Archive | May, 2013

Daft Punk ‘Random Access Memories’ – Review

29 May
Unity is one of the most overlooked casualties of the Internet age. It’s a myth that the Internet brings us together. Theoretically It makes it a lot easier for people to communicate but practically it isolates us. We sit alone at computers as the hours pass by, staring at a screen. It’s also a myth that the Internet has opened this generation’s minds to new ideas. Sure, we have access to all kinds of Information, but do we take it in? Look at music; we now have access to pretty much every song ever recorded but does that make us intrepid explorers? Of course it doesn’t. When you go to a buffet you end up having what you know you like and in the same way when you open spotify you listen to music you know you like. We go to forums to play-fight with like-minded individuals and we visit websites we know are going to back up our arguments. The Internet has enabled us to become even more caught up in our own preferred sub-cultures. We tweet our opinions in tiny sound-bites that are so numerous and inconsequential that nobody cares to read them. We talk AT people about music but I bet we don’t talk TO people about music anywhere near as much these days. The internet has divided us.
But I think music still has the potential to bring us together, even if it’s happening less and less. Traditionally album release days have been hugely important in uniting us but in 2013 everyone listens in fragments. First there are the dodgy youtube live versions, then the leaks, then the amazon-previews and the official streams… people get their music at completely different times. The other week it was reported that Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ is likely to overtake Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ for highest first week sales, and it’s interesting to think back to the release of that Oasis album. People qued around the block for it, waiting for record stores (where are they now?) to open so they could be the first to PURCHASE (not stream it or download it or steal it) the album. They went home and listened to it at pretty much the same time on the same morning. News stations sent reporters down to Interview the fans lining up outside. In one such clip found on YouTube a young Pete Doherty is interviewed in line, along with other music-greedy teenagers, eagerly anticipating a new release from his favourite band. It’s hard not to be nostalgic on several different levels; nostalgic for teenagers with patience, nostalgic for a time when a new Oasis record was a big deal, nostalgic for physical albums, nostalgic for Pete Doherty’s innocence and nostalgic for tangible music fandom.
Music fans rarely get that excited these days. But something similar is happening with ‘Random Access Memories’. You just need to watch footage from the release parties around the world to see how excited people have been for this. Daft Punk fans are excited. People who had never previously heard of Daft Punk are excited. School Kids are excited. Their parents are excited. Their grandparents are excited. Radio 1 DJ’s are excited. Heart FM DJs are excited. Late Night Pirate Radio DJs are excited. Hard boiled critics are excited. Poptimists are excited. I’m excited. The world is excited. It feels for the first time in ages, everyone is on the same page about something. And this is no exaggeration – I’ve yet to meet a person who has heard Get Lucky and hasn’t been counting down the seconds, minutes and hours ‘till the release of this album. The amazing thing is that Daft Punk haven’t released a record in 8 years – and their last one was savaged by the press and only entered the charts at number 10! It’s been well over a decade since their last hit and last indisputable triumph and yet ‘Get Lucky’ is on its fourth week at number one. Daft Punk are in their 20th year as a band but they’ve never sounded so relevant.
Their current success is down to hype caused by a remarkable PR campaign that saw the band steal the show at Coachella with a 30 second advert, parodied at for their collaborator videos and take over a small rural Australian Agricultural festival. In the process they’ve hardly made an appearance, instead leaving it to the likes of Pharell Williams, Georgio Moroder, Todd Edwards, Nile Rodgers and Panda Bear to do the talking (and in the process drop superlatives like they’re going out of fashion). Mystique is another dying art that Daft Punk know how to create.
In fact, they’ve created such a storm AROUND the album that there’s a very real danger the music itself will be reduced to a footnote – which is the complete opposite of what they want to achieve. The whole point of this record is that it puts the focus back on pure, man-made, lovingly crafted MUSIC. It’s an album designed to unite the people.  The opening track is called ‘Give Life Back to Music’ and it plays like a working manifesto. It’s a roaring success. It’s had to express just how ALIVE the song feels. Every element of it is warm, detailed and joyous.  It sets the tone for an album that is (ironically considering their whole ‘robot’ personas) one of the most human sounding releases I’ve heard in ages.
‘Give Life Back to Music’ melts into ‘The Game of Love’ a song that shimmer’s and ripples like the most laid-back disco classic. Listen to it long enough and you can visualise the light reflecting from the disco ball in a dark club. The robots’ vocoder vocals are an object of great beauty; playful, mysterious and futuristic but nowhere near as creepy or manipulated as the auto-tuned garbage you’re used to hearing in mainstream pop. The synths almost glide; they don’t poke against the other instruments as synths usually do, instead they are used as a bed for everything else to lie on, or a bath for you to soak in. I hope I’m expressing just how warm and smooth and essential the sonic soundscape of the song is. It’s just flawless.
