Purple Mountains ‘Purple Mountains’ – Review

11 Aug

On Thursday songwriter and Poet David Berman took his own life only weeks after releasing his first album in ten years, ‘Purple Mountains’. Full of self deprecating humour and piercing insights in to the mind of a depressed artist, the album was greeted warmly by fans who had long given up hope of hearing new music from the reclusive genius. ‘Purple Mountains’ will be his final testament.

Inevitably, that fact colours your response to the album. You can’t listen to ‘Purple Mountains’ and not hear the despair that permeates through the generally uptempo indie rock. It was difficult before his death, it’s impossible now. So much of my initial gratitude for ‘Purple Mountains’ was borne out of the instructive way Berman seemed to transcend his depression rather than succumb to it. Behind every cry for help lay diverting wit and humour. He didn’t say he was suicidal, he said ‘I’ve spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion.’ It wasn’t just a storm, it was ‘icy bike chain rain of Portland Oregon.’ The stylistic sophistication, not to mention the honky tonk piano rolls and cowboy chords, somewhat softened the various blows. It’s now obvious that Berman couldn’t transcend his depression. His poetry, as stunning as it is, couldn’t fill the gaps in his private life. In fact, the opposite may have been true. ‘Darkness and cold rolled in through the holes in the stories I told’ is how he eloquently put it in one song.

The quality of writing here is masterful. These songs have a clarity which shouldn’t detract from their complexity. It isn’t easy to be articulate, harder still to be candid and vulnerable at the same time. Berman never hid behind his poetry; he used it to enhance what he wanted to say not cloak it. His cleverness was never the point, it still isn’t.

‘Purple Mountains’ is a deep dive in to the heady topics of faith, love and loss, and the intersections between them. Berman, who spent much of the last decade studying and practicing Judaism, asks frankly ‘how long can a world go on under such a subtle God?’ It doesn’t feel rhetorical. You hear the urgency and desperation. ‘What I’d give for an hour with the power on the throne’ he continues. It’s the futility of life that grinds him down, whether drinking margaritas in the mall or observing snow fall on the sabbath – what does any of it really add up to? Of course he’s grounded by love but continues to be disappointed that it can’t sustain him; one song is a plain-spoken elegy for his mother, several more detail the separation from his wife.

Throughout ‘Purple Mountains’ he tries to come to terms with his personal loneliness while constantly reckoning with the people at the edges of his life who care for him. This isn’t the sound of a sad sack with an acoustic guitar, crying in to his beer. It’s the sound of a man genuinely struggling through life changing emotions and trying to make sense of them. He’s accompanied by the band Woods who provide rootsy, unfussy backing – the wail of a pedal steel guitar here, some jaunty backing vocals there. Together, they keep the sound light and warm, even while excavating existential worries. 

At the album’s conclusion, Berman declares ‘If no-one’s fond of fucking me maybe no-one’s fucking fond of me! Maybe I’m the only one for me.’ It’s funny and self-aware but also sad and defeatist. There are moments like this throughout the record – flickers of light pricking, but overwhelmed by, the darkness. Berman was getting ready to take these songs on tour and by all accounts, as positive and hopeful as he was about performing live again, he couldn’t get through rehearsals without crying. These songs weren’t enough to save David Berman but within them are moments of truth, joy and comfort; difficult emotions articulated and dissected to the sound of life-affirming indie rock. These songs are, in other words, purposeful.

9/10

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Chance the Rapper ‘The Big Day’ – Review

8 Aug

On ‘The Big Day’s opening track, ‘All Day Long’, John Legend makes a defensive declaration on behalf of Chance the Rapper – ‘We can’t be out here pleasin’ everybody, we know who we are.’ It signifies, unwittingly or not, how the perception of Chance has shifted from the release of ‘Colouring Book’, an amazingly generous mixtape that he put out in 2016. Once the toast of Chicago – the artist who donated millions to City Arts projects, who gave away his music for free, who used his platform to shine a light on social injustice – Chance has, more recently, become known for shutting down critics on twitter, pressuring MTV to remove negative reviews and his increasingly goofy guest verses. An early plattitude ‘The halo can turn hollow’ – almost starts to sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy in the rear view mirror. 

In this context, Chance has doubled down rather than concede ground, choosing to write almost exclusively about his love for his wife and reverence for God. ‘I don’t care what people might say/ I know you know, I’ve got you always.’ On the surface this seems commendable but what seems sweet to one person comes across as sour to another. Is this a collection of heartwarming love songs or not so subtle humble brags?

