Archive | June, 2013

Kanye West ‘Yeezus’ – Review

24 Jun

‘Yeezus’ arrives in a blank, plastic jewel case. There’s no tracklisting, no cover, just a red sticker keeping the lid sealed. What is the implication? Has Kanye West run out of things to say? If there were a tracklisting, your eyes would be immediately drawn to track three – ‘I am God’. Now, Kanye has a right to be proud of himself, after all he made the best hip album of the past ten years (probably the second and third best as well) but likening himself to God? Even by his infamous standards, that takes things to a whole new level of arrogance. It dispenses with the subtleties and social commentary of his usual ego poetry and In the process undoes a lot of the good work ‘808’s and Heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ did in humanizing the caricature. So no, it’s instantly obvious that West is not short of statements to make. Instead, the bare packaging is meant to symbolise the minimalism of the music. In a recent NY Times Interview Kanye went to great lengths to list his influences, mentioning new wave, Peter Saville and Rick Rubin as key touchstones. The point being, Kanye West is still looking for boundaries to cross and doors to slam open. He isn’t God, but he wants that level of control, freedom and power. He wants to be untouchable.

‘On Sight’ opens the album dramatically. The song is built around a digitally distorted Acid-House line that jitters in and out of focus. At one point it collides into a soul sample that seems deliberately placed to disturb what little flow the song has. It also serves to contrast the Old Kanye with the new Kanye. Whereas before the samples were sweet and melodic, this one seems strained and desperate;snatched from its context and placed in a new and strange environment. The song veers to a halt suddenly after only 2 minutes. In both structure and production it has a fairly similar vibe to ‘Ghetto Muzik’ by Outkast – if that song was put in the washing machine or battered with a baseball bat.

Initially startling then, but ultimately it’s not too surprising that he’s gone in this weird, minimalist direction. Anyone who’s followed his career will know that Kanye likes to pull the rug from under your feet as soon as you get comfortable. ‘My beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was quite possibly the most indulgent, extravagant, brilliant Hip Hop album ever made. It was his grand peak. He’d climbed to the top of that particular mountain. It was his ‘Ok Computer. In that sense ‘Yeezus’ is his ‘Kid A’. He’s found a new mountain to climb. But where Radiohead were anxious about their new direction, Kanye is anything but. ‘I’m a monster about to come alive again’ he declares with pure bravado within the first minute.

Before long you realise that a lot of this album is just that. Bravado. Oh, and a lot of noise. At around the ten minute mark you start to wonder if Kanye has spent more time worrying about the bruising sonic soundscape than the raps. Then comes ‘I am God’. From the off it seemed like a bad idea call a song this, but you would hope that being Kanye the lyrics would at least offer some depth, dialogue, insight or even irony. It doesn’t. Over the course of the song he sets himself up as somebody who; doesn’t kiss ass, doesn’t want people to like him, the only rapper who’s been compared to Michael, the man who brought real rap back, a member of the Rat Pack, and yes, God. It’s awfully charmless and conveys a real lack of self-awareness. He used to be arrogant in a naive, funny, youthfully brash way. Here his rhymes are lazy, emotionally distant and completely unstirring. On ‘808 and heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ Kanye came over like an egotist in rehab, here he’s like a drug addict who’s relapsed into a new harrowing, futile low.

‘New Slaves’ is track four and it’s where Kanye really starts to up his game. The first verse sees him back at his stunning best, contrasting different types of racism while also commenting on the discrimination his mother lived through. It’s classic Kanye. Even the infantile hook plays like an old ‘College Dropout’ zinger: ‘you see there’s leaders and there’s followers but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.’ As the song builds so does his anger, until by the end he’s virtually screaming. ‘Fuck you and your corporation!’ he shouts, at the same time fully aware that his own infatuation with big companies is at best difficult at worst hypocritical. On one hand, as he told the NY Times last week, he wants to be the new Steve Jobs, on the other hand he despairs as the world becomes a ‘privately owned prison’. That’s the thing his critics have always missed – yes he’s arrogant to a blinding degree but at his best he embraces the contradictions (which is what makes ‘I am God’ such a failure – it plays right into those critics hands).

