Archive | March, 2011

The Strokes ‘Angles’ – Review

30 Mar

It’s been nearly five and a half years since The Strokes released their last album. For a band that never split up that’s a pretty long time, about as long as it took The Stone Roses to release ‘The Second Coming’, and we all know what happened there. To put that gap into perspective, when The Strokes released ‘Frist Impressions of Earth’ Arctic Monkeys hadn’t even put out an album – next month they will release their fourth. That band opened their debut with the line ‘anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment’, and the anticipation / disappointment ratio is something that has been playing on The Strokes minds as well. Tellingly ‘Angles’ opens with the line ‘I’m putting your patience to the test’ – you have no idea Julian, you have no idea.

It’s as if, to dilute the anticipation, The Strokes have been sabotaging the release of ‘Angles’, and if you’ve read any interviews with the band recently you probably have zero faith in this being a decent album. The group have always criticized their own records, but never this early; when they were promoting ‘Room on Fire’ in 2003 they expressed their disappointment with the way ‘Is This It’ sounded, then a couple of years later they conceded that ‘Room on Fire’ was rushed and inconsistent, and more recently the band have also been slagging off ‘First Impressions of Earth’. But this time around they have gotten ahead of themselves by criticising ‘Angles’ before it was even released! Nick Valensi told Pitchfork that ‘I feel like we have a better album in us, and it’s going to come out soon.’ Julian Casablancas said ‘there’s a bunch of stuff on the record I wouldn’t have done’. Hmmmm, doesn’t exactly bode well does it?

So what’s the diagnosis? The bad news is that ‘Angles’ is no ‘Is This It’ or ‘Room on Fire’, it doesn’t even want to be. But hold on – the good news is that this is an enjoyable and diverse collection of songs that expands the group’s sound whilst retaining most of what makes The Strokes unique. I know a lot of people were hoping for a bit more than ‘enjoyable’, I think deep down we were all  hoping they would save rock music once again, but the fact is that rock isn’t going to be saved by a bunch of 30+ year old dads – the superhero costumes just don’t fit them anymore.

The band acknowledged this fact when they told NME that they couldn’t provide exactly what fans wanted from this album – they’ve changed too much. This is evident in the album’s eclectic range of styles, from the reggae tinged swagger of ‘Macau Picchu’, to the gothic punk of ‘Metabolism’, and the synth pop of ‘Games’; Sometimes The Strokes sound like a different band. For the first half of the album this really works to their advantage, they sound completely refreshed and re-energized in comparison to the band that made the overproduced and overlong (but somehow still impressive) ‘First Impressions of Earth’.

Occasionally however the experimenting doesn’t pay dividends. I’m still undecided on the Nikolai’ penned track, ‘You’re so Right’, which is the darkest thing the band have ever done, but I think the idea was probably stronger than the execution. This is also true of ‘Games’, a song that strives for radio pop greatness but fails due to watery production, a disjointed structure and lack of anything interesting to say. There’s no getting around the fact that ‘Angles’ was written and recorded by five different people in separate rooms, and that’s exactly how the weaker moments sound. ‘Call Me Back (a real grower) sounds like two songs wielded together and ‘Metabolism’ feels underdeveloped. However when they have clearly read each others notes, the results can be explosive for exactly the same reasons (see the Springstein-esque ‘Undercover of Darkness’), but if the album has a big flaw, then the lack of cohesion is it.

Although the band’s newly-found adventurous spirit makes this album what it is, undeniably the band are still at their best when they stick to what they know. On ‘Taken For a Fool’ and ‘Undercover of Darkness’ The Strokes haven’t sounded this damn Strokesey since ‘Room On Fire’, you’ve just got to love the familiarity of Julian’s vocals, the felt tip guitar twin attack, the understated rhythm section, and the simply joyous melodies . ‘Gratisfaction’ and ‘Two Kinds of Happiness’ also hark back to the band of old, but these songs add new and interesting elements into the mix, including synths and tribal drums. A part of me wishes the whole album was this clear minded and straightforward, but then I realize that if The Strokes keep sticking to the same formula with every album they would be little more than the indie Oasis, and obviously that isn’t desirable.

