Archive | November, 2013

The Killers ‘Direct Hits’ – Review

23 Nov

This is the album Killers apologists have been waiting for – it’s definitive proof of their greatness. The band have always endured a lot of unfair criticism, because critics like serious indie bands and they like frivolous pop music but they don’t like serious indie bands that make frivolous pop music. The Killers don’t fit snuggly into any critically approved category. They have always been too alternative for the mainstream and too mainstream for the alternative. Like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kings of Leon and (formerly) Razorlight, The Killers are unfairly snubbed by pretentious rock critics yet thrive off a passionately loyal, enthusiastic and uncool fanbase.

The greatest hits format suits the band – their best albums are structured like this anyway; built around the hits, with the classics at the start and filler at the end. On ‘Direct Hits’, they’ve put the singles in chronological order, and it contains most of them (with the exception of ‘Bones’, ‘Here With Me’ and ‘The World We Live In’ – none are particularly missed). ‘Mr Brightside’ was their first release, and it remains their finest hour; In fact It’s probably the greatest indie-pop karaoke song of the last decade and arguably any other.  It defines the band’s signature style in that it evokes a series of musical and lyrical contradictions that somehow work together. It’s nonsensical but it makes perfect sense. It soars like an anthem yet retains an intimacy and edge. It’s about jealousy and reclusiveness yet projects ambition and unity. ‘Mr Brightside’ is a conflicted epic which finds truth in emptiness and contains more hooks than it knows what to do with. It’s also immensely sing-alongable.

These factors are consistent in all the band’s best singles. I can think of few groups who manage to be as deeply profound whilst being so deeply silly. In fact, the sillier the songs appear, the more revealing they often are. Brandon’s choice of costume is usually a good indicator of this –  If he’s got the feathers or pink tux out you’re in for a thrilling revelation, if he’s gone for the cowboy suit, less so. If it’s leathers and jeans then forget about it. Think of their most memorable lyrics: ‘Are we human or are we dancer?’ ‘I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier’ ‘Somebody told me that she’s got a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in january of last year.’ These are ridiculous (which is why everybody remembers them) but look beyond them and  you’ll see that, at times, Flowers is a remarkably switched on lyricist.

‘Hot Fuss’ in particular strikes a thoughtful note about clueless, self-mythologising millennials searching for meaning in a meaningless environment. Its tales of wasted lust, disorientation and fading youth are offset by hooks that come thick and fast; the production shimmers and sparkles, and very little is left to nuance.  On ‘Somebody Told Me’ our narrator’s in a dirty club of blinding lights, chasing a mirage and leaving empty handed. On ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ he gets behind the false bravado of the U2 riffs and gospel choir to reveal a lost soul – ‘I’m so much older than I can take.’ On ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ he is overcome with nostalgia for the recent past whilst the music echoes The Human League and a forlorn Pet Shop Boys. Brandon doesn’t tell you he’s down, he reveals it with the quietly sad imagery. ‘Someone is driving her round the same streets that I did.’ The title, and sunny hooks, put a tongue in cheek Las Vegas spin on the melancholy. And there you go – ‘Hot Fuss’ is their most succesful album partly because they manage to balance their natural flamboyance and extravagance with an ambition (that would fade over time) to be broodingly indie. This is what separated them from generic competitors like Boy Kill Boy and The Bravery. It’s also what made them more original than detractors gave them credit for.

In 2006 the flamboyance and extravagance took over. After the sleek and sleazy sophistication of ‘Hot Fuss’, ‘Sam’s Town’ was a rootsier and more Americanized take on the same set of influences. ‘Sam’s Town’ has its own set of staunch defenders but I don’t feel it stands the test of time as well as ‘Hot Fuss’. It’s both lyrically and musically overwrought and at this point the band often resembled a beefed up cabaret act doing a juvenile Bruce Springsteen impression. That said, its best songs are collected here and they stand up very well indeed. ‘When You Were Young’ is an established classic, but the other singles are less well-remembered. ‘For Reasons Unknown’ and ‘Read My Mind’ are interesting takes on the break up song, and the latter is a rare moment of subtlety on ‘Direct Hits’; its conflicted emotions of regret, ambition and anger are genuinely moving.

‘Day and Age’ stands up as the most eclectic and consistent start to finish album in the band’s discography. The three singles represented here (‘Human’, ‘Spaceman’ and ‘Dustland Fairytale’)  tackle dance-pop, glam-rock and classic rock respectively. Of the three, ‘Human’ is the one to pay attention to. The Bowie-esque ‘Spaceman’ is nearly as ridiculous, if not nearly as enjoyable, but ‘Dustland Fairytale’ is problematic. It marks the point where The Killers started taking themselves waaaaay to seriously. They would keep working on this overblown Springsteen impression on ‘Battle Born’, successfully on the epic ‘Runaways’ (one of their finest achievements) but less so on the yawning ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ and the average ‘The Way It Was’. ‘Battle Born’ wasn’t a bad album but it did suggest that when The Killers ignore their glam impulses and their indie tendencies, They are nothing more than a distinctly average arena rock band.

