Archive | September, 2013

MGMT ‘MGMT’ – Review

25 Sep

Does anybody know who MGMT are? Who they really are? Are they the rock-star-dreaming-prankstars who write songs about Electric eels? They certainly don’t seem to think so. Are they the pastoral psychedelic punks who make pretend it’s 1969 forever? Maybe. Maybe not. This self titled record, their third, doesn’t clarify things. In fact it muddies the narrative even further. They’ve clearly self-titled it for a reason; perhaps this is the album that they feel sums up who they are – which is weird cos it doesn’t really say anything about anything. But Ben and Andrew must feel it reveals the essential truth about MGMT. Perhaps that essential truth is that they are contrarians. This is an album that plays against their greatest strengths; it’s an album that feels not only a world away from the giddy electro pop of ‘Electric Feel’ and ‘Kids’ but also from the psychedelic whimsy of Congratulations.’ It doesn’t defy expectations or even ignore them, it acknowledges them and joylessly and self-consciously sticks its tongue out at them.

‘MGMT’ is the album that some critics thought ‘Congratulations’ was. They thought ‘Congratulations’ was difficult, tuneless, weird and un-poppy which just wasn’t true. ‘Congratulations’ was slightly strange but it also had the most gorgous melodies and sticky hooks. It was extremely accessible. ‘MGMT’ on the other hand is all those other adjectives. On this album MGMT sound like a band for whom songwriting is a genuine inconvenience that gets in the way of getting high and making weird sounds. These tracks are congested with dozens of fantastical musical ideas that are all played out at once. It’s claustrophobic and paranoid. There is no movement or progression. Songs start, they stop and in between a lot happens all at once. Melodies roll out quietly over the top but they aren’t considered important. Lyrics aren’t important. Guitars don’t really feature. rhythm is almost nonexistent. Every vocal has been distorted or clipped or given some weird warbly effect. The duo sound like sugar high kids in a major label sweet shop, given the resources and time to experiment with anything they like. It makes for the most aimless, meandering and frustrating record you’ll hear all year. But it’s also sparingly brilliant.

Album opener ‘Alien Days’ is the only song on here that you could pass off as a true success, and unsurprisingly it’s the only song that would have sat comfortably with its sonic brothers and sisters on ‘Congratulations’. Here the duo marry a sweet melody (that doesn’t sound like an afterthought!) with a progressive and interesting musical arrangement. ‘Cool Song Number 2’ snaps the momentum with a dowbeat tempo and some minor key noodling but It’s still the next best thing on here thanks to another stupendous melody that recalls Syd Barret era Pink Floyd. When they want to MGMT can still write impressive, hummable tunes – but that’s the point – they just don’t want to.

‘Your Life is a Lie’ for example has a fantastically nagging hook that sticks in your head, but for a reason known only to the band they make a mockery of it, repeating said hook until it evolves from an ear-worm in to a parasite. ‘Introspection’ is another song with real potential that’s undone by indulgence and extravagance. The production provided by the usually masterful Dave Friedman buries the potential deep in a boggy pit of synths and compression. The above songs make it out of the same pit alive by the skin of their teeth but the likes of ‘A Good Sadness’ and ‘Astro-Mancey’ get well and truly buried and forgotten.

The second half of the album just rambles along with no structure. It’s hard to convey just how plodding ‘Death and All His Friends’ feels for example. ‘Plenty of Fish In The Sea’ on the other hand is juvenile, throwaway and cheap, but in that sense it’s the closest relation to the band’s early hits. It comes from the same carefree place as ‘Electric Feel’ and it doesn’t sound burdened or heavy. unfortunately It sticks out like a sore thumb.

I think that’s the most frustrating thing for fans like myself. It’s not that we want MGMT to write another ‘Electric Feel’ (although the album would certainly benefit from something as sprightly as that) – the band themselves seem to be the only ones hung up on that notion. We want them to be true to themselves, we want them to be experimental, we want them to push the boundaries but we also want them to play to their strengths, and they don’t do that here. They are naturally melodic, naturally humourous and naturally quirky but they seem hell-bent on going in the opposite direction. This is a cynical, indulgent and self-sabotaging mess that will come as a massive disappointment not only to fans of ‘Oracular Spectacular’ but fans of ‘Congratulations’ as well. The fact that it’s occasionally brilliant just makes it all the more aggravating! MGMT are still a great band – there is enough evidence of that here – they need to learn to embrace that fact.


