Archive | October, 2013

Paul McCartney ‘New’ – Review

30 Oct

It can’t be easy being Paul McCartney – A Paul McCartney who still operates as a musician in 2013. Can’t be easy when the whole world sees you as a museum piece. When even your biggest fans wouldn’t argue with the fact that your best work is behind you. Every artist in their seventh decade has a certain amount of baggage, without exception, but when that baggage is The Beatles, well that makes life pretty difficult. You just can’t approach this album with an open mind. That voice has so much history and weight. These lyrics are so referential. Every melody or guitar solo seems to recall one of your favourite songs. The title alone seems tongue in cheek or helplessly misguided. It’s also eminently perplexing. Here is an artist who created so much that was new, and just did it, without calling it out. A guy who constantly reminded people that he was just a normal guy with a lot of luck. Here he is now, with something that just can’t be all that new, that he has named ‘new’ and clearly wants to be new. In reality it just has you looking to his past.

The wall of guitars on the Paul Epworth produced ‘Save Us’ is pure ‘Band on the Run.’ The melody on ‘New’ lives on Penny Lane. ‘Early Days’ mines similar territory to ‘In My Life.’ These are all good songs (good not great) but it’s difficult to judge them with any objectivity. No surprise, I’m a massive fan of that voice. It means the world to me. I’d find it very difficult to dislike anything Paul McCartney sings. Likewise, I’m a fan of his songwriting, and he’s hardly going to drop the ball in that department. Are you going to criticise Paul McCartney? The Beatle? Who do you think you are? What exactly are you after?

It’s best judged in the context of Macca’s other 21st century material – that’s the only way to fairly critique it. I was a fan of his 2005 album ‘Chaos and Creation in the Backyard’ which did a much better job of re-imagining old material (‘Fine Line’ is virtually the same as ‘New’ but it’s much better). Likewise ‘Memory Almost Full’ did a much more intelligent job of reappraising the past, and commenting on nostalgia (but maybe the tunes weren’t quite as catchy). His side-projects have also been worth a listen; ‘Electronic Arguments’ is his only innovative post 80’s work, and I liked the song he did with Dave Grohl last year.

But ‘New’ is far superior to the soppy and embarrassingly titled ‘Kisses on the Bottom’, an album that was essentially Paul singing the great American songbook. And right there we have an alternative history we should be grateful to have avoided. Paul could have gone down that Rod Stewart route of collecting his pension and banging out some oldies but goodies. He could have been like The Rolling Stones and release a poor knock off every decade and tour it into oblivion. Or he could have done a Cash or Dylan, and strip back the excess and return to his roots – which never would have worked. McCartney’s roots were in rock n roll. Revisit that first Beatles album and you’ll be overcome by the energy, enthusiasm and ambition. In that first half decade in the buissiness Paul established himself as someone who pushed boundaries, who worked productively and who enjoyed challenges. ‘New’ is very much in that spirit, and that is truly pleasing. Even when that ambitious streak leads to dire songs like ‘Appreciate’ and ‘Everybody Out There’ you’re still left admiring the man and his work ethic.

There’s one more fate that we could have had to contend with. Paul McCartney could have ended up in an early grave like his old buddy and songwriting partner, John Lennon. In an interview this week he admitted that he still talks to John from time to time, still seeks his advice. It’s sad that we live in a world with only two surviving Beatles, and Paul won’t be here forever. I know it sounds morbid, maybe even  a bit patronising, but we should enjoy records like ‘New’ while we can, and appreciate the fact that he’s still making music, and pushing his own boundaries. As he sings on ‘Early Days’ – ‘May sweet memories of friends from the past always come to you, when you look for them / And your inspiration, long may it last / May it come to you, time and time again.’

6/10

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Haim ‘Days are Gone’ – Review

23 Oct

In January, Haim graced the cover of NME’s annual new music issue. Before them, the accolade went to Spector (2012), The Vaccines (2011) and The Drums (2010). There is one obvious difference between Haim and their predecessors (their gender) but also one less obvious and equally important distinction – their relationship with the past. The Drums, Vaccines and Spector were good looking, well dressed young men playing traditional indie rock that was very reminiscent of traditional indie rock made by other good looking, well-dressed young men. In a police line-up, a stranger may find it hard to spot the difference between The Drums and Field Mice, The Vaccines and The Strokes, Spector and The Killers. You could pinpoint exactly where their influences lay.