Luckily, the new material here is modestly promising. ‘Shot In the Dark’ and ‘Just Another Girl’ combine the dramatic narratives and grandiose arrangements of ‘Battle Born’ with the sleeker synth pop sound of ‘Hot Fuss’; they are interesting enough to suggest that this could be interesting territory to explore in more detail. Neither of these songs are essential (‘Shot In the Night’ falls short with a weak hook and production that brown noses M83 far too much) but they are hints that ‘Direct Hits’ won’t be the band’s final statement. On these two songs at least, The Killers still sound and look like a young band. They have a relevance most bands approaching their second decade simply do not have. ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’ could have been released ten years ago, but they equally could have been released yesterday. They sound that fresh. In a sense that makes ‘Direct Hits’ a rather redundant record – these songs are still very much in the public consciousness and The Killers are more popular and appreciated now than they’ve ever been (in the UK at least). If ‘Direct Hits’ is meant to sum up a band’s achievements then this works well, if it’s meant to remind their audience that The Killers still exist then it isn’t needed in the first place.  They’re still beloved – just go down to your local karaoke bar or propoganda club night if you want evidence.

9/10

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Janelle Monae ‘The Electric Lady’ – Review

13 Nov

‘The Electric Lady’ is so daunting that I nearly didn’t bother listening to it. It’s part four and five in a seven part ‘suite’, and tells the story of… well I’m still not really sure about that. It describes some kind of dystopian future where robots have superpowers. It’s frankly a bit ridiculous, but that ridiculousness is its saving grace. Monae never takes the story that seriously, and her ambiguous, inclusive lyrics invite interpretations that don’t necessarily rely on the concept. The spoken-word interludes provide humorous asides rather than chunks of narrative, so the story-line never really drags. ‘The Electric Lady’ is grandiose but it isn’t the grand failure it could so easily have been.

Monae is a music enthusiast, and she seems determined to provide her take on every genre ever created. On ‘Give em What they Love’ she out-shreeks Prince (literally – he is one of many guests on the record). On ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ she transforms into Beyonce. She explores hipster R&B with the oh too cool Miguel on ‘Primetime’ and less predictably post-WW2 pop on the sprightly ‘Dance Apocolyptic.’ Then there’s the John Barry inspired ‘Look Into My Eyes’ on which she gives her best vocal performance – essentially as a Shirley Basset impersonator.

This is all very impressive, and Monae proves herself to be a confident young auteur, but it leaves me feeling a little cold. There’s a distinct lack of real personality here; Monae tries on every outfit in the store, but she leaves without making a purchase. The lack of personality is matched by the lack of emotion. Her ambition is admirable but it’s useless if you never feel emotionally connected to the characters or stories. It doesn’t help that Monae’s voice, that instrument on which r&b so heavily relies, is not particularly striking. It’s tuneful and versatile, but it lacks range and depth. Monae is a fine interpreter but she never owns the melodies.

It’s best to view ‘The Electric Lady’ as some kind of exhibit on the history of pop music in miniature. Janelle Monae is your very knowledgeable tour guide. With her you will explore pop, soul, r&b and all the spaces in between. But like many exhibits, you arrive with good intentions and an open mind, and leave feeling exhausted, like it was all a little much to take in. You can admire the prog-rock concept, the Jazzy front cover, the psychedelic tinges and the various underground-soul signifiers, but they dont necessarily add up to a great record. Monae makes you want to explore P-Funk, she makes you want to listen to more Prince, but she doesn’t really make you want to listen to more Janelle Monae. If she really wants to connect on the same level as her idols, she needs to write from the heart and not the head. Most crucially, she needs to find a voice all of her own.

7/10

Arcade Fire ‘Reflektor’ – Review

4 Nov

Arcade Fire have always been compelled to write about big subjects. They called their debut album ‘Funeral’, their second one ‘Neon Bible’ and their third ‘The Suburbs.’ Big subjects: Death, religion and modernisation. This is compelling because so few acts seem willing or able to explore this territory. However, it’s given the group an unfair reputation as reserved, dull, intellectual types. You get the idea that on their last record they started to believe this image of themselves. That made ‘The Suburbs’ quite tedious and tiresome, particularly as it hovered in the public consciousness much longer than ‘Funeral’ or ‘Neon Bible.’ It won them a Grammy for album of the year (this award is a huge deal in the states, despite having a hilariously erratic and badly misjudged list of winners) as well as a Brit. It seemed like the more thought-provoking and inspired their lyrics became, the more chugging and weary the music became (a theory that follows on their previous two albums to a much lesser extent). In certain respects ‘The Suburbs’ was a masterpiece, but few would deny that it was a fairly boring success.