I guess, like me, You’ve probably been counting down the hours, days, weeks, months and years for this album. When The Strokes released ‘First Impressions of Earth’ I was still at school, and they were still arguably the most important band on the planet. Now they are primarily regarded as a group whose big achievements are locked in the past, and whose future is still far from certain. Rather than being an album that will change the course of indie as ‘Is This It’ did, ‘Angles’ is simply a great bit of fun that finds a satisfying balance between the old and the new – mainly it serves to remind me why this band meant so much in the first place. I suppose listening to ‘Angles’ is like meeting up with your first girlfriend for the first time in years and realizing that you’ve both moved on. You have an enjoyable chat, you still get along and you’re reminded why you liked her to begin with, and maybe under everything there is kind of a spark there – but you’ve both probably changed too much for anything serious to happen between you again.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart ‘Belong’ – Review

24 Mar

As a child I was scared of Talking Heads. I saw their video for ‘Once in a Lifetime’ on some music show and it freaked me out, like really freaked me out. There are many reasons I may have found it discomforting; maybe it was Byrne’s bizarre dancing or the (even then) terribly dated special effects, but I think a part of the reason I disliked it so intensely was the general strangeness of the song – it was kind of pop music, but not as I knew it. The pop songs I was used to hearing were performed by puppets with smiles like black holes and dance moves that represented every ‘maybe’ and ‘baby’. David Byrne wasn’t smiling, he looked paranoid and troubled. He was dancing but it was uncontrolled and manic. Musically it was disjointed; the verses were hypnotic and alarming, but then the chorus was incredibly catchy. I’ts an odd song, familiar and new at the same time. The video stayed in my mind for years afterwards, long after I’d forgoton what the band and the song were called; this was my first exposure to indie music.

Indie bands seemed weird and perverse to me, they were miserable and brooding, they were pale and lonely, they were experimental and cunning. I read about them in magazines, and they had strange names like Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The pictures were always in black and white when I wanted colour, colour, colour! They were kind of like the britpop bands I despised, the ones that would be on top of the pops every now and then. Yuck. Eventually, gradually, I got into indie music in a big way, thanks to The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand, but I rarely thought of the music I was listening to as ‘indie’, to me that was still a dirty word connected with that odd music video I had seen, and those black and white bands in magazines. This new generation of so called indie bands didn’t consider themselves indie either, they wanted to be called pop or rock n roll, perhaps realising the limitations of ‘indie’.

I mention all this because The Pains of Being Pure at Heart take me back to that state of mind, they remind me of all that bored me, troubled me and annoyed me about ‘indie’. Take that name for starters; its length, its pretension, the tweeness, the self-pitying; it has a certain arrogance as well, it implies that the band are pure of heart which is surely impossible? Of course a lot of indie kids have always been arrogant, they see themselves as those guys on the fringes of society, observing and judging the mainstream, patting themselves on the back for being better than everyone else. Yes, indie is very inclusive if you belong to the club (you get cool badges and mixtapes!), but they treat outsiders with complete contempt.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart revel in this kind of attitude, just listen to some of the lyrics – ‘I know it’s wrong but we just don’t belong’, ‘dreaming of another town, cos nothing here is going on’, ‘I want it to hurt like it did before’, ‘the posters on the wall were our only friends’, ‘Anne with an e, you’re everything to me’, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be liked’, ‘sadness hurts but that’s ok’ – GIVE ME A BREAK! It just stinks of all the old indie cliches that still annoy me. FACT: NME printed pictures in black n white in the 80’s because it was cheaper than printing them in colour, it had little to do with those bands being moody, even Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet got printed in black and white! FACT: Most indie bands were on indie labels, not through lack of ambition, but because they just weren’t good enough to be on a major label. FACT: Those British bands were miserable because they lived in Thatcher’s Britain, because they were working class moaners, it was who they were. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart just strike me as being fake at every turn, they follow the indie rulebook word for word without understanding why those rules were there in the first place.

Nobody gets more of a kick out of nostalgic music than me, The Drums were one of my favourite bands last year, but the difference is that The Drums had an abundance of catchy and well produced songs and The Pains of Being Pure at heart don’t. The back of half of this album completely washes over you leaving absolutely no trace of anything substantial (I have no doubt Flood’s watery production is partly to blame; excuse the pun). It’s not terrible, it’s just bland, overlong and really boring. The singer’s breathy vocals grate on you, the instrumentation is too predictable and the lyrics range from ok to plain awful (‘When everyone was doing drugs, we were just doing love’).

The first half is a lot stronger, and in fact the opening trio of songs are pretty strong. The title track makes good use of soft/loud dynamics and ‘Heavens gonna happen now’ is one of the few songs with a chorus that really sticks in your head. ‘Heart in your Heartbreak’ is in another league entirely, the chorus is damn infectious and the whole song is just really clever and enjoyable – not slightly pretentious or overthought, unlike many of the tracks that follow. ‘Heart in your Heartbreak’ was one of my favourite songs last year, so It’s with sadness that I report on the failures of this album.