Haim also look to the past for inspiration but they don’t wallow in one particular sound or style. Their influences come from a much wider pool. Yes, ‘Days are Gone’ is familiar, but it’s rarely TOO familiar, and never nostalgic. In this sense it’s one of the most forward thinking ‘rock’ albums in recent memory. The three sisters are concerned with what the past can teach them about music (and men), but they’re never overcome or restricted by it.

‘Days are Gone’ looks to the past with wide arms and an open mind. Rhythms sparkle like TOTO. There’s synthetic wonder that recalls ‘Tango in the Night’ era Fleetwood Mac. The guitars chime like Tom Petty. Haim embrace the old, fuzzy, dad rock sound without irony. And while these influences are obvious, the band are just as likely to talk about Drake or AS$P Rocky in interviews. They borrow things from all genres, except you get the genuine impression that they don’t see them as genres, and they don’t see boundaries.

The record was produced by Ariel Rechtshaid and James Ford, who produced the new Vampire Weekend and Arctic Monkeys albums respectively. There are two more recent albums that had no sense of genre restriction. Like Arctic Monkeys, Haim aren’t afraid to match a 90’s R&B melody with Dr Dre Beats and Black Sabbath guitars. So ‘Falling’ probably will remind MOJO readers of Fleetwood Mac, but it’s just as likely to remind younger listeners of Beyonce. Haim have an enthusiasm and excitement that breaks through barriers and expectations. Because of this, ‘Days are Gone’ not only sounds interesting and adventurous, it also sounds like an all-embracing, massive hit.

The band exude youthful confidence and control – and not only in the way they mix and match sounds and styles. On ‘The Wire’ they are the ones breaking hearts, on ‘Honey and I’ they sing ‘I’m not afraid no more’, on ‘Don’t Save Me’ and ‘Days are Gone’ they repeat ‘I want it all’ – they aint joking.  On the album closer Danielle is confronted with the past once again when she revisits an old haunt; ‘memories came rushing back’ she declares. On a traditional song it’s at this point you’d expect her to fall back into the arms of an old love or at the very least Indulge in her melancholy. Instead Danielle proclaims ‘I’m leaving it all behind’, before repeating ‘I’ll keep running if you call my name’ like a mantra. Here once again, Haim side-step nostalgia and avoid old clichés. They sort of make you rethink what a guitar group can be in 2013.

‘Days are Gone’ is not a PERFECT album; the tempo slows and the mood darkens in the final third, and as a result the album slithers towards a narrowly avoided anti-climax. But for the most part this is a brilliantly executed record that combines classic song-writing with innovative production. Had this been released half a decade ago you get the impression it would have been a very boring, traditional indie rock record. Julian Casablancas recognised as much when he suggested the band ditch their old repertoire and start again from scratch (which they did). But in a world that has now embraced Spotify and Youtube, Haim opened the door to new ideas and the results are often stunning.

‘Days are Gone’ isn’t necessarily the first album to do this (Although it may be the most enjoyable); the year’s best albums by so called ‘rock bands’ have all been notable for the enthusiasm in which they’ve embraced other genres; Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys, The 1975, Smith Westerns. Equally notable is how traditionally ‘R&B’ or ‘Pop’ acts have embraced alternative, even indie, signifiers and sounds; AlunaGeorge, Disclosure, The Weeknd and Icona Pop for example. But no band sound as excited by the possibility of cross-pollination as the positively giddy Haim. This is the most inclusive, enthusiastic album released all year and I can’t help but think you’ll love it.

8.5/10

 

The Strypes ‘Snapshot’ – Review

21 Oct

The Strypes have been making a name for themselves recently, and their fearsome reputation is entirely down to their live shows. They’re young men who dress sharply and play established classics with energy and authenticity. At times they have resembled little more (or should that be nothing less?) than a very good tribute act (It really isn’t easy to do what they do so well). Capturing that live enthusiasm on record was always going to be difficult and The Strypes have fallen into a typical trap. The songs may well have been recorded live but like many modern recordings they sound too perfect, too polished and too airtight. Where are the imperfections? Where is the grime and reverb that gave colour to the original recordings?

