Archive | July, 2013

Jay Z ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’ – Review

28 Jul

You in the presence of a king/ Scratch that, you in the presence of a God.” That’s Jay Z on the song ‘Crown’ from his new album ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail.’ Remind you of anything? It was only the other week I reviewed the equally blasphemous Kanye West declaring ‘I am God.’ It’s therefore unsurprising that almost every review of this new record has been framed as a comparison between the two Hip Hop greats. However, this strikes me as being unfair when the two artists have such clearly different goals at this point in their careers. Kanye aimed to make an innovative, modernist masterpiece, but Jay Z hasn’t, so if you judge it by those standards then obviously it’s not going to hold up in many respects. ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’, is a relatively modest release, despite the bombastic title, the capital A artistic cover and Its tendency for hyperbole and grandiosity. This is an album that needs to be considered in a wider context but ultimately must be judged on its own terms.

One thing is almost immediately striking; we are not in the presence of a king, let alone God. Jay doesn’t even wear the messiah complex with anywhere near the same conviction as Kanye. He’s groping for divine greatness and it ultimately feels a bit forced and feeble. In musical terms though Jay is an undisputed legend and there are flashes of his old greatness here.  The rumours were that he wasn’t going to swear anymore, out of respect to his new born Blu.  The first line we hear from him on the album is a declarative ‘Blu told me remind you niggas / fuck that shit you talking about, I’m the nigga.’ Subtlty has never been Jay’s strong point but it’s almost as thrilling as it is perplexing to hear him make such a swaggering entrance after such a long time away.

For the first thirty minutes or so, the album cruises along nicely with hooks falling like dominos and memorable soundbites coming thick and fast. Justin Timberlake delivers a fine melody on the title track as Jay establishes the album’s prominent theme: his own success. ‘I don’t pop Molly, I rock Tom Ford’ he informs us on ‘Tom Ford. ‘I’ve already been the king’ he reminds us on ‘somewhereinamerica.’ ‘I’m in my Easter clothes, feeling like Jesus’ he says on ‘Heaven.’ For a short while this is palatable, but as the beats become more regressive and you start to realise that the tunes don’t match the bravado, it becomes tiresome fairly quickly.

The feeling you’re left with is one of inadequacy. This guy goes to auctions at the ‘Lourve or tate modern’, he’s married to Beyonce (‘the real Mona Lisa’), he’s bezzies with Justin and Tom Ford, he forges exclusive partnerships with the likes of Samsung.  Jay Z is on a completely different planet and if the only worth you find in music is in the ability to relate to an artist, then you’re not going to find any good in ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail.’ Now, I’m fine with this as I’m fascinated by this kind of mega-stardom – I’ve spent a life-time obsessing over Michael Jackson’s otherworldly egotism. The difference is that Michael Jackson was inherently fascinating; twisted, contradictory, problematic, humble yet egotistical at the same time and therefore deeply troubled (which is why I see Kanye as his natural heir). Jay Z is content, comfortable, rich, powerful and deeply boring. There’s no real contradictions worth exploring, no anxieties, just a lot of empty boasts. You’ll feel like a homeless kid, watching TV through a display model in a shop window. There’s momentary pleasure to be had at gawping at this mega-star, but you’ll walk away feeling deflated.

That’s the first of two major problems with this record. The second is that very little of what’s good about it has anything to do with Jay Z at all. Jigga skirts responsibility on too many tracks here; His own verses are nearly as unmemorable as they are boastful and borderline offensive. He’s quite content to let Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean, The Dream, Timbaland, Rick Ross or whoever else steal the show. This isn’t a new problem – ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Blueprint 3’ were actually worse in this respect – but that just makes it all the more frustrating that he’s repeating the same mistakes. Whether he’s taking Kanye and Justin on tour, borrowing lyrics from R.E.M and Nirvana, or leaning on  Timbaland in the studio, Jay Z just doesn’t seem to have the confidence (as in real confidence, not just the smack-talk that litters the record) to truly go it alone these days.

‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’ isn’t the first underwhelming Jay Z release but it feels especially redundant in the current Hip Hop climate where innovative and thoughtful records are dropping almost every month. Jigga just seems completely out of touch and out of focus. The servicable beats and so/so raps just don’t cut it on an album by a so called king. His own wife proved on her last album ‘4’ that it’s possible to successfully communicate personal happiness and success in an artistically meaningful way.  Jay Z has well and truly failed in communicating such an interesting vision.  That makes a song like ‘Crown’ all the more meaningless. So whether you’re comparing ‘Magna Carter…Holy Grail’ to ‘Yeezus’ or judging it on its own terms, you’re bound to come to a negative conclusion.


Review Round-up – July

24 Jul

Laura Marling – Once I was an Angel

Many reviewers of Laura Marling spend a patronisingly long and undue time talking about how young she is, when to me the strikingly obvious thing is how old she’s always sounded. Mature beyond her years, yes, but her voice sounds ancient, her melodies almost medieval and her lyrics are wise and weary. This has been played as a strength on her best work to date, but 2011’s ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ was a bit too pretentious, overly affected and cynical. ‘Once I was an Angel’ therefore feels like a real success. This is a tremendously sophisticated album where Marling doesn’t show off or adopt mannerisms. The feelings on display are real and tangible, the pain and heartbreak is well communicated.

‘When we were in love I was an eagle and you were a dove’ she croons in the middle of the 16 minute medley that opens the album. This is an album rich in pastoral imagery. Later on in the same medley she declares ‘I was a child then, we are children no more.’ It’s decisive. Nobody is going to mention her youth again. Yes, this is almost insufferably long, made longer by the stylistic limitations; melodies that stretch in the same directions, guitar figures that ramble over the same ground, lyrics that concern themselves with similar subjects. Over 16 songs this is slightly tiresome but that doesn’t prevent these songs from adding up to a brilliant record – one that submerges and captivates the listener and presents a water-tight case for Marling being the most accomplished singer-songwriter around.


Empire of the Sun – ‘Ice on the Dune’

One of the charming things about Empire of the Sun’s debut ‘Walking on a Dream’ was the ambition realised on a limited budget. It was home-made and felt enthusiastic and bashful. There was some kind of loose concept, evident in the Star Wars-esque cover art and the sci-fi lyrics but it was too ridiculous to take seriously, and the tunes were too good. ‘Standing on the Shore’, ‘Without You’, ‘We are the People’, ‘Half-Mast’ – these were seriously fine pop songs that more than made up for some of the dross on the album.
The long-awaited (well, maybe not – I don’t know who’s particularly excited about this) second album is called ‘Ice on the Dune’ and it’s an appropriate title. This is a chilly, distant record that doesn’t concern itself with things like emotion and warmth. The Icy synths and stone-cold beats that prevail sound expensive, tense and a world away from the modest retro production of the debut. The poppier stuff here is best, but even the more likeable songs lack ear-worm hooks. Only ‘Alive’ floats to the surface but that would be blown out of the water by the duo’s older singles. Full-on dance numbers make up a large part of the record and it’s here where Empire of the Sun really come unstuck; ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Old-Flavours’ sound incredibly dated and worn whilst ‘Keep a Watch’ makes you question your initial interest in the album. This is the kind of stuff Kylie was floating a decade ago and I’m sorry to say that Empire of the Sun really don’t stand much of a chance of making it to that level of pop stardom.


Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork…

‘One thing that is clear is it’s all down hill from here’ sings Josh Homme on the title track of the new album, a song about the fear of getting on with your life. It’s been six years since the last Queens record but if fear has been holding them back, they shouldn’t have worried. ‘Like Clockwork’ is a number one album that cements the band’s position as festival headliners. For those festival bookers this record ticks all the right boxes. Homme still knows how to peddle the riffs and write the chants, still knows how to sprinkle weirdness over anything remotely radio-friendly. It’s rock music made by somebody clearly in love with the genre but frustrated by its restraints and limitations. Excited by the possibilities of experimental music but still in the thrall of monster riff-rock.