Nearly a decade in the offing, The Big Day’ has to be the most long-awaited debut album of all time – but what exactly makes this any more of an ‘album’ than Chance the Rapper’s previous three long players remains a mystery. Ironically, considering the importance he clearly places on the ‘album’ designation, ‘The Big Day’ flows considerably more like a mixtape than the watertight ‘Acid Rap’ or ‘Colouring Book’. Stuffed with unnecessary skits and corny throwaways, and skewering between genres haphazardly, the album runs long at  80 mins. It feels like a lot.

The album is a throwback to the ambitious, thematically cohesive, skit heavy Rap albums of the early 00’s. Specifically it recalls Kanye’s ‘Late Registration’ in both scope and style. ‘Get a Bag’ is the closest homage, with its pinched soul sample and liberal use of puns. Chance shares Kanye’s audacity but lacks his genius in threading it all together. In this instance, 22 songs is simply far too many. 

And Chance stakes everything on you finding his personal life as interesting as he does. Equally, enjoyment of this album rests on your tolerance for uncomplicated happiness as a topic for art. Despite its length, Chance never really untangles or dissects marriage, with its myriad of complexities and complications. His wife, who he gushes over, is little more than a cartoon avatar used to symbolise his own gains. It’s a two dimensional representation of a love affair, stretched to cinematic lengths. More than that, his style is frequently overwhelming and confusing. The punchlines and similes tumble over each other (one fan counted – staggeringly there are 178 punchlines and 100 similes), some bounce off targets, some never even land. Peel back the the imagery and there isn’t much true insight underneath. What we do have is a lot, an awful lot, of joy. That Chance the Rapper should be so deliriously happy at the expense of nuance goes against the modern trend for sophisticated cynicism. Unadulterated love and commitment seem far fetched to many people in 2019, so no wonder the general response in the Hip Hop community hasn’t been too kind. 

Personally, I’m enthusiastic about the vibes Chance is trying to convey. He remains the most loveable rapper out there and at his best is almost totally unmatched (listen to how effortlessly the rhymes unspool on ‘We Go High’ for example). At points, as on the title track and the helplessly nostalgic ‘Do You Remember’, he nails it with the tools he has always utilised – hooks and humour. But his positive message is diminished by over-indulgence. My visceral reaction every time I’ve considered listening to this album has been an internal sigh. Like a lot of weddings, ‘The Big Day’ ends up being a tedious, epic slog pricked by moments of genuine euphoria and celebration. You’re left with a handful of good memories but the physical and emotional strain of the thing itself is daunting in advance and exhausting during. ‘Think it’s the greatest day of my life’ Chance purrs on the title track. That might be true for him but I’m not sure anyone else will feel that way.

6.5/10

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Ed Sheeran ‘No.6 Collaboration Project’ – Review

30 Jul

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ed Sheeran, an unbelievably popular songwriter who may be too white, too nice, too ginger and too middle class to benefit from poptimism’s warm glow. But songs like ‘Shape of You’, ‘Perfect’, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and deeper cuts like ‘Drunk’, ‘Tenerife Sea’ and ‘Give Me Love’ are hard to deny and even harder to ignore. These songs are soft, spongey things with very few hard edges but plenty of hooks. Even without the insistent radio play these songs would be hard to forget.

At his best Sheeran satisfies a craving for undiluted emotion with songs that make broad connections via cute melodies and unfussy arrangements. His lyrics – which more often than not are silly and even embarrassing – occasionally strike the perfect blend of relatable sincerity and millennial originality. Arguably, the most successful demonstrations of this are two songs he wrote for other artists – ‘Little Things’ by One Direction and ‘Love Yourself’ by Justin Bieber.

But those qualities are hard to find on the awkwardly titled ‘No.6 Collaborations Project’. Indeed another Bieber collaboration, ‘I Don’t Care’, serves as a good example of how things have gone badly wrong. The track’s rote melody, which feels derivative of ‘Love Yourself’, and oddly sterile production sound unusually cold and ungenerous, while the message of indulgent isolation is equally dislikeable. ‘I Don’t Care’ is the album’s lead single and still the catchiest song on here.

‘No.6 Collaboration Project’ is little more than a calculated playlist of bland, sparkess pop music made with absolute competence and almost no heart whatsoever. It’s music made by a content millionaire struggling to tap in to the vein of hurt and frustration that made him his millions. These songs are generic exercises designed by the same committee responsible for 90% of top 40 radio. Countless other writers and producers worked with Sheeran on these songs, which feel contrived and faceless as a consequence. ‘No6…’ is an album blighted by insincerity, from an artist who’s calling card has been unfiltered sincerity. 

