Archive | November, 2010

Two Wounded Birds ‘Keep Dreaming Baby E.P’ – Review

28 Nov

A guitar group inspired by The Beach Boys, making fuzzy guitar pop? Ok, it’s been done a lot, especially this year, but it’s rarely done as confidently as this. ‘Keep Dreaming Baby’ is Two Wounded Birds debut e.p and it has safely secured their position as one of the most exciting young bands in Britain.

This is the first Physical release on Jacob Graham’s brilliant ‘Holiday Friends Records’ and the group’s sound isn’t a world away from that label’s other breakout acts The Drums, Young Friends and Surfer Blood. The title track and ‘Summer Dream’ are sunny, catchy, uptempo surf rock songs whilst the other three tunes on here are distinctly darker and more psychedelic in tone. If I have one complaint with the e.p it would be that it doesn’t really demonstrate their ability to do much else, all the songs are essentially following one of two templates and because of that they sound fairly similar. But this is a debut at the end of the day and there is more than enough time for them to experiment with ideas and styles.

‘Keeping Dreaming Baby’ is one of the best British debuts of the year and if they can impress supporting The Drums on their UK tour then Two Wounded Birds could find themselves being one of 2011’s most talked about groups.


Kanye West ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’

23 Nov

Kanye West  is often drawn to writing about lights – on ‘Graduation’ it was the ‘Flashing Lights’ of the paparazzi that compelled him and repulsed him in equal measure, on ‘808s and heartbreak’ the ‘Street Lights’ flashing reminded him how quickly moments can pass. That song in particular captured the sense of regret and melancholy that haunted Kanye’s last album. On ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ he is once again using lights as metaphors, but not just street lights or flashing lights but ‘All of the Lights’. ‘Cop lights, flashlights, spotlights, strobe lights, street lights, all of the lights, ALL OF THE LIGHTS!’ The song features an assortment of some of the most succesful talents in hip hop and pop – Elton John, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi, La Roux, Bon Iver and John Legend. On this album no expense is spared, the overindulgence mark is passed in the first ten minutes and yet everyone comes out smelling of roses. After making perhaps the best minimalist hip hop album last time round Kanye’s now successfully made the best maximalist one as well.

The samples are eclectic, from The Byrds to King Crimson, Bon Iver to Aphex Twin, and they are used a lot more imaginatively than on previous albums. I’ve always felt Kanye has used his samples far to obviously in the past, sometimes using them as an easy reference point for a feeling he was too lazy to convey in other ways (see ‘Stronger’ or ‘Good Life’) but here the samples are more appropriate, more a part of the whole and they are used in combination with original music, solid beats and some unusual effects. ‘Power’ is a good example of where an unexpected sample (borrowed from ’21st Century Schizoid Man’) is used as a backdrop for some brilliant rhymes.

Kanye’s flow as a rapper is often overlooked,and it is sometimes said that he doesn’t have the natural ability of the likes of Jay Z, Nas, Twista or Eminem, but it seems like now he may have actually embraced that fact. He takes a back seat on a couple of these songs, and often he doesn’t even try to compete with his guests, his rapping style seems to be slower and more considered than before, his verses are certainly more condensed and considered. Because of this I found myself paying more attention to what he is actually saying, and luckily for him what he is saying is much more interesting than how he says it.

If this album shows Kanye has learnt one thing, it’s how to embrace his many contradictions. ‘Lost in the World’ begins with a string of them – ‘you’re my angel, you’re my devil, you’re my heaven, you’re my hell.’ On this album, as much as ever before, Kanye is constantly (but at least now with self-awareness) contradicting himself; on one hand he sees himself as a god but on the other hand he is a constant failure. In the space of just a couple of minutes during the opening track Kanye goes from hedonistic legend (lines include ‘So much head I woke up in sleepy hollow’ and ‘Sex is on fire I’m the king of Leon’) to miserable poet (‘The plan was to drink untill the pain over but what’s worse the pain or the hangover’.)

The three songs that end this record are the most revealing about Kanye’s inner demons; the auto-tune on ‘Lost in the World’ and the downbeat piano that is at the centre of ‘Blame Game’ recalls the sadness of ‘808’s and Heartbreak.’ At the beginning of ‘Blame Game’ he is  heart wrenchingly honest, saying ‘I’d rather argue with you than be with someone else’ and then he pleas for ‘someone to help.’ Gradually though the song devolves into a discussion about sex and ego. ‘I know you aint getting this type of dick from that local dude,’ he claims before adding ‘you should be grateful a nigga like me ever noticed you.’ Whereas Kanye has put out plenty of songs about how great he is and plenty of songs about how sad he is, on this album he is joining the dots between the two emotions. On these tracks it becomes obvious that Kanye’s ego is a mask, a defense mechanism when he gets hurt. Kanye is revealing why he is arrogant and in doing so he is rebranding himself as someone we can relate to, still a giant ego, but a human one.

