Archive | April, 2013

Frank Turner ‘Tape Deck Heart’ – Review

30 Apr
For every person who has ever been dumped there is a person who has done the dumping. It’s logic. Yet you wouldn’t know it if your only experience of human relations came through pop music. It’s only ever the victims who air their emotions, you don’t often hear from the perpetrators. But on his new album ‘Tape Deck Heart’, Frank Turner bravely, and slightly heartlessly, proclaims ‘It wasn’t hard/ Three short steps from your bed to the door/ Darling I can’t look you in the eyes now and tell you I’m sure if I love you anymore.’ He ends the song with a less hesitant/more blunt ‘I don’t love you anymore’. It reminds me of another one of 2013’s most memorable climaxes, on Biffy Clyro’s ‘The Jokes on Us’ where Simon Neil bellows an equally heartbreaking (if not more so) ‘I’m in love with somebody else!’The track on which Frank Turner ponders his feelings for his long-time partner is ‘Anymore’, the most direct and stripped back song on the new album. Each of the record’s 12 songs (along with the six bonus songs on the ‘deluxe’ edition) chronicle his heartache in some way.
He wears his heart proudly on his sleeve (just above the countless tattoos and self-harm scars he regularly makes reference to) which is endearing and unsettling in equal measures. There are probably three times as many lyrics on this album as a regular record, and there are nearly as many clunkers as there are winners (see for example the Queen meets Billy Brag stylings of ‘Four Simple Words’) but it’s hard to deny he has a way with honest, direct wordplay.  ‘I’m not drinking anymore’ he promises on one track, lingering on the last syllable before adding ‘but then I’m not drinking any less.’ On ‘Fisher King Blues’ he encourages parents to be nasty so that future ‘Nashville country singers’ can sing about the terrible things they did. It’s this mixture of heartfelt honesty and humour that elevated him from an underground former hardcore hero to the guy who opened the Olympic Games.
In terms of music Frank Turner does what Frank Turner does; finely tuned, well crafted, old-fashioned songwriting. The mix is thick with a healthy balance of folky acoustic elements (honky tonk piano, banjo and ukulele are all used more than sparingly) and meaty punk rock elements. It’s never innovative, rarely unique and occasionally a bit boring but it’s an extremely hearty, well-meaning record that leaves the far more popular (and far more dull) Mumford and Sons coughing in the dust. If I have a complaint it is in Turner’s vocal delivery; The melodies are strong but his voice is still a little bland and unmoving.  Something about his distant ‘matter of fact’ tone doesn’t compliment the more personal lyrics and I can’t help wishing that on the rawer songs he would sound a bit more in to what he’s saying. Of course, his previous albums dealt with storytelling in the third person, and despite the new autobiographical bent, he still sings these songs like he’s telling stories, not baring his soul. It’s what makes this a very good album rather than a classic one.
‘Losing Days’ is probably the best song on here; it’s about how life becomes more and more mundane the older you get, and how you no longer find much pleasure in things that used to give you kicks. He sings about the fear, pride and thrill of getting his first tattoo, and the lack thereof now –  he even  gets them when he’s bored, no doubt chasing that initial thrill. He confesses elsewhere that he isn’t the man he once was – ‘how could I be with all the things I’ve done and the places I’ve been /  i’d be a machine If I’d stayed the same’. It’s not a pretty truth but it’s a truth all the same. Sometimes people just grow apart. And sometimes tapes get tangled in the tape deck, and it’s a nightmare to untangle them. But if you ever want to use it again, it’s just something that has to be done. For Turner, these songs are a means of untangling.
8/10

James Blake ‘Overgrown’ – Review

28 Apr

 

 

Second album syndrome is a serious condition. Symptoms include a lack of focus, a reliance on familiar sounds alongside a rash grab bag approach to new ones, rushed production, and songs about touring. It mainly affects rock groups but, as James Blake fans have just discovered, it can blight the music of cool, post-dub step mopes as well.