This tension makes for a sometimes exciting, sometimes perplexing and sometimes down right tiresome record. ‘Keep Your Eyes Peeled’ is sluggish and badly judged as an album opener, ‘My God Is The Sun’ is equally unsatisfying as a single, because it’s a poor representation of the overall album. Despite the predictable hooks on display there, this is not really a predictable album. It’s reliably rock-tastic, and fans will love it, but it also attempts new things. Like piano ballads featuring Elton John. Squelchy, weird electro-pop numbers called odd things like ‘Kalopsia’. Like all Queens of the Stone Age records, ‘Like Clockwork’ is stodgy and at times fairly tough going, but like all Queens of the Stone Age albums there is a lot to enjoy and savor. You just have to take the good with the bad.


Smith Westerns ‘Soft Will’ – Review

14 Jul
In 1966, The Who sang ‘hope I die before I get old’ yet somewhere down the line they did grow old and two members were alive long enough to be playing that song in their sixties. Rock n Roll is quintessentially a young man’s game, but as The Who learnt, everyone has to grow up at some point. Even Smith Westerns; the time has come for them to adapt or die. Everything that’s good about this band has been borne out of youthful instincts and desires. Their debut was snotty, lazy and almost unbearably enthusiastic. The producer of the second album held their attention long enough to record them in a proper studio with proper equipment and the result was a more focused, but no less adolescent record that pondered the big questions with wide-eyed wonder and innocent (as far as innocence is allowed in very post-modern teenage society) sincerity.
It’s fair to say that on new album ‘Soft Will’ the band tackle the same themes, as seen through slightly older and slightly more cynical eyes. On their debut they sang ‘we’ll go to the beach and get fucked up’, here it’s a more charged ‘when I was with my friends, laughed and joked, even though I’ll never be with them.’  It’s an album that’s often euphoric with a hint of sadness. Take ‘Best Friend’, a song that’s superficially joyous; over a bed of major chords Omori serenades a girl, calling her ‘the only one and my best friend’ but the girl in question won’t let him see her again, which leads to our protagonist drinking the days away. We’re still in the teenage angst arena but there are definitely signs that Smith Westerns are maturing in just the right way.
You can still hear Britpop’s heavy, stomping influence on the way these songs swagger about, and equally you can imagine the chiming guitars and dreamy synths being snatched from the C86 mixtape. Smith Westerns merge these distinct styles together in a way that other Britpop-revival bands just don’t have the imagination to do. ‘Varsity’ steers just clear of anthem territory – instead of real sweeping synths they’ve made do with a cheap synth on the string preset. It adds personality. As on ‘Dye It Blonde’ there is also a big Glam influence, although it’s been toned down a bit, with slower tempos allowing for more nuanced six-string jangles. It makes this a much less exciting album than ‘Dye It Blonde’ but a far more rewarding one. They favour consistency and cohesion over variety, so you’ll decide pretty quickly whether this album’s for you as one song is pretty hard to distinguish from another. That said, if you are fond of Britpop swagger, C86 melodies and Glam riffs then you aren’t going to find anything better than ‘Soft Will’ in 2013. This is a supremely melodic and admirably ambitious guitar pop album, and they are increasingly hard to come by.


