Archive | March, 2013

The Strokes ‘Comedown Machine’ – Review

27 Mar

Lets look at a potential Strokes Greatest Hits, one based purely on singles released in chronological order:

1. The Modern Age
2. Hard to Explain
3. New York City Cops
4. Last Night
5. Someday
6. 12:51
7. Reptilia
8. The End Has No End
9. Juicebox
10. Heart in a Cage
11. You Only Live Once
12. Undercover of Darkness
13. Taken For a Fool
14. Machu Picchu
15. All This Time

Considering that most critics only ever discuss their debut album, that’s a remarkably consistent and underrated ten year run. As patchy as a couple of their albums have undoubtedly been, top to bottom, their singles have never dipped in quality. Until ‘All This Time’. After some perky, nostalgic and practicly flourescent singles from 2011’s ‘Angles’ I was hoping for more of the same this time around. But ‘All This Time’ is the first Strokes single not to deliver on any count. It feels heavy; heavy with the weight of the chugging riff, heavy with the weight of expectation, heavy with burden of sounding like the strokes. But it doesn’t sound right. The vocal distortion is off, the guitars aren’t metallic enough, the chorus is too nagging, the solo is in the wrong place. If you’re trying to sound like The Strokes then these are the details that matter.

In fact, they spend the rest of the album (rightly or wrongly) trying to sound as little like The Strokes as possible, and it’s an identity crisis that makes my heart bleed. Here are the band responsible for the finest Rock n Roll of the decade, sounding somewhat bewildered; scratching their heads in a world that no longer answers to their beck and call. I’m not against bands exploring new avenues, but The Strokes are only exploring these avenues because they’re lost. On ‘Comedown Machine’ they simply don’t play to their many strengths, and that is the real shame.

Truth be told they get away with it, in as much as they’ve made a decent album. But ‘decent’ just won’t do when you’ve made the album of the decade – decent means they haven’t tried hard enough. I’d rather this be a noble disaster than ‘decent’. Still, it sounds good. It’s a nice, polished record. It proves yet again that Julian, Fab, Albert, Nikolai and Nick are the finest players in music and they clearly know each other inside out. It’s also their most consistent album since ‘Room on Fire’; unlike the more hit and miss ‘Angles’ and ‘First Impressions of Earth’, there are no stinkers here. But while they never dip as low as ‘Metabolism’ or ’15 Minutes’ they don’t come anywhere near to reaching the dizzy peaks found on previous album. The second half in particular flows very nicely but nothing really makes me want to reach for my converse and leather jacket and form a band.

Julian’s vocals just sound wrong. He’s got a deep, grimy, primal growl of a voice, which suits the music The Strokes have typically made. What it doesn’t suit is the taut, clean synth-pop that makes up a large proportion of the album. He sings in a high register on at least half these tracks, and it never works as well as you imagine he thinks it does. On the crystal clear ‘Changes’ it just sounds like a terrible fit – what that song really needs is the crystal clear tone of Brandon Flowers. Which is not to put Julian down – we all know he’s got the best voice in rock when he uses it correctly. However he stretches it in all the wrong directions here.

Still, the positives… ‘Tap Out’ is a tight but breezy pop-rock exercise that takes off where ‘Angles’ opener ‘Machu Picchu’ left off. It’s probably the best song on here because it doesn’t feel like a step out of their comfort zone and yet they are actually breaking some new ground. I haven’t heard them sounding this slick and well rehearsed before. For the same reasons ‘Happy Endings’ is another winnner, the closest they come to nailing the ‘classic Strokes sound’ whilst adding some new elements like vocoder background vocals. ‘Changes’ is another great song despite the vocal issues I mentioned earlier, and the only one that sounds like a Julian Casablancas solo number, an accusation thrown at the entire album by some patronising, tone-deaf critics. ‘Call It Karma, Call It Fate’ is a bizarrely beautiful way to end the album – it sounds like something off Little Joy’s debut album, but I genuinely have no idea what genre it belongs to – I just know it sounds like a strange relic from the gramophone age. ‘Close the door…not all the way’ he sings in the old-fashioned Casablancas way – and for a second I think he’s talking about the band. There are hints, even here, of what’s come before, but hints are all they are.

