Archive | June, 2011

Glastonbury

28 Jun

Glastonbury took place at the weekend, and it had one of its best lineups for years. I couldn’t go but I was glued to the TV all weekend and enjoyed the BBC’s excellent live coverage. Beyonce and Coldplay both killed it as headliners, pulling out all the hits and some interesting new numbers. U2 on the other hand were a lot less than convincing and they simply confirmed my belief that they are the blandest band on the planet. To add insult to injury they are no longer the biggest band on the planet either, after being completely trounced in every respect by Coldplay.

Here are ten highlights from the festival…

Morrissey – I Want the One I Can’t Have

Biffy Clyro – Mountains

The Vaccines

Primal Scream – Come Together

The Horrors – Still Life

Noah and the Whale – L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N

Beyonce – Irreplaceable

Queens of the Stone Age – No One Knows

Fleet Foxes – Sim Sala Bim

Laura Marling – Rambling Man

Advertisements

The Killers ‘Rising Tide’

25 Jun

A very very new one from The Killers, performed live last week for the first time.

Wild Beasts ‘Smother’ – Review

21 Jun

Wild Beasts once lived up to their name by being a pretty wild and unpredictable group; their blend of soaring falsettos, tribal rhythms and saucy lyrics won them great acclaim, particularly with 2009’s breakthrough ‘Two Dancers’. But these beasts have been tamed by time, and their third record ‘Smother’ is notable for being a pretty subdued and laid-back affair, in contrast to their earlier work. It opens with ‘Lion’s Share’ a song that feels like it’s going to explode into their usual kind of musical free for all, but never does. They are equally restrained throughout which often works to their advantage but occasionally doesn’t. ‘Smother’ is nearly as good as ‘Two Dancers’ (better in a couple of respects) but it’s not nearly as entertaining.

The interplay between singers Tom Flemming and Hayden Thorpe has been central to the band’s appeal, and that dynamic is even more present on ‘Smother’ than it was on ‘Two Dancers’. Here Wild Beasts make a serious claim to having, not just one, but two of the best singers in contemporary Indie. Both seem capable of reaching higher and lower notes than anyone else out there, and to their credit they never use their talents in a gimmicky or showy off way. For the most part their singing (like the musical arrangements) is understated and intelligently deployed. On ‘Plaything’ Thorpe tells us ‘I know I’m not any kind of heart-throb/but at the same time I’m bot any sort of sloth’. The album is filled with this kind of witty lyricism but it’s the way Thorpe’s voice plays with the words that truly makes the lyrics come to life.

One of the best things about Wild Beasts is their sense of humour. On the surface this is a very serious album, but there is humour in the lyrics even if it’s just a bit of wordplay, a clever turn of phrase or even a knowing nudge and wink (‘I would lie anywhere with you, any old bed of nails will do’). They manage the rare trick (see also Arctic Monkeys and Morrissey) of being both laugh out loud funny and thought provokingly deep in the same song. But not even their sense of humour can save them when the tune is as ponderous and dry as ‘Burning’, a song apparently told from the perspective of a man who has been saved, but sounds more like he has been told to spend an eternity in hell with the cast of The Only Way Is Essex.

Over the course of an entire album ‘Smother’s’ slightly predictable formula becomes quite tiresome. Songs like ‘Deeper’ and ‘Loop The Loop’ would benefit from being a bit, well, wilder (where did all their nervous energy go?). Whilst Wild Beasts have established a relaxing and consistent mood it’s a little too consistent and relaxed for my liking. Easily the least laid back (and therefore most interesting) element of the group is the rhythm section who, whilst often overlooked, continue to impress with their funky yet tightly wound rhythms (as funky as a drummer born and raised in the Lake District is capable of at least) and groovy basslines.

