Archive | July, 2012

Arctic Monkeys turn up at the Olympics

29 Jul

The other night I had the strangest dream that Arctic Monkeys turned up in the middle of the Olympic Opening Ceremony (watched by over a billion people) and performed Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor and Come Together whilst a bunch of cyclists (wearing neon wings of course) flew around the track. Oh wait…

Pretty Insane right? Musically speaking, the ceremony was a mixture of the expected (Paul Mccartney, plus a soundtrack featuring Queen, Rolling Stones, The Who etc) and the unexpected (Two Door Cinema Club, Sex Pistols and a live performance by Frank Turner). It was pretty wild, and The Monkeys owned the entire night.

Frank Ocean ‘Channel Orange’ – Review

22 Jul

Frank Ocean’s name doesn’t appear on the artwork to ‘Channel Orange’, his official debut album. He’s a storyteller, therefore having his name on the front would merely detract attention from the characters who apear within. He wanted to go further and have his name divorced from all kinds of promotion and advertising, which goes to emphasise his desire to let the music speak for itself. But then a week before releasing the album, Ocean posted a cryptic and beautifully written confessional statement online about how he once fell in love with a man. Whilst such an act can hardly be considered a piece of marketing or promotion (due to the undercurrent of homophobia in hip hop/r&b) it’s timing can’t have been a coincidence, and it had the effect, desired or not, of putting the name FRANK OCEAN very much in the public domain. Why go to such lengths to seperate your name from an album’s promotion, only to release a statement that makes sure your name is trending like crazy in the week leading up to the release?

Here we have the contradiction at the heart of ‘Channel Orange’, because whilst Frank pens brilliant stories, with brilliant characters, his personality is so strong and distinctive it can’t help but overshadow everything else.  On the one hand ‘Channel Orange’ is a perfect piece of escapism; Frank wrote some songs about people whose problems are so massive they overshadowed his own demons for a while. But then the rest of the songs on this album are blatantly, inescapably first-person – he’s admitted as much. ‘Channel Orange’ is equal parts escape and release, and sometimes It’s hard to tell what is personal and what is fantasy, what is experience and what is imagination, and that’s one reason why it’s so captivating. He switches from heart-wrenching confessionals like ‘Thinking ‘Bout You’ and ‘Bad Religion’ to stunningly well observed narratives such as ‘Super Rich Kids’ and ‘Crack Rock’ at the drop of a hat, only sometimes you can’t tell when the hat’s been dropped. A song like ‘Forest Gump’ may be written from the perspective of a female character in the film, but you can’t help but instinctivly feel how much Frank relates to the character in lines like ‘you run my mind boy, run my mind.’

His slow burning r&b approach to music certainly makes a nice bedfellow with the confessional poetry he writes, and his vocal delivery never wallows or looses control; Frank has a considered, restrained approach to singing, where the voice quivers but never cracks. This allows him to step out of the emotional arena at times and take on the role of objective observer, as on ‘Super Rich Kids’ where his voice makes him sound involved without being too close and questioning without being critical. This song is just one of countless examples of Frank’s uniquely ambitious and deeply thoughtful lyrics. The song describes the lives of wasted, rich teenagers, and like most songs on this album it includes puns (‘too many bowls of green, no lucky charm’) half-rhymes (‘too many white lines and white lies’) double entendre (‘This shower head feels so amazing’) metaphor (‘high enough to touch the rim’) and other literary devices that are rarely used by artists in any genre, let alone one as restrictive as r&b.

The album’s peak is ‘Pyramids’, a ten minute epic that’s more ambitious and groundbreaking than anything else you’ll hear all year. The song’s lyrics draw a parallel between ancient Egypt and modern-day America. He makes the connections through elaborate wordplay; for example cheetahs (a common pet of Egyptian queens) and cheaters (as in people who cheat on their partner), whilst Cleopatra is compared to a modern-day ‘queen’ who works in a strip club called the pyramid. The song’s themes, beautifully realised, are jealousy, passion, loss, betrayal and falling from an impossible height. Musically the song is just as creative, equal parts club banger, quite-storm, neo soul and contemporary pop.

Ocean channels the greats of the genre; he borrows the electric piano sound from Stevie Wonder’s classic period, the laid back swagger of D’angelo, the melodic turns of Marvin Gaye and the musical flourishes of Prince. Whilst he is clearly in the linegae of r&b singers, his tastes are eclectic (on his mixtape he sampled everyone from The Eagles to MGMT to Coldplay) and there are flashes of lo-fi indie, stoner rock and even psychadelia and gospel here. ‘Channel Orange’ also features occasional, and well selected guests. Pharrel Williams co-wrote ‘Sweet Life’ and it doesn’t half sound like a N.E.R.D song from 2004. Fellow Odd Future cohort Earl takes a turn on ‘Super Rich Kids’, spinning a verse that is surprisingly restrained and completely incomphrohensable (but totally brilliant). Even the long lost Andre 3000 turns up on ‘Pink Matter’, reminding everyone what the world is missing without Outkast (just where have they been for the past 8 years?!?!).

Is ‘Channel Orange’ a classic album? it’s too early to say – although It’s certainly an important one. It isn’t pefect however; It has a strange flow, beginning and ending with ballads, and it’s riddled with pointless interludes. Ocean has many personas and he’s got so many ideas that he often doesn’t know how best to organise and collate them. But who am I to criticise? His first release, ‘Nostalgia Ultra’, hinted at his potential but ‘Channel Orange’ suggests that he is easily one of the most talented young songwriters to emerge in recent years. He contributed the best songs to Beyonce and Kanye West’s last albums and now this record shows that he’s more than a match for those two established artists. It’s also worth pointing out how few reviews have mentioned Odd Future, the collective Frank’s a member of, and the collective who completely overshadowed his last album. If Earl and Tyler the Creator started out as the ones to watch in that group then they’re well and truely eating Ocean’s dust right now.