Musically, only ‘Best Part of Me’ serves the soft, muted shades we’ve come to associate with Sheeran. Elsewhere he’s straining to sound relevant by appropriating the sounds and motifs of other genres in to his sexless chart mush. Having steered out of his own distinctive lane, he’s veered sharply and somewhat chaotically in to pedestrian pop. Casualties include Camils Cabello on ‘South of the Border’ which features the kind of unfortunate euphemisms and trite observations that are typical of Sheeran at his unedited worst. The song’s vague calypso rhythm, clipped percussion and Spanish flourishes are calling cards of top 40 radio from, what, 2017? It’s out of date and out of touch.

But the pop songs are significantly better than the rap ones. The original ‘No 5’ collaboration e.p, on which this is loosely modelled, featured well meaning attempts to blend Ed’s sound with grime and Hip Hop. Alongside British underdogs, Sheeran didn’t sound massively under-pace. What he lacked in technical ability and credibility he made up for with ambition and enthusiasm. This time his choice of collaborators feels more calculated. The likes of Travis Scott, Stormzy, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mills, Young Thug… it’s a PR dream team. The problem is, Sheeran is outshone so often it becomes difficult to see what is gained by these ‘collaborations’. Of course It’s no shame to be out-rapped by Eminem, who even on an off day is more proficient than just about any rapper on the planet. But some of Ed’s rhymes, particularly on the lamentable ‘Take Me Back to London’ are empty, braggadocios and occasionally mortifying. You can’t accuse him of playing it safe – but at what price?

Ed Sheeran can rap – listen to his verses on U.N.I’ or ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ for evidence – but the best place to hear him rap is on an Ed Sheeran album, where his only competition is himself. Here, surrounded by some of the biggest and best rappers on the planet, he is exposed time and time again. 

The album’s failures are not so surprising. Ed Sheeran has been spreading himself thin for a while, and his signature style has never been so diluted. By sharing the writing process he’s given far less of himself than we would expect. By conceding this much to other producers he’s lost sight of what made him popular in the first place.

2/10 

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Lewis Capaldi ‘Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent’ – Review

15 Jul

There is no doubt that Lewis Calpido is a one trick pony – a fact the self-deprecating star makes light of in any interview he gives. When he pulls that trick off, as on the massive hit ‘Someone You Love’, the results are undeniably moving. That song’s seismic pull – a giant voice belting over gentle piano arpeggios – lessens on the album, as song after song makes similar, if not identical, moves with diminishing effect. Stormy opener ‘Grace’ is probably the next best thing on here but then it’s also the first song you hear, and perhaps that’s not a coincidence. Certainly, by the time of the opening notes of ‘Fade’ and ‘Headspace’, emotional fatigue has well and truly kicked in.  Your skin can thicken to even the most potent emotions over time. 

Calpaldi is a gifted singer (who will eventually learn to rein it in a bit) with an engaging personality; the shame is that very little of that personality gets displayed on ‘Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent’ whose title manages to be the most interesting thing about it. His quirky sense of humour, distinctive Scottish twang and personable manner are largely absent from his lyricism which trades more in stock imagery and the usual heartbreak cliches. At times, as on the ill judged ‘One’, he actually comes across as a little petulant and self-absorbed. There is a fine line when you’re sharing as much as Lewis is and he occasionally trips over it. Perhaps this would be less problematic if you thoroughly believed every single word he was singing but some of the less memorable songs feel like contrived exercises with different heartbreak tropes. The rhymes are a little too neat, the sentiments a little too rehearsed. 

He largely pulls it off through through sheer, breathtaking vocal power. What he lacks in subtlety and refinement he makes up for with reach. Thick, bold emotional lines transmitted bluntly from the heart, through the voice, to your ears. It’s direct and it’s emotive. Whether he’s seeking solace in sunny climes (‘Hollywood’) grieving over unreciprocated feelings (‘Hold Me While You Wait’) or coming to terms with being a single man (‘Bruises’) he generally sells the emotion with the conviction radiating from his voice rather than the words.

Capaldi makes rivals Adele and Sam Smith seem veritably experimental in comparison. Those singers – who Capaldi will inevitably be compared to – had a handful of classics on their sad-sack breakthrough albums; Capaldi has one, maybe two at a push. That said, he’s certainly a league above other recent Adele rip offs like James Arthur, Rag and Bone Man, James Bay and Tom Walker. I find myself returning to ‘Divinely Inspired to a Hellish Extent’ and so do millions of others. There is a disarming quality to these ballads that simply breaks through my critical instincts and better judgment. It’s generic and cliched but I can’t deny Lewis Capaldi. 