Over the course of 73 minutes (the absolute maximum run time of a single CD), you’ll be transported through many sounds and moods. From the theatrical oddness of the Paul Williams (dude wrote the soundtrack to the Muppets Christmas Carol) co-penned ‘Touch’, to the silky LA soft-rock of the Todd Edwards co-penned ‘Fragments of Time’, this is an album that frolics in kitsch and corn with a non-ironic smile. It’s fun and sometimes funny. It loves with an open heart and doesn’t have a discriminative bone in its body. The session musicians featured, as much as the marquee names, exude class and expertise. The ‘Billie Jean’ bounce on ‘Instant Crush’ is provided by the legendary session player J.R Robinson (he actually played on Billie Jean) and features Julian Casablancas doing his best 2013 Julian Casablancas impression (hey, it’s the best thing to bear his name in at least two years, even if he is sticking with that dreadful falsetto vocal). And it may be Pharell Williams who sings on the two singles but it’s Chic legend Nile Rodgers who provides his now staple funky riff. Elsewhere seasoned guitarist Paul Jackson Jr (whose credits include Thriller) and bass player Nathan East (co-wrote some of Phil Collins hits) sprinkle some star dust over some old-fashioned song-writing.
Despite being such a long and diverse collection, many of the songs are striking in their immediacy. ‘Lose Your Dance’ may be the slightly stodgier, slightly less groovy brother to ‘Get Lucky’ but it has summer smash hit written all over it. ‘Contact’ is a euphoric climax that takes off to the sound of an astronaut discussing some kind of alien object as seen from a distance. Best of all is the epic ‘Georgio by Moroder’. When I heard they were putting a ten minute long spoken word piece as the third track I was justifiably intrigued and perplexed. How could this possibly work? Especially so early on? Well It does. Something about his accent (‘the synthesiser‘), the ‘I Feel Love’ hook and repetitive groove make it one of the definitive disco tracks of recent years.
As a perfectly HUMAN album it’s logical that ‘Random Access Memories’ should be imperfect, which it is. The other week I spoke to a serious collector of obscure disco, a guy who really knows his stuff. I asked him what he thought of ‘Get Lucky’ and although he was as charmed as anyone else by the song’s luxurious melody and accurate recreation of the Chic sound, he was slightly disappointed. ‘I just wish they’d done it harder. Just…HARDER.’ Although I didn’t really know what he meant (he was extremely drunk at the time…possibly stoned) at the same time I knew exactly what he meant. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to drum n bass BPMs and dub-step drops, but ‘Random Access Memories’ feels very light and un-forceful. Nothing on here ever really pushes the tempo and there are one too many ballads for a dance record. I’m reminded of their own song: ‘HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER’. Maybe they should have taken on board some of their own imperatives. The only other major flaw of the album is its length. All the classic disco albums (as few as there are) are under 40 minutes. ‘Random Access Memories’ is twice that length, and it loses focus because of it. The only discernible filler is the completely pointless, lethargic and forgettable ‘Motherboard’ but I would have also sacrificed ‘Within’ and ‘Beyond’ – two atmospheric slow jams that dull the pace a little too much.
This is such a hefty, rollercoaster of an album that it can be a little hard to comfortably digest, especially on early listens. It’s called ‘Random Access Memories because (and I’ll quote Daft Punk on this) “It helped us understand how all of these collaborators could live together, because if you look at this bizarre list of people on paper, you could be like, ‘Whoa, that’s gonna be a big mess.” Seen from this perspective the album makes a lot more sense. As a coherent, front to back record it doesn’t work well at all. But as a series of random musical, collaborative memories collected together, it does work. It works very well indeed. In fact it feels like a very important album. It’s one that most people are likely to hear at some point, in some way, and therefore most people are going to form an opinion about it. You will continue to hear ‘Get Lucky’ everywhere. Probably ‘Loose Yourself to Dance’ as well. Sure it has its flaws, but I’m pretty certain you’re not going to remember what you disliked about Random Access Memories, you’re just going to remember its triumphs. I can already imagine it soundtracking key events in 2013 and beyond: Family barbeques, birthday parties, long car-drives, DJ sets, festivals, weddings, tv shows, freshers week shenanigans etc. ‘Random Access Memories’ is going to help create some pretty epic memories.
When people left Coachella they weren’t talking about anything other than Daft Punk and I’d be surprised if people left 2013 without that name still being on their lips. In a very old-fashioned, but very 21st Century way Daft Punk have put us all on the same page again. So whether we are listening to them at festivals or on itunes, talking about them in record store ques or on blogs, thinking about how retro they are or how futuristic they are, we will be united over Daft Punk.

