Archive | September, 2011

Review Roundup September

29 Sep

Junk of the Heart by The Kooks

How can a band who possess the talent to write the likes of ‘Naive’, ‘Always Where I Need to Be’ and ‘She Moves in her Own Way’ return after four whole years away with an album as thoroughly lacking in tunes as ‘Junk of the Heart’? Theres not one song on here worth writing home about. Nothing. This is especially disappointing as the track they released to the radio at the start of the summer, ‘The Saboteur’ was an excellent Beatles-esque number that is inexplicably missing from the album. In its place are by numbers landfill indie rockers like ‘ Is It Me’ and ‘Rosie’, songs that are as mundane and tiresome as anything I’ve heard all year. The melodies are predictable whilst the instrumentation is bland, and nowhere near as experimental as they told us it would be in interviews.

Their last album was the hit and miss (and badly titled) ‘Konk’ which featured the truly dire ‘Do You Wanna’, and this time around they have somehow managed to top that song in the creepy/cringey stakes with the appalling and mildly stalker-ish ‘Do You Remember’, which features lines as bad as ‘Do you remember me taking pictures of you, you were running away’. Elsewhere ‘Fuck the World Off’ is as rubbish as its title would suggest and ‘Time Above the Earth’ cuts out just as it’s getting good. If ‘Junk of the Heart’ has any redeemable moments then they would probably be the more tuneful numbers like ‘How’d You Like That’ and ‘Petulia’, songs that suggest their knack for a catchy melody hasn’t completely abandoned them. It would be wrong to label The Kooks as one hit wonders, mainly because they have more than a handful of genuinely great singles in their back catalogue, but those successes are in the past and ‘Junk of the Heart’ doesn’t suggest they have much of a future.

3.5/10

A Creature I Don’t Know by Laura Marling

Laura Marling is only 21 and yet ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ is her third album – she’s developing at a phenomenal rate. Her voice is now in another league to what it once was, and her songwriting’s becoming increasingly ambitious, mature and complex. Which is of course as worrying as it is pleasing, after all who wants a 21 year old singer to be mature? Her last album ‘I Speak Because I Can’ was a brilliant improvement on the so-so debut ‘Alas, I cannot Swim’, and it was unusually successful for a folk record, winning Marling a Brit award for best Female. Coming only 12 months on, ‘I Speak Because I can’ is a mixed success; it makes me question whether Marling has peaked too soon.

Whilst being an improvement in certain respects (her voice, the arrangements, the diversity, the confidence) ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ doesn’t really come close to its predecessor in the songs stake; it’s a bit too serious and high minded. The stuff she sings about is usually discussed by people three times her age, or poets from centuries gone – it all seems a bit false and contrived to me. The mood is more varied and the tunes are more jazzy than last time around, and on certain tracks including ‘Sophia’ and ‘I Was Just a Card’ this works wonderfully, but elsewhere she comes over as pretentious, old before her time, and frankly a bit boring (see ‘The Beast’ and ‘Night After Night’). If the other songs were as good as the album’s best moment’ then this wouldn’t matter as much as it does. The question I’m left asking is where does she go from here?  ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ is an interesting development, but perhaps not the right development for such a young singer-songwriter.

6/10

Never Trust a Happy Song by Grouplove

It’s a real shame that Grouplove’s debut album, ‘Never Trust a Happy Song’, wasn’t released three months ago because this is a summer album if ever I heard one. I can only imagine how good the likes of ‘Lovely Cup’ and ‘Naked Kids’ (note: googling that one might get you into trouble!) would sound on a hot summer’s day. First single ‘Colours’ was released in time for water fights and barbecues, and it was something of a minor hit; other tracks on here could easily follow suit if given half a chance – simply, they’re great fun. The songs were written on a musical trip to Greece, where the singer met the other members and his current girlfriend (also backing singer in the band), and many of the songs are about this life affirming experience.