Disclosure ‘Settle’ – Review

11 Jul
Facebook comments from June 2013:
‘What happened to the Deep House?’
‘They’re sell outs.’
‘A kids pop band with zero credibility.’
‘Mainstream now ….enjoy the money ..’
‘Can’t believe they used to be cool, now look at them.’
Such are the cries of descent you will easily find on blogs, twitter and facebook. The narrative is thus: Disclosure were a ‘cool’ deep house act, then they ‘sold out’, turned ‘pop’ and went to number one on the charts. Of course, this is nonsense on multiple levels and I’ll try and explain why in this review. Up until a few months ago ‘Deep House’ as a term and concept was a mystery to me. Of all genre classifications, dance ones are a particular hurdle because they seem so obscure and tribal. Often it comes down to BPM or how loud the bass is. Sure I can tell the difference between Acid House and Drum n Bass (I’m not a complete philistine) but when it comes to Happy Hardcore and Jumpstyle… I quit.
So Deep House is a strain of House music, and House (as I understand it) was a type of EDM popular in the late 80s and 90s that emphasised repetitive beats and big synths; so I’m guessing that ‘deep house’ is more thought-provoking? More intellectual? More bass heavy? I think people get too caught up in these type of precise labels. Who really cares? The second you engage your brain is the second you disconnect the rest of your body. And isn’t the purpose of dance to allow yourself to disconnect from thoughts and engage in a very primal instinct? The only question of real importance then, is does ‘Settle’ make you want to dance? These Facebook and Twitter warriors seem to be so concerned with labels and credibility that they’ve forgotten that most fundamental of points.
So does ‘Settle’ make me want to dance? Well, not particularly (and I’m no authority in the art of pulling shapes by the way). The songs are too static, too polite, too flimsy to be dance anthemns. But as a collection of pop songs ‘Settle’ works pretty damn well. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not being tribal by calling them pop and I’m certainly not being dismissive. Pop is a term that’s welcoming, inclusive and friendly. Pop music doesn’t ask you to have a certain amount of beats per minute. Pop music doesn’t ask you what type of Roland Synthesiser you’re using. Pop is about a feeling, and Disclosure give me that feeling. Disclosure are better off searing clear of those dance-purist-bullies. ‘White Noise’ was nearly a number one pop smash (should have been) and that doesn’t make them sell-outs – It makes them stars. Who needs dance-purist-bulies when you’ve got people in their thousands buying a nearly-should-have-been-number-one-smash? It’s the best freakin’ pop song released all year, bar none (we’ll forget about Daft Punk for the moment, they’ve had enough praise to last them a lifetime).
So ‘Settle’ doesn’t make me want to dance, and neither is it innovative, particularly interesting or insightful. You won’t find any revelations in these songs. You won’t discover new sounds. There’s no clue about the future of any genre – whether that’s pop, deep house or anything else. lyrically it’s often bland and superficial. So where’s the worth? Well, ‘Settle’ is just an extremely tight, focused, well sequenced collection of sublime tunes. It takes you on a fun journey, with dips and peaks and bends and lulls and guest appearances from long lost friends like Jamie Woon, hot young things like Jessie Ware and Elliza Doolittle and future stars like London Grammar. It recontextualises dub-step for Radio 1 in a tasteful way (take note Skrillex) on the brilliant ‘Second Chance’, it makes a star out of some evangelical preacher on the fabulous ‘When a Fire Starts to Burn’ and throughout there are melodies to hum and whistle. Jazzy, unusual melodies. Sometimes soulful melodies as well. All the guest stars do Disclosure proud; Friendly Fires and Jamie Woon (somewhat foolishly in my opinion) have handed over two of the best things they’ve written to date. London Grammar and Eliza Doolittle have introduced themselves as proper potential megatstars. Everyone, without exception, comes off really well and there isn’t a dud here.
The fact that this album has been released by a major label and went straight to number one may be an issue for a tiny amount of small-minded geeks, but the most striking thing about ‘Settle’ is how inviting it is. These songs embrace the listener, they are desperate to be liked and almost impossible to dislike. There is incredible generosity here; melodies are served up with relish, vocals are handed over to a rosta of impeccably chosen guests and beats are groovy and hypnotic. So much modern EDM is deliberately evasive or obscure but ‘Settle’ never is. That is the sense in which it is ‘pop’ and that’s no bad thing. It follows on nicely from recent albums by Rustie, Seplacure, SBTRKT and Totally Extinct Enormous Dinosaurs in being a dance album remarkable for how well it works away from the dance floor. And I’m not saying it’s a ‘headphones’ album, ‘cos it’s not. It’s an album that demands to be heard by audiences and crowds, on radios, in pubs and on stereos. Disclosure haven’t sold out, they’ve simply embraced a wide audience and ‘Settle’ is overflowing with this generosity and positivity.

