Archive | September, 2012

The Killers ‘Battle Born’ – Review

24 Sep

‘Aint we all just runaways?’  goes the hook to the Killers new single. Maybe, but what exactly does it mean to ‘run away’ from something or someone? Surely if you’re running from something, you’ve got to be running towards something else, otherwise we’d all just be a bunch of headless chickens running aimlessly with no purpose. This is a topic that preoccupies Brandon Flowers on The Killers Fourth album, ‘Battle Born’. Who’s running away? Who from? Who to? Where too? At one point Brandon’s a ‘dark horse running in a fantasy’, elsewhere he says ‘That place we all run to, it can come down on you’. Throughout the album there’s a lot of talk about fast cars travelling down the wrong roads, driving through the desert, escaping problems – so much movement in fact the record threatens to leave you a bit dizzy. It’s not unusual, The Killers have been a band on the run for many years now; running between popularity and infamy whilst  running between genres as if they’ve never been quite sure who or what they want to be. Are they a pop band, an indie band or a rock band?

‘Battle Born’ tries to make the case for them being a rock band, but, if I were a judge, my verdict would be not guilty. Sure everything is as it should be – the guitar solos are in the right places, the power chords are spot on and the lyrics match the music perfectly – but the group don’t wear the leather jackets as well as they wore the feather ones. The Killers have always been ridiculous and here they take themselves far too seriously. It just doesn’t wash – at least, not all the time.

It’s starts off very well indeed. ‘Runaways’ is one of the most feel good, inspirational songs I’ve heard all year and it will sit pretty on the greatest hits that must surely be somewhere around the corner. On this song Brandon perfects the lyrical mode where he aims to write like Bruce Springstein and gets somewhere nearer a 21st century Jim Steinman. No bad thing! He finally, definitively, achieves what he aimed for on ‘Dustland Fairytale’ and much of ‘Sam’s Town.’ Elsewhere ‘Flesh and Bone’ is a strikingly dramatic opener and ‘Battle Born’ is an equally fitting closer. In the middle we have the enjoyable ‘From Here On Out’, (just about the only song that attempts to raise your heart beat, even just slightly) and the Sams Town revisited number ‘A Matter of Time’.

‘The Way It Was’ and ‘Here With Me’ and two supremely realised power ballads that could almost qualify as the X Factor winner’s single were they not this good. If you don’t like a good helping of cheese and corn then these songs won’t be for you, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this type of melodramatic, emotive pop and to be honest nobody else is really attempting it in this David Guetta, big beat obsessed world.

This early run of hits doesn’t last forever; by track five the act is wearing a bit thin but by the album’s end your almost sick to death of the constant stream of mid tempo power ballads. ‘The Rising Tide’ would be forgettable at the best of times, but following hot on the heels of some far better variations on the same idea, it sounds completely redundant. The same goes for the disappointing prequel to ‘Mr Brightside’, ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ (get ready to cringe when you hear a references to ‘the boy with eager eyes’ and a homage to that famous riff). ‘Deadlines and Commitments’ is vaguely political as oppose to vaguely nostalgic, but in every other sense it’s another  boring take on Bruce Springstein.  ‘Heart of a Girl’ and ‘Be Still’ aim to break up the monotony of ballads by offering something even slower, but also more subtle and restrained, and actually these songs kind of work. They aren’t classics but at least they’re slightly different.

I feel pretty sorry for the band because merciless critics who were already uncdecided are going to have a field day undressing some of these songs. There’s no getting away from the fact that as well constructed as the lyrics and music are, the band are banging out the same old clichés we’ve heard a billion times before. We’ve heard these power chords a hundred times in a hundred more interesting ways, the lyrics are so obvious at times that you simply have to wonder what Brandon was thinking. ‘A blue eyed girl’ with ‘blonde hair blowing in the wind’? Couldn’t they have thrown in a slightly original adjective to spice it up?