The best moments come in the first half; ‘Tongue Tied’ is an infectious slice of post-MGMT synth pop that is a gazillion times better than recent ‘Kids’ rip-offs by The Naked and Famous or Gypsy and the Cat. ‘Spun’ is a rip-roaring pub song that has the best feelgood verses (not to mention chorus) I’ve heard in ages. The second half of ‘Never Trust a Happy Song’ is a bit more hit and miss, especially when they slow it down, but it still contains some gems. ‘Chloe’ and ‘Betty’s a Bombshell’ are 1960’s style pop song with some gorgeous, round the camp fire style harmonies, and ‘Close Your Eyes’ is a pretty ending to round things off.

Grouplove lack originality but they don’t lack inspiration; this is a joyous listening experience that sounds like it was a blast to create. ‘Raise your glasses here’s to living out our dreams.’ Indeed.

8/10

Kasabian ‘Velociraptor’ – Review

28 Sep

For an album that has been promoted as a back to basics rock n roll record, I wasn’t expecting to hear horns, strings and choral samples on the opening track to Kasabian’s fourth album, ‘Lets Roll Just Like We Used To’. It seems that somewhere along the line I forgot that the band aren’t the Britpop bothering, Oasis wannabees they are sometimes painted as (and are sometimes all too happy to be painted as). On ‘Man of Simple Pleasures’,  Tom sings ‘All my life I’ve been taken for a fool’ – he’s probably justified in saying that, there are many misconceptions about his band. ‘Velociraptor’ does indeed rock hard, and it does indeed set its sights on a mass audience, but at the same time it’s a well crafted, intelligent record that has enough depth to keep make a mockery of the ‘lad rock’ tag.

In fact their greatest strength is combining their old school rock n roll tendencies with a very modern, mix and match approach; they have attitude and swagger but they aren’t afraid to pull something unusual out of the bag. The first singles released from ‘Volaceraptor’ were ‘Switchblade Smile’ and ‘Days are Forgotten’, two Zepplin-esque rockers that fail to ignite in the same way that their other lead singles did, but do a pretty good job of introducing the album. ‘Goodbye Kiss’ will surely be single number three, it’s a lovely ballad, equal parts Shmaltz and attitude, stuck together by reverb soaked tambourines and gentle acoustic guitar strumming – back in the day a song like this would have been a massive hit.

There are signs of both stadium ambition and manic experimentation on the album’s mid-section; the string and horn arrangements on tracks like ‘Turkish Acid Bath’ and ‘Velociraptor’ are genuinely impressive and the lyrics, whilst a bit cliched in a psychedelic way, actually compliment the music very well and say some interesting things about love, loss and being screwed up by drugs. Apparently Serge gave up acid before making the album, but the zanyness of some of these songs makes me question the validity of that claim; ‘I Hear Voices’ has a weird synth line that makes t feel like a product of Sega in the late 80’s, and ‘La Free Verte’ is just downright odd. If I had a big complaint about this album it would be that occasionally it steers too close to the clichéd and nostalgic. Also, whilst Tom is becoming a great frontman he’s still not an amazing singer, his melodies are a bit obvious, not to mention a bit brash, as if he’s trying to reach the person at the very back of the stadium, even during the restrained moments. He’s making strides in the right direction though, particularly on the more poppy songs.

Kasabian have all the swagger of the last gang in town, and whilst they aren’t the only band in the world who have still got it, the very fact that they believe they are ensures that this is an album made with purpose and confidence. But although ‘Velociraptor’ strives for greatness it falls short; it lacks a classic single to propel it forwards and sometimes the elements that make up the songs (eg the arrangements and instrumentation) are more interesting than the songs themselves, which too often rely on predictable melodies and borrowed riffs. But although ‘Velociraptor’ is unfortunately not Kasabian’s masterpiece, it continues the good work done by their last album ‘West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum and it’s sure to win over everyone from the proper rock fan, to the radio 1 listener to the more introverted listener, which is an increasingly difficult job. And honestly, can you name a better out and out rock album released this year, let alone one that’s simultaneously as ballsy and intelligent? I would struggle.