It’s therefore easy to forget that when they burst on to the scene (and they really did burst) Arcade Fire were renown for their chaotic, energetic live shows. I used to watch and re-watch their top of the pops performance with absolute glee. I remember one of the group, blindfolded, walking into the audience banging his drum. In those pre-youtube days I’d never seen anything that spontaneous and cool on a mainstream music show. But by the time I actually got to see them live, a few years later, in a crowd, with thousands of other people, from quite a distance, they looked bored and I was bored. So that’s how I came to think of the band. Arcade Fire – a suited up, straight-faced, dull indie rock band. I’d forgotten that listening to them could warrant a physical reaction as much as an intellectual one. I’d forgotten just how urgent ‘Funeral’ was and just how necessary they are capable of being. On ‘Reflektor’ they remind me, in spirit, of the old Arcade Fire.

Watching them on their NBC special recently, I was reminded of that top of the pops performance. Here they were again, doing the unexpected; infiltrating a mainstream TV show, playing by nobody’s rules – not even each others. They were pulling shapes, posing, poking fun at themselves, making serious music but presenting it in a vivid and colourful way. ‘Reflektor’ is their most highly anticipated album to date and yet it feels like the one least burdened with expectations – that is to say, their expectations. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem produced the album (his distinctive hands prints are all over the title track and ‘Afterlife’ in particular) and they couldn’t have chosen anyone better. Murphey is the master of making Intelligent music that also sounds great on the dancefloor. Here he is basically doing a Brian Eno cira ‘Achtung Baby’ or more recently ‘Mylo Xyloto’ – he is taking a tired ROCK band and, if not quite deconstructing them, then certainly loosening them up.

It’s to Murphey’s credit that despite his successful tinkering, the band never sound like anyone other than Arcade Fire. Which is to partially say they’re still fond of the big subjects. But it’s not just that; the melodies are surprisingly familiar, the song structures seem similar to those found on ‘Funeral’ and the musicians gel together perfectly. This album confirms that Arcade Fire have built their songs on a sturdy and recognisable template. The Beatles never sounded like anyone other than The Beatles, no matter what genres they tackled. Likewise it would seem that Arcade Fire have found a uniuqe and untouchable voice of their own – one that will hold the strain of experimentation.

‘Reflektor’ is essentially about loss. Modern loss. What we’ve lost as a society as well as individuals. ‘We fell in love when I was 19 and I was staring at a screen’ Win sings on the title track, a song about disconnects, red herrings and dead ends. The album’s also about greater loss. Death. It loosely retells the Orpheus myth, which of course deals with false perceptions. So it is here. Truths are half-truths; what seems permanent isn’t necessarily, what is self-evident isn’t really evident at all, and what is hidden is never hidden. ‘Reflektor’ is deep and deeply conflicted. Doubts abound; ‘we’re so connected but are we even friends?’ /  ‘our love is plastic’ / ‘no shit, we’re confused’ / ‘what if the cameras really do take your soul?’ In this paranoid world nothing is as it seems. Even the music feels like smoke and mirrors. Just how seriously are we meant to take the calypso pop of ‘Here comes the Night Time’ or the barbed rhetoric of ‘Normal Person?’ At points it’s as if the band are having a glorious meltdown.

‘Do you like rock n roll?’ Win whispers at the start of one song, ‘because I’m not sure that I do.’ This is another red herring, because despite the dance leanings, ‘Reflektor’ falls victim to the very worst of rock’s excesses. It’s a double album, and it therefore follows that it’s too long, too indulgent and stuffed with filler. The dreary ‘Porno’ and the hideously repetitive ‘Supersymmetry’ stand out as two songs that should have been axed, while most of these tracks would benefit from having their running times shaved. Predictably perhaps, disc one is the real highlight with barely a flaw on show. It somehow manages to be both more ambitious and eclectic than the second disc and is executed much more efficiently. The second disc on the other hand, whilst being shorter and more like traditional Arcade Fire, seems to drag unnecessarily. It’s something the producer should have sorted, but then LCD Soundystem were not immune to long songs either. Despite these shortcomings ‘Reflektor’ remains an admirable and ambitious work.

So Arcade Fire aren’t sure if they like rock n roll anymore, and they present themselves as a band who are happy to flirt with strangeness and indulge in excess and extravigance. Yet ‘Reflektor’ reveals a band who are very much a rock band, whether they like it or not – but one a lot more open and expressive than they used to be. They write songs about being confused in the modern world, about what they have lost and what they fear losing. And yet ‘Reflektor’ reveals a band with a distinctive personality, a band who have lost nothing over the years and gained so much. In the Orpheus myth on which ‘Reflektor’ is based, Orpheus was capable of charming everyone with his unique sounds; there in a nutshell we have Arcade Fire, a band back to their thrilling best.

8/10