Archive | May, 2012

The Futureheads ‘Rant’ – Review

28 May

Have you ever desired to listen to an a capella album in your life? The answer is probably no, and you’ve almost certainly never wanted one of your favourite indie bands to make such an album. That said, it makes sense that The Futureheads should go down this route considering their major selling point in the past has been their tight-knit harmonies. So that’s what they’ve done; they’ve ditched the instruments and made an album featuring only vocals.

It’s no surprise then that vocally this is flawless, stunning even; the well-arranged, layered harmonies hooked me in the first time I heard the album, and to be honest I barely missed the instruments. And If you think the lack of instruments will get boring quickly then don’t worry, there is more than enough variety here to keep you entertained. There’s a folk song (‘Sumer Is Icumen In’) a sea shanty (‘The Old Dun Cow’) reinvented tracks from the back catalogue (such as the fabulous ‘Robot’), and unexpected but brilliant covers (Black eyed Peas ‘Meet Me Halfway’).

Of course The Futureheads are best known for their cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ so we shouldn’t be surprised that they do brilliant things to Kelis’ ‘A capella’ and Sparks ‘Number One Song In Heaven’, but it’s been a long time since the group were this addictively listenable. The other songs that they’ve chosen are well-selected but we’ve heard them all before, with different arrangements admittedly, but to be honest these new versions don’t better the originals. ‘Robot’ and ‘Meantime’ are the representatives from that always impressive debut and listening to them here takes me back to the first time I heard that record. ‘Thuesday’ is a surprise choice from the band’s forgettable follow up ‘News and Tributes’ and it’s good enough to make me want to go back and check that album out for the first time in years.

Honestly, I have no real interest in listening to ‘Rant’ again anytime soon, there’s only so many times I can personally put up with this style of recording, no matter how good it is. However, that’s not me reducing this to novelty status; overall this is a fun album that plays to The Futureheads strengths and whets the appetite for the next ‘proper’ album. Trust me, this is no gimmick – in fact it’s one of the most finely tuned, perfectly crafted records I’ve heard all year.

7/10

Blondes ‘Blondes’ – Review

25 May

 

Blondes feel like a throwback to the late 80’s, early 90’s; so much modern dance music, particularly in the field of Drum n Bass and Dubstep, feels like it’s designed to slap you in the face with as many loud instruments and digital effects as possible. Blondes take me back to a time when everything was more considered. Here instruments are gradually introduced so that the tracks sound like sonic pyramids, taking time to build up before being slowly taken down again. Sequencers are used effectively throughout, so that key beats and baselines bubble away on repeat and lodge themselves in your head. Blondes are similar, in their stylistic intent, to the likes of Teen girl Fantasy and Walls, in that they make dance tunes that are almost hypnotic and psychedelic in the way they unfold gradually and euphorically.

They are considerably less enjoyable when they slow the beat down; the back end of the album features three songs that, whilst sonically interesting, are hard to get excited by. ‘Gold’ and ‘Amber’ are particularly mundane due to their length (9 minutes and 7 minutes respectively) and meandering flow. Personally, I’ve never understood dance music that doesn’t want you dance – surely that makes it redundant? Blondes seem to want their album to be heard as a headphone experience, which is a shame as with a bit more bounce songs like ‘Lover’ and ‘Business’ would sound great coming from some club speakers. But Blondes are moving along the right lines and this is an encouragingly promising debut.

6.5/10

Keane ‘Strangeland’ – Review

20 May

Mums like Keane so critics don’t. Their music is inoffensive, they’re from a middle class background and they don’t have a guitarist. But the Fact is Keane are extremely good at what they do; when they are firing on all cylinders they are better than Coldplay or Snow Patrol for starters.  Unfortunately what they do is loathed by the influential music press despite being loved by the public. There is a correlation between these two facts as popular bands often make popular targets – notice how the press raved about Kings of Leon, Coldplay, Kaiser Chiefs, Snow Patrol, The Killers etc (the list could go on) until they started bothering the charts? But as Keane pointed out last week, they have never been popular in a trendy trendy way and, despite what you might hear, they’ve never stuck to one particular style or sound. Listening to their albums in a row again recently, I was surprised at the variety contained in their older albums.

