Archive | April, 2014

Review Round-Up

30 Apr

Real Friends ‘Put Yourself Back Together’

The musical soundtrack to my early teenage years was the bratty pop-punk that was so popular in the early 00’s. It’s therefore quite fitting, for me at least, that many current bands writing about adolescent memories are pop punk groups. Real Friends have been sharing the road with the recently reviewed Modern Baseball, another exciting band of that genre. Where Modern Baseball blurred the line between pop-punk and other strains of emo and indie rock, Real Friends go all out Sum 41 on their mini-album ‘Put Yourself Back Together.’ Where Modern Baseball approached their hang ups and neuroses with wit, charm and humour, Real Friends tackle their issues head on, with a whole load of bitterness, resentment and self-pity. It makes this a difficult album to love, but one that is nonetheless very relatable. So maybe you’ve secretly wished that an ex would end up ‘old and all alone’, or considered faking your own death to see if that certain someone really cares, or driven around late at night listening to sad songs. If you have then you’re going to smile knowingly at ‘Old and All Alone’, ‘Late Nights In My Car’ and ‘Dead’ respectively. It’s fair to say that singer Dan Lambton doesn’t come across too well but perhaps that’s because we see a little too much of ourselves in him. And as he says, ‘Youre just like me, the only difference is I’m honest enough to scream my flaws in the lines of this song.’ He has a point.


Cloud Nothings ‘Here and Nowhere Else’

It’s a commonly observed fact that very few indie rock bands make indie rock albums these days. You have Arctic Monkeys, Haim and Vampire Weekend falling over themselves to show off their r&b/hip hop influences while Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and their like are out there exploring all types of increasingly experimental electronic realms. It’s therefore refreshing to encounter a band like Cloud Nothings, who clearly feel no pressure to sound like anything more, or less, than a classic Indie Rock band. ‘Here and Nowhere Else’ attempts to say a lot of profound ‘indie rock’ things about life and loss but never really pulls it off – at least not in the way it would like. No, what’s successful about this album is not what it has to say but how great it sounds. The production is loud and frantic, the vocals are raw and brutal. The guitars thrash and the drums smash and crash. There are no tricks, very few over-dubs and for those indie rock purists out there, not a hint of r&b anywhere at all. The  central message of album closer, and the band’s best song to date ‘I’m Not Part of Me’ is ‘I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else.’ In other words they’ve decided to focus – this direct, compact and vital album bares witness to that fact.


Real Estate ‘Atlas’

If ‘Atlas’ had been released two decades ago it would have been just another indie-pop record in a crowded field. The most striking thing about this otherwise knowingly un-striking record, is just how alone it is in 2014. The pretty vocals that don’t quite hit beautiful, the mousey brown guitar licks, the slender basslines that show just a little flab, song lengths that stretch just a little too far – you don’t really hear music that strives to be this plain anymore. That’s not a put down – Real Estate remind you that there is still a place for nice but unshowy guitar pop.  They look to the past for all kinds of inspiration, whether it’s in the music of Yo Lan Tengo, Pavement and The Shins or the foggy memories of youth. This nostalgia doesn’t mean ‘Atlas’ is frozen in a state of perpetual longing though – what the band find interesting is how the past lingers about in, and effects, present day situations.

‘I cannot come back to this neighbourhood/without feeling my old age’ he reflects on ‘Past Lives’, the most bittersweet song on the album. The only real description of the neighborhood he is referring to is hardly specific – he mentions the yellow street lights, which unsurprisingly haven’t changed. No more details are given, which is perhaps deliberate; he could be referring to any stereotypical suburb in nowhereville. ‘Atlas’ is kind of in love with this normality and stability, two very uncool traits that ironicly make Real Estate stand out. ‘Atlas’ frets over distance between lovers (see the lovely ‘Talking Backwards’) and  change (‘Had to Hear’) – basically anything that is going to rock their world. It means ‘Atlas’ will never rock your world, but there is truth here, and a ultimatley optimistic message. ‘Don’t know where I want to be but I’m glad that you’re with me.’ Sometimes you don’t need to seek change when what you’re looking for has been there all along.