7.5/10

Its the end of R.E.M as we know it…

22 Sep

…and I feel fine.

Girls ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ – Review

19 Sep

There is a great contradiction between the band Girls want to be and the band they are. They want to be accepted by the mainstream, they want to be ‘normal’; their songs have classic production, classic chord progressions and classic melodies. Lyrically they deal with traditional pop fodder – broken hearts and loneliness. On their debut they ate up old and accepted genres at a manic rate, whether it was shoegaze (‘Morning Light’) surf rock (‘Big Bad Mean Motherf**cker’), country (‘Hellhole Ratrace’) or baroque pop (‘Lauren Marie’). It was as if they were on a quest to find a suitable and loving home. Google the name of their debut and it will be a while before you find what you want – better still try googling their band name –  impossible! Everything they do points to a band that wants to fade into the background, that wants to be accepted. Their desire of normality is understandable, but unfortunately for them everything to do with Girls is abnormal. Everything from singer Christopher Owens back story (he was raised in a cult by a mother who prostituted herself, then spiraled into hardcore drug addiction, before being rescued by a famous country singer – y’know, not really ‘the usual’), to their amazing, amazing music displays a band who are anything but normal. For all their flaws, perhaps because of all their flaws, they are a very special band indeed.

And a very productive one – ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ is their third album in as many years (if you’re including the 6 track ‘Broken Dreams Club’) and the next two are apparently ready to go. But this is only fitting of a band whose heart belongs in another era. When they arrived with ‘Lust For Life’, and one of the most arresting opening lines of recent times (‘I wish I had a boyfriend…’) Girls appeared to be as punk, cool and cutting edge as any new band I could think of. Their debut confirmed this; no attention was really payed to production values, censoring lyrics,  hiding the drug references or keeping songs to a traditional length; but at its heart ‘Album’ was steeped in pop history and every song recalled a different one of my favourite groups and genres. They cleaned up their act for ‘Broken Dreams Club’ and this new album is even more polished and radio ready. It’s still individual and they still do things completely their own way, but overall this is a more traditional sounding album, one less willing to shock or agitate.

I’m not sure how I really feel about this – they aren’t as subversive or as interesting as they were in 2009, but at the same time the songwriting has improved ten-fold, the production is now note perfect, and most notably, Owens is now a much, much better singer. On album stand out ‘Jamie Marie’, a beautiful song in which he pours his heart out over some lovely guitar playing, his voice is able to sell the simple lyrics, and despite the minimal musical acompliment it’s a truly captivating song. Occasionally the flaws of his voice grate, but rather than rely on his own set of pipes all the time he is now often helped out by gospel backing singers. ‘Vomit’ is one of a few tracks that progresses into an organ led, gospel freak out towards its climax. Like many songs on ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’, ‘Vomit’ is epic to the point of indulgence, repetitive to the point of irritation and melodramatic to the point of narcissism. The fact that Girls are able to pull it off despite its obvious flaws proves just how endearing they have become.

Owens’ two best traits as a songwriter are his honesty and his personality. His statements are to the point, and simple in a childlike way; they aren’t as striking as they once were, but his individuality still shines through. On ‘Forgiveness’ he sings about his troubled relationship with his family when he says ‘I’ll have to forgive you, if we’re ever gonna move on.’ A couple of the other songs also deal with his family relationships, most notably ‘My Ma’ and the bubbly opener ‘Honey Boney’ in which Owens remembers being loved by his mother as a child, and longs for a future where he is loved by somebody else with as much conviction.

Aside from the stark naked emotional content, my next favourite thing about Girls, and particularly this album, is their astonishing attention to detail. Check out the carpenters-esque fuzztone guitar solo on ‘My Ma’ that comes EXACTLY where you want to. Check out how PERFECT the thrash riff on ‘Die’ is, so perfect you’ll swear you’ve heard it somewhere before, but haven’t. Check out the pauses for breath in ‘Love Like a River’, the string arrangement in ‘Just a Song’ and the country guitar harmonising in ‘Magic’. Girls simply know their stuff, their references are immaculate and yet they always deliver their songs with just enough originality and personality to not come across as blatant musical thieves. With anyone else it would be called, at best homage, at worst pastiche (maybe even parody), but with Girls they it just comes across as natural and honest.