So what exactly is it that Keane do well? Firstly, praise needs to be given for how BIG their records sound. A couple of years ago they released a deluxe edition of ‘Hopes and Fears’ which included some old demos; these demos featured the same instruments that were eventually used on the album but in comparison the songs sound sparse, flat and lacking. Somewhow, on all their albums, Keane manage to make Voice, drums and piano sound epic, and I’m not entirely sure how they do it. On ‘Strangeland’, despite minimal and unffussy arrangements, these songs sounds fully formed, anthemic and never undercooked. In particular, the Springstein-esque ‘Sovereign Light Cafe’ sounds dramatic and widescreen despite featuring only a handful of instruments.

Secondly, Keane manage to make your heart yearn with frankly rather soppy and cliched lyrics. On paper some of these lines read like bad sixth form poetry, but when Tom Chaplin wraps his vocal chords around them they are more than effective. Everyone knows what he means when he says ‘I Feel like I just don’t know you anymore’ or ‘I want to love the way we did back then’. When he’s not messing about with cheesy metaphors, Chaplin has a potent way of hitting the nail on the head.

The name of the album is ‘Strangeland’ but a more appropriate one, had they not already used it, would be ‘Hopes and Fears’. Whereas their debut was more pessimistic, focusing on the fears, ‘Strangeland’ concentrates on hope.’ We’re gonna rise again’ he sings on first single ‘Silenced by the Night’. Elsewhere he croons ‘Your whole life lies ahead, it’s just around the bend’ then ‘though it seems so far away, the day will come’. Critics will (and have) argued that these lyrics are trite or obvious, but they have positive qualities these critics are overlooking. These lyrics are uplifting, they are inclusive and they are ambiguous without being vague (take note Coldplay).

Keane pushed the boat out successfully on their 2008 album ‘Perfect Symmetry’, and then they pushed it out too far on their 2010 mini album ‘Night Train’. I remember thinking that they weren’t playing to their strengths, they were playing to the critics and I couldn’t see why they would want that. Thankfully on ‘Strangeland’ they are harking back to that classic debut album. It’s obvious before you even put the record on – the cover features the same typography as the debut, and the band’s logo is positioned squarely in the centre of the cover, as it was on the debut and there is a focus on melodies rather than experimentation. ‘Disconnected’ has a particularly catchy melody and it should have been chosen as first single over the slightly bland ‘Silenced by the Night’.

Whilst Keane have largely (and thankfully) stuck to what they’re good at, there have been subtle changes, and not necessarily for the better. Tom Chaplin’s voice is deeper and stronger but I rather liked his fragile falsetto, and it’s rarely used here (although ‘Sea Fog’ is a beautiful example of it in full action). Keane seem to have developed a tendency to want to crank everything up to the maximum, and not just vocally. There are none of the ambient interludes that were so compelling on ‘Hopes and Fears’ and ‘Under the Iron Sea’, and too often the band belt out songs that require a more delicate touch. I wonder if this is something the producer should have spotted and fixed – a little light and shade would take ‘Strangeland’ from a great album to their best one yet.

Mainstream pop in 2012 is a very different world to 2004, and Keane are more underdogs than ever. ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, ‘Everybody’s Changing’ and ‘Is It Any Wonder’ were big hits, but none of the songs on ‘Strangeland’ will bother the charts, which is a shame because this is filled with fantastic tunes. ‘Day Will Come’ sounds like a long lost classic and ‘On the Road’ proves that the band can do energetic songs just as well as ballads. Their fondness for cliches and uplifting lyrics will never endear them to critics but their fans are passionate and dedicated. It’s this audience that Keane are now playing for, and that is a wise decision. ‘Strangeland’ may not better ‘Hopes and Fears’ but it may be their best album since.

8/10

Rusko ‘Songs’ – Review

15 May

Rusko is largely responsable for giving Dubstep the cheap, student night, everybody get wasted reputation the genre has aquired. I know It’s not (entirely) his fault that Skrillex is more popular than Burial, but I still feel slightly resentful when I listen to this man’s music – resentful and not to mention completely exhausted. He’s quoted as saying “Brostep is my fault, but now I’ve started to hate it, in a way”. Brostep is the name he’s tried to coin for this overtly masculine, wobbly bass, populist take on the dub-step style and it’s a pretty good way to describe this nonsense. To be fair, Rusko made some interesting, innovative sounds at the tail end of the last decade; his debut, 2010’s ‘O.M.G’, was extremely good in parts. Now it seems he is keen to break away from the monster he helped create.

He succeeds in the respect that much of ‘Songs’ breaks new ground for Rusko; there is a reggae flavour to at least 2/3rds of the album, and comparatively little of it could be described as ‘brostep’. Some of these tunes are successful in the way they break new ground for the dj and taken individual there are  some enjoyable moments. My issue with ‘Songs’, and its a fairly important one, is not how it sounds, it’s that it’s just a bit…well… rubbish.