Review Round-up September

22 Sep

Jagwar Ma – ‘Howlin’

Calling Jagwar Ma baggy revivalists feels too reductionist; there is so much more to them than that. And yet that’s unquestionably a large aspect of what they’re about. The beats are baggier than Ian Brown’s Jeans. The acid tinged guitars have just the right amount of funkadelic phat, and the vocals are sufficiently in debt to early Happy Mondays. But just when you think you’ve got the band pigeon-holed, they do something to surprise you. After the particularly loose ‘Four’ comes ‘Let Her Go’, a proper British Invasion style guitar song. Then there’s a track like ‘The Throw’, which descends into a mega 2013 house banger. It makes for a swirling and somewhat messy debut. It could be argued that they have their fingers in too many pies and a bit more focus may have resulted in a more commanding album. But you can hear the band’s hunger, and that ambition ultimately makes for of the year’s most enjoyable dance records yet.


Swim Deep – ‘Where the Heaven Are We’


Swim Deep come from the same B-Town scene that birthed Peace and un-coincidentally they have made an album with very similar strengths and weaknesses. It’s a debut that leans on the excellent singles for stability. One that wears its many influences very proudly (and obviously) on its tie-dyed, over-sized, vintage sleeve. It would take a heart of stone not to fall in love with the insanely catchy songs that make up the first half of the album – ‘Honey’, ‘King City’, ‘Francisco’ and ‘She Makes my Sun Shine’ but equally it would take a more patient man than me not to get bored stiff during the second half’s run of baggy, mid-pace plodders. Perhaps not unusually for a debut, it is indecisive, unfocused and often brilliantly promising, particularly considering the age of the band members. Like Peace, Swim Deep now need to focus on developing a sound they can truly call their own.


London Grammar – ‘If You Wait’

On track two of their debut album, London Grammar’s front woman asks you to ‘stay awake with me’. It sounds more like a challenge than a seductive request. This is a boring album – and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Every now and then the trio will bust out a break beat, but for the most part these songs are romantic slow burners. It’s funny that ten years ago Keane were ridiculed for making much less monotonous music, yet in 2013 London Grammar are winning plaudits left, right and centre. Something tells me it has a lot to do with the Disclosure association (London Grammar appeared on their album) – but this really isn’t the same type of record as the energetic ‘Settle.’

The group started writing around this time last year, which just happens to have been when The XX released ‘Coexist’, and that album clearly influenced these minimalist grooves and trippy beats. In fact you can pinpoint London Grammer’s origins to one song – The XX remix of Florence and The Machine’s cover of ‘You Got the Love’. Everything from that record’s production, to the howling vocals and very old-school melody seems to have left an imprint of London Grammar. This very familiar, and very stripped back, production really means that the record lives or dies on the quality of the song-writing, which is varied. ‘Strong’ sounds beautiful, especially when you hear it on the radio in between all the bustling EDM pop that passes for chart music nowadays. The other singles, ‘Hey Now’, ‘Wasting My Young Years,’ and ‘Metal and Dust’ are easily the next best things on here, but for a good half an hour this is a consistently good album. Of course It fades into a mundane, middle of the road slog in the final third – the band don’t have many tricks up their sleeve yet and this is an album short on stylistic variety and emotional depth. I stayed awake though – just.




The 1975 ‘The 1975’ – Review

17 Sep

It’s easy to like The 1975’s music but it’s hard to love the band. Their hedonistic lyrics, pretentious interviews (they come off as scenesters incapable of saying anything sincere or original) and very on trend image instantly make you cynical. Then there is lead singer Matty’s inescapable position as offspring of annoying ‘loose woman’ Denise Welch (try forgetting that once you’ve learnt it!). It is however unfair to suggest that his mum has somehow privileged him this well-earned number one album. The band have been slogging it out on the Manchester circuit for the best part of a decade, and success has been a long time coming. It was early last year that I first reviewed their brilliant single ‘Sex’ (re-released this month) and at the time I called it one of the best songs of 2012. I actually prefer it now, and I’ve heard it a lot. It still sounds fresh, urgent and catchy as the plague; somehow that hook becomes more potent every time I hear it.

