Archive | August, 2012

Dirty Projectors ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ – Review

30 Aug

For as long as I can remember Dirty Projectors have been the archetypal band it’s hard to love and equally hard not to admire. ‘Bitte Orca’ was undeniably brilliant in the same way your friend’s Nuclear Science dissertation is undeniably brilliant – quite the achievement but that doesn’t mean you’d particularly want to spend much time with it. Albums like that always make end of year lists a tricky proposition; ‘Bitte Orca’ was more complex, Innovative and strange than any album released that year not called ‘Meriwether Post Pavillion’, and yet I only played it on a handful of occasions, and every time I did made me feel slightly too pleased with myself for comfort.

Yep, Dirty Projectors have been always been smart but often a little too smart for their own good. I’ve always been opposed to what I call ‘head music, i.e music that appeals to the head over the heart, music that makes you think rather than feel. Dirty Projectors have always straddled the line between the two a bit too much for my liking, but on ‘Swing Lo Magelellan’ they have pushed themselves into more accessible, emotionally gratifying, but no less complex territory. All of which makes this easily their most satisfying album to date.

The biggest difference between this and previous records, it seems to me, is that they’ve opened the curtains on their lyrics, hooks and melodies. They are no longer (completely) hidden amidst difficult song structures, shuffling rhythms and obtuse wordplay. The structures are still relatively unusual but they no longer get in the way. The lyrics are still occasionally difficult to grasp but the meanings are easier to find. Dirty projectors are still far from a direct pop group but they have found their most satisfying balance yet on this album.

Talking about ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ earlier this year, songwriter David Longstreth said “that song gets at something that I’ve been trying to do for a while as a songwriter, which is to take it to the most basic core of whatever the song’s about, and not really dress it up with lots of unnecessary ornamentation.” He is absolutely right; the melody is natural and easy whilst the lyrics are simple and meaningful. The instrumentation compliments both wonderfully (that bass line is intense). There is this kind of equilibrium across the album. ‘Dance For You’, ‘The Socialites’ and ‘About To Die’ make it to the top of my list of favourites because they are instantly likeable but also have something darker and more revealing under the surface.

‘How could I hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it?’ If you don’t know what Longstreth is on about there, he qualifies this line with ‘Where would I ever be without you?’. This song sort of sums up what is essentially a love album. Dirty Projectors are sill difficult and evasive at times, but everyone can grasp what they mean when they sing ‘I need you and you’re always on my mind.’ There is universal appeal here but no dumbing down whatsoever. The unusual mix, the occasionally strange arrangements, the eccentric choice of wording – these things help to make this one of the most rewarding albums of the year.

8/10

The Soft Pack ‘Strapped’

29 Aug

Remember The Soft Pack? They released an excellent garage rock record a few years back and then seemingly disappeared into the fog. Well now they’re back from wherever they went, with a new album out on October 1st. Below is the track listing plus a couple of songs from it that are already floating about on the web.

1. Saratoga
2. Second Look
3. They Say
4. Tallboy
5. Bobby Brown
6. Chinatown
7. Ray’s Mistake
8. Oxford Ave.
9. Everything I Know
10. Head On Ice
11. Bound To Fall
12. Captain Ace

Bloc Party ‘Day Four’ – Review

27 Aug

It’s been a good four years since Bloc Party released ‘Intimacy’, an album that divided fans due to its dance friendly beats and synthetic textures. Bloc Party had always leaned happily in this direction but ‘Intimacy was probably a step too far, both for fans and the band themselves. They disbanded so Kele could exercise his rave demons in a solo project, 2010’s solid ‘The Boxer’, and now he’s got that out of his system Bloc Party are back with their most guitar heavy record to date. In fact, what’s surprising is just how guitar heavy it is.

Kele and Russel’s twin attack produced some of the most recognisable hooks of the post-punk revival. Adjectives like angular and razor-sharp became common currency in music reviews and Bloc Party were a big reason why. Here though that brilliant relationship seems to have soured somewhat. If before their playing sounded like a perfectly choreographed duel, here it sounds like they’re hacking away at each other, trying to make as much damage as possible. Grunge has clearly been an influence, and I’m all for bands discovering new influences, but surely this is completely at odds with a band that have always benefited from a clean, slick sound? The grunge sound marrs about half of the new songs, some of which are actually very good underneath the messy fuzz.