Lead single ‘Somebody to Love’ is the catchiest thing on here but it’s still hard to like, it’s simply too ADHD and demented. ‘Opium’ on the other hand is bad in a fairly hysterical way – does Rusko not realise how sloppy this mess is? It starts quite nicely with some typically bland female vocalist wailing into the mike over a pleasant enough beat and blaring siren, and it builds in a satisfactory way. Then it inevitably gets to the ‘lets go mental’ drop, which turns out to be a horribly executed mess, built around a collapsing beat and some horrible sounding squeak. It’s like he’s trying to subvert expectations by giving us something a bit wacky but the end result is just laughable.

As a collection of songs, ‘Songs’ fails in that there just aren’t enough quality tunes. As an album it’s an even bigger failure in that it has no flow or momentum, no sense of theme or identity, and nothing interesting to say or understanding of how to say it. In his attempt to move away from the house he helped to build, Rusko has found himself homeless, hopeless and uncertain. ‘Songs’ finds him attempting to break new ground whilst partially clinging to the style that has exploded around him. There’s no doubt that Rusko has talent – and some knack for how to create a club banger – he just needs to learn how to direct it more effectively.

4/10

Mystery Jets ‘Radlands’ – Review

11 May

It’s easy to forget just how many costumes Mystery Jets have worn over the years. Remember how strange and psychadelic their debut was? And remember just how surprising it was when their second album, ’21’, turned out to be a synth pop banger without any signs of madness or eccentricity? And remember just how alarmingly intimate their third record, ‘Serotonin’, was? That their new album, ‘Radlands’, has seen them go country-rock is even more surprising without being at all surprising – we’ve come to expect the unexpected from the band. What’s remarkable is that throught their career, despite their constant attempts at reinvention, Mystery Jets have never sounded like anyone else except themselves – and that’s a compliment.

It seems ‘Radlands’ is the product of some kind of existential crisis for the band. Back in 2010 Mystery Jets got their hearts broken and made a pretty stunning album all about it. So what do you do once the tears have dried and you’re ready to move on? Well, most people would run away given half a chance, it’s just that they have commitments – jobs, family etc, not to mention a lack of money. Mystery Jets however are a rock n roll band, therefore they have no commitments or money problems! So what did they do? The first thing anyone would do of course – they got on a plane and flew as far into Texas as they could and proceeded to spend a couple of months getting drunk, writing songs about weirdos and pretending to be Johnny Cash!

On ‘Radlands’ the band sound more confident than they ever have before. On songs like ‘Flakes’, ‘Umbrellahead’ and ‘Alice Springs’, Blaine sounded fragile, cut up and vulruble, but on ‘Radlands’ his voice is strong, well trained and powerful. Bass player Kai Fish and guitarist William Rees have also developed into great singers, and the three part harmonies are delightful throughout. ‘You Had Me at Hello’ has particularly memorable vocals for a song about finding love in the arms of a prostitute. The theme of uncertainty runs throughout the album, as song titles like ‘The Nothing’ and ‘Lost In Austin’ suggest. Blaine isn’t the most sophisticated writer on the block but he is able to squeeze all possible meaning and emotion out of simple lyrics.

William Rees’ songs are the weaker ones on the album. His songs, including ‘The Ballad of Emerson Lonestar’ and ‘Sister Everett’ attempt to tell storys but fail to be interesting despite having some clever melodic hooks. ‘Where the Roses Go’ is a nice duet between William and his girlfriend Lucy Rose, but it’s a little too cliched and cheesy for my tastes. His best moment is the funky, almost Bee Gees sounding ‘Hale Bop’ which features some amazing falsetto vocals and sprightly guitar licks. Blaine’s songs are better because he can convey more with his voice and through his lyrics. Despite the newly found confidence I mentioned earlier, there is still a degree of sadness in his delivery, particularly on the soul searching first single ‘Someone Purer’ which is built around the genius refrain of ‘Give me rock n roll and a pure and innocent soul’, surely a contradiction in terms?