You’re probably familiar with their other two big singles as well. There’s the equally sticky ‘Chocolate’ and the less impressive (but passable) ‘The City’. Each of these songs is different; ‘Sex’ is straight up indie rock whilst ‘The City’ has a heavier vibe. ‘Chocolate’ is a spindly synth pop number with impenetrable lyrics about having ‘guns hidden under our petticoats’. Elsewhere on the album the band flirt with post-Weeknd+Drake r&b (see the three instrumentals that act as surprisingly interesting interludes) Prince-lite funk (‘M.O.N.E.Y’) and blatant James Blake balladry (‘Is there somebody who will watch you’).

‘Settle Down and ‘Girls’ suggest themselves as future singles; the former has a yelping hook reminiscent of M83, and the latter could have come from the soundtrack to classic 80’s rom-com ‘Cocktail’. Although The 1975 never entirely blend these styles and influences into something they can truly call their own, they still do a very impressive job of mixing them together on one very long debut album that doesn’t sound anywhere near as laboured as it should. They clearly have a nose for good hook and that is a strength that they use to their advantage time and time again on ‘The 1975’. It almost sounds like a compilation of singles rather than a conventional album. This is offset by sparkling production courtesy of Mike Crossey, who does a fantastic job of piecing together the eclectic sounds.

Before ‘The 1975’, and before Sex, the band went by the name ‘Drive Like I Do’ and put out a song called ‘Robbers’. That was released at a time when Coldplay and Snow Patrol used to make weepy choruses for the end credits to Greys Anatomy, and ‘Robbers’ could have passed as a single from either band. It appears on the debut album in an altered form – still recognisably the same song, but with a future-R&B production that makes it sound less 2008 and more 2013. It’s a nice tune, but it leaves me with that cynical feeling I mentioned at the start of the review. As much as this is an endlessly playable debut, and it does a better job of making guitar music sound viable in 2013 than almost any other record released this year, there is still something a little too calculated about the band and their music. A degree of style over substance if you like. But what style – sleek, stylish and pure sex.


Arctic Monkeys ‘AM’ – Review

15 Sep

Listening to ‘AM’ for the first time inevitably takes me back to the first time I heard ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, as a 15 year old on a very overcast day in January. Arctic Monkeys were THE band of my generation and each subsequent album has felt like a vindication of my initial passionate investment in them. I will never get that excited by a new band again – the bands you discover at that age stay with you forever. They had songs I could relate to; definitely pop songs, but they weren’t like the other tunes that occupied the number one slot. They were edgy but accessible. They were like my gang but cooler. They sang about things that I experienced or wanted to experience. I could relate to their lyrics a little too well, and yet I could never hope to express myself in such an eloquent, verbose and funny way.

And yet these initial attractions have diminished over the years as new ones have emerged. They have grown, as I have, and our experiences have differed. We’ve ventured down very different paths, and yet here we still are. I’ve always felt that innate connection. As I look at them in 2013, headlining Glastonbury and unquestionably stealing the show from under The Rolling Stones nose, It strikes me that they are now pop-stars without qualification.They aren’t necessarily pop stars of the current mould (no twerking to be seen on that stage) or of any previous mould either, but they exude a confidence, a bravado if you like, that only pop-stars have. The rough edges have been smoothed over. The buzzcut became a shaggy mop became a quiff. The sweat and Greece became polish. After a decade as a band, Arctic Monkeys have finally become Arctic Monkeys. AM. They haven’t ‘sold out’ on those original principles (many of which fans imposed on them anyway), they’ve simply become the band they always had the potential to be.

It’s fitting then that this, their fifth album, is essentially self-titled – at least it would be if they ‘didn’t have such a stupid name.’ As it is, they decided to ‘initial it’, and thus ensured a whole host of connotations were made apparent. AM = Aftermidnight. For sure; this is a sexy, slinky, seductive record. Neon light riffs, grumbling bass sounds, disco bass drums, the type you hear coming through your walls when there’s a party next door. AM = Analogue Frequency. This is an album from an analogue age, which is not to say it’s ‘retro’ or ‘old fashioned’. I mean, it belongs to an age where people took care over records and used the best equipment money could buy. It SOUNDS amazing. The likes of ‘Number One Party Anthem’ and ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ have pure 1970s AM radio warmth. AM = as in a homage to VU by Velvet Underground. That band’s influence is all over this record, particularly the ‘Sunday Morning’-esque ‘Mad Sounds’ and the galloping ‘Fireside’. AM = AM, as in I AM living, I AM creating, I AM doing, I AM being. This is a record that moves and adventures and experiences. It’s vital and urgent. AM = the letters visually represent three mountain peaks. This is Arctic Monkeys at the top of their game, looking down at their competition.