Review Roundup May

28 May

The Knife ‘Shaking the Habitual’

Ugh. Isn’t this the kind of nonsense three Ramones died trying rid the world of? Pretentious, proggy, anti-music? I’ve heard a lot of talk about gender studies, Western responsibility and queer theory in the lead up to this much-anticipated release but not much about the music. So what of it? Well, if 19 minute ambient drones are your thing then you’re going to have a whale of a time with ‘Shaking the Habitual’, otherwise your luck is out. And here’s something Dee Dee Ramone’s mates The Clash could have could have told them: If you want to use pop music to make political statements then you have to play to the art form’s strengths. Make it direct, intense, confrontational, immediate and catchy as the plague so it infiltrates the mainstream. 19 minute ambient drones are a no-no. It’s a shame because some of these songs hint at something much more engaging. The opening duo of ‘Full of Fire’ and ‘Tooth For an Eye’ make for a lively, arresting opening and ‘Without You My Life Would be Boring’ shows that they still have a knack for innovative production sounds. Elsewhere though they truly disappoint with evasive melodies, strange lyrics and tunes that fail to leave a mark. Their fans will no doubt lap this up but nobody else will be listening – we have lives to lead. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to waste on this.


Savages ‘Silence Yourself’

A few weeks ago a video was put online which showed British Sea Power performing their 2003 track ‘Apologies to Insect Life’ with Jehnny Beth from Savages on vocals. From my perspective It was spookily apt, as Savages music has always reminded me of that one particular song – dark, raging and charged with energy. However, rather than a make direct comparison between Savages and the uncool British Sea Power, It’s been fashionable for critics to put Savages directly, and prematurely, in the company of Joy Division, Sixouse and the Banshees and Wire. But while Savages certainly have things in common with those bands, they are without question a product of the 21st Century. Their songs are anxious but self-assured, modern and confrontational…

..but lacking in magic. The eleven songs on ‘Silence Yourself’ melt into one brooding, often tedious dirge and many of the tunes lack any discernible hooks or stand out lyrics. Instead, the band rely on their sheer guts and anger to grab your interest. It works to a certain extent. ‘Shut Up’ makes a demand that you stop listening to the ‘constant distraction’ of too many voices and noises – ironically over the sound of a lot of static, screeching and buzzing guitars. ‘She Will’ is a typically angsty statement which describes a woman who will ‘get hooked on loving too hard, forcing the slut out’. It’s typical of the band’s direct approach to semantics. Despite their best attempts though, only first single ‘Husbands’ is truly memorable and we’ve heard that before.  Savages headline grabbing interviews, admirable feminist agenda and stunning live shows have made them critical darlings – but beneath the hype this is actually a fairly standard, even generic, post-punk album.