Ultimately it’s the songs that aim to sound like classic Strokes songs that leave me upset and confused. You see, I can understand why they can’t quite pull of sounding like Simple Minds on ‘One Way Trigger’ or Pet Shop Boys on ’80’s Comedown Machine’ but what hurts is that they don’t pull of sounding like The Strokes on ’50/50′ or ‘All This Time’.  Have they really lost the ability to write generation defining anthems like this and this? And if the band of my generation have lost that ability…what does it say about me? It feels like a pretty damning nail in the coffin of my youth. It feels like a pretty terrifying symbol. The band who, for me, defined being young, defiant and alternative sound dated, anxious and out of touch. In the booklet to ‘Comedown Machine’, the same five faces that graced the booklet of ‘Is This It’ (and many teenage bedroom walls), are cast in the shadows, blood-red background, nothing left to say. What a comedown.


Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’ – Review

24 Mar

Justin Timberlake has been busy over the past six and a half years; he’s appeared in thirteen moves, hosted SNL five times, married Jessica Biel and saved Myspace. He’s been busy doing everything other than what he does best – making music. When I asked an 11 year old if she was excited about the  comeback of this one time teen-idol she looked at me blankly; her generation have only ever known Timberlake as an actor, she didn’t even know about his other career. The sheer amount of time between his last album and this one is made even more apparent when you turn on the radio. Timberlake has always flirted with r&b (which is currently in fine health outside the mainstream) but he’s pure pop all the way to the bank, and pop music is in dire straights. There is nothing out there that comes close to matching the sophistication, sleakness or maturity of  ‘Cry Me a River’, ‘My Love’ or ‘Sexyback’. Timberlake’s co-producer and one time hot-young-thing Timbaland has been relegated to the sidelines in a world where your Perrys, Beibers, Gagas and One Directions would rather turn to the cheap, bland and predictable to make hits that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Even the classier Beyonce and Rihanna wouldn’t give a single producer/auteur the room to oversee an over album these days, it’s just not a viable option.

It reminds me of the position Michael Jackson was in 25 years years ago, just before the release of his third album, ‘Bad’. Heads rolled when it was announced that Jackson would be teaming up with the already ancient (by pop standards) Quincy Jones, AGAIN, five long years after ‘Thriller’. But as Jackson demonstrated, wise old heads are sometimes worth their weight in gold. He confirmed this a few years later when instead he went with a string of young gun slingers like Teddy Riley and Rodney Jerkins for the follow-up to ‘Bad’ – the far less pleasing ‘Dangerous’.

Like ‘Bad’ the ’20/20 Experience’ is a stylish, groovy, ambitious pop record that feels more cohesive and consistent than his previous records despite lacking runaway classic singles. People longing for another ‘My Love’ will no doubt be disappointed that there is nothing on here in that league but surely the sexy and smart ‘Suit and Tie’ will do (even with the throwaway Jay Z rap)? ‘Mirrors’ may not quite be a match for ‘What Goes Around’ but it’s still the best thing you’re going to hear on commercial radio this decade. There’s precious little else that would make it on to a radio playlist though – in fact all but two of these songs clock in at over eight minutes long, and they use that length to brilliant effect. Opener ‘Pusher Love Girl’ begins with a swell of strings and smoothly melts into a heart-warming blend of philli-soul vocals and classic Timbaland beats. The final two minutes revolve around Timberlake repeating the hook ‘I’m just a j-j-j-junkie for your love’ and his voice sounds like cotton candy. ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ builds quietly and slowly over that time into an impressive climax that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Keane’s ‘Hopes and Fears’ or even Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’. In between these songs there is an hour’s worth of key changes, tempo switches, breakdowns, codas, interludes and genre experiments to swoon over. All the while Timberlake never loses sight of his pop goals, even if his voice is occasionally relegated to a bit player in what is often Timbaland’s show (as on the musically innovative ‘Don’t Hold the Wall’ and ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’).