But before we get to the negative, let’s focus on the positive. I was a big fan of Blake’s 2010 self titled debut; it was smart, nuanced, emotive and brushed with innovative production details. I was an even bigger fan of his numerous e.ps, which often bypassed his mellow tendencies and aimed straight for the hips. The new album finds an interesting home somewhere between these two points. ‘Voyeur’ for example begins like many songs on the debut but soon spirals into a full on dance banger, with raving synths and pounding beats. ‘Digital Lion’ starts off as a chugging, directionless dirge but breaks down into a proper Industrial House song – the dust is practically shivered off by a throbbing beat straight from some German warehouse. Best of all is ‘Retrograde’: here the dance bit doesn’t sound welded on at the end, it’s a natural fit for Blake, and it’s the only time on the album he’s truly successful when playing with a new style. The chords are pure gospel, the treatment of them is totally 21st century.

The title track reminds you instantly what Blake does best. His voice flickers like a candle, but its unreliability and vulnerability is used as a strength. This is the most emotionally naked we’ve seen him, as he ponders his position in the public sphere. ‘I don’t want to be a star but a stone on the shore’ he decides, settling on something solid and permanent rather than a bright, abstract and ultimately unreachable object. Elsewhere he’s concerned with distance, particularly the distance between him and his girlfriend. ‘Part time love is the life we lead’ he moans, referencing the lack of time they have to spend together, whilst elsewhere he sings ‘We waited too long, we’re back to square one.’

Sometimes Blake has a new tendency to be vague and indecisive which makes many of these songs impenetrable. it’s a massive shame as the biggest strength of the debut was definitely his ability to smack you in the face with a blunt and brilliant lyric and then repeat it until you had it spinning in your head. ‘The Wilhelm’s Scream’ was made up entirely of the line ‘I don’t know about my dreaming anymore / all that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling – might as well fall.’ Another song (I forget which) revolved simply around the line ‘My brother and my sister don’t speak to me – I don’t blame them’. Ok, this wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I adored the simplicity and bravery of these songs. Strangely, many of the tracks on ‘Overgrown’, whilst being longer and more detailed, actually feel less complete and less nuanced. He’ll sing a verse, then a chorus, then just repeat it in the same bland way adding nothing to the delivery.

Easily though, the biggest flaw of the album is the lack of memorable tunes. His debut worked well as a cohesive whole but it also had a handful of stand-alone classics like ‘Lindisfarne’ and ‘Limit to Your Love’. I’ve listened to the new album countless times now but the only song I would be able to hum is ‘Retrograde’. The other tracks, even the ones I like, fail to leave a lasting impression. I hate to say it but I can now see where the critics (who have been strong in number since the beginning) are coming from. Blake is just too damn miserable for his own good, which has resulted in a lethargic, dreary and underwhelming sophomore album. The likes of ‘DLM’ and ‘To the Last’ just melt into the background which is ultimately where the whole album belongs.

On the cover of his debut, Blake (shot in a blue light) appeared out of focus in a bewildering, inviting way – as if a strange fog had taken over his body and melted his features. On the new album the blue fog is still there in the background but Blake is standing in the foreground with a pretentious, artsy, smug look on his face, arms crossed. It’s ironic then that after stepping out of the fog Blake should suddenly sound considerably more out of focus. Lets hope it’s only second album syndrome and not something more career threatening.

5.5/10

 

 

David Bowie ‘The Next Day’ – Review

18 Apr

Typically a man in love with his own image (he’s appeared on the cover to every one of his 26 studio albums in one way, shape or form) Bowie has seemed more interested in obscuring it recently. The only official press photo for ‘The Next Day’ features him in a mask and there has been a distinct lack of other PR leading up to the release of this, his first album in a decade. On the album’s sleeve he’s taken the beloved photograph that adorned 1977’s ‘Heroes’ and obscured it with a white square, so that only the borders are visible. Written in a simple, unshowy font are the words ‘The Next Day’. As an artist obsessed with moving forward this seems his most obvious and wilful form of ‘washing the slate clean’ yet. Don’t worry about what’s already come, worry about what’s coming next. Only what comes next is a lot less interesting than what’s come before. It’s a lot less interesting than what’s on the front cover as well. Brilliant first single ‘Where Are We Now’ aside, The Next Day is a rather bland affair; a play it by numbers rock album with little of the innovative streak that coloured Bowie’s best work.