‘Snapshot’ was produced by the man who is arguably the greatest English producer of all time, Chris Thomas, but he was a bizarre choice. Thomas is brilliant at producing polished pop rock bands (He’s worked with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols and most recently Mystery Jets) which is exactly what The Strypes aren’t. Their raw, shambolic sound needs to be captured in a frenzied live environment – not in a science lab.

And yet, and yet… The covers are all note perfect, and the new songs are difficult to distinguish from the old songs. This suggests a promising future if the band ever decide to do an entire album of fresh material. ‘Blue Collar Jane’ offers bluesy riffs and a memorable melody whilst ‘What a Shame’ sees singer Pete O’Hanlon taking on Alex Turner (circa 2005) in the clever-dick game. His snarky, observational cultural commentary may be over-cooked but it’s appropriately ambitious/cocky stuff coming from the lips of a 16-year-old.

None of the covers can hold a light to the originals (although I might just prefer their energetic and crude take on ‘Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover’), or offer alternative insights, which makes ‘Snapshot’ an enjoyable, but rather redundant, album. As a band however, The Strypes seem like genuine contenders and it would be foolish to condemn them so early in their career. Enjoyable but not yet essential.

5/10

Albert Hammond Jr – ‘AHJ’ Review

13 Oct

When Albert Hammond Jr reveals that ‘lately I just haven’t been myself’ on ‘AHJ’s closing track ‘Cooker Ship, he may be referring to his role in The Strokes’ most recent album, ‘Comedown Machine.’ That record found a great band in the grip of a distressing identity crisis. I suspect however that he’s referring to his tabloid friendly drugs meltdown (“I used to shoot ket and heroin for breakfast” blah blah blah). The subject of redemption drives Albert on this compact e.p, which serves to draw a line under both the lacklustre ‘Comedown Machine and his addiction. It does so with some success.

After a turbulent few years, both professionally and personally, ‘AHJ’ is the sound of a man going back to his roots. You can almost hear him turning back the clock at points here. These four songs bridge the gap between Albert’s early work with The Strokes, and the more upbeat, Beatle-esque material on his two solo albums. Opener ‘St. Justice’ sees Albert not only doing a fine impression of old-school Albert Hammond Jr, but also an equally fine impression of Nick Valensi and Nikolai Fraiture. Those metallic, dueling guitars intertwine with a melodic bass to create a pleasingly familiar sound. It’s a rather casual introduction to Albert’s first solo work in half a decade, but it does succeed in wiping the slate clean after the synth-pop experiments of ‘Comedown Machine.’

Over fifteen minutes or so Albert plays it safe in the best possible sense. So accurate is the ‘Strokes sound’ on ‘Rude Customer’, that the first time I heard it (after switching on my radio during the guitar solo) I genuinely wondered if it was a long-lost demo by the band. I had no idea it was a new Albert Hammond Jr number till I heard his voice. Whilst Albert proves he still knows how to get his guitar chiming just right, the close proximity in which Albert stays to his band’s sound also helps to highlight the obvious and unavoidable gulf in quality. Bluntly put, nothing on ‘AHJ’ holds a candle to the material on ‘Is This It’ or ‘Room On Fire’. Albert is a good songwriter but he isn’t yet a great songwriter. And while he can certainly hold a tune, he isn’t what you would describe as a particularly distinctive vocalist. In other words, Albert is more at home as the cool guitarist with mystique than the frontman.

But The Strokes have hardly been on top form recently, and with that in mind you have to consider ‘AHJ’ a victory – it’s certainly a more likeable effort than ‘Comedown Machine.’ And lets not forget that Albert has ventured out alone before. His 2006 debut ‘Yours To Keep’ is (all things considered) the best Strokes-related release this side of 2003. ‘AHJ’ suggests that given the room to stretch his legs out a bit more, Albert would have another fine full-length album in him.