lyrically the album’s a whole lot less sophisticated, but always fun and ambitious. The songs act as extended metaphors in which Timberlake’s eyes become camera lenses, his car becomes a spaceship and (at various points) his lover becomes a mirror, strawberry bublegum and pretty much every drug you can name. Compared to the poetry of Frank Ocean, or even the provocative lyricism of The Weekend or Usher, the lyrics on ’20/20′ sound a bit tame and unexciting but there is still a lot of fun to be had here. It’s a complete bore who doesn’t find enjoyment in ‘Suit and Tie’s sing-along chorus (not quite a match for ‘I’m bringing sexy back’) or ‘Pusher Love Girl’s ludicras comparisons (‘You’re my heroine, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA’).

QuestLove recently said that Timberlake asked him ‘why do we put all of our power in the hands of 18 year olds? I wanted to make a joint that 40 year olds would love too’. He’s achieved this goal, but at the same time he’s made a very contemporary record. Timberlake nods to the present day without indulging in the excess of dubstep inflected pop. The vocal samples on ‘Tunnelvision’ remind me of M.I.A and the beats sound *just right*. The breakdowns on ‘Strawberry Bublegum’ and ‘Let the Groove’ also sound very 2013 without pandering to a pre-teen audience. Meanwhile, period details take you back to neglected times in music, whether it’s Motown and the 1960’s, N-Sync and the 90’s or Timbaland and the 00’s – all these elements gel together to make an album that feels almost like a living, breathing, history of pop music. ’20/20 Experience’ is an album that takes the best bits of yesterday, the best bits of today and will survive long into the future. With a sequel promised for later in the year, it looks like Timberlake’s could be the most assured comeback of recent times.


Review Round-up

22 Mar

My Bloody Valentine ‘MBV’

Some people have been waiting for ‘m b v’ for decades. Not me. I only got around to hearing ‘Loveless’ for the first time a couple of years ago. That said, I’d felt its influence (without knowing it) on some of my favourite bands and albums. For sonic adventurers ‘Loveless’ is a peak but I’d be lying if I said it was a favourite of mine. Guitar effects have never really moved me and ‘Loveless’ doesn’t move me either. However, I can see why people were (and are) moved by it. Equally, I can see why people will be moved by ‘m b v’.But again, I would be lying if I said I am.

Lets get the bad news out-of-the-way first. This album was 20 years in the making and some songs sound incredibly (INCREDIBLY) dated; in particular ‘Nothing Is’ is a horrible mesh of mid-90s drum sounds and squealing shoegaze guitars. Sorry fanboys but it really is the worst thing I’ve heard all year. Album closer ‘Wonder 2’ is marginally more interesting, but not much – It’s got a gushing aeroplane hoover racing over a relentless Drum n Bass beat (so low in the mix it’s barely there) that is horribly annoying.

The album’s not all bad though, ‘Only Tomorrow’ and ‘New You’ are as good as anything on ‘Loveless’ and there’s enough sonic variation here to keep even the most ardent, nervous fan satisfied. ‘m b v’ could have been released in 1991. It could have been released in 2013. It’s darker than ‘Loveless’ with more of a dance bent, but otherwise they sound pretty identical.  This  deserves an epic review by an epic fan but (as you can probably tell) that isn’t me. ‘m b v’  isn’t a life changing record for me, not even a life enhancing one. But a couple of mini-disasters aside, I like it just fine.



Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Youth Lagoon’s 2011 debut ‘Year of Hibination’ was all heart and no frills, which is why I’m surprised and disappointed that the follow-up ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ is all frills and no heart. It’s a strange album from the cover art to the song titles (Attic Doctor, Pelican Man, Daisyphobia etc) and that’s before you even hear the music. It has all the hallmarks of producer Ben Allen’s sound (‘Merriwether Post Pavillion’, ‘Within and Without’) but without the cohesion or innovation he usually brings to a project. Most songs exceed the five-minute mark and run out of steam after two; each one builds in a claustrophobic and overbearing way that makes you long to reach for the skip button. Youth’s vocals, once fragile, now sound weak in this context; in such a bombastic setting he comes across as lost and scared.

His voice is very much a minor part of the album though, Mostly he lets the music do the talking, and to be fair there are some interesting arrangements of unusual instruments. Where the debut relied mainly on garage band style synths, on ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ there’s a whole host of sounds to indulge in. As I say though, everything is so busy that it’s hard to find a centre or focus. ‘Dropla’ and ‘The Bath’ do the best job of conveying emotion in the chaos but elsewhere Youth genuinely sounds like he’s struggling to get a grip on things. Most of these songs spiral out of control after the second chorus which is a massive shame as there are some interesting ideas here. The record isn’t without its charms but ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ feels like a badly misjudged follow-up to a promising debut.


Keaton Henson ‘Birthdays’

Keaton Henson presents me with a rather small moral dilemma. In confessional singer-songwriting there’s a very fine line between sincerity and creepiness, and Henson is sometimes in danger of tripping over that line, as when he sings ‘i’d kill just to watch you sleeping’ or ‘I sit and stare at you.’ You also have to question somebody who says his heart has ‘had enough pain to last the rest of his life.’ After a week of being bombarded by tragic images of starving children for Comic Relief this type of ‘woe-is-me’ misery from a middle class Westerner is slightly hard to swallow. The best heartbreak albums are smarter and more thoughtful than ‘Birthdays’ but then that’s also a part of Henson’s charm. He say’s exactly what he feels, when he feels it, and you genuinely feel like there’s no barrier between you and him.

In a broken, battered whisper Heaton pours his heart out time and time again without a hint of irony or objectivity.You can be in no doubt that as self-obsessed, pessimistic and indulgent as these lyrics sometimes are, Henson means and feels every single word on this record. It would take a heart of stone not to melt upon hearing the beautiful ‘Lying to You’, especially when Henson’s voice cracks during the line ‘Babe I’m not in love with you.’ Ahh yes, that pro-noun. ‘You’ is an important word on ‘Birthdays’, it gets used and rhymed with on pretty much every song – we never find out who Henson is referring to and that’s also part of this album’s success. It allows the listener to transplant their own experiences onto Henson’s and indulge alongside him.

‘Birthday’s’ isn’t quite the success his debut was – the arrangements are more loaded (some tracks even make use of a full band!) and I think this lessons the impact of these quietly gorgeous songs. That said, this is still one of the most impressive singer-songwriter albums I’ve heard in ages. Just remember to engage with your heart and not your head; to over-think his lyrics is to spoil a magic trick.


Atoms For Peace ‘Amok’ – Review

17 Mar

“They are songs” said Nigel Godrich recently, addressing the tension between traditional songwriting and the electronic aesthetic of  Atoms For Peace’s debut album ‘Amok’, “but you also have to give people something that moves.” Getting this balance right is something that Atoms for Peace members Godrich, Thom Yorke and Flea have mastered on past records, but on ‘Amok’ they more obviously lean towards the latter over the former.

This is an album that both Yorke and Flea needed to get right; Radiohead’s last album ‘King of Limbs’ had its moments but most people would surely agree (however begrudgingly) that it was a bit of a bore-fest. Meanwhile Red Hot Chili Peppers latest ‘I’m with You’ sounded like a pale imitation of past glories. It’s therefore not too surprising that both men would try their luck outside their day jobs, and yet the hook up between these two rock gods was a big surprise. People struggled to join the dots between the reserved, insular Radiohead frontman and the Chili Peppers outgoing, cock-rocking bass player.