The recording process was started little over a year ago, right after Arctic Monkeys became the only British band to appear at the Olympics opening ceremony. Fittingly, each one of these tunes is stadium ready, even if they carry a personal weight that feels intimate and close. Alex has never sounded more like he’s crooning in your ear. His voice now quivers and serenades. His lyrics are soft and romantic – rarely sarcastic or twisted these days. He’s often the victim but often the predator. On the album opener he’s crawling back to an ex, hoping the ‘feeling flows both ways’, on ‘R U Mine’ he moans, he begs, he fantasises, and he LONGS. On ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When Your High’ he is reduced to sending incoherent texts on wasted nights out.

Make no mistake – Alex has only one thing on his mind. Where as ‘Suck It and See’ was all about love, ‘AM’ is a record about lust. On ‘Knee Socks’ he reminisces about a girl wearing ‘Sky blue lacoste and knee socks’ whilst ‘Arrabella’ has a ‘Barbarella silver swim suit’. Alex smoulders over the details and he inhabits various Lothario roles. On ‘Number One Party Anthem’ he is a predator on the chase, on ‘Snap Out of It’ he is the scorned ex and on ‘I Want It All’ he is the greedy lover. Matt and Nick are his shoulder angels. Or shoulder demons. They whisper into his ear with their heavenly high backing vocals, sometimes repeating Alex’s lines, occasionally offering harmonies or counter melodies, usually recalling early Destinty’s Child or TLC. Sometimes they sound mocking, sometimes reassuring, sometimes comforting – unquestionably the add a unique flavour to the record.

Some other stray observations about the musicians; Jamie is finally starting to come into his own as a guitarist. In the past it’s been difficult to see what exactly he adds, but here his playing is astute and thoughtful. ‘Fireside’ is carried by the sunburnt shuffle of his acoustic guitar, ‘One For the Road’ is leant a minor key shimmer by some of his subtle staccato sounds. Matt Helders has been listening to a lot of Dr Dre. His beats are never innovative or particularly interesting (especially compared to the rich gold-mine of contemporary beat making) but the likes of ‘Arabella’ and ‘R U Mine’ show he’s still capable of doing something TNGHT, SBTRKT or Jamie XX can’t do – go ape-mental on the skins when the tune requires it. Nick’s grooves have always been reliably sturdy and they continue to groove along nicely here. He’s returned to the slightly funky sound of ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ as opposed to his more melodic work on ‘Suck It and See’ and it works perfectly.

The three singles find Alex in an interrogative mood. ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When Your High?’ and ‘R U Mine?’ On the latter Alex demands to know if the girl belongs to him. He buys into this possessive mind-frame for much of the album, often coming across as unlikeable or even slightly misogynistic – presuming the ex that has fallen in love after him must be ‘hypnotized’. On ‘Knee Socks’ he just assumes the girl will be his tonic to the January blues, seemingly never stopping to consider her feelings. ‘You could be MY baby’ he croons. But all his bravado is undone on the album’s finale, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ in which Alex confesses that he’s the plaything, he’s the ‘puppet on the string’, he’s the possession. ‘You call the shots babe, I just wanna be yours.’ It’s the most moving song on an album of seduction and heartbreak.

Every Arctic Monkeys album has felt like a peak but looking back now it’s easy to see each one as a natural stop-off on a journey that has led to ‘AM’. The band’s story arc is compelling and classic, especially when compared to the career progressions of their early rivals. The other day I was reading an old interview from 2006 where they were asked if they were worried about being a flash in the pan compared to Kaiser Chiefs. Such questions prompted Alex to ask ‘In five years time will it be who the fuck’s Arctic Monkeys’. They needn’t have worried; those other bands stalled as the Monkeys flew into fifth gear. 2006 now feels like a lifetime ago, for everyone concerned – Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs, Me. Who knows where they’ll be in five years time. It’ll be hard to top the Olympics, Glastonbury and ‘AM’ but this being Arctic Monkeys, you wouldn’t bet against them trumping the lot.


