Archive | February, 2014

Bombay Bicycle Club ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ – Review

23 Feb

Bombay Bicycle Club have always been safely adventurous – like children allowed to play outside, with their parents watching through the kitchen window. They’ve flirted with weirdness whilst remaining, essentially, four middle class white boys with guitars playing conservative indie-rock for a major label. They’re kinda popular, but then they release their albums at quiet times of the year. They play high-ish up the festival bill, but they’re far from headline material. You get the impression they like strange, experimental music but they love pop. They push out in both directions here, which is great. ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ is simultaneously their safest and most ambitious album to date. On one hand it’s melodic and anthemic, on the other it’s glitchy and restless. It wants to be odd and cool but it also longs to be loved by everyone. It’s endearingly try-hard.

First single Carry Me’ wants to be played alongside Calvin Harris and at the same time be cooler than Calvin Harris. Frankly, it’s probably the least danceable attempt at dance music I’ve ever heard. It’s jittery and hardlined and lacks even an attempt at groove. That said, it has been played alongside Calvin Harris, and I know a fair few teenagers who fell in love with it, so I guess it can be considered a kind of success. Second single ‘Luna’ feels much more comfortable though. It extenuates the band’s naturally melodic tendencies, asking “just how sugary can we make this verse, and then how much more sugary can we make the chorus?” Just in case you don’t fall in love with the song’s natural ingredients, the band have sprinkled all kinds of sweet excess over the production. At any one moment there is more going on than most bands can cram into an entire album. Over the top? Desperate, even? Possibly, but that just makes them even more likeable.

‘Feel’ is as good a “western-pop” take on “world music” as anything I’ve heard since ‘Vampire Weekend’. The Bollywood sample at the start of the song (for want of a more specific description) quickly converts into a twisted synthetic take on the same instrumentation, which makes it sound like something from the Aladdin Mega Drive game soundtrack. The now standered backing vocals by Lucy Rosse just complete the pretty picture. ‘Feel’ and ‘Luna’ are not the only songs stuffed with ideas – the whole album is, to a flaw. Jack’s voice is naturally quiet and subtle, and it gets lost in the chaos somewhat. That’s a shame because it’s easily their best instrument. Maybe that’s why I prefer the quiet and reflective numbers on here – the intro to ‘Whenever, Wherever’ (sadly not a Shakira cover), ‘Eyes off You’ and the title track. Their acoustic 2010 album ‘Flaws’ was great for a reason, and it remains their best effort.

Despite all the good work the band have done here, BBC are still searching for their killer song; still looking for their Mr Brightside, Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor or Ruby. Even after listening to the album for a couple of weeks I probably coudn’t hum you very much. It’s all very good without ever being great. Four albums in and BBC still haven’t found a song that would make newcomers, and fellow Pop-rock careerists, The 1975 or Haim loose a wink of sleep. To call the album admirable, consistent and likeable would be like telling a job candidate that they are a really nice guy, but probably not right for this job. And dammit they tried so hard! It’s a cruel business this, and you get the impression Bombay Bicycle Club aren’t going to give up until they’ve made their masterpiece.

7.5/10

Review Round-up

22 Feb

Dum Dum Girls – ‘Too True’

People are much more forgiving of debuts. Aesthetically speaking, there isn’t much separating Dum Dum Girls debut ‘I Will Be’ and their third record ‘Too True’. This new one is a lot less lo-fi and has a much more distinctly 80’s vibe, but in almost every sense they are pretty similar albums. At the time of the debut people liked Dum Dum Girls because they were part of a hip new scene, they were charmingly melodic and they had some catchy songs. Nothing earth shattering, but exciting nonetheless. Two albums on and they can’t benefit from the lusty sense of newness. People have moved on to the next big thing and Dum Dum Girls feel very much a relic of 2008 – as relevent as Best Coast, Washed Out or any other band from that glo-fi scene. It’s not that ‘Too True is much worse than ‘I Will Be’ (although it doesn’t hold a candle to the group’s second record, the brilliant ‘In Dreams’) it’s just that it sounds tired and repetitive in comparison. We’ve reached the make or break stage and (a bit like Sleigh Bells and Cults last year) Dum Dum Girls have disappointed. ‘Too True’ has forgettable songs with predictable structures, predictable lyrics and predictable melodies. ‘Rimbaud Eyes’ is a good case in point; it’s not bad at all, just derivative in almost every sense. The tacked on synth doesn’t do anywhere near enough to distinguish it from past efforts, and the trite lyrics don’t help the cause in the slightest. Dum Dum Girls remain a serviceable indie band but their potential to be anything more feels greatly diminished.