Well what about the rhythm section, always Bloc Party’s most impressive unit? As I say, ‘Intimacy’ mined drum machine clicks and synth basslines with some success. It wasn’t always this way though; their second effort ‘A Weekend In the City’ flirted with hip hop beats, most brilliantly on lead single ‘The Prayer’, a song that gets better with age. But it’s the towering debut, ‘Silent Alarm’, where that rhythm section really made a name for itself. I don’t play bass or drums so I have no vocabulary to describe what on earth was going on, suffice to say that Matt Tong’s drumming was as insane and jaw dropping as anything else I heard all decade. Rolls, fills and thrills galore! On ‘Four’ there is none of that, in fact he sounds like he’s chugging along instead of galloping. The drum machine from the ‘Intimacy’ days has been boxed away but it’s been replaced by a rather bored human being.

Moving on, there are a few songs on ‘Four’ that remind you why Bloc Party have on and off been such an important band since their inception. Lead single ‘Octopus’ isn’t what you’d call a killer but of all the songs it is just about the only one that would have fitted nicely on ‘Silent Alarm’. ‘Day Four’ is a lovely ballad that recalls songs like ‘I Still Remember’ and ‘Blue Light’ whilst feeling pretty fresh and innovative for the band. ‘Valis’ has a catchy chorus with some interesting lyrics (‘He’s into methyl amphetamines / He’s into science / But he’s lost his way’). This is the type of song the band truly excel at producing. The guitars are sufficiently choppy, the singing is melodic, the drumming is impressive, the lyrics are intelligent and there is a dark atmosphere underpinning it all. Here Bloc Part sound at home again.

On one song Kele sings ‘Can’t shake the feeling we’re moving backwards, history repeating itself’. To be honest there is no danger of that happening here. Bloc Party have never been a band afraid of moving forwards with confidence, and for all its flaws ‘Four’ doesn’t retread old ground in an attempt to live off past glories. This is a somewhat brave and occasionally rewarding comeback, but almost as often it’s a tired and surprisingly sludgy update of Bloc Party’s signature sound. The grunge element isn’t an easy fit for the group, and while it’s nice to hear the guitars back in action, some of these songs are just overloaded by heaviness. Still, there is enough here to demonstrate that when they put their minds and hearts together Bloc Party still have something important to say and a captivating way of saying it.

6/10

Spector ‘Enjoy It While It Lasts’ – Review

21 Aug

I’ve spent a lot of time recently lamenting the lack of good guitar music in the charts and pining for a return to the days of my youth when listening to the top 40 show on Radio 1 wasn’t (always) torture. Spector are pining for the same thing. They specialise in that particular type of indie pop that emphasises anthemic choruses and catchy guitar hooks, whilst keeping the lyrics simple and the rhythm section functional. Listen to them and it could be 2005 all over again, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. Recently I’ve been revisiting a lot of the albums from this time; records by The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and, of course, The Strokes. What strikes me now, as it did then, is how fresh, urgent and necessary these records sound. Seasoned critics may have found these bands too derivative of older groups but to my generation, oblivious to The Ramones, Joy Division and Orange Juice, this was all new and exciting. Yes, they borrowed heavily from post-punk, New wave and whatever else, but what they lacked in originality they made up for in sheer charm, wit and an abundance of catchy tunes. They also made the top of the charts, which is more than can be said for the bands critics always compared them to!

Over 12 songs Spector perfect the formula they so clearly admire and they rarely (if ever) stray from it, which is both their strength and only real weakness. If this type of music is your thing, like it is mine, then you will love Spector.  I’d bet my life on it. They have anthems by the bucket-load (more than say The Killers or Kaiser Chiefs had at this point in their careers) and very little in terms of filler. If you aren’t a fan of this type of music then move on. There is nothing for you here.

You’ll probably be familiar with the singles so I won’t go in to detail to describe them, except to say that they’re as catchy/frantic/soaring/derivative/delightful (*delete where applicable*) as you remember. ‘Never Fade Away’ remains the highlight and the version they’ve put on the album is perfectly realised, with strings and harmonies galore. The same can not be said of ‘What You Wanted, their other fan favourite, which has been stripped of the spontaneity and energy it once possessed by that Nu-Rave relic Tom Vek who has (over)produced the track. The version here has clearly been built for the radio but unfortunately it’s a shiny, shimmering ghost of the song it used to be. Luckily the other singles haven’t been tampered with, and whilst they’re still a tad over-done, they sound great on the album.

Of the new songs ‘Lay Low’ is a highlight for similar reasons to ‘Never Fade Away’; say what you want about Spector but they know how to execute power ballads. They are also pretty masterful with the upbeat-indie-disco-sing-alongs. If  ‘Chevvy Thunder’ doesn’t knock you out with its  sonic ferocity then its sugary melody and hilariously melodramatic lyrics will. ‘Celestine’ and ‘Twenty Nothing’ are also impressively built pop songs that betray the fact that Fred has been studying his craft in various bands for the best part of a decade. Now, at last, he’s struck gold.