Live, it’s easier to see how they link up (lets not forget with the help of Goodrich and Joey Waronker). It’s easy to forget what a dance-freak Yorke turns into on stage, and Flea could match him in the strange dance moves department pound for pound. By all accounts they make a formidable team and I was hoping to see some of that translated onto the record. Unfortunately though (and I find myself wanting to say predictably) little of that live energy comes across. This is very much the follow-up to ‘The Eraser’ and the emphasis is less on ‘songs’ and more on ‘something that moves’. Only, it doesn’t move very much. These songs are very busy with ideas (VERY busy), and there is always something chugging or clicking or moving but oddly the album feels very static. The tempos are very samey and at times the group sound musically bankrupt, stretching out the same ideas to snapping point. I’m not sure how this would sound in a club – it could be a dazed, late night, trance like success (its definatley got grooves galore) but it lacks of the urgency and the innovation of the best dance music.

It’s also hook free. Like, completely. Which continues to bug me. How can a record by freakin’ FLEA(!) and THOM YORKE(!) be devoid of any hooks? I’ve heard this album a handful of times now and I can’t hum one song. Not one. ‘Judge Jury and Executioner’ and ‘Stuck Together Pieces’ are the most enjoyable tracks on here (and the most dynamic) but even they lack a certain fizz.  Maybe if the band had spent slightly longer than three days working on this they would have produced something a bit more impactful but as it is ‘Amok’ is a bit of a non-event.

Still, there are positives. Flea’s elastic basslines wrap themselves very nicely around the electronic textures on display – it’s a match up that few would have predicted working, but it does work in this respect. The mix of electric and electronic elements is also a success, sometimes it’s difficult to tell what comes out of an instrument and what comes out of a computer, which is the effect I think they were after. The biggest draw of the album is undoubtedly Yorke’s vocals, which are as glorious as ever. That said, it’s a shame  he struggles to find anything interesting to say, the lyrics being bland, impressionistic headlines without substance.

‘Amok’ feels like a very minor footnote in the long and diverse career of this talented (*understatement*) bunch of musicians. To be fair it’s better than most supergroup albums, which is perhaps an unfair comparison as this doesn’t at all feel like the usual ‘supergroup’ record. It’s groovy, it’s got ideas and it sounds good. Rightly or wrongly though I expected more than that from this lot.


Palma Violets ‘180’ – Review

11 Mar

“Giving a sh*t is back in” says the guy in the promotional video for Palma Violets debut album. The absurdity of this initially made me laugh (has it ever been out?) and I laughed until I started to ponder. I mean a lot has been said for the death of guitar music, which is obviously ridiculous, but I think that what those critics actually mean is that guitar music played with passion is dead (well not dead, but certainly not in vogue). Look at the guitar groups that have been successful either critically or commercially in recent years and there has certainly been a preference for a kind of poncy, disconnected shoe-staring. Bands like Alt J, Two Door Cinema Club, Everything Everything and Mumford and Sons for example seem to be blandly nonchalant in front of an audience. Whether these bands actually care or not is irrelevant – they don’t look like they ‘give a shit.’ Palma Violets do.

And appearances are everything in rock n roll. Don’t roll your eyes – it’s true! Call me shallow but I like my bands to look like they are sweating blood on stage. And I like them to look good in the process. Palma Violets tick those boxes. The irony being of course that while they put in 110 percent into every show, they make it look so effortless. Natural. Genuine. Mostly, passion and spirit are two qualities that shine through when you go to a Palma Violets gig and ultimately that is what makes them so wonderful. It’s what elevates them from being yet another young indie rock band who sound a bit like The Libertines. They have spirit. A spirit I’ve never witnessed in a new band before (I really can’t overstate what a fantastic live band they are). They shout, they bounce, they feel the music and they make the audience feel it in a remarkable way. ‘180’ is a collection of songs recorded by a band at a very primal, very youthful zenith.