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Owens told the interviewer that he approached Justin Beiber to become the new singer for the band. He claimed that he would be happy to write songs for the teen popstar whilst he himself faded into the background. He also swore that if Beyonce covered and released ‘Love Like a River’ as a single it would become a number one hit. Girls mainstream ambitions are admirable enough, and there is no reason my ‘Love Like a River’ shouldn’t be a big hit, but Girls make these songs great in a way that Beyonce or Beiber couldn’t. Yes, they are traditional, well crafted songs in many respects, but the aspects that make them stand out are the oddities, the attention to detail and the glimpses of real-life personality that mainstream stars like Justin Beaver just couldn’t convey. Girls sell these songs with complete and utter conviction – few other contemporary bands are as overflowing with such charisma and charm, and worryingly for their rivals they show now sign of slowing down. And as good ‘As Father, Son, Holy Ghost is’ there are still plenty of signs that Girls are improving and developing all the time – I wouldn’t be surprised if their best is still to come.

8.5/10

Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘I’m With You’ – Review

15 Sep

It’s a well-known fact that Red Hot Chili peppers sing about three subjects and only three subjects; sex, drugs and Los Angeles. Don’t believe me, then think of their biggest hits, any of their biggest hits, and you will reach the same conclusion. ‘Give it Away’  and ‘Suck my Kiss’ – sex. ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Scar Tissue’ – drugs. Californication and ‘Tell Me Baby’ – L.A. If you think of a RHCP song that isn’t about one of these subjects then that’s probably because it doesn’t have a subject – this is the fourth category that you can put nonsensical numbers like ‘Can’t Stop’ and ‘Around the World’ in. But they get away with repeating themselves, and the reason that they get away with it  is because they do what they do so well. Anthony Keldis is the best frontman on the planet, Flea is the best bass player and Fruiscante is the best guitarist. In terms of big budget stadium Rock, no one is as good or as much fun as the chili peppers.

Whilst they started as quite an alternative and funky post-punk band, their formula has been the same since the excellent ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’ – mid-tempo rockers with generous helpings of funk, and big pop choruses. Albums since have added something a bit different into the mix (‘One Hot Minute’ took them into heavier territory, ‘By the Way’ was more melodically and harmonically inclined, whilst the ambitious double album ‘Stadium Arcadium’ saw them indulging in some of their classic rock tendencies). The corner-stone of these releases (with the exception of ‘One Hot Minute’) was undoubtedly guitar god John Fruiscante, who as I said earlier, is quite possibly the best guitarist on the planet. He is also a killer songwriter, and an essential backing vocalist (his harmonies added layers of depth to recent albums that were non-existent before). The fact that Fruiscante has now been replaced by new kid on the block Josh klinghoffer was certainly cause for concern, but the news of his arrival made me wonder if this would be the album where the Chilis expand their vocabulary, where they explored ideas that had previously been out of bounds. Is ‘I’m With You’ the album where they finally move on from sex, drugs and Los Angeles?

‘Monarchy of Roses’ opens the album with a bang and a small hint that maybe something new is on the horizon. Lyrically it’s a strange and complex song, that may very well be about sex, but equally may well not be – it’s hard to tell. musically it’s a typical Chili Peppers stomper with a bit of edge in terms of some difficult, distorted verses that lead to an impassioned, sing-along chorus; It’s old and new at the same time. But on the next few tracks they revert back to their normal setting; ‘Factory of Faith’, ‘Annie Wants a Baby’ and ‘Look Around’ could have come off any Chili’s album from the past ten years, It’s not that they’re bad (they certainly aren’t) it’s just that they aren’t new or particularly interesting. ‘Police Station’ is sure to be the next single, it does the same job that ‘Snow’, ‘By the Way’, ‘Californication’ and ‘Under the Bridge’ did. Of course it’s not quite as good as any of the above, but it comes close, and maybe that’s all we should be hoping for from them these days.