From here on in the album is a whole lot more interesting and often temperamental. ‘Hold My liquor’ is like a broken, burnt-out take on the despair of ‘808s and Heartbreak’. He paints broad-strokes images of hungover agony like ‘Waking up on your sofa / When I park my Range Rover / Slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla.’ A certain sadness carries over the next few tracks as well. ‘I’m In It’ takes a danchall sample and the most traditional hip-hop beat on the album, mixes it in with a Bon Iver hook and lets the melody do the emotional heavy lifting. Album closer ‘Bound 2’ is the most bracing and exposing song on the album. In some ways it’s the most traditionally structured track, with some sugary melodies, memorable rhymes and old-skool soul samples, but it’s stunningly bare and functional. Charlie Wilson falls upon Brenda Lee who falls upon Wee who falls back on Kanye. No real effort is made to smooth samples together, and there’s no real beat to hold the song down. Some of these tracks feel rushed or incomplete but ‘Bound 2’ feels quite deliberate and haunting. After all that earlier bravado, it’s simple and sparse, and fitting that in album’s dying moments he says ‘You know ain’t nobody perfect / and I know I got the worst rep… After all these long ass verses / I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept’.

At times ‘Yeezus’ is controversial and offensive. What worth in a line like ‘your titties, let ’em out, free at last, thank God almighty, they free at last’, or ‘got asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce’? I still have lots of questions about the album. Is the savage sound really that innovative? Suicide had productions like this a long time ago, and even in the field of Hip Hop there are precedents (Death grips anyone?). It strikes me that because of the album’s initially jarring sonic soundscapes, some people have rather over-estimated the record’s innovations. And although he’s hit upon an arresting sound, this is easily my least favourite Kanye West incarnation to date. It lacks any clear through-line or manifesto. This is not quite his protest album, or his love album, or his break up album or his party album. The minimalist glue can’t quite hold these hit and miss songs together. At its best ‘Yeezus’ is brilliant, at its worst it’s inconsistent, lazy, and tasteless. Despite everything, I can’t stop listening to it! I think this is a Kanye West album that had to be made, and one that will no doubt be remembered as an important step forward. Fascinating as always, slightly more flawed than usual, human afterall – which is far more interesting than being untouchable anyway.


Good New Music Round-up

22 Jun

Big Deal ‘June Gloom’ – Review

16 Jun

When Big Deal first emerged, their ‘gimmick’ was that they had no gimmicks. Voice, guitars, nothing else. Their debut, ‘Lights Out’, was one of the most enduringly pretty albums of that year, with its sublime child-like melodies and sweet lyrics about unrequited love. The opening track of the new album, ‘Golden Light’, starts off in exactly the same way. Voice, guitars, nothing else. Lyrics about feeling inadequate and out of luck. A melody that’s gooey with teenage angst. ‘I don’t want to die with my head in a mess / I want to walk in the golden light’. None of this is new ground for the duo. Then, after the first verse, drums and bass come crashing in and you have a revelation: Big Deal are a grunge-pop band. Thinking back, the hints were always lurking around, and actually the change of direction is no real change at all – they have simply brought out what was already there in spirit. No big deal.

Some things have changed, others have not. On their debut the duo played on the ‘are they/aren’t they’ rumours’ by exchanging sweet nothings to each other with alarming frankness. The 17-year-old Alice reveled in lines like ‘you don’t trust me to sit on your bed’ and ‘can’t do my homework, can’t concentrate, it’s ruining my grades, I can’t think straight’ while the considerably older Kacey shared harmonies (but nothing else, we’re promised) with her. They haven’t moved on much since then, which is fine by me. Song titles give away the name of the game; ‘Swapping Spit’, ‘Call and I’ll Come’, ‘Close Your Eyes’. Cute, blonde hair, blue eyed Alice could have walked straight off the set of some American high school rom-com and her words could be excerpts from the script. In less able lyrics such as these would be corny, but they are delivered with such sincerity that you buy the emotions hook line and sinker. Alice sings these lines in a breathy, intoxicating voice that purrs just about Kacey’s deeper, less commanding tone. It was a mix that worked last time and it works here as well.