6/10

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Big Thief ‘U.F.O.F’ – Review

9 Jul

It’s difficult to pin down what is so striking about Big Thief’s third album ‘U.F.O.F’. Everything that is distinctive about it is, ironically, vague and unknowable; like a fine mist hanging in the atmosphere. On the surface, lyrics appear almost trite and simplistic but Adrianne Lenker gives life to them with her strange and unnerving melodies and that traumatised voice. The arrangements are simple and unrefined but again have a reach and impact far beyond their limitations. Taken as a whole there is a magical quality to many of these tracks that makes ‘U.F.O.F’ stand out from a crowded field of folky alt-rock.

At their most distant, on the likes of ‘Contact’ and ‘U.F.O.F’ – both of which loosely describe encounters of the third kind – Big Thief remind me of classic alt-rock bands like Radiohead and, particularly, Mazzy Star. On the intimate ballads they hark back to Warpiant and Frankie Rose – barely remembered acts from the early part of this decade. But even at their closest they remain somehow unrecognisable. This is reflected in the lyricism which describes experiences at once familiar and other. ‘The best kiss I ever had was the flickering kiss of the ocean’ is one such evocation of a strange uncanniness. Lenker’s voice breathes flesh to these skeletal sentences. It is a versatile instrument that can mutate from something soft and powdery to a menacing growl in the space of a second.

‘Fragile is that I mourn her death as our limbs are twisting in her bedroom’. One minute Lenker is lost in the vague mystery of love, the next she is succumbing to the reminder that it inevitably leads to loss. Light leads to darkness in a world where pigeons drop from the night sky, bugs die on your windshield and we lie to one another as a matter of habit. The musical accompaniments to these truisms are ornamental and fragile. Rarely do these songs rely on anything more than guitar, bass, drums and a complex but subtle range of effects and distortion. It’s a thick sound built carefully around a handful of instruments.  Stand out ‘Open Desert’ sounds like a breeze whistling along freshly cut crass; a gently repeating guitar figure combined with layered harmonies and the soft tapping of a xylophone or chime that illuminate lyrics about light and space. Only the unnerving opener ‘Contact’ beefs up the sound in a way that might appease fans of the band’s debut ‘Masterpiece.’

Around the edges of the heavy themes we’ve come to expect from Big Thief – death, loss, abuse, trauma, alienation- the album concerns itself with Fruit bats and moths and flies worms and pigeons. Animals and insects on the edge of our periphery; inconsequential, barely noticed even, yet alive. Who knows what affinity the band feel for these creatures or for the unidentified flying object ‘friend’ Lenker sings about so warmly. The abstract images evoke something almost otherworldly, something beyond understanding but also a feeling of, first, separation (from ourselves, from our neighbours, from reality) and then longing. It’s a longing for something beyond what we can see and comprehend that Big Thief somehow articulate so beautifully.

9/10

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Black Midi ‘Schlagenheim’ – Review

29 Jun

Earlier this week I saw Black Midi perform in Nottingham. Lead singer and guitarist, the perfectly named Geordie Greer, instantly made a mark. He came out donning various items of fashion antiquity – a cowboy hat, trench coat, cropped trousers and brogue boots – with the stone cold stare of a man who had absolutely no idea where he was or what he was about to do. At no point did he engage the crowd in conversation. At no point did he even seem to notice we were there. From the very first note onwards he was possessed by the music; as strangely enigmatic as any frontman in recent memory. His voice – somewhere between Su Tissue, Yoko Ono, a cockney Mark E Smith and a deeply distressed Jack Russel dog – didn’t sound tethered to a source; it lunged, screeched and bellowed of its own alien volition. Alongside him, his band mates were equally engrossed in the music, and each other. It was a mesmerising performance of complicated indie-rock, shaved of any kind of melodic or structural accessibility.

Little of that live energy and inscrutability has been bottled on the album, ‘Schlagenheim’, which is a far more calculated and slowly rewarding entity. It’s been produced by Dan Carey (Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Mystery Jets) and I really mean produced. It’s unique In the same way that listening to ‘Unknown Pleasures’ was a different experience to seeing Joy Division live, in person. You get the strong impression that every sound, every guitar pedal effect and synthesised after-thought has been slaved over and meticulously mixed just so. 