‘Did I Let You Know’ is a somewhat revelatory ballad for the band, with an off-kilter rhythm, a trumpet solo and lovely, melodic and understated guitar playing and backing vocals from new boy Josh. Oh yes, Josh; to be honest I hardly noticed his presence when I heard the album first time around, as his playing style is so simple that fits into the whole rather than taking over or announcing itself. If you were expecting the guitar heroics of John Fruiscante then this may be a disappointment, but the more you listen the more his subtle little licks start to dig in. It’s clear he’s an accomplished musician, just in a different way to his predecessor (and they were always going to be massive shoes to fill).

Like every Chili Peppers album since the dawn of time, ‘I’m With you’ is too long – considerably too long. It’s not so much that there’s filler, or that any songs aren’t pulling their weight, it’s just that an hour of this is simply too much to handle in one go – for me anyway. By about the fifty minute mark I was a little bored of the whole thing and tunes started bleeding into each other and sounding repetitive.  Two or three tracks should have been shaved off, and I would have chosen the somewhat mundane ‘Happiness Loves Company’ or the plodding ‘Even You, Brutus’.

A lot of the criticism levelled so far at ‘I’m With You’ is that the Chili Peppers sound way too much like the Chili Peppers, as if it would be possible for them to sound like anyone, and as if we would want them to. Chili Peppers do what Chili Peppers were born to do, they are one band you know you can rely upon to deliver, and here they do yet again. It’s fair to say that the band have weathered more storms than any other band on the planet and whether this new formation is a success or not, it seems likely that they will be back with more songs about sex, drugs and Los Angeles. On ‘I’m With You’ they perhaps play it a bit too safe, and the quality seems to be dipping with every album, but whilst this isn’t their best effort it reassures me that the Red Hot Chili Peppers still have plenty of life left in them yet.

7/10

The Drums ‘Portamento’ – Review

11 Sep

Many bands have a tendency to make sweeping statements, but The Drums have made more than most. They are a band that seem to be defined by rules; they class their music as pop, not indie and certainly not rock. Their songs can’t be longer than 4 minutes. They have no interest in developing or experimenting and songs should be as simple as possible. They want all their albums to sound the same. Consistency is king. Their aim is always to create perfect pop music, and whilst they didn’t always deliver (and by their own admission they sometimes broke their own carefully constructed rules) they succeeded more than most. If you fell in love with The Drums it was most likely because they had these kind of rules; they seemed like a band from another era who said the things a band should say, dressed like  a band should dress, and generally did the things bands should do. I think this is why early reviews (mine very much included) were hyperbolic and fantastically optimistic, The Drums genuinely stood out from the crowd because they seemingly arrived fully formed as a perfect band.

For a group that were so insistent on being consistent, It’s surprising to find that ‘Portamento’ is not the carbon copy of the debut that I had expected – perhaps this has something to do with the departure of original guitarist Adam Kessler and the resulting expansion of the group. One of The Drums ‘rules’ is that image is key, so rather than hire live musicians to help flesh out the tracks, the band used backing tracks on stage (alongside guitar, drums and vocals). It made for a very two-dimensional, if visually impressive, live set up. Now that Kessler has gone, the band seem to have thankfully backtracked on this stubborn policy, and they’ve now expanded to a (backing track free) five piece live. Keesler’s departure also resulted in a bit of a switch around for the remaining members. Former drummer Conner is now the guitarist and former guitarist Jacob is now on synths, whilst Johnny now drums as well as sings. Confusing, yes, but what it means in basic terms is this is a more ambitious (I have a feeling they would hate that word) and experimental (that one even more) album than ‘Summertime’ or ‘The Drums’.