You’re just like me
The only difference is that I’m honest enough to scream my flaws
In the lines of this song
said I’m selfish, I’m a liar and I’m broken
Shit runs through my head every day that I would never tell anyone
You’re just like me
The only difference is that I’m honest enough to scream my flaws
In the lines of this song
said I’m selfish, I’m a liar and I’m broken
Shit runs through my head every day that I would never tell anyone
You’re just like me
The only difference is that I’m honest enough to scream my flaws
In the lines of this song

Tensnake ‘Glow’ – Review

19 Apr

The dance album that has dominated discussion in 2014 so far has been the long-awaited, and ironically rush-released, debut by Skrillex, an album so long in the making that it sounds entirely different to the brand of loutish E.D.M Skrillex helped popularise half a decade ago. But more exciting, as far as I’m concerned, is another long-awaited debut, that also happens to sound nothing like what we once may have expected. Tensnake caught our attention in 2009/2010 with an impeccable series of extended cuts that easily rank as my favourite House records of recent years (‘Coma Cat’ in particular is euphoric perfection). It’s been a quiet couple of years since I last heard from Tensnake, and I’d started to wonder if he would ever live up to his early promise. Now, almost out of nowhere as far as I can tell, we have ‘Glow’.

Instead of being a round-up of those excellent singles (that would have ben a far better, but far less interesting album), Tensnake takes the brave approach of starting from scratch, with 16 brand new songs. Not only that, the album takes him further away from the Disco tinged House Revival music he built his name on, and towards an electro-pop sound. His early songs always had a pop element to them – big melodies, sunny hooks, memorable choruses – but on ‘Glow’ he takes several radical steps towards the mainstream. Instead of the extended cuts we’re use to, here almost all the songs are a radio friendly three minutes. Vocals are brought well and truly to the forefront with lots of appearances by vocalist Fiora. Most importantly, as far as Radio and Label bosses will be concerned, a couple of these songs feature the guitar work on Mr Nile Rodgers. Yep, Tensnake is properly going after the ‘Get Lucky’ audience.

Who can really blame him? To be fair, Tensnake was doing Disco revival long before Daft Punk’s comeback. ‘Coma Cat’ may have been a House song but it borrowed more than a little from Disco’s 1970’s hey-dey. What Tensnake has smartly done is bring these elements to the fore without losing credibility. The shorter song lengths mean the 16 songs never drag their heels, and the album flies by in a happy blur – particularly the first half. ‘See Right Through You’ and ‘Love Sublime’ are the best shots at getting Tensnake noticed, and for my money they’re just as catchy as anything Rudimental, or any other House revival acts, put out last year. Tensnake spends the first half of the album playing in this realm, before moving in slightly stranger directions on the album’s more experimental second half. These are unquestionably the weaker songs on the album as they don’t really play to Tensnake’s strengths; the moody ‘Things Left to Say’ and ’58 BPM’ for example don’t really add anything but take a long time not adding it. Fiora’s vocals are strong but not strong enough to carry the songs on its own; ultimately it’s the music we want to pay attention to, and it doesn’t always add up to much more than a load of retro nods and winks.

The album is called ‘Glow’ and in its best moments it really does exude a bright light, even if it isn’t wholly consistent. So much modern dance music is either too dreary, too obscure, too elitist or too…Calvin Harris. What I love most about ‘Glow’ is perhaps what House purists will dislike most about it; it’s inclusive and completely populist. The deliberately nostalgic choruses are meant to sound familiar, the beats aren’t there to trip you up, the sirens, woops and classic disco effects are all designed to put a smile on your face. DJs and Producers have spent the past 10 years moving relentlessly forward in pursuit of innovation but Tensnake doesn’t seem intrested in that, for better or worse. Like Disclosure and Daft Punk, Tensnake is more excited about revisiting the sounds of the past in order to carve out music that everyone can enjoy. I’ve expressed my opinion on this before – Dance music should make you want to dance, and so much of the stuff is repellant in 2014. Tensnake lures you to the dancefloor with a smile and open arms.

Tensnake is the opposite of Skrilex and his E.D.M brethrin, who he gently mocks on ‘Ten Minutes’ where you can almost hear the sniggers as a girl insults the producer and asks instead for ‘big bass…like dubstep…like club step.’ As I expressed at the start of this review, Skrillex has moved on from that sound now, so mockery seems an odd gesture on Tensnake’s part. As much as I like ‘Glow’ there is a danger that with all the retro finishes, and the ironic, sly insult to a style of E.D.M going out of fashion, Tensnake is living too much in the past. It’s fun to look back but great things only happen when you look to the future.