‘Smother’ is a good album, I’m just not sure that it’s equal to the sum of its parts. Despite having adventurous multi-instrumentalists, two amazing singers and lyricists plus a brilliant rhythm section, Wild Beasts have made an album that is a little too predictable and a little too yawn inducing. In the past Wild Beasts were at their best when they were uncontrollable, strange and mischievous – and the album’s at its best when they continue to be so. But whilst I don’t believe they are always playing to their strengths, ‘Smother’ is still a largely accomplished record that does plenty to prove why Wild Beasts are considered one of the best young bands in Britain.

7/10

Arctic Monkeys ‘Suck It and See’ – Review

16 Jun

Back in April I asked if anyone else thought that Arctic Monkeys were close to jumping the shark. This was after viewing the rather pompous video for the rather pompous song ‘Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’, both of which felt more like the products of ‘Be Here Now era Oasis than the usually understated Arctic Monkeys. Add to that the divisive album art and album title, and it wasn’t surprising that those kind of questions were starting to be asked. But after living with ‘Suck it and See’ for a week two things are now blindingly obvious; firstly that the music video, the single choices, the cover art and album title were nothing more than red herrings. And second, I should have had more faith In Arctic Monkeys, the best band of their generation.

We should have seen it coming – after all they are the kings of contrary. This is the band that refused to appear on top of the pops, the band that put out an e.p of new material weeks after releasing the fastest selling debut album of all time. The band that wouldn’t release Mardy Bum as a single and didn’t even put the most commercial sounding song recorded during the ‘Humbug’ sessions on the album, let alone release it as a single. Arctic Monkeys don’t care about expectations, industry norms or pre-conceptions; they do things entirely as they want to do them, and more often than not it’s at the expense of people who think they know what they should be doing.

Therefore, although ‘Suck It and See’ is bursting with summer pop CHOOONS, the album has been promoted as some kind of stoner rock revival record. There is nothing wrong with ‘Brick by Brick’ as an album track (in fact it’s delightful) but it’s as representative of the album as ‘Riot Van’ was of the debut – i.e not at all. ‘Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’ was an even stranger choice of single; not only is it the worst song on the album, but it also has a pretty good case for being the worst song Arctic Monkeys have ever put on an LP. And yet you can sympathise with their reasons for releasing it; they did it because there is nothing else as hard hitting out there in 2011 (not on the charts at least). Everytime it comes on the radio it’s a breath of fresh air that blows the auto-tune pop and manufactured garbage out of the water. Even at their weakest Arctic Monkeys are still miles ahead of their popular contemporaries.

But lets put the red herrings behind us and get to the big question; how does ‘Suck it and See’ compare to their previous albums? The answer is simply that it may be their most rewarding record yet, and it’s certainly their most poppy and direct. Alex Turner has always been a bit of a crooner, even in the early days, and his most tender songs have been the highlights of past albums (who could forget ‘Mardy Bum’, ‘Flourescent Adolescent’, or ‘Cornerstone’). But whereas before these slower songs were in the minority to the heavier numbers, this time around they make up roughly 2/3rds of the album. Chiming guitars, thick basslines, major key melodies and lyrics about lust and love are the order of the day. Sonically and muiscally it falls somewhere between ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ and ‘Humbug’ – it’s not as straightforward as the former but nor is it as experimental as the latter.

‘Humbug’ was a greatly underrated album, but its charms admittedly took time to rub off (that was an album where you really had to suck and see). ‘Suck It and See’ on the other hand takes you by the scruff of the neck and each song announces its intentions straight the way. ‘Reckless Serenade opens with a Motown inspired bass line and a glorious lyric about topless models ‘doing semaphore’ who get ignored when the femme fatale walks by; It’s a mesmerizing introduction. ‘Reckless Serenade’ would have been a blinding first single, but then so would the Stone Roses-esque ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, or the brilliantly titled ‘Hellcat Spangled Shalalala’. This record is brimming with glorious indie pop moments.