Sometimes it isn’t so much about how good an album is as an album but how good it is as an event. Have you heard ‘Thriller’ recently? As an album it isn’t a patch on ‘Off The Wall’, it’s six of the best songs ever made strung together by three pretty average ones, it’s classic for many reasons but it’s strength as a start to finish record isn’t one of them. But it was an event – it had killer singles, groundbreaking videos, iconic imagery, there were those incredible live performances, Michael’s much hyped appearances on tv and at awards shows, his bizarre interviews, and an overall aura that people brought into.

Kanye West knows this as well, and he has done his damnedest to make sure that ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is just as much of an event as ‘Thriller’ was. Of course it never could be, no matter how much he tried – Kanye is a rapper and a producer at the end of the day, not a showman in quite the same way as MJ. Nonetheless this album has been preceded by a string of free downloads, an excellent hit single, a 30 minute ‘short film’ (that is also pretty excellent) a webchat with fans, numerous tv interviews and award show appearances. Kanye has managed to create almost unprecedented hype for this album in a time when people aren’t really getting excited about anything, let alone the fifth Kanye West album in as many years. He has managed to twist his negative public image into something positive and in the process he has created a tide of good will towards him. He has embraced his arrogance, his rashness, and all his other faults and he’s made a pretty spectacular album (event) about it.

I don’t want to go out on a limb and say this is the best hip hop album ever made because, well, I’m not sure that it is – I’m not even sure I prefer it to ‘808s and Heartbreak’ at the moment. But when I compare it to other seminal hip hop albums of recent times it holds up extremely well. This is just as cohesive as ‘The Black Album’ or ‘The Blueprint’, very nearly as experimental as ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’, and much more interesting than ‘The Carter III’. It can’t quite match those albums in some other respects but ‘My Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is still pretty unbeatable in most areas. In many ways this feels like a landmark album; it’s the most epic, artful, ambitious, and captivating  hip hop record in a long time. All things considered Kanye West has achieved exactly what he wanted – he talks and the world listens, he is the best pop star on the planet right now. ‘Something wrong, I hold my head, MJ gone, A Nigga dead!’ Michael Jackson may be dead but his legacy of taking over the world through eccentric pop music lives on in Kanye West.


British Sea Power Return With New Album!

23 Nov

British Sea Power’s fourth album ‘Valhalla Dancehall’ will be released in January and you can hear the first single ‘Living is Easy’ below.

Here is the tracklisting

  1. “Who’s In Control”
  2. “We Are Sound”
  3. “Georgie Ray”
  4. “Stunde Null”
  5. “Mongk II”
  6. “Luna”
  7. “Baby”
  8. “Living Is So Easy”
  9. “Observe The Skies”
  10. “Cleaning Out The Rooms”
  11. “Thin Black Sail”
  12. “Once More Now”
  13. “Heavy Water”

Take That ‘Progress’ – Review

21 Nov

The story of Take That is one of the most  triumphant in the history of British pop music. manufactured by a slightly crazy manager, five Manchester lads were brought together to be our answer to New Kids on the Block. Gary Barlow was the songwriter and main talent whilst the other members served mainly as backing dancers which started to grate, especially with the youngest, Robbie Williams. You probably know the rest, but put simply they rose from the ashes with style and good grace, simultaneously with Robbie’s less than graceful decline. Now the band and Williams are reunited for what is essentially the musical equivalent of a big make up hug.

And it’s a comforting and friendly hug but also one that’s slightly surprising in its strength and style. I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘Progress’ – what I’ve heard of Take That since their 2005 reunion has been a mixed bag of killer, undeniable singles (Shine, Patience) syrupy rubbish (Greatest Day, Rule The World) and some interesting but traditional album tracks (Hello, Julie). Where they have broken the boy band mould in the past it has been by adding Sgt Pepper esque horns, pondering about the state of the world and letting Jason sing – so never that experimental or groundbreaking – but they’ve always been a step ahead of Westlife, JLS and their like.

The biggest change between the band’s last album and ‘Progress’ is the production. Since their comeback they have worked with John Shanks, a bland Hollywood producer who gave the songs enough sparkle for the radio but added nothing interesting to the mix. This time they are working with the genuinely talented Stewart Price, the man who helmed  Keane and The Killers latest albums and reinvigorated Madonna a decade ago. This has resulted in a shift towards electro pop, the record sounds like a mixture of the group’s more upbeat 90’s material and Robbie’s much maligned ‘Rudebox’ album.