In an early interview with the guardian, they said “When we started we were talking about the songs that are the best, the ones that mess us up the most, and they were like the ones where people were straight out honest.”  They have adopted this approach to making music. Although this isn’t stripped back in the same sense as the debut, it’s still a remarkably straight-forward, honest album where  every instrument seems to do the minimum amount of work possible for maximum effect. First single ‘In Your Car’ sums the vibe up pretty nicely: laid back, fuzzy guitar lines that interlock as easily as the duo’s harmonies, melodies that have been tie-dyed in the sun and lyrics that get to the point quickly and almost recklessly. ‘Driving In your car / I want to be wherever you are.’ There is nothing complex about this album, which is not to say that it’s built on cheap, throwaway ideals. Big Deal tackle emotions that are sticky and tough – unrequited love, early heartbreak, moving away from home, loss of innocence. There is an innate complexity to these themes, so it doesn’t matter that the band tend to simplify just a bit. It just makes these songs easier to relate to.

‘Lights Out’ was a front-loded album and ‘June Gloom’ is the same way; in fact some of the songs on the second half are pretty forgettable. If you stripped ‘Pillow’ of the bass and drums would the central melody stand up to scrutiny? Probably not. The sludgy drumming and fuzzy bass add some colour but these are cliched grunge sounds that can’t carry the tune. These moments of predictability are relatively rare though and for the most part this is a consistent, and well sequenced record. It may not be quite as cute or memorable as the debut but it does lay out a more promising map for future success. It also confirms that ‘Lights Out’ was no fluke. ‘June Gloom’ is a great title for a winning album that merges sunny melodies with heartbreaking lyrics. It’s rainbow pop, and Big Deal have found gold at the end of it.


Miles Kane ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ – Review

12 Jun

Miles Kane is a Last Shadow Puppet. He co-wrote ‘Age of the Understatement’, a fantastic record that stands up five years on. I doubt anyone’s forgotten this (although I’m sure Miles would like you to forget and take this new album on its own terms) but I feel like reminding myself. That was nuanced record that avoided cliche, let alone parody. His earlier work with The Rascals and Little Flames was perky but insubstantial, certainly not bad though. His solo debut was also pretty decent, at times downright brilliant. Again, I just want to remind myself of that. This guy knows how to pen a good song… doesn’t he?

It’s just that ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ is undeniably a damp squib. A big, soaking, useless squib. Miles has He’s made a big deal of ditching the metaphors that have coloured his best writing, calling ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ direct and to the point. Direct is certainly one adjective you could use to describe it, but ‘obvious’ is the one I would use. On the catchy but forgettable ‘Better Than That’ Miles tells us he’s happy and it’s down to a four letter word. Ok, fair enough. Then he says he means ‘L.O.V.E’. Yeah, we get it Miles, no need to literally spell it out. But in case the message isn’t clear enough he then yells ‘I’m talking about love!’ It’s this kind of pandering, colour-by-numbers lyricism that makes ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ such a joyless listen. It’s wholly uncharicteristic of the painterly, detailed lyrics that won him acclaim a few years back. By the time you hear him repeat ‘Give up’ for the twelfth time in his droning scouse accent you’ll be wishing he’d follow his own advice.

It’s not just the lyrics that are obvious. The riffs are stone cold stupid, his voice is increasingly Gallagher-esque, and the arrangements lack any spark of originality. His horn soaked collaboration with Skream, ‘First of My Kind’, released last year hinted that the second album would move things on nicely from the debut, but there is none of that innovation or ambition here (and ‘First of My Kind is reduced to a lowly bonus track on the expensive deluxe edition). That said, there are highlights scattered across the thankfully brief running time, including the dizzy title track, the Oasis humping ‘Out of Control’ and the supremely confident ‘Taking Over’. Kane relies on predictable structures, predictable chords, predictable themes and predictable swagger but he does it all with absolute sincerity and forthright purpose. It’s never a dreary listen and at times the glam stomp and throwback  riffs put a smile on your face. It’s impossible to dislike him, you just end up feeling a little let down.

‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’ isn’t just a disappointing record, it’s the type of record that is so out-there disappointing it makes you question everything the artist has ever done. It makes you think ‘was his other stuff really as good as I remember? Have my listening tastes changed or something? Or is it Miles that has changed?’ I’ve always dismissed the cynics who pointed out that Kane had yet to write a classic on his own without a songwriting partner, but there’s got to be something in that.  Alex Turner co-wrote the Last Shadow Puppets album and all the best songs on his solo debut – is that a coincidence? I hate to say it, but I don’t think so. Miles Kane is a talented lad but he has to do better than this if he wants to be considered a credible artist in his own right. At the moment he’s just gone about two steps back into the shadow of a certain Shadow Puppet.



The National ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ – Review

9 Jun

The National have made the same type of album six times now, which makes consistency their calling card. But each one is full of little surprises and twists that makes every one an essential listen. The pattern is true to life; we go through the same routines every day and we spend Tuesday in much the same way we’ll spend Wednesday, which we’ll spend in much the same way as Thursday etc. It’s the little things in life that brighten our day and make life worth living. A bit of sunshine. Making a new friend. Having something nice for dinner. Alcohol. Not revolutions or revelations, just…little things. The National are very much a human band with very relatable quirks and emotions. It’s the little things that make them worth listening to. The National have always been dependable.

Listen to all their albums in a row and it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the next one starts, but listen to  ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and then go back to their debut, and you can see the subtle evolution. The vocals are no longer mumbled or screamed, they are sung plainly and meaningfully. The songs are shorter and more refined. The drumming is less show-offy. The horn and orchestral arrangements are less obvious and more structurally ingrained. Many of the tunes, including the beautiful ‘Fireproof’, ‘Slipped’ and ‘Hard to Find’, are more sparse than we’re used to and they’re far more interesting than the too predictable ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘Don’t Swallow the Cup’, which are more traditionally energetic.  The band have made just the right adjustments. It strikes me that this is their most direct album since ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ – which is relative, because The National at their most direct are still pretty evasive. But when Matt purrs ‘I need my girl’ and elongates his phrasing, there’s no ambiguity. And as he moans ‘when I walk into a room, I do not light it up… fuck’ you know exactly how he feels. The guy’s still fond of a pretty metaphor (my favourite: ‘I was a television version of a person with a broken heart’) but he throws in more concrete images to anchor down the songs. A former lover drinks ‘pink rabbits’ and if you want to see him cry just play ‘Let It Be or Nevermind’.

But this line could be a red Herring. Afterall, I don’t really know what’s in the cynical ‘Nevermind’ or cold-hearted ‘Let It Be’ to make you cry, which makes me think this is just one example of the band laying bread crumbs for eager fans to follow. Matt admitted in a recent interview with Paste that ‘a lot of the lyrics I write involve images that just swing the song in a way that feels really good to me and there isn’t a literal explanation.’ And yet these songs connect on a deep, emotional level, and they connect with a lot of people. As I said earlier, The National are human, relatable and dependable – this is why people love them. They also know how to have fun.

The songs pound, grind and build in a thrilling way any fan will be very familiar with. Many of the tunes also convey a sense of humour, something critics often ignore, favouring to concentrate on the more serious or boring aspects of the songs. Contained in that quote from the interview is an understanding that the band are aware of their reputation as sour faced  miserablists and they’re willing to have fun with that. The title is ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, which seems humourously self-aware. They are a band that concentrate on quite gloomy subjects but at least they know it and can laugh about it.

‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is not The National’s finest expression of sadness and regret; it’s not quite as forceful as ‘High Violet’, not quite as gut-wrenching as ‘The Boxer’, not quite as thrilling as ‘Alligator’, but it is a very nice addition to their stellar catalogue. If you were expecting them to jump the shark then you’ll be surprised (and glad) that they haven’t. I have to say, I was rather cynical about them being able to keep up the high quality – after all, they were still touring ‘High Violet’ a matter of months ago and in recent live performances the band seemed, frankly, tired and lagging. Of course, I should have known better. Yes, it’s a lot like their previous albums but, as I’ve said, it’s the little things that make this worthwhile and progressive. The National remain dependable.