On first glance the album’s title might refer to the possibility of limited success and popularity, something Fred is only too used to, but it may equally refer to the fleeting nature of love. Every single song on the record deals with the breakdown of a relationship in one way or another; like the musical singularity there is very little diversity when it comes to the lyrics on ‘Enjoy It While It Lasts’, but they absolutely nail their subject. Anyone who’s seen Spector interviewed will know that if frontman Fred ever decides to quit music he will make a top-notch comedian. He converts his humorous wit into his lyrics, which, whilst fairly superficial, contain more than a few thoughtful soundbites. For example ‘now I’m riding shotgun, wonder how it feels, now his car’s got two third wheels’, ‘I tasted a hundred  friends of mine on your lips’ and ‘the night we took your boat out is still replaying in my mind, it’s moored to my memory, sunk by the passage of time’. As I say, not really insightful, but a cut above what we’re used to from this type of band.

So Spector know their strengths and they play too them – i.e making catchy, simple songs about being broken-hearted. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that, it makes for a rather two-dimensional album. Rather than being served a deliciously varied twelve course meal we’ve been given the desert course twelve times, and it’s lovely, but it leaves me feeling slightly nauseous. They could learn from their two most obvious contemporaries; The Drums make similar music to Spector but that group’s stripped back sound and lyrical approach reveals subtleties that Spector can still only dream of. The Vaccines also target a similar sound but their album contains peaks, valleys, contrasts and conflicts ‘Enjoy It While It Lasts’ struggles to match.

And still, with all that in mind, Spector have given us some of the best pop songs I’ve heard all year. As an album it sometimes struggles to make the grade but as a collection of stunning singles and better than average album tracks, It more than succeeds. Spector warn us that they may not last, but if they carry on making tunes as fantastic as these then I have no doubts that a big audience will demand album number two.

8.5/10

9/10

Muse ‘Madness’

21 Aug

Really like the new Muse single, far better than ‘Survival’.

R. Kelly ‘Write Me Back’ – Review

4 Aug

R. Kelly’s fortunes have turned around in the last couple of years. He was on shaky ground for a while after that court case, a string of rubbish albums and the ‘trapped in the closet’ saga (soon to be revisited), but last year he released ‘Love Letter’, which was his best received record since 2003’s towering ‘Chocolate Factory’. ‘Love Letter’ was indeed a love letter to the classic soul sounds of the 1960s, in fact it was as good an homage as any recent album I can think of. It’s no real surprise then that he’s kept his nostalgia goggles on for its follow up, ‘Write Me Back’, which moves the sixties sound forward about a decade to the 1970s, where Kelly experiments with Philly Soul, Quiet Storm and Disco.

Kelly’s luxuriously classic voice is a nice fit with this style of music and he makes this an effortlessly enjoyable listen. In terms of knowing his stuff and converting that knowledge into accurate and perfectly produced music, he doesn’t put a foot wrong here – ‘Write Me Back’ sounds like it could have been made in the 1970s (which is slightly disappointing in some respects, I mean, I would quite like him to be challenging some of these young gun slingers like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean). The songs themselves aren’t particularly memorable but for the 40 odd minutes you spend listening to this ‘soula-coaster’ that hardly matters as the strings will sweep you off your feet whilst the rumbling bass massages your heart.

Highlights include the Marvin Gaye-isms on ‘Lady Sunday’, the Bill Weathers impression on ‘Feelin Single’ and the Off the Wall era Michael Jackson tribute ‘Love Is’. As cheap and easy as it is for a reviewer to reference such obvious names, that’s basiclly what Kelly has done on these songs, and I would be hard pressed not to mention his influences when he’s so blatent about it. The over familiarity here means that no matter how accurate a homage this album is, Kelly never makes the sound his own, he never really conveys his own personality. There’s no doubt that R. Kelly isn’t half as much fun as he was 10 or 20 years ago, and I’m wondering how long this mature version can last before he reverts back to his naturally crazy self. ‘Write Me Back’ is a fine album, and a worthwhile listen, but it was never going to be as classic as the songs it references, and personally I’m looking forward to the crazy being unleashed once more. If he can combine that strangeness with the consistency and forethought he displays here then he could have a real cracker on his hands.