His first album was called ‘Nostalgia Ultra’ and it did what it said on the tin, essentially being a nostalgic mixtape, made up of laments to the past and featuring favourite, but overused, samples. This record’s title also references nostalgia but in a more subtle way; it’s called ‘Channel Orange’ because ‘orange reminds me of the summer I fell in love’. Frank’s still got an eye on his past but he’s now addressing that in more interesting, impressionistic, and (after that statement) honest, ways. It’s also worth noting how neccersary and modern this album sounds compared to ‘Nostalgia Ultra’. All things considered, regardless of it’s future importance or reputation,  this is the best record I’ve heard all year.



New Music (July 2012)

16 Jul



The Heartbreaks ‘Funtimes’ / Two Wounded Birds ‘Two Wounded Birds’ – Review

14 Jul

In December 2010 I made a list of bands to watch out for in 2011. Two Wounded Birds and The Heartbreaks made the top 5 of that list but in actual fact they did little of substance that year. They released the odd single and embarked on the odd tour, but its only now, 18 months later, that we get to listen to their debut albums. To be honest, this delay put the brakes on any momentum they had, meaning the albums, ‘Two Wounded Birds’ and ‘Funtimes’ respectively, have received little of the fanfare I expected and hoped for. That doesn’t mean that these debuts, now they have arrived, aren’t up to scratch (they are) it’s just that they won’t be as fanatically received as they may have been.

As I said of Citizens in my review of their album, these bands would have been snapped up by major labels a few years ago, as their sound has that commercial indie vibe that was all the rage back then. The Heartbreaks hark back to the overcast 1980’s whilst Two Wounded Birds influences go even further back to surf rock, Jerry Lee Lewis and power pop. Throughout there is a pop sensibility and a focus on catchy melodies that make these two very exciting and listenable records.

Two Wounded Birds are as wounded as their name suggests; their broken hearts being at the core of these songs. ‘My Lonesome’ and ‘No Goodbyes’ are dripping with equal parts melody and melancholy whilst ‘Growing’ and ‘The Outer World’ are overwhelmingly downbeat and despairing. There literally couldn’t be anymore reverb on these guitars, and Johnny Danger’s vocals twang with agony and sadness. They can turn it on like a tap though and elsewhere they are decidedly optimistic and playful, as on new single ‘If Only We Remain” and the euphoric ‘Together Forever’. Mostly though, Two Wounded Birds’ tend towards the tragic.

Likewise, The Heartbreaks deal almost exclusively with heartbreak (fittingly), and they know the best way to express such pain is with jangly guitars and sticky basslines. Orange Juice man Edwyn Collins produced one of these tracks and his fingerprints are over more than just that; The Heartbreaks share his band’s musical DNA of funk, punk, indie and Northern soul. Reading the song titles (‘Jealous Don’t You Know, ‘Liar my Dear’) might lead you to suspect that The Smiths are an equally big influence, and you wouldn’t be wrong there either. The lead singer has a theatrical, over-the-top voice that channels Morrissey one minute and Dylan the next but is never less than distinctively his own.

Both groups are aware that pain is magnified when you’re trapped in a small town cage, and both groups deal with the frustration of being young, hopeless and stuck in such a rut. On ‘To Be Young’ Two Wounded Birds articulate the inherent contradiction of being young as succulently, in one sentence, as any poet or lyricist I can think of – ‘There’s nothing to do, there’s too much to do’. Likewise, The Heartbreaks make a lot of their hometown Morecambe, simultaneously enraptured by its bleak seaside romance and bored stiff by the lack of things to do. ‘In a town as small as this one, there’s no escaping you’ they sing on the record’s closing track, whilst elsewhere they get overwhelmed by nostalgia and loss.

The best moments on both these albums are not new to us. The Heartbreaks finest hour by a country mile, ‘I Didn’t Think It Would Hurt To Think of You’, was first released nearly 2 years ago, and the new production its given here doesn’t add anything particularly new. Despite its familiarity, the song closes the album in a fitting fashion, as melodramatic as it is irresistibly joyous. Two Wounded Birds, on the other hand, chose to open their album with their two best known songs, a double punch of ‘Together Forever’ and ‘My Lonesome’. Again, it’s a bit of a risk including such old material, but when the songs are this good It would be a shame not to include them.

Two Wounded Birds and The Heartbreaks have taken their time releasing these albums but there’s no denying it’s been worth the wait. Not only have they matured into two of the finest young live bands in the country, they’ve now released possibly the two most convincing debut albums of the year. Over the course of their albums neither band drops the ball, and despite sticking to fairly rigid (and old-fashioned) formulas, they never sound tired or cliched. Pop music is a careful balancing act between joy and misery, sweet and sour; it’s a genre riddled with contrasts and contradictions. The best bands are the ones that can meet these contrasts and contradictions head on, with excitment and enthusiasm, and both The Heartbreaks and Two Wounded Birds do. These are reflective, searching and often melancholy records, but the songs are melodic, bright, catchy and therefore never depressing or pessimistic. Pop music at its best, in other words.

Two Wounded Birds ‘Two Wounded Birds’ – 8/10

The Heartbreaks ‘Funtimes’ – 8.5/10