But to close read the lyrics is to miss the point entirely. The Killers have always been about the feelings they so ably stir up in the listener, and some of these songs stir up some mighty big emotions. Performed live I can imagine they take on a whole new power and meaning because first and foremost The Killers are a stunning live band, and there are some fine additions to the setlist on ‘Battle Born’. Taken as a whole though the record is too stodgy and middle of the road to be a truly worthy follow up to the still delightful ‘Day and Age’. For a band that have always been unafraid to experiment and mix things up, ‘Battle Born’ (despite showing signs of growing maturity and sophistication) is a surprisingly safe release.I don’t know where The Killers will run to next but I’m hoping they remember to pack the synth, the make up and the feather jackets next time.

7/10

The XX ‘Coexist’ – Review

14 Sep

When Radiohead released ‘King of Limbs’, my inital reaction was ‘is this it?’ Not necersarily because what I was hearing wasn’t good enough, it was just surprising that after nearly four years away they came back with an eight track album that was only 35 minutes long.  It wasn’t that it felt insubstantial, but it did seem slight; the songs were short, the guitars were very much in the background and the arrangements were delicate and subtle. My gut feeling (and I wasn’t alone) was that ‘King of Limbs’ would be a teaser for something else. Something bigger. Maybe it was the first of many Radiohead releases that year. But as the weeks went by, and announcments evaded us, it became apparent that ‘King of Limbs’ was a stand-alone album and that would be it.

I mention all this because I had the exact same feeling the first time I heard ‘Angels’, the first single from The XX’s second album ‘Coexist’. The song is a beautiful ballad that features vocals, guitar, bass and a Phil Spector meets Burial beat that pops up only fleetingly over the song’s 2 and a half minutes. My gut reaction, again, was ‘is this it?’ and again, it wasn’t because ‘Angels’ was bad, in fact it’s one of the best songs they’ve ever made, but it felt so minimal, naked and (in the best possible sense) unimportant. What happened to the new dance orintated XX we were told so much about? I thought they had been listening to Chicago House and visiting raves? After Jamie’s recent production work outside the band we expected the production to be as cutting edge and as revolutionary as the debut’s but this didn’t sound it. ‘Angels’, I concluded, must be a red herring, or a teaser, there was no way that this could possibly be the first single proper.

Except it was. Not only that, but ‘Angels’ opens the album. In two and a half minutes The XX declare that they have no intention of doing what is expected of them, they have no intention of making dance music, they have no intention of ripping up the rule book. On this record they have taken the elements that made the debut so successful and they’ve fine tuned them and then stripped away what wasn’t strictly neccersariy. The beats take a back seat here. On the debut Jamie’s drum programming opened the most distinctive songs, ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’ and ‘Islands’, but here most songs open to the sound of a guiater, hushed vocals or even just haunting, almost empty, reverb. Only track 2 ‘Chained’ really takes you by the scruff of the neck from the off, the other songs take time to reveal their charms.

The cover is appropriate. It’s basicly the same as the cover to the debut, making it therefore as instantly recongnisable as the music (can you think of another band who have created such a unique and influential musical and visual identity after only one album? I can’t). On the cover, in the enlarged X that hogs the white background, acidic colour floats about in subtle but distinctive shades. Greens, blues, purples, reds that melt into each other. On the album these flashes of colour are represented by unique sounds that penetrate the overall mood of darkness and the everpresent reverb of the guitar and bass. But the colour is used sparingly, very sparingly; the strings on ‘Tides’, the organ on ‘Sunset’, the steel drums on ‘Reuinon’, the synth of tides, the warping effect on ‘Our Song’, the four to the floor beat on ‘Swept Away’. Each song has a special element that makes it stand out, but othewise these songs are all cut from the same cloth. Vocal melodies are made to sound very similar by Oliver and Romy’s distinctively moody but rather limited range. Guitar lines are simple and one sounds much the same as the other, the same goes for the bass. The beats are hip and very much up to date, except when they’re being playfully nostalgic, such as the classic house beat that draws so much attention to itself on ‘Swept Away’, or the almost toy like 808 sounds on ‘Fiction’.