Back to the final song on the e.p; when Albert sings ‘control is hard to find’, he could once again be singing about his drug addiction or his relationship with the band. Certainly it seems like the issue of control is one thing seriously holding the group back. ‘Angles’ and ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded like a group of individual talents failing to come together in a meaningful way, struggling to compromise and adapt. If Julian and co are intent on arguing and making second-rate records, Albert may well be advised to go it alone on a  more permanent basis. Grab control for himself. ‘AHJ’ shows that he’s got it in him.

7/10

Drake ‘Nothing Was the Same’ – Review

9 Oct

‘Tuscan Leather’ is the most ecstatic song Drake has ever recorded – 6 minutes of delirious beat and samples that are twisted to make it sound like a demented Kanye West production from a decade ago. And it’s dripping with the most unconvincing bravado you can imagine. ‘Comin off the last record, I’m getting 20 million off the record, just off these records, nigga that’s a record.’ As an opening gambit it’s unexpected – Since when has anyone listened to Drake to hear cheap puns and cheaper vanity? ‘I could go an hour on this beat’ – You get the feeling he tried. Luckily about half way through the song things start to unravel in the best possible sense. ‘Not even talking to Nicki, communication is breaking, I dropped the ball on some personal shit, I need to embrace it. I’m honest, I make mistakes, and I’ll be the second to admit it.’ This is more like the Drake we’ve come to expect; funny, self-deprecating, revealing and unflinchingly honest. Although he gets off to a slightly unconvincing start, by the end of ‘Tuscan Leather’, the album’s opening track, he’s completely won you over. It alerts you to the notion that this is his most conflicted album yet.

‘Nothing Was the Same’ is more complicated than ‘Take Care’, although the links with that record are clear. Nothing IS the same exactly, but it’s certainly not a complete reinvention. Drake still places sincerity alongside insincerity and smack-talk alongside heart-talk. He’s not wholly convincing in either department for that reason – he’s too sweet-natured to give good smack talk and he’s too vain and antagonistic to give good heart talk. He’s a rapper with a poet’s heart or a poet with a rapper’s swag. The beauty is that he doesn’t sound at home anywhere. ‘Somewhere between psychotic and iconic – somewhere between I want it and I got it – somewhere between a mistress and commitment’ as he puts it. He’s a unique conundrum in the hip hop community. Utterly relatable – a man who expresses ancient thoughts on love and loss in 21st century Tweet sized sound bites. The writer he reminds me most of is Alex Turner, another dude who writes in memorable, brief fragments rather than extended narratives. Like Turner, Drake is also fond of details; these tunes are dripping with proper nouns, to the point where we can name a dozen of the women who have come in and out of Drake’s life. ‘The one I needed was Courtney from Hooters on Peaches, I’ve always been feeling like she was the piece to complete me. Now she’s engaged to be married.’ Drake wallows in regret all over the record, but we only get glimpses like this here and there. It’s clear that all the bravado is there to compensate for his honesty. Unsurprisingly his swag is merely a disguise for a wounded soul.

Musically the album’s a lot less complicated, although it’s a more difficult listen that the more memorable ‘Take Care’. Drake’s never really been about ear worms – his melodies are often inane and tuneless, his hooks often laughably derivative (see ‘Started From the Bottom’) but instead the music washes over you and creates atmosphere like the best mood records do. Drake is equally fond of old collaborators and new collaborators; Noah Shebib is still there providing the production, and still doing an excellent job of combining post ‘808s and Heartbreaks’ emo with a more muscular beat palate. The first half of the album is a lot tougher and more driven than 90% of ‘Take Care’. It’s the kind of material I expected a superstar in Drake’s league to make before I actually heard his music. As on ‘Take Care’ Drizzy also recruits young British talent to add some innovation. Beat maker in demand Hudson Mohawke adds a ‘Bad’ era Michael Jackson flavour to ‘Contact’ whilst Sampha contributes the most soul stirring moment on the album with his impassioned vocals on ‘Too Much’.

Despite being a fairly progressive hip hop album in many ways, ‘Nothing was the Same’ still feels unfortunately regressive when it comes to terminology, proving some things will never change. Women are still ‘bitches’ or ‘pussy’, men are still ‘niggas’ and the F word is thrown around in a lazy manner designed to fill syllables. For someone with such a command of language Drake is still prone to littering his songs with these boring, offensive clichés. For a man who wears his sensitivity as a medal around his neck along with his other chains, Drake seems to be as insensitive as most other contemporary rappers when it comes to labeling. The album falls into the other predictable hip hop trap of being too long – although in fairness it isn’t anywhere near as indulgent as ‘Take Care’ or many other big hip-hop releases of the last decade.