Turner’s lyrics, once as concrete as Fort Knox, are now totally abstract and rich in metaphor and ambiguities. He always sticks to a theme but he no longer crafts traceable stories, in fact songs can switch perspective or tense from one verse to another. When prodded Alex uncomfortably stated that weather and time were the two big themes of ‘Suck It and See’ and, as unattractive as those themes may sound, he isn’t wrong; luckily he is as wise, imaginative and funny as ever. ‘Love is a Laserquest’ finds him brooding over an ex, trying to forget her by pretending she was ‘just another lover’. Later in the song he imagines himself as an old man still stuck in the same situation. This is as poignant and restrained as anything the Monkeys have ever crafted and it’s a million miles from his early songs about chippies and hookers. On the closer ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ he tells a mysterious figure that ‘you’re not the only one time’s got it in for, that’s where you’re wrong’ – Arctic Monkeys are growing up and boy does Alex Turner know it.

Speaking of time, lets rewind a bit; ‘In Five years time will it be ‘who the fuck’s Arctic Monkeys?” This was the question Alex Turner posed, fittingly enough, five years ago on the title track to the appropriately titled ‘Who the Fuck are Arctic Monkeys’ ep. Whilst there was never any doubt that AM would be remembered in 2011, I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how essential they would still be. With the lack of any real young guitar force coming through the ranks, NME are repositioning the Monkeys as the saviours of rock five years after originally doing so. When ‘Suck It and See’ went to number one last week it was the first British guitar album to hit the top spot since Oasis’s greatest hits twelve months before hand. That says a lot. Many wondered if AM would implode with all the hype that surrounded their breakthrough, but they never did and they are now the most important band in Britain for the second time in half a decade. Jump the shark? Arctic Monkeys may just have made the best album of their short but fascinating career.

9/10

The Kooks – ‘The Saboteur’

14 Jun

New single from The Kooks. Very Beatle-esque.

Lady Gaga ‘Born This Way’ – Review

6 Jun

Everyone knows that NME is pretty useless these days and (aside from a brief resurgence in both popularity and quality circa 2002-2006) it has been since the fall of Britpop. Still, every now and then it produces a feature or review that reminds you why the world is a better place for having this last remaining music weekly. There was a unusualy good issue last month; it contained a thought-provoking and thoroughly convincing essay on why Radiohead have lost the plot and a spot on live review of an Odd Future show. But the best thing about it was the fascinating feature on Lady Gaga, written by the unbeatable Peter Robinson. It was a lively piece of gonzo-journalism in which Robinson followed Gaga for 24 hours and it depicted just how eccentric, creative and occasionally clueless she can be. Somehow for one week only Lady Gaga rejuvenated the pages of NME. It got me thinking back to another music weekly (albeit one that folded years ago), the legendary Smash Hits, as it reminded me of the kind of thing that they would have once published. I used to read the magazine as a child, and I miss it; I miss the posters, the lyric sheets, the humour, the crazy colours and the boundless enthusiasm. Publications today are either too dry (mojo), too commercial (Q), too juvenile (NME) or too cynical (Pitchfork) to capture the same sense of joy for pop music that ran through the pages of SH.  I mention all this because the NME article on Lady Gaga was very Smash Hits and Smash Hits is a magazine that would have absolutely relished Lady gaga.

As the only full colour music magazine of the day, Smash Hits loved people like Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson – artists who dressed creatively, and who could sell issues just by the clothes they were wearing on the front cover. Like those 80’s acts, Gaga is all about image; how she looks is just as important as the music – actually it’s probably more important. ‘The Fame’ was a very average album with a couple of great singles and an awful lot of filler. When people were talking about her it was usually to do with her strange wardrobe or eccentric live shows, rarely was it about her music. Then came ‘Bad Romance’ (from second album ‘The Fame Monster’) which was of course on another level altogether, it was the moment where she stopped talking the talk and started walking the walk. But if Gaga truly wants to be a star she needs to put out a classic album as well, and ‘Born This Way’ is her first genuine attempt at making a record that could fit into that category.