Of course they are still a pop band, religiously so, reliant on melody, harmonies, and simple structures. But the songs feel less linier and less obvious, but as a result less catchy.  This time the melodies are more daring and theatrical, the instrumentation (still simple and guitar based but complimented by an analogue synth) is more melancholic. On ‘I Need a Doctor’ a vocal sample similar to the one used on ‘Best Friend’ is wrapped around beats that jump from channel to channel and an actual real life bassline (there was no bass on the debut). At first it’s a jarring mix, but it kind of works. ‘If He Likes It Let Him Do It’ is another departure; the synth in the chorus is like something from a hammer horror soundtrack and the guitar line is relentlessly dark and twisted. ‘Searching For Heaven’ takes the synth love even further – the entire song is built around an old analogue moog that sounds like it’s been locked in a German bunker for the past thirty years. These three songs are going to divide opinion, and I would be lying if I said they were wholly successful experiments, but it does display that the band have more depth and imagination than many critics originally gave them credit for.

Lyrically the debut dealt with abstract themes of love and loss, with songs that scanned like scenes from a black and white hollywood movie. This time I get the feeling that the songs are rooted more in specific, personal memories. On ‘The Book of Revelation’ when Johnny sings ‘You are the son of an evil man, I know you hate yourself but you’re nothing like him’ you somehow believe that he has lived it, where as when he sang ‘mama I wanna go surfing’, as brilliant a piece of escapism as it was, you just didn’t buy it. On ‘I Don’t Know How to Love’ he says ‘I remember football in the park’, whilst on ‘I Need a Doctor’ he talks about ‘that night you put your lipstick on me, I felt so stupid so I drank to get dizzy.’ It’s all rooted in Johnny’s past and he sells it with complete conviction. Whilst the verses are deeper and more complex, he’s still dealing with simple and memorable choruses that get straight to the point. The aim is to convey sadness in the most instant and direct way possible, for example ‘I want to buy you something, but I don’t have any money’ or ‘I wont ever hate you, but your hard to love’.

‘Money’ was a strange choice of first single – perhaps it was chosen because the record label execs thought that the theme of having no money would resonate, and it does, it’s just a shame that musically it’s a bit directionless – great bassline, but not much else. ‘Hard to Love’ or ‘I don’t Know How to Love’ might have been better choices, both have the infectious melodies that made ‘Best Friend’ and ‘Forever and Ever Amen’ minor hits. And make no mistake, as good as some of the more downbeat songs are, the group are still absolutely at their best when their melodies are as sunny as the lyrics are overcast.

‘How It Ended’ closes the album in much the same way ‘The Future’ closed the debut – essentially it’s as uplifting as The Drums get. ‘Those Days when I would sit around with you, there’s nothing like it. Even when my heart was black and blue, there’s nothing like it.’ Essentially the song is saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, whereas the rest of the album (particularly the second half) is bitter and resentful. So whilst ‘Portamento’ might be a complete downer for 35 odd minutes, the last four are at least a happy listening experience.

I always felt there was something a bit special about The Drums, ultimately the hype didn’t make for great sales but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t justified. They remain the idealist, superficial pop dream band; they still sound like every group you’ve always loved thrown into a blender, they still look perfect, dress perfect and say the perfect things; what’s interesting is that on this album they are moving away from the superficiality and adding some substance, but they never really forget the promises they made us in the beginning. Johnny once said ‘It’s the contrast that interests us, one shade of blue would be boring’ and the great strength of the debut was that it achieved the perfect blend of sweet and sour. This time around there is a lot less of the sweet and a lot more of the sour, which makes for a less satisfying and less enjoyable record, but ultimately it retains most of what I loved about this band whilst adding some new and exciting ingredients into the mix. Portamento is a musical term meaning a gentle slide or shift – it’s the perfect title for this transitional album.

8.5/10

PJ Harvery wins the Mercury Music Prize 2011

7 Sep

PJ Harvey has won the 2011 Mercury Music Prize for her album ‘Let England Shake’, ten years to the month that she first won the prize for her album ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’. I still don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to this record, it’s too serious and, frankly, boring for my tastes, but with all the acclaim it’s received I reckon I’m going to have to give it another go. Still think Katy B or James Blake should have won though…