Like the songs on the debut, the lyrics on ‘Coexist’ paint a picture of a broken heart that is in no danger of being fixed anytime soon. Here the emotions are even more exagerated and melodramatic. The themes are classic and well known and rather than shed new light on these old fashioned concerns, the group simply present them in a new context. Quoting lyrics here is pointless; on paper they will seen banal, simplistic and even clichéd. There is no inherent music in these words when they sit on a paper, but delivered by Oliver and Romy they are transformed into pure, heart-wrenching poetry.

I have so much respect for this band for staying true to their principles. It’s potentialy dangerous for a group to stay dormant for this long after an album, and there is the risk that in those wilderness years they will have lost their spark, fans will have lost interest or their influence will have waned (see Animal Collective). In fact, The XX’s influence and popularity have grown enormously over the past three years. Just listen to James Blake, Drake or even Rihanna and you will surely acknowledge that the band’s approach to space, silence and minimalism has had a huge impact on both obscure and mainstream pop. Their debut was sitting on shelves for months before people finally started to take notice, and it was a full year before it finally entered the top ten (after winning the Mercury Music prize). Their popularity is peaking right now and this week it looks like ‘Coexist’ will enter the charts at number one. It’s a well deserved victory for good music.

The XX have been one of the most influential bands of the last decade, but ‘Coexist’ reminds me that before all the hype and hyperbole it all started with an album, a very good album. The fear is that because ‘Coexist’ hasn’t redefined or changed anything it will be viewed as a failure or a cop out. It’s anything but. Simply, it’s another very good album that may lack the jaw drpping impact of the debut, but given time it may turn out to be even more of an understated triumph.

8.5/10

The Vaccines ‘Come of Age’ – Review

10 Sep

What did you expect from The Vaccines? That was the question posed by the band when they titled their debut album last year. Expectations ranged from the hyperbolic, to the pessimistic; they were either the best new band since The Strokes or the most overhyped since, well, The Strokes. As I commented in my review of that album, hype and mystery surrounding new bands is no bad thing, in fact in the twitter age we live in, where every piece of information is made available and instantly dissected, it’s essential. When a band like The Vaccines get hyped it reminds me that music fans in 2012 aren’t always as passive as I sometimes imagine. When the band shroud themselves in mystery it reminds me that not everything in life is available at the tips of our fingers.

When The Vaccines emerged in 2010 I found it impossible to find photos or videos of them, to begin with all I had was the music; ‘Wreckin Bar’ and ‘If You Wanna’, which, when played back to back, came in at under three minutes but repeated for hours upon hours in my head. The less I was able to find out, the more I wanted to know. Who exactly were The Vaccines and what else did they have up their sleeve? The mystery and intrigue that surrounded them was something of a red herring, because essentially The Vaccines were, and are now even more so, a pop band with populist ambitions. They were never destined to stay in the shadows for long. Most songs on that debut straddled the same three chords, most dealt with being young and in love/lust, most came in under 2 and a half minutes. This was a band that played by long-established rules but did an excellent job of sounding new and exciting.

As if to compensate for the initial lack of information, by the end of 2011 The Vaccines were EVERYWHERE. They released six singles from the debut, one a double A-side with new track ‘Tiger Blood’, and all featuring brand new b-sides. A live album was released on Record Store Day (a second live album makes up the second disc on the deluxe edition of the new album) and an e.p has just been released featuring several cover versions of obscure punk songs (and ABBA). They’ve been on a never-ending tour since October 2010 which has included support slots for The Stone Roses, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire and Noel Gallagher. Over this time period they’ve been just about the only young rock group Radio 1 will touch, and turn on E4 at any given point and your sure to hear one of their songs soundtracking one tacky docu-soap or another. All this begs the question; are we ready for The Vaccines to return already? Is It a case of too much too soon? Or are they just using that momentum to build something even more special?

