Archive | March, 2014

The War on Drugs ‘Lost in the Dream’ – Review

30 Mar

For those who believe that modern rock stars lack ambition, enter The War on Drugs. In a recent Grantland interview, bandleader Adam Granduciel talked about how he spent a year working on ‘Lost in the Dream’, and in NME this week he discussed wanting to make a contribution to the cannon of classic rock albums. Both statements are borne out within minutes of opening track ‘Under the Pressure’. You can hear the desperation, and the tension being released when he sings of ‘trying not to crack’ and equally you can instantly imagine how much effort must have gone into making these layered and dense sounds. The thing that struck me straight the way is how perfectly positioned all the synths are; there are loads of them, but they aren’t so far forward in the mix that they particularly stand out, nor are they so far back as to go unoticed. This is just one detail that I could mention; ‘Lost in the Dream’ is an album of little details like this that add up to an extraordinary record.

It’s a difficult sound to pin-pont; one that’s familiar and distant at the same time. While Granduciel isn’t a great singer, he has a distinctive voice that blurs the line between Dylan’s phrasing and Springstein’s melodic ambition. Sonically the production pays serious homage to the uncool side of the 80’s, and you can imagine that Granduciel spent a lot of time listening to the less fashionable albums of Neil Young, Tom Petty and Leonard Cohen. At the same time this is an album that could only have been made in 2014. The song lengths stretch the limits of what a single cd can hold, and the production definitley tips its hat to shoe-gaze and glo-fi. It almost reminds me of a classic rock version of ‘Random Access Memories’ in that it pays homage to the past but ultimatley points towards the future.

“I’m in my finest hour, can I be more than a fool” Granduciel’ asks on the album’s centrepiece ‘An Ocean Between the Waves’. It’s the kind of question Rocky would ask himself, and Granduciel has that underdog protagonist vibe about him. Throughout ‘Lost in the Dream’ you find yourself rooting for him, especially as more often than not he’s a bit down in the dumps. The album is littered with phrases like ‘I’m a bit run down here at the moment’ but the pessimism is offset by perfectly optimistic and game raising music. Granduciel has found a perfect balance between ambiance and purposeful rock; songs that create a mood and linger for just a little too long but always feel like they’re going in a pre-determined direction. This can’t have been an easy album to make, and by all accounts there were casualties (including Granduciel’s relationship with his partner) but perversely this seems to have fueled the music and the lyrics. The album caused burn-outs and breakdowns which then fed back into the word, which caused yet more pressure because he wanted to do them justice – and so it went on. No wonder the album begins with an epic meltdown number, ‘Under the Pressure.’

If one of the album’s triumph’s is finding a perfect balance between the past and present, lethargy and purpose, another triumph is in the way it embraces cliché and comes out the other side sounding original. ‘Lost in the Dream’ is steeped in clichés that could easily have undone the record, but they are delivered with such sincerity and authenticity that you end up hearing them like it’s the first time. When he sings about ‘darkness’ on ‘In Reverse’ for example, you feel like this is totally genuine rather than simply the first stock metaphor he’s thought of. And dammit if it doesn’t sound exactly like he’s standing on a beach, staring in to the sea, contemplating big things. This song more than any other on the album captures a feeling of being lost. Those wailing guitars and the synth sea bed that unfolds before the drums crash in. And when he sings about a ‘cold wind’ on the opening track, you can almost feel it blowing in your direction. These aren’t sophisticated lyrics by any means, but they’re the perfect lyrics to acompany this music. I talked about the music finding a balance between lethargy and direction, and in a similar way the lyrics strike the same pose. They hit the mark perfectly despite the imagry being so simple and familiar.

The thing is, some albums are good and some albums are bad, and sometimes the good albums are harder to review than the bad albums. I can tell you that ‘Lost in the Dream’ is a great record, and I’ve tried to explain why, but it’s been difficult. More than any other album I can think of in recent years, ‘Lost in the Dream’s’ greatness hangs in the air, it’s difficult to identify and place. I find myself drawn to adjectives like ‘hazy’, ‘foggy’, ‘transcendent’  but I can’t do it justice. It’s a simple album at its heart but it’s dense with these mystical, etherial sounds and melodies that are impossible to illuminate with words. How can you explain something that sounds so old and new at the same time? Something so ambitious  that sounds so dreamy and lathargic? I wont try anymore, just go and listen to this amazing album.