6/10

The View / Maximo Park – Review

3 Aug

That a band like Maximo Park, signed to the furiously independent and cutting edge Warp records, could once routinly score top ten singles and albums, feels hard to believe in 2012. That The View could bruise the number 1 position in the singles chart and score one of the biggest selling albums of 2006, is harder still to imagine. In the wake of subsequent failures, both bands have been unfairly dumped on the ‘indie landfill’ (a phrase that became common currency to describe the overload of indie pop bands that dominated the charts between 2004-2008). I’ve never liked that disparaging term, because as poor as some of those bands were, it was an enviable position to be in. Afterall, better to have a chart filled by guitar groups than a chart filled with David Guetta impersonators, as we have today.

Maximo Park have certainly struggled to match the, not inconsiderate, heights of their still impressive debut, whilst The View have lived in the shadow of a certain song for years now. Both these bands face problems that are a direct, and unfortunate, result of their own early successes. They hit upon their winning formulas very early on, and with neither group seemingly willing to push the boat out in new directions, they’re faced with the unenviable task of trying to better their early stuff whilst working very much along the same lines. Luckily both bands are back with some of their strongest material in half a decade.

The View have built upon the power pop foundations laid by last year’s surprisingly assured comeback album ‘Bread and Circuses’ with a new record of simple but effective anthems that play to the band’s ‘everyman’ strengths. I loved The View’s last album but I thought it would have been better if it had been produced by somebody, anybody, other than Youth, a producer whose maximalist, grandiose style clashed with The View’s earthy sound. Maybe they listened to me, cos ‘Cheeky For a Reason’ is a back to basics record that dispenses with the synths, choirs, strings and kitchen sink in favour of meat and potatos guitar, bass, drums. Which doesn’t make this ‘ramshackle’, in fact it’s a highly considered and well made piece of work, It’s just that this time it sounds like the songs are being played by human beings, not robots.

‘How Long’ kicks off the record in an impressive fashion, its spritley, catchy and tuneful – pretty much everything The View at their best have ever been. The group are performing better than ever and Kyle is certainly a much improved singer, his confidence showing on slower songs like ‘Tacky Tatoo’ and ‘The Clock’. Despite these positive developments, tune for tune this isn’t the band’s strongest collection of songs. It lacks a classic along the lines of ‘Superstar Tradesmen’ or ‘Same Jeans’ and it’s more inconsistent than last year’s ‘Bread and Circuses’. Still, overall this is a solid fourth album and The View remain one of the most likeable guitar groups in the country.

Maximo Park have been on a much longer break than The View, over three years now, in which time they have indulged in some questionable side projects. Lead singer Paul Smith released a solo album that was, er, slightly embarrassing (to say the least). Despite that trip up, Smith has a fierce reputation as an astute lyricist and he has a point to prove after poor reviews of that solo album and the group’s last release ‘Quicken the Heart’.

On the opening track Smith promises to paint a portrait of the national health, but this is a red herring, he fails to paint a definitive portrait of his own state of mind, let alone that of the nation; instead he sketches a complex, contradictory and uncertain picture. This is no bad thing though, his lyrics have always presented him as a curious, inquisitive and undecided observer, rather than someone with all the answers. Like the solo album, most of the lyrics concern his love life but observations hit the mark with much more regularity. On the first single he sings ‘The way you stick out your lips and keep your hands on your hips / Am I supposed to know what that means? You’re a puzzle to me and you always will be’, which goes to confirm Smith’s loveably clueless nature. In the lyrics to this song he displays a self-awareness not present on his indulgent and blindsided solo work (It’s also a funny statement about the lack of communication between the sexes).

Smith’s lyrical mojo is back, and ‘Reluctant Love’, ‘This is What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’ and ‘The Undercurrents’ are particularly evocative and well thought through. Musically as well the band are back to their best, which in their case usually works out as the faster the better. There’s nothing quite as catchy as ‘Graffiti’ or ‘Going Missing’ but over 13 songs this is their most consistent, enjoyable and provoking record since their first. The album ends with the sprightly ‘Waves of Fear’ where Smith concludes ‘what a world this is, and we don’t know what to do with it’. The drums bang, the synth shines, the guitars snarl and Smith wrestles with uncertainty; It’s an apt ending to the album.

Neither The View or Maximo Park could be described as being particularly ‘original’ or ‘unique’ and both groups are recycling sounds that aren’t even new to themselves, let along guitar music in general. That said, there is something to be said for bands making well crafted indie pop, even in 2012. Both bands have the ability to make you think that originality is overrated, and I’m glad to see them back at their (near) best.

The View ”Cheeky For a Reason’ – 6.5/10

Maximo Park ‘The National Health’ – 7.5/10