Here’s the dilemma; The Vaccines have been very busy, and in many ways ‘Come of Age’ is a product of that busyness. It sounds live and energetic, as if the band have literally just stepped off stage and entered the studio. The production is beefier than on the debut but the songs are still skeletal in comparison to a lot of contemporary indie rock. They sound like they were written and recorded in the space of a few hours, which pays off at times but occasionally these tracks feel underdone or not thought through with enough consideration. Surely if they had thought about it for long enough, they would have realised it was a dire decision to basically remake The Specials classic ‘Ghost Town’ as a fairground ride pastiche, or to write a song with the title ‘I Wish I was a Girl’? Their enthusiasm is charming, and in this day and age rare, but I cringe at some of their decisions here.

Overall though this is a solid second album, and the band’s impressive songwriting talent makes up for most shortcomings. Whilst it can’t top the debut, the band certainly haven’t suffered the second album dip that is so common. In every sense this is a more confident and ambitious record. The debut was dipped in reverb but ‘Come of Age’ is crisp, clear and dynamic. Every single band member sounds like a better musician, Freddie’s riffs are now noticeably thicker, Arni’s confident basslines are pushed  high in the mix and Pete’s drumming stretches him in all directions. Justin’s singing, which was noticeably restrained and polite on the debut, is now brimming with the personality it’s always exuded on stage. The melodies are usually straightforward but he knows this, and his singing is playful and expressive.

Whether the album’s considerably longer running time is down to this new-found confidence, I’m not sure I could say. Whilst you can appreciate the addition of longer fade outs and extended solos, I rather think it takes more confidence to let a song run in one and a half minutes rather than four, the length of first single ‘No Hope’. Most of these songs feel a chorus or two too long, whilst ‘Weirdo’ strains to the five minute mark without a hook or a chorus built to run that distance. Lets not forget that the double punch of ‘Wreckin Bar’ / ‘If You Wanna’ was done and dusted in three minutes, and nothing on here comes close to matching those songs.

‘Teenage Icon’ is the most instantly likeable song on ‘Come of Age’, it has the kind of infectious chorus that reminds you why the group won plaudits in the first place. Lyrically it follows the album’s main template of strangely defeatist, self-absorbed soundbites that are at odds with the new musical confidence. Over the course of the album, and several songs, Justin reveals that he’s ‘self absorbed’, ‘moody’, ‘unkind’, ‘apathetic’, ‘controlling’, ‘hard to please’, and ‘no teenage icon’. It’s not hard to see why he concludes there’s ‘no hope’ before the album’s reached its second verse. I  liked the cohesion and directness of the debut’s lyrics, here though Justin walks off in several directions, some of them embarrassingly oversimplified, some of them just plain uninteresting. ‘Teenage Icon’ is far too self aware, whilst ‘Bad Mood’, despite almost inexplicably winning me over, has more clunkers than you would think possible. In conclusion then Justin is in much better territory singing about the most simple, most primal emotions rather than his flaws and shortcomings. This is why songs like ‘All In Vain’ and ‘I always knew’, with its simple refrain of ‘It’s you, oh it’s always you, I always knew, It’s you’ work best.

My favourite song on the album is ‘Aftershave Ocean’, and perhaps that’s because it is the song that most creatively combines what was great about their debut with something genuinely innovative (by their standards). Justin is singing in a higher register, the chorus has imaginative harmonies, Freddie’s spluttering guitar actually sounds like it’s going to be sick during the solo. The chorus is pure Ringo Star/ Octopus’s Garden. I see the band’s future in a song like this (and I glimpse it in bursts across the album; the acoustic guitar in ‘I Always Knew’, the bridge in ‘All In Vain’, the restraint displayed in ‘Weirdo’) rather than the songs that rehash past glories, as wonderful and catchy as they may be. And that has to be my conclusion; The Vaccines have a bright future ahead