Future Islands ‘Singles’ – Review

15 Apr

Future Islands have been making albums for half a decade, to some acclaim, but few would have predicted the hype surrounding ‘Singles.’ A few things have contributed to the high expectations; they signed to legendary indie label 4AD, hired a full-time drummer, and had the album produced by the very professional and respected Chris Coady. And of course, they made a now infamous appearance of David Letterman’s show, which ranks as one of the most arresting Late Night performances in as long as I can remember.

But as Youtube will attest to, Future Islands have been putting on these kind of performances for many years; in actual fact, despite the hype, not a lot has changed on ‘Singles’. In fact, musically, nothing has changed. Sure the record is sleeker and more streamlined, but aesthetically it’s a virtually identical album to the two that preceded it. Thrillingly, the band go straight for the jugular where once they may have dordled. ‘Sun In the Morning’ and ‘Fall From Grace’ have the type of meandering melodies that could encourage all kinds of unsavoury musical indulgences; instead the rhythm section provide ambitious urgency, whilst the icy bed of synths lend sparkle and glitter.

Future Islands don’t shy away from big choruses – the first half in particular is full of them – and they don’t shy away from corny, sentimental lyrics either; things like ‘my sun in the morning, my moon in the evening.’ if you’re looking for lyrical depth and sophistication, or even something on the level of their previous work, you’re going to come away feeling short changed. On the better songs you forgive the cliches (on the bright and hooky ‘Like the Moon’ for example, where his lover’s eyes are…uhhh…like the moon) but where the music is less interesting, the lyrics become more obviously banal. The imagery, childlike in its composition, is endearing on one hand but reaps limited rewards; you aren’t given any insights in to love or heartbreak than you wouldn’t get if you asked any sixth form English Lit student. If that sounds harsh I don’t mean it to; Herring is a sincere lyricist and what he lacks in originality he makes up for in conviction. His singing also does a lot of heavy lifting. His voice is deep and rich, it moves in weird directions, sometimes howling, sometimes whispering, sometimes, quite literally, growling. You’re unlikely to find a more theatrical frontman if you spent the next decade  looking but remarkably you would never doubt that Herring means every single word he says. It’s a fine line that he treads, between sincerity and performance, especially considering he is the frontman of a mid-level indie band, and the fact that he pulls it off is an achievment.

Opening track and lead single ‘Seasons’ is easily the best thing Future Islands have ever put their name to. Placing it at the start of the album is a brave statement of intent, but it also means that the record peaks within three minutes. Nothing else on ‘Singles’ is what you’d call an A list pop song. Despite their best intentions, and despite the title, none of these songs are really ‘single’ material. On previous albums this wasn’t really an issue because it wasn’t their aim to get promoted to the premier league of indie bands, therefore any success in that area felt like an added bonus. To use a silly analogy, they were geeks at school who from a certain angle gave the impression that if they dressed up a bit might actually be kind of handsome. Now they’ve dressed up sharp, cut their hair and put on aftershave and the result is a bit…meh. There is too much darkness and despair in these songs anyway and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Future Islands are never going to be mainstream – not because they can’t write hooks but because it’s just not in their personality.

Ultimately we shouldn’t be surprised that despite all the upgrades Future Islands remain essentially unchanged – they are one of those bands that settled on a distinctive identity early on and they’ve expressed no desire to change. They say as much in their interviews and on the album’s opening track: ‘People change but certain people never do.’ They are on to a winning thing, but I don’t think ‘Singles’ will be their greatest legacy. Without wishing to state the obvious, any Future Islands album is a means to an end – the end being their live show. That’s where Future Islands go from being a good band to a great one. ‘Singles’ doesn’t bridge the gap between ‘good’ and ‘great’ as much as I hoped it would but it lends a couple of keepers to the live show – a live show that will be their greatest legacy.


Eagulls ‘Eagulls’ – Review

13 Apr

If there’s one thing you learn about Eagulls on their self-titled album it’s that they’re angry young men. Angry about something, definitely, even if they can’t quite articulate what they’re angry about and even if you can’t exactly hear what frontman George Mitchell is saying. This is anger in its prepubescent, angsty form – anger without direction. We’ve all felt like Eagulls at some point; frustrated and unable to express it in anything other than a primal, guttural howl.