9/10

 

Elbow ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ – Review

26 Mar

I think I’m right in saying that Elbow were the first band in its history that NME gave 9 stars to four consecutive times. Even Oasis and Arctic Monkeys never recieved that kind of treatment. While I’ve never rated them anywhere near that highly, it does point to the band’s unwavering consistency over the past decade. Elbow just aren’t ever likely to make a bad record, certainly not now. At the same time I find it equally unlikely that they’re ever going to make an exciting record, or an essential one. They’re too stuck in their ways and too middle-aged. ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ is an album all about being stuck in your ways and middle-aged, so in a sense it’s the perfect Elbow album for 2014.

Guy Garvey wrote these songs in a trendy NYC café, in between sipping cups of coffee and chatting to hipsters. If you know anything about Guy Garvey you’re probably struggling to picture this odd scene, and that sense of dislocation seeps into the music and lyrics. ‘Glory be, these fuckers are ignoring me/ I’m from another century’ he sings on ’Charge’. Guy can’t relate to his surroundings or the young people in it, and they can’t relate to him. Elbow’s last album, ‘Build a Rocket Boys’, was about remembering youth from the distance of middle age; in part, this album is about engaging with youth in the present. It’s about coming to terms with being out of touch.

Part of the album is set in that ultimate, modern, sceptical, city-scape; New York City. On New York Morning’ he paints it as a ‘modern Rome where folk are nice to Yoko’. Here anxieties and tension reign over Guy, and he’s never quite sure of what he’s doing or if it’s the right thing to do. ‘I’m having a baby, second thoughts, scotch, dinner and someone’s dancing on the box.’ It now transpires that Garvey was going through a break up when he wrote the album, but it’s about nothing as straightforward as that. Here he seems to be breaking up with himself, and his surroundings, as much as anyone else. “My newest friends have forgotten my name / But so have I..”

As with all the best Elbow lyrics, the mundane is elevated to the sublime. New light is shone on every day objects and emotions. The language is delicate and ambiguous, it stretches in unusual directions. “Another night beside myself would finish me Give us G & T and sympathy” he asks at one point (the internal rhyming and alliteration is a constant source of pleasure on this album). It is almost an album of discontent and crisis, but you’re left with a feeling of hope and enthusiasm, and I think that’s down to the (as always) sweepingly anthemic music. Guy always sounds troubled, but he’s giving you the wink; this is music to lift you out of that headspace not keep you stuck in the rut.

It’s an album that by virtue of its wordy content, demands that you sit down and LISTEN to it. Yet unfortunately, for the very same reason it’s a complete chore to sit down and listen to. So much emphasis is placed on the lyrics that the music feels relegated and lacking in comparison. As I say, it’s typically anthemic and uplifting most of the time, but songs are elasticated and seem to take an age to get going and wind down. What really happens over the 7 minutes of ‘Blue Morning’ or the 6 minutes of ‘Fly Boy Blue’? To often the music chugs and drags the songs down.

Ultimately it’s the stately melodies and captivating lyrics that leave the biggest impression, and there are some of Guy Garvey’s best here. If this was musically more focused and energised ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ would have been a great album. As it stands it’s one of those albums it’s easy to admire but difficult to actually, y’know, listen to.

7/10

Beck ‘Morning Phase’ – Review

20 Mar

There are two type of people on this planet; Beck people and everyone else. There are two type of Beck people; ‘Odelay’ people and ‘Sea Change’ people. If you’re an ‘Odelay’ person, you’re probably quirky and good fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re a ‘See Change’ person you’re likely to be moody and introverted and take yourself very seriously. I’ve yet to meet a Beck person who loves both sides equally (though I’m sure they exist), which is kind of a rare divide for a major artist to have. Both albums are classics, and both play to his different strengths, though it’s the Odelay vein he’s been tapping into for most of his career.