Surfer Blood ‘Pythons’ – Review

3 Jul
How do you go about reconciling an artist’s questionable personal life with their art? It’s fair to say that there is no straightforward answer, it very much depends on who you’re talking about, what they’ve done and how interesting their art is. Is any review of a Beatles album prefaced with mention of Lennon’s misogynistic, violent, mean-spirited tendencies? Is any Chris Brown review prefaced without mention of his inglorious past? Does the fact that Wagner was a raging fascist colour our listening of his symphonies? Is it right that I love the songs of Charles Manson, one of the most notorious mass murderers of the century?
What now of Surfer Blood? For those out of the loop, lead singer John Pitts was arrested after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. Accounts differ, the facts are unclear and in interviews he comes across as a bit sketchy and non-committal – but whichever way you look at it, there’s no doubt he comes out of the whole affair with his reputation as a human being somewhat in tatters. As for the reputation of his band, that largely depends on the success of this album. Doesn’t it? Or is it impossible to separate our knowledge of the man from our enjoyment of his art? Other reviewers have struggled with this dilemma. Some have sidestepped the issue altogether, some have dwelled on it too much for my liking and The Guardian went as far as to call listening to ‘Pythons’ an ‘ethical problem.’
As far as I’m concerned it’s very hard to forget altogether – Pitts doesn’t make that easy for you. Almost all of these songs are about some kind of regret. Truth be told he doesn’t present himself in the best possible light. At times he comes over as completely unlikable, with some of the lyrics coming over as angry, self-centered and remorseless. ‘I need love more than anyone’ he moans at one point. Later on: ‘I let you go/before you know I was happy on my own.’ When he describes his girlfriend as being ‘true blue’ I cringe. Either the guy has absolutely zero self-awareness or he’s deliberately presenting himself as someone with serious, serious issues. At times I think it’s the former, but then at other points I think it’s the latter. This isn’t deep confessional poetry though. Yes it’s possible to read these lyrics as being autobiographical, but the details are sketchy and vague enough for the listener to ignore that interpretation. Pitts’ vocabulary is mostly limited and he sticks fairly rigidly to imposed rhyme schemes that don’t allow for much creativity. lyrically ‘Pythons’ is interesting in flashes, but not as revealing or apologetic as people would probably like.
However much he presents himself as a unlikeable human being, his music is impossible to dislike. It’s also quite hard to love. Everything is so clean and functional; even the sludgier moments like ‘Slow Six’ sound meticulously produced. Way before the domestic abuse controversy, Warner Brothers signed Surfer Blood in the hopes of making them the new Foo Fighters or Weezer. The ridiculously cheap packaging and lack of promotion indicates that this is now a decision the label are regretting, but nonetheless this is an album that has received major label funds, for better or worse. There is none of the homemade grit or distortion that made ‘Astro Coast’ such a dirty album, but if you like ‘the studio sound’ then you’re going to really like how ‘Pythons’ sounds. Mega bucks producer Gil Norton has given every song a radio-friendly sheen and whilst I think the record sounds gorgeous I personally miss the lo-fi asthetic. This musical equivalent of a ‘what not to wear’ has also seen the band shed their quirckier instincts as well,  – there are no obscure instrumentals or extended stoner-rock dirges on this streamlined album. It’s all very nice and smooth.
So every song clocks in very efficiently under four minutes, ticking off all the appropriate chords along the way. The melodies are all equally pretty if ultimately somewhat un-memorable. The hooks are all equally bright and ultimately don’t match up to the classic highlights of ‘Astro Coast’ or stop-gap e.p ‘Tarrot Games.’ From opener ‘Demon Day’s to the perky single ‘Gravity’ and through to the fitting ‘Prom Song’ this is a fine, well constructed pop-rock album. Had they injected it with some more charm and personality I have no doubt it would be a great record. So I guess that’s the conclusion. It’s impossible to completely detach Pitt’s history from our understanding and enjoyment of the album, because his history is in the make-up of the album. It colours these lyrics and therefore our listening experience. But regardless (not because of) that, this is simply a decent to good album. Nothing more, nothing less. Surfer Blood’s reputation as a band certainly isn’t in tatters, but it’s definitely taken a bit of a beating.