The only other contemporary band I can think of who adhere to indie conventions so rigorously is Los Camposinos, but they are far more original and riveting. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart don’t have an original bone in their body, but that wouldn’t matter to me in the slightest if they had good songs – but this time around they don’t (their debut was pretty decent). ‘Heart in Your Heartbreak’ aside this is an album made up of mostly bland and painfully clichéd songs that will appeal to only the most introverted outcasts. I’m hoping it’s a misstep for TPOBPAH because they have shown great promise in the past, and that promise is apparent here from time to time as well. For the most part though ‘Belong’ is a disappointment and a perfect example of how not to make revivalist music. (and p.s, I’m no longer scared of Talking Heads…well, not as much!)


The Naked and Famous ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ – Review

23 Mar

First of all let me get something off my chest. ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ has one of the most mind-boggling, boring and lazy album covers I have seen in a long time. It features a bizarre, multicoloured globe with the band’s (rubbish) name and (rubbish) album title printed in the blandest font on top. It means nothing, it doesn’t attract me, and it doesn’t represent anything about this album. If first impressions count then me and The Naked and Famous have gotten off on the wrong foot.

In fact The Naked and Famous seem determined to give people the wrong impression about them at every opportunity. Their first two singles, ‘Young Blood’ and ‘Punching a Dream’, are festival anthems that borrow very heavily from Oracular Spectacular era MGMT, but if you buy this album expecting another eleven songs in the same mould then you’re going to be disappointed. Opener ‘All of This’ is a another hands aloft, sing along, crowd pleaser but after that things get continuously off track. Debut albums are rarely this diverse and if the band could pull it off with more originality and charm then that would be commendable, but here the band’s experimenting comes across as scattershot and indecisive. It’s as if with each new song they are pretending to be a different band, to see which suit fits.

You will not find a more joyless M83 rip off than ‘Eyes’, which has all the signifiers of that washed out, nostalgic synth sound but none of the heart. ‘The Source’ tries to emulate ‘Treefingers’ from ‘Kid A’ and inevitably fails, whilst ‘Frayed’ is a bad impersonation of Jesus and Mary Chain. When they aren’t doing bad impersonations they are just making bad songs full stop. There is a trio of tracks towards the back of the album that make me feel more than a bit nauseous – ‘Spank’, ‘Jilted Lovers’ and ‘A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing’ are truly dire (but you probably already know that just by reading their titles); feedback is a wonderful weapon in the right hands but in the wrong hands it is the musical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and The Naked and Famous are musical terrorists.

And yet they have talent. Musically they are an accomplished group and when they are all on task the results can be quite enjoyable. The two singles I mentioned earlier are definitely worthy of your time, and the more ambitious songs on the album are actually the stronger songs. ‘Girls Like You’ works well as the epic final song and the two understated interludes are also well done. For all it’s faults ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ sounds like a proper album, which is pretty commendable considering the band’s lack of a consistent musical identity.  They clearly thought about the overall structure and flow of the record, I just don’t think they have the songs to sustain it.

Back to that album art – it’s all contradicting colours, conflicting lines, one image obscuring an other image – it’s a mess and it represents the album better than I gave it credit for. The Naked and Famous are children playing dress up and you have no idea who they are going to pretend to be next – ‘hey look it’s Radiohead, or is it Empire and the Sun?’.  Played out over an entire album this is a game that becomes increasingly tiresome. It’s a shame because every now and then they put on a costume that actually looks cool on them, it’s just too bad they haven’t quite figured that out themselves yet.


Reading and Leeds Lineup announced (and a rant)

22 Mar

So it’s that time of year when the Reading and Leeds lineup gets announced. As I get  older and increasingly cynical it becomes more and more difficult to judge just how good a new Reading and Leeds lineup actually is. I mean, back when I first went in 2006 I had barely seen any bands live and so the whole thing was a wonderful, eye-opening experience – cut to 2011 and the lineup holds no surprises, I’ve seen most of the bands before and it just seems a bit stale.

I mean are teenagers really digging My Chemical Romance (and do teenagers still say digging ((and did teenagers ever say digging)) ) ? I seriously doubt it. Speaking of the 2006 lineup, I seem to remember MCR playing and getting bottled off the stage, but obviously the organizers have forgotten about that. And Muse also played in 2006 – can’t remember how good they were, I just remember the rain. That year Arctic Monkeys exploded on the main stage, confirming themselves as the act of a generation, whilst Klaxons set the tent on fire with a sound that was genuinely new and exciting. If this lineup says anything to me it’s that there is no Arctic Monkeys or Klaxons, or any new band begging to break through (The Vaccines aside).

This lineup is like a Reading and Leeds greatest hits set – the ‘naughties’ years; starring The Strokes, The National, Elbow and Interpol. And I can’t remember a R&L lineup ever featuring so many nostalgic acts, it just hasn’t been the festival’s style, and yet here are Pulp, The Offspring, Jimmy Eat World, Deftones and, er, Madness? Don’t get me wrong, these bands are popular and they more than earn their position but for goodness sake in 2006 we had young guns like Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Futureheads, The Cribs and of course Arctic Monkeys and Klaxons. Where are this year’s contemporary bands? 30 Seconds to Mars? Two Door Cinema Club? The View? Come on people!