She and Him ‘Volume Three’

‘Volume Three’ is (unsurprisingly) M. Ward and Zoeey Deschanel’s follow-up to the twee-tastic ‘Volume One’ and ‘Volume Two’. And as the name suggests, this is a direct continuation of the musical and lyrical concerns of those records. If I told you that ‘Volume Three’ was released at some point between 1963 and 1973 you would probably believe me; Spector Strings, Beach Boys harmonies, Patsy Cline melodies and an Ellie Greenwich cover. If you were expecting anything else then you’re probably a bit silly (it even tells you that it’s in stereo on the front-cover, y’know, as oppose to mono). But where their previous work  felt a little shy and quaint, ‘Volume 3’ is so much braver and more accomplished. The arrangements of songs like ‘I’ve Got Your Number Son’ and ‘Somebody Sweet to Talk to’ are stunningly expansive and ambitious, and Zooey’s vocals are drenched in what sounds like ancient studio reverb. These are no bedroom recordings. Their lyrics are equally brilliant; deceptively simple, the images are actually quite poetic. On the break-up ballad ‘Fade to White’ Zoeey sings in a beautifuly rich croon, ‘I am stronger than in the picture you took before you left / in the light it faded to white.’

Here Zooey features on the cover of a She and Him album for the first time, which reflects the confidence exuding from these songs. Before she was happy being represented by a cartoon caricature but on ‘Volume Three’ she’s definitively shown that she’s a living breathing artist, and wants to be represented as such. This is probably the duo’s weakest album to date (It’s a bit too long, the covers are too obvious and the song-writing isn’t quite as strong as on previous albums) but it’s also their most confident and ambitious. Call it twee if you want but there is no denying the talent on display.



Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ – Review

18 May

‘Modern Vampires of the City’ has been presented to us as Vampire weekend’s most direct album yet. Well, consider the opening line of comeback single ‘Step’: “Back, back, way back I used to front like Angkor Wat, Mechanicsburg, Anchorage and Dar Es Salaam.” The ‘back back’ bit is borrowed from a Souls of Mischief song, which in turn is sampled from a YZ song which itself borrowed a saxophone riff from a Bread song. Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the world, Mechanicsburg is a borough in Pennsylvania that was originally populated by waggon mechanics – hence the name. Anchorage is the Northernmost town in the United States and Dar Es Salaam (literally the ‘abode of peace’) is the capital of Tanzania. The thing that they all have in common? They’re all on the waterfront. In other words, this is a bit of convoluted wordplay on the word ‘front’ that requires you to have either exquisite geographical knowledge or half an hour to kill on wikipedia. The band go on to name check New York, L.A, San Fransisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda – and that’s only the first verse. If this is Vampire Weekend being direct then I’d love meet them in an obtuse mood.

It’s lyrics like this (not to mention their multi-cultural music and preppy style) that has made Vampire Weekend arguably the most divisive indie band of the past decade. And of their three albums ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ is their most divisive to date. It dispenses with the more poppy elements of ‘Vampire Weekend’ and ‘Contra’ in favour of  subtle arrangements based around piano and what sounds to untrained ears almost like Baroque (and at times Gothic) orchestration.

Ezra Koening recently expressed his frustration with critics who misinterpret their intentions. “Referencing other cultures, it’s complicated. People with money, education, these things are complicated. But rather than admitting that we understood that, too, people tried to pretend that we were rich idiots ripping off African music.” In light of this interview, Vampire Weekend’s lyrics take on new meaning. Indeed, read in a different way, the lines I quoted from ‘Step’ are less a wilfully obscure example of ego stroking and more an attempt by the band to playfully poke fun at their reputation as elusive intellectuals. That verse ends with Ezra singing ‘I was a hoarder but girl that was back then.’ The joke works on multiple levels. It’s tongue in cheek. It’s irreverent. It’s a whatever you want it to be. But whatever you think, just stop and consider how damn fantastic that verse sounds. The way the exotic proper-nouns roll from Ezra’s lightly double tracked, accented voice. Consider the heavenly reverb on the drums and the twinkling keys. When it sounds this gorgeous does anything else even matter?

On ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ the band confirm what many have suspected for a long time. They are come as close to genius as any musical act performing today. This is just an extraordinary record. An indie album bursting with ambition. A pop album burning with enthusiasm. A melancholy album come alive with jubilance. A dark album that doesn’t shy away from the mainstream. A complicated album that embraces simplicity. This is the biggest triumph yet from a band who are already responsible for some of the finest albums and singles of the past decade.