4.5/10

You Me At Six – ‘Cavalier Youth

The other week I reviewed the brave and inspirational new album by Against Me – pop-punk at its very best. At the other end of the spectrum we have You Me At Six, who have made what may be the safest album ever. I found half of their last record embarrassingly likeable, and I still find myself listening to the likes of ‘Reckless’ and ‘Crash’ two or three years on. Those songs were tuneful, almost comically over-emotive and irrepressibly enjoyable. Against my better judgment, I grew rather fond of the band.

That fondness has come to an end. Any remanent of an edge and any hint of dynamism has been polished away here. They have taken those aforementioned power ballads as a template and tried to recreate them, without any of the heart or charm. These tunes sound like the spoilt and bratty offspring of a one night stand between U2 and Greenday (do you remember that awful duet they did once?). They have no teeth or soul – they are empty vessels for generic melodies and clichéd sentiments. The tracklisting tells you all you need to know: ‘Forgive and Forget’, ‘Win Some Lose Some’, ‘Be Who You Are’, ‘Carpe Diem’ – the songs are even more generic than these titles would suggest. The album closer shamelessly steals from ‘Forever Young’ whilst ‘Fresh Start Fever’ is a blatant rip off of Fall Out Boy’s comeback single. Every inch of ‘Cavalier Youth’ is bland and predictable.

As with most emo productions, the mix absolutely crushes any chance of subtlety or spark. If you know about the loudness war then you’ll know that You Me At Six are one of the biggest offenders. The songs are noisy from start to finish, to the extent that the generic choruses are belted out simply to be heard. It could be worse – if there were less sonic distractions you would be able to focus even more on the flat song-writing underneath. It’s almost like they want to overwhelm you enough to make you submissive. The fact it went in at number one suggests that sadly, it may be working.

2/10

Warpaint – ‘Warpaint’

Warpaint are an excellent band – they just aren’t great songwriters. Last time around they made some effort in this department, but on ‘Warpaint’ they seem to have given up on the idea, and it may be all the better for it. ‘The Fool’ had good songs, ‘Warpaint’ has great jams. It’s loose, it’s vague, it’s atmospheric and it’s easy to get lost in. Great jams but sorry excuses for songs. All the edges have been smoothed and rounded, there is no friction or contrast, no hooks at all, a complete lack of dynamics and no lyrics to get your teeth in to. Warpaint have undoubtedly played to their strengths and brushed over their weaknesses, which makes for a pretty forgettable album in the long-run, but fair play, it’s brilliant mood music to enjoy in the moment. Their breathy harmonies are intoxicating, the guitars are swampy and the bass-lines exude sweat. If you’re in just the right mood, songs like ‘Love Is to Die’ and ‘Keep It Healthy’ make for perfect background listening.

5.5/10

Against Me! ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ – Review

6 Feb

It’s rare these days to find an album that truly surprises you, and if nothing else ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ will surely surprise you. Even if the lyrics fail to move, even if the music leaves you cold, there is little doubt that  few people were expecting the sixth album from punk rock veterans Against Me to tackle transgender issues head on, in the form of a concept album about singer Laura Jane Grace’s own struggles with gender identity. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that the album works against the odds. Just think about that; a fairly innocuous and unimportant mid-sized punk band have made an album about the singer’s transgender issues that is subtle and angry at the same time. They’ve made an album about a sensitive subject with absolute delicacy yet absolute ferocity. They’ve tackled controversy head on and left you thinking about the songs and not the potential headlines. This is a masterclass in balance and craft from perhaps the last band you’d expect it from. Most encouragingly of all, their least commercial album, and first since being dropped from a major label, has become their highest charting release to date.