I’ve never really been much of an ‘Odelay’ person myself, and I’ve never really spent much time with his other albums, but I have to admit a real soft spot for ‘Sea Change’ – or at least the first half of it, which is all I can stomach before I get an overwhelming urge to top myself. ‘Sea Change’ could quite possibly be the saddest album ever made; an album influenced by sadness that sounds sad and reflects sadness and presents sadness as a gift to the listener and spreads it like an illness. ‘Sea Change’ is a powerful drug, which is why Beck rarely touches it in a live setting, and which is why I was surprised when I heard about ‘Morning Phase.’

‘Morning Phase’ is essentially a sequel to ‘Sea Change’ in that it sounds A LOT like that album; it explores the same themes, and it features the same musicians. But despite these things it’s nowhere near as depressing as its prequel. In fact, it’s got an almost uplifting, cathartic, Zen like feel.

It’s filled with Beck’s calm wisdom – things like, ‘woke up this morning, found a love light in the storm’ and ‘only what you feel keeps you turning, when you’re standing still’. Vague stabs at poetry that don’t really connect unless you try really, really hard to make them connect. ‘Sea Change’ played with this dream like lyricism as well, but its sadness was based in more concrete images. Who could forget ‘these days I barely get by/ I don’t even try’ or ‘It’s only tears that I’m crying / it’s only you that I’m losing, guess I’m doing fine.’ It isn’t really clear what the pain on ‘Morning Phase is rooted in, or if you can even call it pain. This is possibly a weakness of the record, but it’s hard to call it a weakness when the lines are sung so beautifully and in such a distinctively ‘Beck’ way.

Beck treats the music with the same casual serenity that he treats the lyrics. It’s a gorgeous sounding album. The string arrangements, arranged by his Dad no less, sound absolutely superb, and never feel overbearing or corny. The songs are deftly produced by Beck himself, who does a perfect job of recreating the sound Nigel Goodrich captured on ‘Sea Change’ 14 years ago. His biggest success is that he manages to make ‘Morning Phase’ sound much grander and more sweeping than ‘Sea Change’ whilst also making it sound more intimate and simple. The closeness of the slide guitar the lazy drum patterns counteract the  massive string sound, to produce an album that plays with the signifiers of country music, and has the same homeliness, but sounds bigger.

In many ways, ‘Morning Phase’ is a little too reminiscent of its forbearer – certainly melodically (‘Morning’ Could easily pass for ‘Gues I’m Doing Fine’ for example). It is however a different experience to ‘Sea Change’, one that is less weighty and emotive, but one that Is even more beautiful to behold on a surface level. You often hear about music ‘washing over’ you, and I can’t think of a better way to describe ‘Morning Phase’. By making a more accessible version of ‘Sea Change’, Beck’s biggest achievement here is that he allows you to reconsider your opinion of that album, undeniably the classic of the pair. You come to realise through ‘Morning Phase’ that ‘Sea Change’ has a legacy as more than the saddest album ever made; Beck created an album with such a unique and interesting sound, that even a relatively lightweight and vague imitation like ‘Morning Phase’ still sounds different to and above most of the singer-songwriter mush released in 2014.