The album is a map of popular music. Each instrument sounds like it’s been snapped from a different genre of a different decade and paired up with such care and precision as to beggar belief. ‘Diane Young’ alone is encyclopaedic in its references; at any given point it resembles Paul Simon and Sleigh Bells, Billy Joel and The Ramones, Buddy Holly and M.I.A. That it still sounds like classic Vampire Weekend despite sounding almost nothing like the Vampire Weekend we’re used to says a lot about Ezra Koenings distinctive voice and melodic approach, as well as Rostam Batmanjlij’s unique compositional ability.

Over twelve songs the band never put a foot wrong, and chosing particular highlights is difficult because there are so many. The pivotal song may be ‘Hannah Hunt’ a haunting ballad that predates most of the material on the band’s debut. It’s a story of two lovers as they journey across America and therefore obviously recalls the classic Simon and Garfunkel song ‘America’. The band dispense with an overarching narrative in favour of symbolic sketches that let your imagination run wild (to the sound of warped Steal drums no less). Like Paul Simon, Ezra makes no effort to stick to a rigid metre or traditional rhyme scheme – the lyrics work on his terms. His images are extraordinarily evocative: for example, he highlights the differences between the two lovers in the way they attempt to re-kindle the fire (both literally and figuratively). The narrator walks into town to buy some kindle whilst Hannah rips up pieces of the New York Times. Him, patient and willing to fork out the cash, her, angry and impatient. Both of them doubtful, disconnected and without a future.

Unlike the youthful, free-spirited debut and the anxious but still fun ‘Contra’, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ is unafraid to tackle the big questions. There are constant, thinly veiled references to ‘ticking clocks’ and on ‘Ya Ha’ Ezra interrogates God directly, exclaiming “you won’t even say you’re name, only ‘I am that I am’.” On ‘Unbelievers’ he knows that ‘the fire awaits unbelievers’ whilst on ‘Everlasting Arms’ he asks ‘could I have been made to serve the master?’ This master is referenced again on ‘Step’ in which the narrator remembers an odd couple standing on the street corner listening to ‘The Master’. In this instance it is more likely to be a reference to Grandmaster Flash. But possibly God. or maybe the album by Rakim that Ezra is a known admirer of. Or maybe it’s this album’s master he is referring to, as it was no doubt mastered in NYC. It’s more classic intertextuality. It sums up the album. All at once it’s high art and low art, spiritual and pop, self aware and playful, ambiguous but direct.

This is the closing chapter of a trilogy of albums, but unlike most trilogies it ends on a high note. There are many threads running between the three records, one of them comes On ‘Everlasting Arms’ when Ezra talks about being ‘trapped beneath the chandelier.’ This could be a reference to that iconic cover of the debut – an album so successful it would be hard for any band to follow. Fans may miss those iconic chiming guitars and African rhythms but its to the band’s credit that they haven’t tried to replicate that sound for 2013.  And if Vampire Weekend have ever felt daunted or weighed down by expectation then they show no sign of it here. You’d be hard pushed to find a more ambitious, tuneful, confident and highly considered record in 2013 – or any other year for that matter.