It charges into focus from the very beginning. ‘Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl / Keeps you reminded, helps you to remember where you come from.’ This is the direct language of a man who wrestles with balancing his own desires with other peoples’ expectations. This theme is reoccuring. Grace knows (or think she knows) how other people will view her: ‘You want them to see you like they see every other girl / they just see a faggot’ which leads to an urge to fit in: ‘ I’m drinking with the jocks / I’m laughing at the faggots / Just like one of the boys.’ While these moments are crushingly sad, mostly Grace sounds optimistic, confident and furiously defiant. There are still concerns about the practicalities of sex change (‘Would you even recognise me?’ ‘I don’t want us to grow apart’) but the message is one of defiance. ‘I don’t want to die without bite’ she sings early on, whilst at the album’s close she’s rejecting the jock culture she once tried to embrace -‘I don’t ever want to talk that way again / I don’t want to know people like that anymore.’ The album comes full circle in under half an hour. The energy and focus it has is unbelivable.

‘Osama Bin Ladan as the Crucified Christ’ is the only song that misfires, either musically or lyrically, and it misfires in just about every possible sense. It’s heavy where the other songs are airy, it’s cynical where the other songs are optimistic, angsty and political where the other songs are honest and personal. It’s dreary where the other songs are fluorescent. Its role on the album is actually a positive one, in that it serves to highlight just how well crafted the other songs really are.

The lyrics are the first thing that strike you but the music is equally important in a sense. ‘You’ve got no cunt in your strut / you’ve got no ass to shake’, Laura vents over a traditional three chord template. Most of these songs open with a riff before the bass and drums crash in after four bars or so. Almost everything on here arrives and leaves in about three minutes and the verse/chorus structure is adhered to, to a tee. The production is basic but as sleek and un-sophisticated as you’d expect from a pop-punk album. Some critics have called this predictable, generic musicality a failure, but actually I think it’s one of the things that makes the record a roaring success. I like the way the familiarity of the songwriting and production offsets the un-familiar lyrical content. There is a significant juxtaposition between the bravery of the lyrics and the safety of the music. It would have been odd for Against Me to suddenly start producing challenging, experimental music just because we now know the lead singer is transgender. The reality is she’s always felt this way – so what sudden impact should it have on the music? Against Me do what Against Me have always done, and you can hear the passion and love in ever power chord and drum roll.

For against Me fans (and I have to admit I wasn’t really one until a few weeks ago) the lyrics may come as a shock, but the way they are written and performed certainly won’t be. These words contain, and are delivered with, the same wit and venom that Laura has always used. The content is hardly a world a way from what fans are already used to anyway – the band have always sung about underdogs, the abused and stigmatised. Now it feels more intense, magnified, specific and personal – which partially explains why it’s so much better than their other albums. Partially though it’s their best album because it’s their first one to stand out from the crowed – in fact it feels like the first punk album to stand out from the crowd in a long time. It may just be the most important album of this genre in a decade. It’s also one of the bravest and most insightful albums you’re ever likely to hear.

8.5/10

Beyonce ‘Beyonce’ – Review

2 Feb

Beyonce has been on a journey with a classic narrative. A young, good looking girl from out in the sticks forms a girl group, managed by her father, that become massive. The girl successfully embarks on a solo carer, marries an equally famous husband, has a baby, lives happily every after.This is basically what Beyonce’s last album, ‘4’ preached about; at times her life sounded so perfect and happy it was if she was almost mocking the listener – ‘Look at how great my life is!’ There is no doubt that ‘4’ was the climax of that narrative and it’s the job of the follow up to swipe the table cloth from under the plates. Beyonce is where Madonna was before ‘Sex’, or where Prince was before he became ‘The Artist Formally Known as Prince’. Whereas those legends reinvented themselves with new personas, Beyonce has self-titled this album, and seems to be saying ‘this is who I’ve always been underneath.’ This is a brave move because there is no running away from this ‘reinvention’. It’s got her name right there in the middle of it. A lot rests on ‘Beyonce’.