Mostly, his band plod along to archaic britpop, with hints of more interesting stuff mainly kept low in the mix. The players are all very dry, very serious and very skilled, making this an expertly played album that unfortunately lacks any spontaneity or spark. It would have been called formulaic if it had been released a decade ago. Or two. The hooks all come from Bowie himself and the music sounds a bit like an afterthought – a bland accompaniment to the main event (in a similar way to Morrissey’s most recent albums thinking about it – which makes the whole single controversy all the more ironic).

And that main event is unquestionably his lyrics. You wouldn’t call this classic but there are some very unique and thoughtful ponderings on the typical Bowie themes of love, personality, fear and death. Who else, for example, would pen a line as poetically silly as ‘the priest, stiff in hate, now demanding fun begin/ of his women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest’? His use of language is always sophisticated, engaging and almost in a league of its own. The words virtually sing without his help: ‘Whores’ are described as having ‘soggy paper bodies’, jealousy is described as ‘spilling down’ and children swarm ‘like thousands of bugs’. It all adds up to an unrelentingly morbid yet occasionally funny album – and one obsessed with demise (would it be inappropriate to here reference Bowie’s age?). ‘They can’t get enough of that doomsday song’ he sings somewhat knowingly on the title track. ‘Some night on the thriller’s street a silent gun will come’ he adds 20 minutes later on a song called ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’. You can say a lot about the album but there’s not a lot of joy here.

And for me at least that’s a bit of a shame. People have received this with unreserved joy – some have even called it his best record yet. But it feels almost forced – his fanbase appearing like ones of those cults sucked in by a charismatic leader promising salvation. There’s no salvation on offer here though, just a lot of bad, bad news and doomsday preaching. Some fans were expecting a ‘Rick Rubin Presents…’ style album, some (myself included) thought that if he would ever return it would be with something that tried to mimic the innovative sounds of the generations of bands he inspired (he’s a known admirer of Arcade Fire and other young art rockers) but I don’t think many people were expecting something as dreary and rockist as this. I suspect that most fans didn’t think he would return, and therefore the mere existance of this comeback album is very much welcome. If we’d known it was going to be this bleak, bland and boring however would we really have been so excited?

5.5/10

British sea power ‘Macheneries of joy’ – review

12 Apr

‘Remember me, oh remember me’ British Sea Power exclaimed on one of the ten best songs of the past decade (according to last month’s BBC 6 music poll). These days it’s a more gentle ‘You will remember me won’t you?’ On ‘A Light Above Descending.’  Their approach may have changed but the jist is the same; British sea power don’t want you to forget about them. And it would be hard to – over the past decade the band have released five albums, two soundtracks, dozens of e.ps and an utterly brilliant book. They tour regularly and a host a monthly night in Brighton where they blitz through entire albums to a small but devoted following.

This is the band that audaciously prefixed their debut album’s title with the phrase ‘British Sea Power’s classic…’ they were right as well, it was a classic and no doubt.  They followed it with two more; the soothing ‘Open Season’ and the bruising ‘Do You Like Rock Music’. The band compared their debut to an obsticle course and ‘Open Season’ to a relaxing bath that comes after. Listening to this one is more like taking a dip in the ocean. Icy and bracing at first but ultimately invigorating, adventurous and great fun. It washes over you on repeated listens and even by their standards it seems to delight in sunday driving its way to your heart.

It opens with the title track, a song built around a steady motorik beat and some lovely viola playing from Abi Fry, who is now a full-time member of the band. It’s her playing that makes this such a distinctive record. It adds elegance to ‘Hail Holy Queen’, dark atmosphere to the otherwise mundane ‘When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Glass’ and sheer beauty to ‘What You Need’. Her presence means that the guitars take more of a backseat this time around, although they still crank up the rock on the cautionary Ketomine ode ‘K-Hole’ and the slightly sinister ‘Loving Animals’.