‘Schlagenheim’ bristles with a restlessness, never settling on a groove or melody for very long. The unpredictability and unknowingness extends to all aspects of the band’s aesthetic, from the album title (which is untranslatable) to the album design (it comes packaged in an old slimline CD single case with the lyric booklet glued on to the outter case. Cassette tapes are available). In official press photos the band appear as computer generated avatars dressed in matching racing overalls, like playable characters from Gran Turesmo on the original PlayStation. They avoid social media and until recently wouldn’t grant interview to the music press. This isn’t a ploy as such – they just prefer to let the music speak for itself. 

The most striking thing about the group is undoubtedly Morgan Simpson, the finest drummer of his generation, with the awards to prove it. You won’t find flashy Travis Barker-esque tomfoolery from him though. His drumming is a highlight but it’s rarely the focus point. His dramatic fills on new single ‘Talking Heads’ are notable but that song didn’t even make it to the album’s final cut. That it’s their catchiest song (indeed it’s about the only thing they’ve recorded without an actual chorus) doesn’t seem to have been an issue. Black Midi, despite the enormous amount of individual talent on display, operate and behave as a band. No one member shines above another on this album. And it is very much an album rather than a disparate collection of songs. It starts bracingly with ‘953’, a dramatic post-hardcore number which stops, starts and turns on a dime, and slowly unfolds, climaxing with melodic epics like ‘Western’, which features some impressive banjo playing, and ‘Ducter’, the album’s untroubled standout. It encompasses Math-Rock, Post-Rock, Ambience, Indie and even Nu-Metal, and somehow meshes it altogether in to a unifying whole.

In a sense the band are a throwback to when people took rock music seriously. There is a steadfast pretension that is rare in 2019. The most successful (and currently best) band in the country, The 1975, squeeze irony out of every inch of their music. Not so with Black Midi. But despite being very-modern in a musical sense, Black Midi present as a traditionally set up guitar band and play every note as if their lives depended on it, as if ‘Schlagenheim’ could save the world or change your life. If there is humour in here (and a band that include lyrics about caterpillars with anorexic children and lovers with porcupine hands are not totally devoid of the stuff) then it’s buried quite deep. And it’s that true sincerity, more than anything actually contained in the music or lyrics, that dead stared intensity, that makes Black Midi so inspirational and appealing.

8.5/10

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Review Roundup

23 Jun

Wyes Blood ‘Titanic Rising’

Pointing out the cinematic quality of an album with a song called ‘Movies’ may be a little predictable but it’s not just in this obvious sense that Wyes Blood invites the metaphor. There is something in the soaring ambition, the evocative imagery and the timeless romanticism that recalls a bygone era of Hollywood. YouTube is already bursting with fanmade videos, setting these songs to classic scenes from the likes of Lolita and Twin Peaks. one of the impressive things about ‘Titanic Rising’ is how Wyes Blood marries this widescreen scope with a very personal, imaginative perspective. Throughout the album she explores the depths of her imagination, never settling on an easy image or melody, always seeking out the mysterious ambiguities. Harmonies swell, melodies burst open, every sound is delicately arranged by the best young producer in the business, Jonathan Rado (with some help from The Lemon Twigs). ‘Titanic Rising’ is unquestionably one of the most beautiful albums of 2019

8.5/10

Honeyblood ‘In Plain Sight’

Honeyblood lean towards their softer, melodic instincts on new album ‘In Plain Sight’, an assured return to form after the disappointingly clunky ‘Babes Never Die’. Album opener ‘She’s a Nightmare’ is an early indication of this, with its orchestral flourishes and carefully layered production complimenting a sweet melody masquerading as something sinister. Lead single ‘Third Degree’ is the catchiest thing Honeyblood have written since their run of early singles like ‘Bud’ and ‘Killer Bangs’, pairing a Phil Spector beat with punk rock guitars. This is certainly nothing new but when it sounds this good few will complain.

7.5/10

We Are Scientists ‘Megaplex’

If you announce an anniversary tour for your debut a matter of weeks after releasing your latest album then you know something has gone pretty wrong – which is exactly the position We Are Scientists have landed in. This move is detrememntal on a couple of levels. Not only does it move focus away from ‘Megaplex’, the band’s slick new synth pop album, but it also highlights this record’s inadequacies by reminding people what was so charming about 2005’s ‘With Love and Squalor’. That record bristled with a nervous energy that offset clean, sharp guitar hooks with disco groves. In contrast, ‘Megaplex’ is calm, settled and almost totally lacking in any kind of musical or lyrical tension. It also lacks in WAS’s most notable trait: humour. It exists but We Are Scientists have already forgotten about it and soon so will you.

5/10