unfortunately it disappoints on a truely gigantic level, because underneath the level-headed, hard-working, likeable role model we’ve come to know, there is a  cocky, needy, sex maniac who rises to the surface. On the opener, ‘Pretty Hurts’ Beyonce sets up a legitimate if unoriginal premise that the world is obsessed with aesthetic and surface. Which would be fine if ‘Beyonce’ (both the album and the lady herself) wasn’t all surface in 2014. ‘Perfection is a disease of a nation’ Bey spits in the most luxurious of voices. ‘It’s the soul that needs the surgery’ she adds, while looking unattainably beautiful in the glamorous video. This is a visual album, released with a dvd of music videos (a curiously old-fashioned idea – even more so considering the exciting and unexpected way this album has been unveiled) and everything about it speaks to that visual identity Beyonce has carefully constructed, and then deconstructed. Doting wife? watch her wrap her legs around a pole in the video for ‘Blow’. Dignified mother? Hear her swear throughout the album. I suppose there is no real reason why Beyonce should be restricted from doing whatever she wants, it’s just a strange and unnecessary path to venture down at this late(ish) stage in her career. And I’d always had Beyonce pegged as a 21st century feminist icon, but this demonstrates that she is far from it. Like Miley Cyrus and Rihanna before her, Beyonce has fully succumbed to the idea that women need to strip half naked and flirt their way to the number one spot.

Of course, a modern interpretation of feminism is that women should embrace their sexuality and flaunt it if they want – but I’m not convinced of her motives here. In fact, I’m rather surprised at all the glowing reviews ‘Beyoncé’ has received, particularly from those feminist critics proclaiming it to be a poetic and proud statement of confident sexuality when it clearly isn’t. A line like ‘I cooked this meal for you naked’ is neither poetic or self-assured. Subservient wife still be cooking the meals. Naked. For her husband. And I mean, you could argue that if she wants to cook a meal naked for her husband that doesn’t necessarily degrade her or make her any less of a feminist – but I still don’t want to hear about it. Who does? But when she says ‘bow down bitches’ I’m afraid that does make her less of a feminist; it also makes her a shocking role model, a terrible lyrist and frankly a bit of a dodgy human being.

The single, ‘Drunk in Love’, probably the catchiest thing on here (which isn’t really saying much), is a song that tries very hard to be sexy and fails miserably. It’s a disturbing tale of confusion, spelt out through a serious of unaware contradictions. ‘I get filthy when that liquor get in me’ Bey says with seemingly no self-awareness at all – is this meant to be a come on? A metaphor? It’s a weak one if it is. ‘Why can’t I keep my fingers off it,’ she says, which seems a troubling admission in a song probably about sexual addiction rather than alcohol addiction – but still. ‘Feeling like an animal with all these cameras on my grill’ she purrs (she’s still got a great voice to be fair), convincing no-one that ‘grill’ is a part of her natural vocabulary – she barely builds up the enthusiasm to snarl it and indeed nothing about this album seems natural or enthusiastic, save for some tender moments towards the end. When she sings ‘Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty’ this confidence (or arrogance if you want) isn’t CONFIDENT in the same way that ‘Single Ladies’ or ‘Best thing you never had’ were. In fact, it can’t even muster the same swagger as ‘Girls (run the world)’, a relatively forgettable Beyonce single. All this talk of ‘rubbing’ and ‘grinding’ lends the song a certain raunchiness but Beyonce will never convince me that she’s prince when she’s spent so long trying to convince me she’s a princess.

Elsewhere, Beyonce ‘the feminist Icon’ seems to have forgotten just who is in control. On ‘Blow’ she ‘must be good to you’ whilst elsewhere on the self-hating track she sings ‘Baby put your arms on me, tell me I’m the problem’. One minute she lacks confidence, the next minute she’s manufacturing it in all the wrong ways. It’s a distressingly lost album from someone who until this point seemed so in control. Listen to ‘Single Ladies’ or ‘Surviver’ again if you want a reminder of how this act should work.

If I didn’t have such concerns about the lyrical content then I think I would rather like ‘Beyonce’, although I would still find it a little snoozy. The beats (provided mostly by the talented young producer Boots) are taught and luxurious, like a more finely tuned take on what The Weeknd has been doing in recent years. Whereas some recent Beyonce songs, particularly the singles, have been aggressive, these tracks are impressively chilled out. Baselines hover almost casually, synths glide in and out of focus and the vocals become the central focus. It turns out I rather like this minimalist side of Beyonce. Structurally though the record is rather messy because of all the directionless songs that kind of glide in several directions before doing 180 flips. It does all add up to a rather disorienting album. Over the course of an hour I lost interest, and it lost direction. That kind of sums up the entire album for me – I genuinely think Beyonce has lost her way. This is a statement album that lacks a meaningful statement; and I respect the fact that she’s playing with fire but I’m afraid she’s been burnt.

3.5/10