7.5/10

Pharrell ‘G I R L’ – Review

14 Mar
Remember when Pharrell Williams used to make really innovative hip hop? I’d forgotten, and I had to remind myself by searching for old videos on youtube. And yep, there he is on ‘In Search Of…’ rapping over schizoid beats. There’s no doubt that the thing he was probably best known for a decade ago has been overshadowed; firstly by his unbelievable work as a pop producer with The Neptunes, and more recently as a singer of retro-soul disco. He did pop up on the biggest hip hop album of 2012, ‘Good Kid Mad City’, as well as releases by Odd Future and Frank Ocean, but Pharell Williams’ days as a futurist, experimental Hip Hop personality are well and truly in the past. He’s shaved off the surname as any pop star worth their weight has to: enter, Pharrell.
As somebody who once revived the careers of Britney and Justin Timberlake (amongst others) it’s a bit ironic that it took Daft Punk to rejuvenate Pharrell’s career, but indeed that is what was needed and that is what happened. His fairly serviceable vocal was probably the least important element of the still stunning ‘Get Lucky’ but there’s no doubt it put him back on the map. Then ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Happy’ came along and confirmed his position as the most ubiquitous pop star of the  year. Of course, It’s a bit odd that one of this century’s most forward thinking artists should abandon their innovative streak entirely, but that is exactly what Pharell has done over the past twelve months. Those three singles have eradicated any memory of Pharrell Williams, the innovator. In itself this seemingly populist and tacky move is actually fairly brave, but only because he achieved it with such style and success. If he had gone down the commercial route and failed, he would have destroyed any credibility he once built up. As it is, ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Happy’ were excellent, and tapped into a seemingly endless reserve of good will. Pharrelll became an unlikely comeback kid.
It was no real surprise that Columbia snapped him up to make an LP, but it was surprising how quickly it was announced and then released; no doubt to capitalise on the success of that trio of hit singles. The rush release perhaps explains why nothing on ‘G I R L’ comes even remotely close to matching their success – yet they all follow the same formula, which makes ‘G I R L’ a predictable but surprisingly disappointing album.
Whether he was hooking up with Daft Punk and Nile on ‘Get Lucky’, Robin Thicke on ‘Blurred Lines’ or the minions on ‘Happy’, Pharrell MK2 seems only to work when paired with a slightly out of sync guest. Therefore there are a few guest appearances on ‘G I R L’ but all are obvious, and none provide the mismatched friction that spurred on those other duets.  ‘Gust of Wind’ features Daft Punk, who sing it by numbers in their increasingly confident robotic tones. As a song it falls way short of ‘Get Lucky’, and even a bit short of ‘Loose Yourself to Dance.’ Where those songs served the groove, ‘Gust of Wind’ serves the rather lacklustre melody and is all the more forgettable for it. The pedestrian pace and static string arrangement make it feel twice as long as it really is.
Justin Timberlake appears briefly on ‘Brand New’ and reminds you what an essential combination these two made on ‘Justified’, now unbelievably 12 years old. It’s sort of ironic that Justin could have used some of Pharrell’s energy and economy on last years ‘20/20 experience, whilst Pharell could use Justin’s ambition and vision here. Maybe they should swap phone numbers and make this a more regular thing. JT sounds instantly more youthful and energised than he has done in years, even if the song is really rather forgettable.
Elsewhere Miley Cyrus produces her most shocking turn yet by failing to do anything even remotely shocking on the totally middle of the road ‘Come Get It’, Jojo shows up on the most ambitious and interesting song on here ‘Lost Queen’, and Alicia Keys duets on the nice ‘Know Who You Are.’ Over ten songs Pharrell doesn’t put a foot seriously wrong – it’s all very smooth and enjoyable – but that’s because he doesn’t venture outside of a comfort zone. That makes ‘G I R L’ a likeable failure as far as I’m concerned.
After working so closely with other artists, and borrowing so heavily from other sounds, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that Pharrell hasn’t carved out enough space for himself here. The beat boxing on ‘Brand New’ reminds you of ‘Like I Love You’, the clicks and pops on ‘Marylin Monroe’ take you back to ‘Milkshake’, and the swirling falsetto melodies instantly make you reminisce about ‘She Loves to Move’ – and yet those songs had an original flair. Like JT on ‘The 20/20 Experience Part 2’, Pharrell trades on the past, both his own and pop music in general, far too often and far too casually. So many years on, these same takes on his signature moves sound as old-fashioned and snoozy as the constant Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye nods. Pharrell uses the obvious signifiers and cheats of his past but forgets that the most defining trait of his older material was the originality and attitude.
‘G I R L’ is overwhelmingly nice and pleasant and has about as much attitude as a teddy bear. If this had been a collection of ten ‘Get Lucky’s or ‘Blurred Lines’ we would be forced to look past that, but it simply isn’t. These are ten good songs, that don’t really combine to make anything significant. It may be unfair that Pharrell’s past success is hanging over him like a shadow, but when he makes the links so obvious you can’t help but compare ‘G I R L’ to the great albums he’s worked on in the past. It just doesn’t stand up because, some questionable lyrics aside, ‘G I R L’ does nothing to make you question, think, engage or react; it simply asks that you switch your mind off and enjoy.