‘I wanna take it deeper than money, pussy, vacation, and influence a generation lacking in patience. I’ve been dealing with my dad, speaking of lack of patience…’ In this statement we are led back to that central contradiction at the heart of Drake’s records. This is a line brimming with ambition; Drake wants to ‘influence a generation’, he wants to ‘connect’, he still wants ‘money, pussy, vacation’ but he also wants to talk about his dad. Here we see in an instant just how hungry Drake is, not to mention how conflicted he is. This is far from a perfect album but then Drake is far from a perfect human being – he’s often hilariously un-self aware, hypocritical, false and vain. But occasionally he’s revolatory. And it’s still a thrill to hear him slur ‘muthafuckers never loved me.’ He’s got that dirty allure. That’s the beautiful contradiction. Drake’s been exploring this anxiety for a while now and you get the feeling he’ll never truly feel at home anywhere – which suits me just fine.

8.5/10

Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’ – Review

5 Oct

When I heard that Justin Timberlake was releasing ‘The 20/20 Experience Part 2’ I felt a little cheated. I had ‘Part 1’ all figured out, with a clear narrative; it was an ambitious yet concise comeback album that preached the virtues of a stable and sensual relationship. It was a sophisticated, contemporary pop album that earned good will and high praise from all corners. It was rich in High-soul and extended metaphors. It was sharp and well-rounded, not in need of explanation or further elaboration. My initial response to ‘Part 2’ was – this is simply redundant.

There is the initial problem of how to categorise the album. Should we consider it a direct continuation of Part 1? Is it a companion piece? Should we join them together as a double album? Actually none of these approaches seem valid – this is a completely different album to Part 1, much more scatterbrained, instinctive, conflicted and dramatic. In tone and style it’s much closer to Justin’s innovative 2006 record ‘Future Sex / Love Sounds.’ Where Part 1 was romantic, funny and light on its feet, Part 2 is sexual, moody and heavy. On ‘True Blood’ he takes on the role of a lustful Vampire, on ‘Caberet’ he is a sleazy Lothario, on ‘TKO’ he is a scorned lover. Where ‘Part 1’ was purposefully cohesive and content, ‘Part 2’ is purposefully incohesive and discontent. Where Timbaland showed admirable stylistic restraint on Part 1, here he overstuffs many of the tracks with the sounds and ticks that have become a trademark.

Unfortunately, as a result, some of these songs feel bloated when compared to the smooth and slim-line ‘Mirrors’ or ‘Suit and Tie’. It doesn’t help that the already overwrought sonic hooks of ‘True Blood’ and ‘TKO’ are stretched out to the 10 minute mark. All but a couple of these songs have excessive running times. As a single entity the record is far too long but when taken as the second half of a single project it becomes an impossible listen. But despite the obvious flaws these songs exude an energy and personality that it could be argued were missing from songs on ‘Part 1’. After that album he was compared to legends like Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, here the artist he sounds most like is Justin Timberlake.

When JT diverges from the ‘Future Sex / Love Sounds’ path of the first four songs, the album becomes a much less distinctive but far more listenable ‘experience’. Throughout the second half he experiments in genres with impressive success. ‘Take Back the Night’ has a curiously forgettable hook but an absolute first class arrangement that recalls ‘Off the Wall’ in the very best sense. ‘You Got It On’ is a beautiful soul ballad that solidify’s JT’s reputation as 2013’s most endearing romantic. He also successfully experiments with blues rock on ‘Only When I Walk Away’ and Tween pop balladry on ‘Not a Bad Thing’. At times though the songwriting is lacklustre, suggesting some of these songs should have been left on the cutting room floor. Album opener ‘Give Me What I Don’t Know I Want’ is laboured and unconvincing as a come-on. ‘Caberet’ and ‘Drink You Away’ are pure throwaway whilst ‘Murder’ is notable only for containing 2013’s worst Jay Z verse yet – quite a feat when you consider some of the tosh he’s put out this year.