7.5/10

Animal Collective ‘Centipede HZ’ – Review

6 Sep

Animal Collective. *sigh*. In bits and pieces they’ve made some  brilliant music; ‘Meriwether Post Pavillion’ and ‘Person Pitch’ obviously, and a lot of ‘Feels’ and ‘Strawberry Jam’ were brilliant. But come on, anyone’s who’s seen them live will surely attest to their inconsistency, as will anyone who had to sit and listen to most of their early stuff. Their purple patch circa 2007-2010 was a brief but unprecedented period of staggering creativity for the band, but with ‘centipede HZ’ they’re back to their old form; occasionally spellbinding, usually awful, always unique.

Part of the reason for this inconsistency is their ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to making music which means that if you aren’t in the right mood, their albums are almost unlistenable. This record in particular is loud, frenzied, and buzzing with ideas – some of which they pull off but most of which they don’t. Each song is packed to bursting with sounds and melodies that rise and fall, stutter and stop, start and explode, and It screws with your head. Opener ‘Moonjack’ has a particularly chaotic soundscape that sits ill at ease with the song’s lyrical content (a description of a childhood car journey). The crazier the lyrics, the more sense the crazy music makes; for example on ‘Monkey Riches’ where Avey Tare sings ‘Lately I want to be in my heart /But where exactly is my heart and where does it start?’ Here the words make about as much sense as the music. Fine.

After the relatively blissed out sounds of ‘Meriwether Post Pavillion’ (which, whilst hardly relaxed, was a damnsight more laid back than this album) the chaos surrounding everything on ‘Centipede HZ’ feels slightly bewildering and overwhelming. ‘Today’s Supernatural’ has an interesting melody that is complimented nicely by a slightly demented synth. Sadly though both of these elements are drowned out by a bulldozer of noise that virtually demolishes the song over the course of four minutes. Likewise, the beautiful melody in the middle eight of ‘Rosie Oh’ is completely drowned out by the sound of a car alarm going off. Flickering from channel to channel. interrupted by the sound of a bicycle bell. And a bird screeching. Why? Does it reflect the song’s lyrical busyness? Or maybe it compliments the song’s theme or main concern? Hardly, in fact whilst all this chaos is going on Tare is singing about being ‘on my own’. Deliberate Irony? Considering the whole album is this mental, I find that unlikely.

If you can see past the awful, chaotic soundscapes (I can’t – I’ve tried) and focus on the melodies then you may find this a more interesting and rewarding listen. AC have always been capable producing genius in this department, and that talent at least shines brightly on this record. It contains a couple of earworms like ‘Applesauce’, ‘Rosie Oh’ and ‘Mercury Man” whilst ‘Wide Eyed’ sees Deacon take lead vocal for the first time. This song may be the best thing on here; his voice weaves in and out with enjoyable effort and the lyrics are well thought through (it may not be a coincidence that this is the only song that doesn’t feel particularly overstuffed with noises). The track has a World Music vibe that feels like a natural continuation of Merriwhether’s psychadelic sonic delights.

The reviews of ‘Centipede HZ’ have thus far have been hilariously frustrating, with publications who clearly don’t like or understand the album giving it high praise. Why? Because it was made by the untouchable Animal Collective of course. I guarantee you that had this been the debut album by an unknown band there is no way anyone would be paying it any attention. These reviewers talk about expectations and how Animal Collective haven’t pandered to ours, well, the one thing I expected ‘Centipede HZ’ to be was surprising. In many ways it is a surprising record, but not for the right reasons. It’s surprising for its lack of clarity, its lack of innovation, its lack of focus, and mainly for its lack of tunes. It surprises me more that despite these things I would still recommend giving it a listen, the melodies alone are interesting enough to warrant that, and the lyrics are often intriguing in their own right. But come on! It’s been three and a half years since ‘Meriwether Post Pavillion’, and I know it’s probably unfair to bang on about that record as much as I have done, but after that classic work of art, I can’t believe this is the best they could return with.

4/10