6/10

Sun Kil Moon ‘Benji’ – Review

8 Mar
Sun Kil Moon (otherwise known as Mark Kozelek) has been quietly releasing albums for over a decade. It’s strange then that this, his ninth album, ‘Benji’, should suddenly attract so much attention. Especially as everything about it seems to deflect attention. These are simple, unshowy songs about the darker side of every-day life. Benji is stripped of the flashy language and metaphor that gave colour to his older work, and it’s his most restrained album musically as well. Maybe that’s what makes it stand out. Or perhaps it’s attracted so much attention because of its un-nerving and dark obsession with mortality. Either way, ‘Benji’ has already gained a lot of acclaim.
Despite dealing with death, the most emotive of subjects, ‘Benji’ is strangely un-moving. The lack of metaphor gives the lyrics a direct, matter-of-fact quality that feels almost diaristic. Some of the lines are delivered with such straight-faced, disinterested dourness that you kind of have to laugh – such as when he describes the death of a distant cousin in the plainest language. “You don’t just take out the trash and die” he mutters. Except she did. As he goes on to say, this is bad luck, but the same thing happened to his uncle years before. That’s dire luck or “goddam what were the odds?” His casual delivery and dry style prevent these songs from turning into the melodramas they so easily could have been in less capable hands. On the other hand it’s difficult to work out why he’s writing this long and unwieldly song about a cousin he admits to hardly having known. After wrestling with the album for a while, I’m still no closer to understanding Kozelek’s ultimate aim.
I suppose ‘Benji’ is an album that tries to take uneasy memories, and “find some poetry, make some sense of it, to find deeper meaning” as he puts it. That’s a noble aim, and one all art should aspire to, but I’m not sure Kozelek really succeeds. That line, from the opening track, is followed by four questions. In other words, Kozelek Is less interested in conveying meaning and providing answers than searching for meaning and asking his own questions. It leaves the listener feeling more like a voyeur than an active participant in the creative process. This is muddled poetry, where songs have vague destinations and ponderous structures. It prods and pokes at little, relatable details in a bid to paint a big picture, but too often it lacks the direction needed. These songs are little more than memories, some more interesting than others, recited in the most straightforward way. In the end, there are too many questions and not enough answers. Too much rambling and not enough poetry.
Along the way though there are odd moments of inspiration. The closer, ‘Ben’s My Friend’, comes closest to conveying real, lasting ‘meaning’. It deals with mortality in a much more vibrant way than any other song on here, probably because it is about the living rather than the dead. Here the mundane, unfrivilous language is used appropriately to describe the mundane, unfrivivilous realities of middle age, which all serve to convey the sadness Kerzack feels. This is a fascinating, nuanced song about middle age and friendship and jealousy. Here the matter-of-fact style that has previously felt quite laboured feels effortless and revelatory. The details fizzle and resonate – from the ‘drunk kids staring at their cells’ to ‘the nice music and all the exercise’ – this is a song that speaks to me about something real. The two songs dedicated to his parents also convey tangable emotions of grattitude and regret. I doubt it’s a coincidence that these songs have clear, definable structures, unlike most songs on ‘Benji’. Certainly, when Kerzack is clear in his aims and purpose, the songs benefit in almost every respect.
These moments of clarity and thoughtfulness are unfortunately rare on ‘Benji’, an album that jogs along too casually for its own good. We get nouns galore (Carissa, Katie, Patricia, Mary Ann, Mary Ann’s friend, Deborah, Jim Wise etc) but what do we ultimately learn about these characters? Well, a lot of bad stuff happened to them, but we never feel connected to their troubles, we never feel emotionally attached. There is just enough of interest and worth here to make ‘Benji’ a worthwhile, and occasionally essential, listen. Written down, these stories would be quite rightly dismissed as weak, but sung over pretty guitar lines in Kozelek’s distinctive croon they become quite enjoyable. ‘Benji’ is always pleasant, sometimes frustrating, sometimes bland and sometimes revelatory; It adds up to fairly unique album.
7/10