Lyrically the album is a typically obtuse and intellectual record that deals with themes as diverse as British spring time, party drugs and physics. unfortunately their steady decline in this department continues. ‘Decline of British Sea Power’ contained some of the most evocative, thought-provoking, and downright thrilling lyrics of recent times (who could forget the epic ‘Lately’ that beautifully chronicled a soldier’s frenzied mental state?). But as on ‘Valhalla Dancefloor’, the lyrics here are too vague and highfalutin to truly penetrate in a meaningful way. It’s a shame, not only because it was once their great strength, but also because it’s the one significant flaw of the record.

‘Vallhalla Dancefloor’ was both more ambitious and more pedestrian than this: ‘Machineries of  ‘Joy’ is a well-trimmed and expertly sequenced album that demonstrates just what accomplished producers and arrangers BSP have become. Whereas ‘Valhalla Dancehall’ and ‘Man of Aran’ felt slightly clumsy and overreaching, this record is nuanced and deftly edited. It’ss no return to form because the band have never lost form. Ok, it kind of lacks the excitement that ‘ Valhalla Dancefloor’s’ wild experimentation generated and it hasn’t got the spirit or genius lyrical bent of the first trilogy of albums. But British Sea Power surely have more clean sheets than any other band this decade and ‘Machineries of Joy’ is a lovely addition to the family. An album to remember then, from a band you’re never likely to forget.

8/10

Peace ‘In Love’ – Review

9 Apr

You’ve got to be pretty audacious to steal a melody from The Beatles, the most listened to band on the planet. It’s kind of like trying to steal the crown jewels – do you really think you’re going to get away with it? Oasis attempted it (several times) and that lost them as many fans as it won them. On ‘Float Forever’ this week’s cool young things Peace nick the melody from ‘In My Life’ and construct a song around it. It’s a cute little tune but theft is theft all the same, and if you are out to pilfer from the past then you’ve got to be a little sneakier about it than Peace are on this debut album.

And to be fair they are a little less obvious elsewhere. Casual listeners probably won’t notice that the singer is a dead ringer for Blaine from Mystery Jets, or that ‘Higher Than the Sun’ has a little too much in common with the Primal Scream song of the same name, or that ‘Waste of Paint’ is (from the title, to the guitar tone, to the beat) a stone cold Stone Roses rip off. I’ve defended other bands on similar charges (The Vaccines, Spector, Palma Violets for example) but Peace are nowhere near as interesting or exciting as these groups, and I’m so I’m less forgiving of their lack of originality.

That said, Peace wear these sounds like they wear their thrift store garments; ill fitting, baggy, multi-layered, colours clashing – but eye catching none the less. As a band they’re hip enough to get away with it. It also helps that they’ve got very good ears for a melody and hook. ‘Wraith’ creeps along like a sullen child during the verse but erupts into a festival worthy anthem during the chorus. ‘Follow Baby’ does the opposite trick, swapping a jubilant verse melody for a moody chorus that innocently declares ‘we’re gonna live forever baby’ as if we’ve never heard those words uttered in a pop song before. ’ ‘Lovesick’ beats both singles hands down with the catchiest Britpop chorus this side of 1995.

There’s only one hands down brilliant song on ‘In Love’ though and that’s the sultry album closer ‘California Daze’. It’s much more restrained and laid-back than the preceding half hour and it’s the only song that really leaves a lasting impression. Even here though, I’m positive it sounds like something… I just can’t put my finger on what. That lingering doubt spoils the party a little bit and if Peace want to write songs as good as the ones they admire they’ll need a bit more imagination. That said, ‘In Love’ is a thoroughly enjoyable indie-pop album and I know for a fact there are people out there with younger, less cynical ears who adore this band. The rest of us can admire them for their sheer cheek and catchy tunes if nothing else.

7/10