Musically the song is typically meticulous. Biffy build all their songs on such steady foundations that even on off day they are better than much of what counts as successful contemporary rock music. ‘Tiny Indoor Fireworks’ is a mid-tempo melodic blast that cuts through the murk pretty effectively. Better still, ‘Weird Leisure’ is a despairing portrayal of someone in the grip of addiction. Neil dispenses with the eccentric imagery he’s become known for, cutting straight to the chase with lines like ‘you’ve polished off your cocaine, your face is fucking numb’. ‘A Celebration of Endings’ could benefit from more of this blunt, direct confrontation and honesty. Too often, ‘A Celebration of Endings’ feels frustratingly safe.

5.5/10