Overall this is undoubtedly a flawed record, and yet it’s still hard not to admire Justin and Timbaland. Taken as a whole The 20/20 Experience may just be the most ambitious and single-minded album to be taken seriously as a commercial entity, And that’s just the point; this shouldn’t be considered as an album – it’s an experience. On the album opener JT asks for ‘something I don’t know I want’. It’s an instruction on how to enjoy the album – six months ago you didn’t know you wanted Part 2 of the ’20/20 Experience’ but you’ll be glad it’s here. It reveals yet more layers and complexities in the music of this century’s most interesting and succesfull Male pop star.

7.5/10

Aside

Kings of Leon ‘Mechanical Bull’ – Review

2 Oct

‘Wait for me, it’s all better now’ is the hook to one of Kings of Leon’s comeback singles. Here Caleb could be reaching out to his disgruntled fans, many of whom were left bewildered after a series of Spinal Tap approved disasters played out on the band’s 2011 tour. Mocking fans on stage at Reading Festival is never a good idea, neither is refusing to play your biggest hit, falling down drunk on stage, complaining about being attacked by pigeons and cancelling the final leg of your tour. Ok, why shouldn’t arguably the biggest band on the planet (two of whom are still in their 20’s) indulge in some rock star behaviour – especially as they’d had a virtually untainted run of good fortune until that point. Anyway, fans will forgive all that stuff if the music stays pure. Damningly for the band, at that point they were supporting ‘Come Around Sundown,’ a record that was dead on delivery. On ‘Wait For Me’ they seem to suggest that a corner has been turned.

Elsewhere on ‘Mechanical Bull’ Caleb sings ‘It’s the Comeback story of a lifetime,’ with more conviction than you’d imagine. This isn’t the comeback story of a lifetime, but it certainly isn’t another comedown (excuse the pun). It is a surprisingly consistent album that sounds rejuvenating for the band. It’s great to hear a group who recognise their strengths and play to them (take note MGMT and The Strokes). ‘Come Around Sundown’ was a dreary attempt at evolution, ‘Mechanical Bull’ is the sound of a band who have come to terms with exactly who they are and what they do: Kings of Leon are three brothers (and a cousin) who make good ol’ fashioned rock n roll. ‘Supersoaker’ opens the record with a fuzzy fanfare that blows the dust away. ‘Rock City’ is about as backward a song as your likely to hear in 2013; from the clichéd imagery (‘in the desert looking for drugs’) to the cringe inducing gender politics ‘I break down like a woman.’ Somehow they pull it off. ‘Don’t Matter’ is a chugging hard rock number that seems to draw attention to the band’s blase attitude to naysayers. It recalls every Stooges rip off you’ve ever heard. It’s in this backwater, second-hand rock n roll thrift store that KOL feel most at home.

Jared made some noises about ‘Mechanical Bull’ sounding like a culmination of their previous five albums, and In a way it does. For the opening trio KOL genuinely sound more alive than on any three song stretch since ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’. The arrangements are more polite, which suggests that the band have forgotten how to completely let loose and frolic, but the songs still rock harder than anything they’ve released in half a decade. Elsewhere they revisit the dark atmospherics of ‘Because of the Times’ (on ‘Coming Back Again’) the U2 balladry of ‘Only by the Night’ (on ‘Comeback Story’) and even the overblown/undercooked gospel rock of ‘Come Around Sundown’ (on ‘Family Tree’). As such it’s a Kings of Leon album I can imagine every fan enjoying, but equally I can’t see it becoming anyone’s favourite. I mean, ‘Wait For Me’ is great but it can’t emote like ‘Use Somebody’. ‘Temple’ is sexy, but it ain’t ‘Charmer’. Which also means that as much as fans will like it, critics are just as likely to loathe it. Pleasingly ‘Mechanical Bull’ doesn’t fight against that, it doesn’t grope in the dark for innovation or inspiration. It’s comfortable, familiar and warm – three very uncool adjectives that nonetheless feel wanted in 2013. It’s been a long wait for fans but ‘Mechanical Bull’ is worth it.

7/10