Mitchell falls somewhere in the murky water between Robert Smith, John Lydon and Liam Gallagher. He shouts but doesn’t scream, he’s melodic but he doesn’t really sing, he’s  insular but has swagger. It makes his a rather distinctive new voice, and it’s easily Eagulls biggest weapon. While Mitchell’s voice stands out, the songs all kind of sound the same. They’re all roughly the same length, structurally similar and many of the choruses are virtually identical. ‘Hollow Visions’ is a great song, one that would blow radio 1 wide open if they decided to play it, but alongside ‘Yellow Eyes’ it kind of gets lost in the chaos.

‘Possessed’ and ‘Opeque’ are the two songs that stand out because they are poppier and more illuminating than the rest of the album. If a few more songs went in this direction, or any other direction, the album would be a more varied and balanced proposition. As it stands It’s a rather one-dimensional album, but at least Eagulls have forged a musical identity that they can call their own. Their sound is a form of post-punk recorded in a gutter; It’s a lot more polished than their early releases and live shows made me think it would be, but the album still sounds sweaty, raw and yes, angry.

As I mentioned earlier, It’s difficult to discern exactly what Mitchell is saying, and when you read the lyrics on paper you come to the conclusion that this is probably a good thing. For a band who have demonstrated in press interviews and on their blog that they have a lot of interesting, and often controversial, things to say, Eagulls have remarkably little to talk about on their album. It’s lucky for the band that they have a frontman who is able to convey emotions, or rather one emotion, without the need for strong words.  Eagulls have an uncanny way of making slight guitar riffs and bass lines sound vast and absorbing and Mitchell has the same knack when it comes to elevating rather empty lyrics. It isn’t easy to make the listener feel something, even if you’re singing great lyrics, but Mitchell makes you feel something even when he’s not. That’s an impressive skill. So “Eagulls” may not be a perfectly formed debut, but the band aren’t dealing with perfectly formed emotions.


Modern Baseball ‘You’re Gonna Miss It All’ – Review

5 Apr

“I hate having to worry about my future when all my current problems are based around my past.” Here we have the thing with Modern Baseball’s singer Brendan Lukens and with most people in their early 20s. You spend a lot of time worrying about the present and future at the same time as dealing with the weight of your past. Being that age involves feeling like a teenager when everyone expects you to know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Modern Baseball spend a lot of time dealing with these kind of young adult-hood conflicts; things like being stuck between ‘my adolescent safety net and where the world wants me to be’ and ‘trying hard not to look like I’m trying too hard.’ Modern Baseball follow in the American Alt-rock tradition of writing about this period in life with wit and good humour (see also The Discemberment Plan and Bright Eyes).

‘You’re going to miss it all’ is the title of the album, and the name works on different levels. It could be a message to their former selves (or their young audience), a kind of ‘enjoy it whilst it lasts’ thing; or It’s about being so caught up in the past that you’re missing out on what’s going on in the here and now – you’re going to miss this one day. It’s therefore an album that urges you to live in the present (and have fun!) whilst understanding the pressures coming out you from both the past and the future.

The band look like the cast of Superbad, and some of the anecdotes contained in these songs remind me of that film – such as on ‘Apartment’ where our protagonist arrives at a random girl’s flat-party, is completely unable to talk to her and leaves lost in his dream of a conversation ‘we’ll have tomorrow’ – only what’s the bet that tomorrow never comes? Even in this seemingly simple tale of romantic frustration there is something a lot deeper going on. The narrator, like on the other songs, is in that conflicted head space I talked about earlier. ‘All the classes in high school we fell asleep in, and now I can barely close my eyes.’ This line reveals a sad nostalgia for a high school past where things were intrinsically simpler, and a depression about his current situation. On another song he walks the streets ‘replaying high school songs in my head, because it’s better than lying awake.’ His eyes burn holes in pictures of an old girlfriend and he’s spent three whole years thinking about the same girl. This is a guy who dwells on the past a little bit more than is healthy – but don’t we all?

It’s an angsty, emo album where the clever lyrics are offset by d.u.m.b riffs, awkward chord changes and off-putting tempo changes. On each song they hurtle towards the finish line like those guys who run down hills chasing cheese. Sometimes they get to the end hardly in one piece, but it makes an exhilarating listen. When Lukens sings that he’s “Trying hard to look like I’m not trying to hard’ he could also be talking about the band’s musical approach – It’s sounds a lot less rehearsed than it probably is which gives it an expertly shambolic quality.