Drowners ‘Drowners’ / Skaters ‘Manhattan’ – Review

3 Mar

Drowners and Skaters are tour mates who seem to have spent much of the past year trying to out-strokes each other. Skaters have an album called ‘Manhattan’ which features a song called ‘To Be Young In NYC’. Drowners have a leather clad model on their cover alongside an amalgamation of the British and American flag. Both play tightly wound, scuzzy guitar pop. Fittingly then ‘Drowners’ and ‘Manhattan’ try to split the difference between the New York and New Yorkshire scenes of a decade ago. Neither band are dissimilar to indie also-rans Pigeon Detectives or Razorlight, which is about the most unkind thing you could say to a new band in 2014. Only, you get the impression Drowners and Skaters really wouldn’t be offended by that comparison. And why should they be? Pigeon Detectives and Razorlight had a knack for commercially viable and catchy guitar-pop songs – there are worse things to aspire to than that.

Both bands feature British born guitarists, and they accurately convey the wide-eyed wonder that goes alongside moving to a big city and suddenly realising you aren’t so unique after all. In fact, these albums are built around the idea of being young, happily lost and exactly like every other young person on the planet. So here we are in a city where ‘all the girls had long hair’  and where they intend to hang around ‘long enough to be part of the furniture’. These guys have no innate ambition, and they have no aspiration other than fitting in and trying very, very hard to seem cool and debauched. Whether you enjoy these albums or not will depend on whether you thing this is an endearing trait. Both bands bet everything on the fact that you will.

You can comfortably listen to both albums back to back in an hour, and everything has been streamlined with a sense of forward propulsion to make that time pass quite quickly and rather frantically. Skaters make half-hearted efforts at groove on the ragaee influenced ‘Band Breaker’ and ‘Feare of the Knife’ but otherwise both bands rhythm sections have little to do. In fact they make The Strokes sound like the funkiest band on the planet, and as I pointed out in the opening line of this review, both Skaters and Drowners desperately, desperately, want to be The Strokes. But sounding like The Strokes circa ‘Is This It’ is difficult – so difficult that even The Strokes can’t do it anymore. Drowners and Skaters lack the precision, technical ability and ambition to make the sound stick. Where ‘Is This It’ felt lived in, dirty and genuinely, unattainably cool, Drowners and Skaters come over like a bunch of loser kid wannabees from the suburbs trying to live a life they just weren’t meant for. But there is something very human in that – afterall, we’ve all felt like a small fish in a big city at some point. We’ve all wanted to fit in and we’ve all wanted to appear cool. It makes them all the more likeable in my book.

And yet cool bands, like cool individuals, don’t have to try to be cool, they just are. ‘Skaters’ and ‘Drowners’ best imitation of their favourite band is ultimately not a lot more than that – a charming imitation. Neither band possess a great singer, or great guitarists, and their lyrics are lightweight and superfluous. They just don’t have anything particularly interesting to say. To their credit they know how to write catchy melodies, and Skaters especially, have penned some memorable hooks. ‘I want to dance but I don’t know how’ is one of last years most arresting choruses and the ones on ‘Deadbolt’ and ‘Miss Teen Masachuttess’ are nearly as good. Drowners haven’t written anything as memorable, but their album is the more consistent of the two. Ultimately these are a bunch of fast and crude rock n roll songs about being rejected, time and time again, and wanting to fit in whilst standing out of the crowd. Who can’t relate to that? They are certainly not the first, and probably not the last, band who want to be The Strokes, and they won’t be the first or last young men who want so dearly to be something more than they are.

Drowners – 6.5

Skaters – 7