Noah and the Whale ‘Heart of Nowhere’ – Review

15 May
“In five years time I might not know you / In five years time we may not speak.” This was Noah and the Whale at the climax of their only hit song, coincidently released five years ago this summer. Charlie Fink (the singer/songwriter of the band) may well have been considering his position in the fickle pop industry, because Noah and the Whale were never a band people expected to last. Everything about them was very much of the moment – their tunes were youthful, sparkling and belonged to a very specific scene. But even though ‘Five Years Time’ is the song they’re destined to be remembered for, Noah and his gang have created a pretty interesting oeuvre since. Two top ten albums on from that debut they’ve grown into an accomplished, seasoned rock act. They may not have experienced the commercial or critical success of their scene mates (Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons) but they’ve done pretty well for themselves nonetheless.
Their previous records have explored different links in the folk-rock chain; from the melancholy acoustics of ‘First Days of Spring’ to the Springstein-esque bombast of ‘Last Night on Earth’. One thing that binds them all together is their preoccupation with quite particular shades of nostalgia. ‘Heart of Nowhere‘ is no different; recording for the new album started after band leader Charlie Fink found out an old friend was getting married and with this came the realisation that he was getting older, and not necessarily wiser. Nostalgia trickles down to the colour tinted photo and layout of the cover to the ‘purple rain’ guitar pedals used throughout the album. It’s a different kind of longing to before though. On the still brilliant ‘First Days of Spring’ Fink was a remorseful character bemoaning the breakdown of a relationship. On ‘Last Night on Earth’ he was casting his eye fondly on the freedom and escapism of his youth. His outlook on ‘Heart of Nowhere’ is more bittersweet; he doesn’t have a particularly pessimistic worldview, but he’s certainly a confused young man weighing up his place in the world.
Despite a change in tone and outlook, the band essentially follow the same formula as last time around. ‘Heart of Nowhere is therefore the first Noah and the Whale record to feel slightly redundant and repetitive. To put it simply, these are ten upbeat songs about putting he past behind you. There is nothing remotely essential that you get from this album that you won’t have already found on ‘Last Night on Earth’. More damagingly, there is nothing that comes close to matching the musical highlights of their back catalogue. ‘There Will Come a Time’ is a weak first single compared to ‘Blue Skies’ or ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’. The hook (treated to U2 stadium sized reverb) is unworthy and the chorus is basically a melodic extension of the unmemorable verse.
The album starts on an equally underwhelming note. ‘Intro’ is as pointless and bland as its name suggests and the title track, featuring Anna Calvi, is trite and uninteresting (it seems to set up the story for short-film of the same name as featured on the bonus dvd). Nothing on here stinks but  the album never sets your heart racing. Even the more interesting and original songs could pass for cover versions of long-forgotten songs from 1980’s NOW compilations.
Which is not to say that it’s without strengths. Noah and the Whale are as endearingly melodic and enthusiastic as you remember. This is an album from the heart for people who think that subtlety is overrated. ‘Still After All These Years’ features the same ‘Lisa‘ who popped up on the last album, and it’s a catchy little soft-rock number that recalls a laid-back Tom Petty. ‘Silver and Gold’ is built around a convincing Neil Young metaphor that would lose some of its magic if I were to elaborate on it here. Moments like this make ‘Heart of Nowhere’ a worthwhile listen. Perhaps the most memorable part of the album comes when Fink sings “I can spend a lifetime searching for someone to blame / and don’t look back, don’t feel ashamed.” It‘s a good hook, but you can’t help feeling that he should take a little more of his own advice. ‘Heart of nowhere’ is just about good enough, but another album of bitter-sweet nostalgia would be overkill.
Going back to ‘Five Years Time; it ended with the observation that “In Five years time you might just prove me wrong.” The genius of that song was that it was optimistic and realistic. It was youthful and innocent but completely self aware. It lived in the moment where the songs on the new album reflect on a moment passed. ‘Heart of Nowhere’ is likeable but it doesn’t feel necessary or innovative. It’s fitting to think back to the criticism Noah and the Whale received in 2008 – their debut ‘Peaceful the World Lays Me Down’ was almost unbearably twee, but it was much better than many of those reviews would have had you believe. The fact that they’re still here, still making records, still a part of the conversation, feels in itself like a small vindication. It feels like Noah and the Whale have proved doubters wrong. And so they aren’t offering any predictions about where they’ll be in five years from now – but you’d be a fool to bet against them.

Phoenix ‘Bankrupt!’ – Review

9 May

Phoenix’s story-arc is surprising and encouraging. At the start of the new Millennium they made two average electro-pop albums that received little fanfare outside of the Parisian scene that birthed them. For a while after they pretended to be The Strokes and in doing so created a new and appealing identity all of their own. Fourth album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ came next, an album full to bursting of candy coated riffs, pristine vocal melodies and understated digital textures. They were nominated for a Grammy, gate crashed the charts and headlined Coachella. Not bad for a band of thirty-somethings from France.