First signs weren’t good; As much as she denies it, first single ‘Born This Way’ sounds like a Madonna song, and a pretty dire one. It’s riddled by heavy handed,  tweet sized statements about being an individual and features boring mid-temp dance pop production. Second single ‘Judas’ was a lot better but it sort of sounds a lot like ‘Bad Romance’ only not quite as good. Hmmmmm, the so-so reception that greeted these two tracks perhaps explains why in the space of a month she released a further two singles, it’s like she was saying ‘so you don’t like this, huh? Well try this one…’ Next came ‘Edge of Glory’ a pretty decent arena sized electro ballad that actually makes more sense as the album closer than as a single. It was only with fourth single ‘Hair’ that she really showed evidence that the album might be a bit special.

This song is pretty fascinating (lyrics aside – I’ll come to that in a bit). It starts off as many a Bruce Springstein song would start off, with a twinkling piano and saxophone, but before long it turns into a glee style sing along and then it transforms once again into a techno club stomper. It took me a few listens just to get my head around this madly complex (and yet still incredibly poppy) song and I think it’s a bit brilliant. The lyrics however are typically cringe worthy. She sings lines like ‘Mum and dad why can’t I be who I want to be’ which are completely see through and extremely try hard. She’s trying to include everyone and a lot of the time it’s done so heavy handedly and awkwardly that it draws attention away from the music (in a bad way). ‘I’m not a freak’ she sings in the same song – well she kind of is, after all her name is gaga and on the album cover she is fusing into a motorbike. It’s as if she can’t decide whether she wants to be the every-woman made good or a totally unique one off – she probably wants to be both, I just wish she didn’t have to keep going on about it.

‘Hair’ aside, ‘You and I’ is the other undisputed highlight on the album; it’s a rock ballad in the vein of Queen (It features Brian May on Guitar’) and despite being a bit generic it hits all the right buttons. Speaking of generic, Gaga tries her hand at several styles on the album, with mixed results. ‘Americano’ tries to borrow the magic formula that made ‘We Speak No Americana’ a big hit last year, but rather than sounding like a cutting edge take on (for want of a better term) gypsy music, it just sounds like a corny Eurovision reject. Equally strange is ‘Scheiße’ a song that could genuinely be classified as rave or Berlin Techno – I honestly didn’t see that one coming. Elsewhere there are the more traditional dance pop songs that Gaga built her name on (and that M.I.A famously derided as sounding like music you would have heard in Ibiza 20 years ago – probably a fair criticism, if you take it as a criticism). ‘Marry The Night’ is ok as an album opener but I imagine it would sound great being blasted out in a club; likewise for ‘Bad Kids’ and ‘Government Hooker’. It’s only occasionally that Gaga slips up, but there are a trio of songs that really shouldn’t have made the final cut, and as a result the second half of the album definitely isn’t as much fun as it should be.

If it looks like a classic album, if it wants desperately to be a classic album and if it thinks it’s a classic album, Is it a classic album? Unfortunately for Lady Gaga the answer is no. Despite having more than it’s fair share of genius pop songs, ‘Born This Way’ is too erratic, too inconsistent, and too heavy-handed to take Ga Ga to the next level. She has successfully added to her musical palette but lyrically she seems to be quickly running out of ideas. As it stands she is still looking up at Bowie, Madonna, Prince, Jackson, Elton John etc, however she is still far above Katy Perry, Christina Aguilara, Britney Spears and the other wannabee American pop stars of the world (let alone the likes of JLS, Cheryl Cole or The Saturdays!). Those Smash Hits artists I mentioned at the beggining may have been on the cover because of how they looked as well as the music they made, but the ones that are still remembered today are remembered for their albums rather than their fashion. If Gaga wants to be in their company then she needs to sharpen up in a few key areas or her legacy will be a classic greatest hits and some cool music videos, but nothing more substantial.

7/10

Tensnake ‘Something About You’

6 Jun

The new one from the guy behind ‘Coma Cat’, last year’s best party song.