Like fellow eccentrics The Horrors, Mystery Jets always get compared to older bands. Reviews of their previous albums often spent more time name checking influences than talking about the music (a fact that led the infamous Pitchforkreviews-reviewer to write a blog complaining aout pitchfork’s dire review of ‘Serotonin’). This time the band have decided not to leave it to the reviews, and they actually list their favourite records on the jaw-droppingly brilliant ‘Greatest Hits’, which describes a couple dividing their record collection after a break up. I could print the entire lyrics to the song because they’re so fantastic but I think this line sums up its majesty: ‘your not having this nations saving grace, you only listen to it when you’re pissed / and when you sober up it’s always why the fuck are you still listening to Mark E Smith.’ Lyric of the year?

I’m a big fan of Mystery Jets first three albums and I guess ‘Radlands’ always had a lot to live up to in my eyes. I would be lying if I said it reached the dizzying heights of ‘Serotonin’ or ‘Twenty One’ (two of the most underated pop albums of recent years), but that said, it’s still amongst the very best records I’ve heard all year. Like that Kids cartoon adventurer Mr Ben, Mystery Jets like trying on new costumes, so what will they come out as next time? They’ve toyed with glam rock in the past or maybe they’ll go grunge? punk rock? I’ve always wondered what a dubstep Mystery Jets song would sound like… or not.

8/10

Death Grips ‘The Money Store’ – Review

8 May

Epic Records is an off-shoot of Sony Music, before which it fell under the CBS umbrella. Epic signed Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Abba and the Cast of Glee. The guy in charge of the label is a judge on the American X Factor. Death Grips on the other hand are an angry, angry bunch of Hip Hop loving punks who shout a lot, rap about Anti-commercialism and bang drums harder than just about anyone going. Needless to say people were a bit surprised when it was announced last year that Epic would be releasing not one, but two Death Grips albums in 2012. But these people clearly don’t know the alternative history of Epic. The label is also home to The Clash, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine and Outkast. This is a label that not only likes angry, it’s a label that knows how to make angry SELL. Epic have released some really important ANGRY records.

And Death Grips, according to many websites at least, are an important band. According to many, their futurist, alien sounds are going to signal in a new era of rap-rock (*shudders*). Their music is corrosive, dangerous, political, antagonistic and occasionally (in the past at least) thrilling. Their songs are built around Zach Hill’s chaotic drum riffs, distorted, blaring synths and the odd youtube sample, which makes listening to Death Grips something akin to being continually hit over the head with a baseball bat, whilst rolling down a muddy hill. Fans of the group seem to agree with this sentiment, so I guess they must find this an appealing prospect, but personally it’s not something I want to be subjected to. I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like angry music, but all music, even angry music, has to have direction – Death Grips have none. No direction in their meandring song structures and no direction in what they are saying. You can’t decipher their lyrics just from listening to the songs; rapper Stefan Burnett has a screatchy, monotone delivery that makes him sound like a crazy man screaming at passers-by on a street corner. I assumed (based on critical hyperbole) that he must have something meaningful to say, but a close reading of the lyrics reveals this absolutely NOT to be the case. To be kind, you could call these nonsense poems, and there is a certain appeal in the rhythm and rhymes (‘Got got got got / Blood rush to my / Head lit hot lock / Poppin’ off theFuckin’ / block knot) but more often than not the lyrics are bland and crude (‘yeah we came to blow your system / you know what im sayin’ or ‘fucker please you must be smokin rocks / real shit for my people’).

‘The Money Store’ is a depraved record that desperately tries to be interesting and original but utterly fails in almost every respect (in fairness nobody else sounds quite like them). Rather than demonstrating the bravery of a Major Label for signing such a group, the album displays the total like of clarity and judgment at one of the biggest and most important labels in the world. It’s no wonder that even the Majors are struggling to survive if bands like Death Grips are being given the time of day.

Death Grips said in an interview that ‘we don’t want to make anything that supports indifference. We always talk about the middle of the road, and how it’s the worst place to be artistically.’  They have no cause to worry as this is not an album that will support indifference; I can’t imagine anyone giving this record 5/10, as  it’s a rare example of something people are going to love or hate. A lot of people seem to love it, but I have no idea AT ALL why. ‘The Money Store’ is not only a contender for the most overated album of the year, it’s also a contender for most overated album of the decade.

2/10

New Animal Collective and Passion Pit

7 May

Soooooooooo, Animal Collective are back. Check out the typically zany ‘Honeycomb’ and ‘Gotham’ HERE

Meanwhile, Passion Pit, the guys who made the brilliant ‘Manners’ in 2009, have also released their comeback single. You can listen to ‘Take a Walk’ HERE. Whilst your at it, remind yourself how brilliant both bands are capable of being by listening to ‘Little Secrets’ and ‘My Girls’ below.