They’d probably have been fools to change the formula too much, so at its core ‘Bankrupt!’ shares the same DNA as its predecessors. The key elements are the same but with new tints and twists. The fabulously double tracked vocals on album opener ‘Entertainment’ make you feel right at home – as do the lyrics, in which singer Thomas Mars impatiently, impulsively flickers from one thought to another without making much sense: ‘why you keep pretending that you wanna let go / do? Do you wanna let go?/ Loud volume turns to low, low, low.’

Mars learnt English by listening to old rock n roll records at home. The words were sheer gibberish to him to begin with but over time he began to understand their meaning. Complex lyrics however remained a struggle. With strange foreign words swimming in his head he began to assign them new meanings of his own creation, interpreting these songs in his own way, dragging sense from them kicking and screaming. He didn’t know what these songs meant to their authors but he knew what they meant to him. In the latter stages of their career Phoenix have been inviting the same response to their lyrics. The words are technically English, and usually in the correct order, but they rarely make sense on a literal level. The listener is left less as a passive observer and more as a participant in the creative process, constructing meaning for themselves. On ‘Wolfgang Amadeus’ this was a joy because you were given a basic map to guide you. It was obvious, for example, that Rome’ was about the aftermath of a break-up but it was up to you to decipher lines like ‘focus/ looking forward/the coliseum/oh no! What did I say? What can I say?!’

On ‘Bankrupt’ though meaning is even more elusive and the journey sometimes feels a bit like a hopeless trek. This is partially because the imagery is much vaguer but also because there’s very little emotive force behind the words. Almost every song on ‘Wolfgang’ had some kind of emotional resonance that connected with the listener, but the band’s aims on ‘Bankrupt’ are much more grand – some of these songs scan as social or even political commentary but offer no real comment or answers. On the disparaging ‘Oblique City’ Mars sings ‘Antlantis If I really find it / Velocity / Potentially / Not the logic of the momentum / it’s way more than tragic.’ Even in context the words make little sense. You’re left with a puzzle that’s impossible to solve, offers no emotional reward and is little fun to play with.

This cold, un-emotive delivery is offset but a steely, expensive sound which is equally un-involving on an emotional level. That said every instrument is expertly played and the melodies are always magnificent and joyous. But one thing I can’t quite get past is how heavy and loud the mix is. It’s surprising because ‘Wolfgang’ was polished, refined, light and silky. Here though certain instruments are muddy – buried in a bombastic mix that places emphasis on loudness. The climax of ‘Oblique City’ feels particularly dense and crushing. ‘The Right Thing’ has some great 80’s reference points but there’s far too much going on. Of all the bands that could have fallen short sonically I can’t believe it’s Phoenix – usually such diligent perfectionists. It’s even more surprising because they engineered ‘Bankrupt’ with the same console that was used to mix ‘Thriller’. THE Thriller – one of the most airtight, precisely produced, funky records of all time.

As negative and heavy as some of the album’s traits are, it’s to the band’s credit that you remember ‘Brankrupt!’ for its successes and not its flaws. Although only first single ‘Entertainment’ feels like a classic Phoenix song, the record is very consistent and offers a fair amount of catchy hooks. ‘Dakkor Noir’ (named after an expensive fragrance) is a fabulous put down of modern celebrity culture with a ridiculously great chorus (‘In the Jangle jungle / Junkie jangle / Juggle juggle me). ‘Trying to Be Cool’ is a great mid-80’s throwback that neatly sums up the album’s main theme in 3 and a half minutes of fun. On the other end of the scale is the title track, which is an 8 minute long, prog-pop bomb that (like the equally pointless ‘Love Like a Sunset from their last album) sits right in the middle of the album and nearly trips up songs on either side of it. Actually, it’s less a bomb and more a poisonous gas – it kills slowly, painfully and without reason. Thankfully this is the only tune with absolutely no redeeming features – the other nine songs all have something to offer. But It therefore follows that this album is far from the slice of glossy pop perfection we’ve come to expect from Phoenix. All things considered though It’s still an infectious and charming bit of entertainment that like their song of the same name offers some great hooks with an undercurrent of darkness and confusion.