I suppose this  rant is equally about the dire state of Rock music in general as it is about the poor selection by the Reading organizers, but there is surely a better lineup out there to be had? They should have taken risks; put The Vaccines and Noah and the Whale in positions that matter, book our two breakthrough heroes, Mumford and Sons and The XX, bring more acts over from America, bands like Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes, maybe even Kanye West or Eminem, and if you’re going metal then go all out and book Iron Maiden for goodness sakes – and why have Sonisphere got the big four, surely they should be at the home of Rock?

Still, I will be going for one day and I will be seeing The Strokes, The National, Crystal Castles, Bombay Bicycle Club, Jimmy Eat World and DEFINATLEY Madness. Reading and Leeds may be loosing it’s edge but that’s still a pretty convincing bunch of bands. And hey, maybe it is me just getting old and cynical.

The View ‘Bread and Circuses’ – Review

20 Mar

The View, through no real fault of their own, have gone from being one of the most popular bands in Britain to being virtually ignored, and all in the space of a couple of years. Ok, it was kind of their fault, their second album had a notorious lack of tunes and The View built their career on tunes. ‘Same Jeans’, ‘Superstar Tradesmen’, ‘Wasted Little Djs’ etc – their debut was stuffed with them, and that’s pretty much all it had going for it. Sonically it was tired and over produced, musically and lyrically it was clichéd; basically The View were The Libertines without the story or the storytelling ability. Once you took away the tunes you were left with very little indeed –  you were left with ‘Witch Bitch’ essentially, their second album (doesn’t that title tell you everything you need to know?).

Those two albums felt like conjoined twins; they were released pretty close together, their sound was identical, the album art was very similar. Basically they were the same album, it just so happened that one had hits and the other didn’t (oh and the younger twin was high as a kite). It was kind of obvious then that they had to a) expand their sound, b) get rid of their producer and c) ditch the drugs. The result of this  is ‘Bread and Circuses’. Whilst it may not be a twin of those first two albums, its definatley the younger, more ambitious, better dressed brother. You can see the resemblance, and he has the same bad habits, but his charm and politeness does a good job of disguising this fact. ‘Bread and Circuses’ has learned from his brothers mistakes.

And yet this album is doomed for failure. However good ‘Bread and Circuses’ is, (and it is pretty good) I can’t see The View ever being as big as they once were. This is mainly because their’s is a very old-fashioned brand of rock n roll that never really dates but is never exactly in fashion either. It just so happened that when they released their debut, this type of old-fashioned indie rock was having unprecedented dominance in the charts; now the gen public have moved on but The View haven’t.

It’s a bit of a shame because they sound desperate to have another hit, every single song strives for mainstream success and, fairplay to them, they come close an awful lot without ever quite getting there. ‘Life’ is just a bit too unfocused and sloppy but it has a classic melody, ‘Sunday’ has a fantastically catchy verse but fails with the chorus and ‘Grace’ takes just a bit too long to get to the point. They aim for pop perfection but as the album progresses it becomes increasingly clear that their charm is in the way they fall just short of perfection. It’s the the stains in their songs, the little flaws and oddities that make them what they are. This is a point that their producer, Flood (the most overrated producer in music history whose name isn’t Stephen Street), completely misses. He drowns the songs in reverb, strings, harmonies, guitar upon guitar upon guitar etc – it’s as if we’re back in 1997! It reminds me of ‘Be Here Now’ in the way he piles layers upon layers onto songs which should have been treated with simplicity.

Maybe The View wanted this soundscape, it’s certainly a bit of a contrast with the last album and it does smack of (misguided) ambition. Ignoring the sonics though and concentrating on the songs, this is a very solid and consistent album. The first nine songs are all of a very high quality, an for the first half hour it doesn’t let down once. As is the Britpop tradition the songs do go on a bit too long though and this is basically because the choruses are repeated until you want to use them as mallets to whack around the band’s faces. As is usually the way when the songs are overlong, the album itself is too long as well –  thirteen songs that could have been, SHOULD have been, slimmed down to a more manageable ten.

I’ve said it a lot but if a band have the ability to write good songs then their sins can be forgiven; The View are natural songwriters and that ability shines on ‘Bread and Circuses’ even if it is a bombastic, over produced, and messy record. It wont be the crossover success they want it to be and until they write another song as brilliant as ‘Same Jeans’ then a crossover just isn’t going to happen; there are lots of great songs on here but nothing classic. Overall ‘Bread and Circuses’ is their most consistent and listenable album yet and it shows that I was wrong for writing The View off, there is life in them yet.