Babyshambles ‘Sequal to the Prequal’ – Review

7 Sep
“There’s fewer more distressing sights than that of an English man in a baseball cap. We’ll die in the class we were born, that’s a class of our own my love”
Time For Heroes, 2002
“‘We could see monkeys / we could see snakes / we could see penguins / ah, penguins are great!’
Penguin, 2013
Pete Doherty is a more effective drugs deterrent than those gory images on cigarette packets or the Daily Mail’s horror stories about grizzly overdoses. If a friend of yours is considering ‘experimenting’ Just show them what happened to Doherty’s lyrical dexterity and they will never consider shooting up again..
Of course I’ve taken perhaps Doherty’s greatest lyric and contrasted it with his weakest but ‘Penguin’ is fairly representative of a dull, drained, expressionless record that seems totally at odds with the romantic lyricism of Doherty’s work up until now. For the most part on ‘Sequal to the Prequal’ Doherty and his band of merry men sound exactly like the hordes of wannabee libertines imitators that emerged in his wake. Right now Babyshambles have got nothing on The Wombats, Kooks, The Others, Boy Kill Boy or The View. To dust off an old phrase from the 00’s – this is nothing but landfill indie.
You can’t help but feel that if Doherty had been a bit more bothered, it could have actually been pretty good. First single ‘Nothing Comes to Nothing’, easily the most coherent and tuneful thing on here, suggests what a mature Pete Doherty record could sound like. A few weeks back I raved about Franz Ferdinand for still sounding exactly like the Franz Ferdinand we remember. However unlike ‘Right Action’, Babyshambles comeback single, ‘Nothing Comes To Nothing’ works despite sounding nothing like the band we remember. It’s Babyshambles without the shambles. The edge has been rounded off by warm acoustic guitars and friendly chords. Doherty’s vocals are polished and rehearsed. The mix is clean, dry and dynamic. There is no danger but it’s very listenable. If the whole album were like this then it would add up to a perfectly nice, enjoyable record. It’s not the production that’s necessarily the problem here (Although the always predictable Stephen Street does has done a typically bland job) It’s the product quality that lets it down.
There’s just not much to say about it because it doesn’t make me think or feel very much at all. Peter Doherty and his Babyshambles were THE hot topic in the indie world last decade; he was never short of things to say and interesting ways in which to say them. Even on 2007’s relatively sanitized ‘Shotter’s Nation’ he was still able to pull out some remarkable puns, melodies and anecdotes. On ‘Sequal to the Prequal’ he sounds like he’s run out of things to say.
‘Fireman’ is easily the most urgent song on here, but as an album opener it’s flawed. Its raucous pace and cutthroat guitar attack are almost an attempt to cover up the fact that there’s no real melody (and don’t get me started on Pete’s awfully affected west carrabian accent).
Whilst Fireman’s only real fault is that it’s an average song given the responsibility of opening the album, elsewhere things are genuinely farcical. There’s the aforementioned ‘Penguin’ with its trite lyrics and incoherent structure, but that’s a classic compared to the strangely sedate ‘Farmer’s Daughter’, a song that conjures some tragically boring imagery about sunlight on snow. It’s sixth form poetry from a former master of the form. The title track (and my what a dreadful title it is) revisits Pete’s love of music hall, and it’s easily the most playful song on here but that simply serves to shine a light on how weak the rest of the material is. And if music hall isn’t your thing then perhaps you’ll enjoy his take on dub. No? Then NEVER listen to the dire ‘Dr No’.
We can’t put all the blame on poor doped up Pete – his band mates Mick and Drew co-wrote the album and were mainly responsible for putting it together. Where Pete and Carl were once scrapping over who would get more songs on a record, now Pete is quite content to let much lesser mortals write an album around him. ‘Maybelline’ and ‘Picture Me a Hospital’ are fine, perfectly fine, but they sound like they were made by a band content to wallow in mediocrity. Pete is indefensible here. For the first time he’s as useless as the Daily Mail think he is. He sounds like a stranger – bewildered, dumb, fed up. There is some solace in the sheer existence of ‘Sequel’ – after all, fans have had to wait 6 years for a new album. But if this is what we’ve been waiting for then I kind of wish he’d stay hidden away for ever. Don’t do drugs kids.