A certain snobbery will prevent Modern Baseball from getting the coverage they deserve; they aren’t that different, either lyrically or musically, from Cloud Nothings, whose most recent album is being slobbered over by critics up and down the country. But where as Cloud Nothing aligned themselves with an indie audience, Modern Baseball are supported by the ‘warped tour’ audience and will therefore get shamefully overlooked. It’s the critics’ loss though, because Modern Baseball deal with growing up with the awkwardness, sincerity and good humour it deserves. ‘You’re Gonna Miss It All’ is a messy, but quietly sophisticated album that just so happens to be pop punk. But then these are the kind of people Modern Baseball have no interest in in courting, as they make clear on ‘Going to Bed Now’. “What do you call someone who calls you out on DIY ethics you don’t embody, as he drains his dad and mommy’s monthly data plan? An asshole…with an iPhone.” Modern Baseball aren’t here for the assholes. As you can see, they’re funny as well, and smart – or as Lukens puts it ‘sharp as a tack, but in the sense that I’m not sharp, just a prick.’ Being smart yet self-aware, and thoughtful yet funny – these are rare qualities, but then Modern Baseball are a rare band.



Temples ‘Sun Structures’ – Review

3 Apr

I saw Temples supporting Mystery Jets at the tail end of 2012. They stood on stage, in heavy winter coats, barely moved, and basked in their own hipster-coolness. I’ve never seen such a blatant case of image over substance, and it was one of the least convincing live performances I’ve ever witnessed (and believe me, I’ve seen my fair share of shocking support bands over the years). The album suffers from the same illness as the live show, just to a much lesser extent. On the surface this is a beautiful album – every instrument is authentic, every sound-effect is spot on, every groove looks and sounds the part. Dig a bit deeper though and you realise that Temples really have nothing new, or that interesting, to say. At all. Like, nothing. Still, they look great not saying it.

First single, and opening track, ‘Shelter Song’ could quite comfortably have come in a time travelling machine from 1967. I can’t think of another debut single that Mojo magazine deemed retro enough to include on one of their monthly covermount CDs. And fair enough it is a great song, but boy does it try really, really hard to be cool. It’s placed right at the start of the album and everything that follows is an attempt to repeat this song’s success, which makes listening to this album like looking in a mirror whilst holding up another mirror and getting lost in all the reflections.

The title track is a glorious slice of sunshine pop that features a spot on Eastern riff and an exquisitely mixed vocal melody. ‘Mesmerise’ is nearly as catchy, and once again expertly produced, with a bright and sticky chorus that recalls The Byrds at their most spaced-out. On these early tracks, Temples demonstrate a knack for writing accessible psychedelic pop – which is a hard thing to pull off – even better bands like The Horrors and MGMT have struggled recently. Temples noodle a bit but never stray too far in to the realm of druggy indulgence; in one sense its classic psychadelic pop. But that’s kind of the problem. It sticks too closely to a formula that was created decades, and decades ago.  By doing so Temples lose sight of something rather obvious…

Temples have forgotten that the defining trait of psychedelia was its ability to break down barriers, both musically and figuratively. Temples are so interested in re-creating particular niche sounds that they lose sight of what psychedelia is supposed to do. They never get lost in the music and they never allow you to get lost in the music because they’re so busy ticking boxes. If you want an example of a band who took the signifiers of psychedelia and did something new with them, look no further than Tame Impala or Foxygen. Temples have made a solid album, but when you’re mining a sound that places so much emphasis on originality, and fail to be in the slightest bit original, then that’s a fairly big problem.

If the album was a marathon, Temples would be one of those guys who sprints for the first quarter and is so worn out that they tail off completely before the finish line. The seven minute long ‘Sand Dance’ is that bit in the marathon that runners call hitting the wall. Temples don’t go any further. But look, who can begrudge Temples making an album in the style they have clear love for. If I knew how to make a guitar make these sounds, and possessed the patience to work on it, then I may well be inclined to make an album like this. But does it make me want to listen to more Temples or does it make me want to listen to more Beatles and Grateful Dead? Temples have the potential and talent to be a great band, but they need to embrace the most important facet of psychedelia, and open the door to the 21st century.