But that made the prospect of this debut album even more worrying. How can you capture that live energy on tape? Most great live bands have struggled in the past and Palma Violets are no different. They made a mistake in chosing Steve Mackey of Pulp as producer. To date his most prominent production work was mucking up the Long Blondes debut, and he hasn’t done a great job here either to be honest. He’s added varying degrees of harsh distortion (unnecessarily) to some tracks but not others, making this a sonically inconsistent and messy record. He’s also slowed down the tempo to some key live songs – understandable perhaps (common industry practice), but when a group’s energy is the main thing driving a song like ‘Tom the Drum’ it seems ludicrous to put the breaks on it. It doesn’t ruin the tune at all but it does dilute some of my pleasure. The album is also poorly mixed; backing vocals are barely audible, the keyboard zooms in and out of focus and the drums don’t have enough wallop for my liking. Listen to Japandroids last album to see how this album should have sounded.

But putting those issues aside, this is a genuinely vibrant, inspirational and heart warming album. The songs stand head and shoulders above most of what I’ve heard by nearest rivals Peace and Haim. ‘Best of Friends’ is an anthem that revolves around a simple but brilliant hook; ‘I waaaana be your beeesssst friend, I don’t want you to be my girlll’. Genius. ‘Rattlesnake Highway’ bombs along under a sea of acidic fuzz; here the passion I was talking about earlier is practically palpable. ‘Chicken Dippers’ follows hot on this song’s heels and it’s yet another stand out. Their sound is simple and urgent – stabs of organ, minimal guitar work, basslines you can’t hear but feel and pounding drums. The group’s two big idols are Joe Strummer and Nick Cave, and in crude terms ‘180’ sounds like a cross between two (musically speaking at least).

Lyricly there isn’t much depth here, as the band work best in short, sharp soundbites; chants that resonate around sweaty clubs but don’t particularly encourage thought or analysis. Mostly they are trite and unimpressive (14 consists solely of the line ‘oh 14, 14 take me home’) but occasionally the band hit upon a pearl of wisdom or a hook that sticks in your head (‘Unlike you, I have nothing going on for me, cos I love you’). Often they throw words together to see what sticks, an attitude they have with their song structures as well. Some songs make do with two verses threaded together without a chorus, while other songs rely on on only a chorus to get by. It works brilliantly on ‘Rattlesnake Highway’ and ‘Chicken Dippers’ but less effectively on ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Step Up For the Cool Cats’, two massive pop songs that would have benefited from a more traditional rendering. Instead these songs sound too disjointed and underdeveloped, which would be a shame if their impulsive instinct wasn’t their biggest charm. ‘180’ is a sloppy and at times ill-conceived record but this makes the group all the more loveable. They don’t overthink things.

I’m reminded of The Horrors right at the start of their life-span. They were also a band with bags of talent and passion, who were great live and sometimes dismissed as a novelty. Palma Violets also have loads of talent and the potential to develop into an extraordinary group. ‘180’ captures some of this early, raw magic and it’s a shame that they are going to get loads of flack from certain sections of the media. I can already hear the cries that ‘it sounds like a demo’ and ‘they should have waited a year’ which is missing the point entirely. Palma Violets could be to teenagers in 2013 what The Ramones were to teenagers in 1977 or Oasis were to teenagers in 1994. It’s not their fault that in this internet age every jaded, cynical critic has easy access to a blog. Yes mate, you’ve heard every Gun Club B-side and seen every ‘hot new thing’ before they were picked up by NME, so what, fine, there’s nothing for you here, move on. But for those of us still moved by the ferocity of rock n roll and the excitement of young talent, ‘180’ is a very moving record indeed. Warts and all, this is an astonishing debut. Long live ‘giving a sh*t’.