It doesn’t begin in this way though. First single ‘The Flood’opens the album and it easily fits into the ‘syrupy rubbish’ category I mentioned earlier, but luckily it doesn’t represent ‘Progress’, from here on in things get more uptempo and more exciting. Robbie and Mark lead the way on ‘Kidz’ and ‘SOS’ and the results are extremely catchy, sounding like the halfway point between ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ and ‘Mr Brightside’. ‘Happy Now’ and ‘Pretty Things’ are slightly more downbeat and old-fashioned but there is still a unexepected oddness to these songs that keeps you on your feet – Robbie and Gary harmonize in a very creepy way. ‘Underground Machine’ comes next and it’s essentially a Robbie Williams solo track, and an average one, so it makes you wonder why it’s on here.

After this things stop being so Robbie centric and the other members each get a turn to shine (see what I did there?). Howard’s song ‘Affirmation’ genuinely sounds a bit like Joy Division, but it’s a bit naff, ‘What do you Want From Me’ is Mark’s confessional song and it’s much more succesful at blending Take That’s traditional sound with something a bit fresh. Gary finally (finally) gets his own lead on ‘Eight Letters’, a brilliant ballad that sounds like a classic Take That hit played on a weird synth and with some seriously thoughtful lyrics. It is topped by the album’s hidden track, ‘Flowerbed’, which is a lovely little tune sung by Jason.

I can’t think of any other ‘manufactured’ pop act making music as well designed as this; as the album’s credit’s reveal this was written entirely by the group; they played instruments, oversaw mixing and artwork and because of these details there is real personality and character to these songs. There isn’t a classic tune on here, nothing to match the latest Lady Ga Ga or Girls Aloud single or anything from Take That’s original run, but there is a consistency and cohesion to this album that is commendable. Ultimately the story behind the record is much more interesting than the album itself, but all things considered this is one succesful reunion in both a critical, and no doubt commercial, sense.


Girls ‘Broken Dreams Club’ – Review

18 Nov

Girls were one of the breakthrough acts of 2009, and they have spent this year touring non-stop and getting more and more popular in the process. Now they are releasing ‘Broken Dreams Club’ a mini album designed to bridge the gap between the first record and album number two. It rounds up some of the more prominent unreleased songs that Girls have been playing live over the past year or so and at least half of this material will be familiar to fans of the band – I heard ‘Substance’ before I had even heard their debut, and bootlegs of ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Broken Dreams Club’ have been doing the rounds online for a while. Whilst the song choice is not surprising, there are some surprises in how these songs have been recorded and mixed. Girls indulgent tendencies (which sometimes frustrated on the debut) have been reined in a bit more here and what they have produced is a tight and well-edited record.

The production on ‘Album’ was very inconsistent which was part of the charm in many ways, but the band insisted it was down to practicality and money rather than choice. Tracks like ‘Laura’ and ‘Lust For Life’ were highly polished whilst others including ‘God Dammed’ were recorded in a ramshackle, lo-fi manner and ‘Morning Light’ was produced like a shoegaze song gone mental. Here there is no such variety, all of the songs sound very clean and there is a cohesion to this record that shows great progression for the band. ‘Heartbreaker’ in particular sounds like the type of song they were always trying to make but never quite could. But a tiny bit of the band’s individuality may have been lost as a result.

‘Album’ opened with the line ‘I wish I had a boyfriend, I wish I had a loving man in my life’ and all twelve songs were infused with this kind of candor and personality, but there is nothing really as striking on this release. ‘Broken Dreams Club’, ‘Alright’ and ‘The Oh So Protective One’ are flawless musically but they steer very close to predictability.  ‘Heartbreaker’ is slightly more interesting lyrically with some brilliant lines (‘I’ve still got a lock of your hair’ is particularly enjoyable) and ‘Substance’ is about Owen’s much written about interest in drugs. He tackles the subject with an honesty that is pretty much unheard of in pop music, especially when the lyrics go hand in hand with such an old-fashioned melody.

The album closes with ‘Carolina’, a grungy, effects driven ode to love and home. This is more like the band that made ‘Album’, it pulls off that trick of being strange and familiar at the same time. The long droning introduction should be boring but instead it draws you in and then shakes you senseless with the melody that erupts halfway through.

‘Broken Dreams Club’ is a nice bridge between ‘Album’ and whatever comes next. In most ways this ‘mini’ album shows progression, at least in terms of production and songwriting, and it isn’t overly worrying that there isn’t anything to quite match the best songs from ‘Album’ (although ‘Heartbreaker’ comes pretty damn close). For a band that write mainly about one thing (heartbreak) you never feel like Girls are repeating themselves, even though they often are. The band spin subjects on their head and ‘Broken Dreams Club’ is a disorienting but comforting listen that sounds old and new all at once. I can’t wait to see what comes next.