Archive | May, 2014

Black Keys ‘Turn Blue’ – Review

29 May

The Black Keys are cowards. Over the past month they’ve attacked a clearly troubled teenager (Justin Bieber), an American hero (Jack White) and a dead man (Michael Jackson). These attacks were angry, judgmental and puzzling. Noel and Liam Gallagher they aint. It left me wondering why the nasty duo don’t pick on people their own size. The simple answer, based on new album ‘Turn Blue’, is that they simply don’t have the guts because they haven’t got the songs. They have trouble talking the talk and on this evidence they’re not close to walking the walk – in fact they aren’t even fit to lick Jack White’s desert boots.

‘Turn Blue’ is a hilariously inept, monolithic record beamed straight from a distant, unfriendly age where guitars, drums and organs were deemed to be the only authentic instruments and women were called things like ‘Darlin’. It’s a ‘ROCK’ album in the sense that it sounds hard, uncompromising and grey – like a rock. It’s riddled with awkward end rhymes and archaic phrasing (“why you always wanna love the ones who hurt yah?”) set to hollow riffs and snoozy rhythms. It’s obstinately their ‘heart and soul’ record, yet there is no heart and little soul. Dan Auerbach tries to show a sensitive side yet comes over as out of touch and emotionally unsophisticated. His summary of his sorry love life? “Nobody want to protect yah / They only want to forget yah.”

Black Keys have been slugging it out for over a decade and their best work came when they were a modest support band living in the shadows. They got pushed in to the limelight because of a lack of other options – by 2010 Black Keys were one of the few acts making accessible riff rock, and so, Suddenly, and without much rhyme or reason, the powers that be decided they would become massive. 2011’s ‘El Camino’ was their poppiest record yet, and the most fun, but it still left me feeling a bit cold. ‘El Camino’, like their previous albums, was all stone carved riffs and no heart. I reasoned that if Black Keys were going to earn their plaudits they would need to insert some real, hard earned emotion in to their act.

But embracing emotion shouldn’t mean ditching fun altogether – especially when your entire sound and image until this point is based around ‘fun.’ ‘Turn Blue’ chronicles singer Dan Auerbach’s “messy divorce” (which divorce isn’t messy?) and when he wrote it he was clearly still in the drunk ‘woe is me’ phase of the break-up. Like Coldplay, Black Keys have followed their most upbeat album with their saddest. Unlike Coldplay, that’s all Black Keys have made; a sad, sad, sad album. It’s all build up and no release. All tears and no joy. All negativity and no optimism. It’s a sad, sad, sad album. Which is a real bummer.

As on ‘El Camino’, the record is produced by Danger Mouse, and it’s no better for it. As on the Broken Bells album earlier this year (Danger Mouse is a member of that group) ‘Turn Blue’ has a claustrophobic sound. Cinematic strings circle the other instruments, keeping them penned in to a ring. The bass is notable in the mix but sounds muddy and distracting. The swirling, almost psychedelic sound is the sonic equivalent of car sickness. Any semblance of dynamism, particularly with the riffs, gets lost in the dizziness. ’10 Lovers’ stands out from the crowd – the drums have a bit of bite and the synth rises to the surface and moves away from the sludge. Here they sound closer to former support act Arctic Monkeys on last Year’s triumphant ‘A.M’. It’s a shame more songs don’t have the same energy and focus.

‘Turn Blue’ is simply too plodding, too lethargic and too moody to be enjoyable. It doesn’t surprise me when I read that the band deliberately tried not to write singles. If that was their aim then they succeeded – there is nothing here that comes close to matching ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ or ‘Lonely Boy.’ In most countries Michael Jackson, half a decade dead and buried, beat Black Keys to the number one spot and that also doesn’t surprise me. ‘Turn Blue’ rather than MJ’s ‘Xscape’ is the album that sounds like it was made from beyond the grave. Jack White and Justin Bieber shouldn’t worry either – Black Keys have well and truly lost this battle and they better #belieb that.


Coldplay ‘Ghost Stories’ – Review

22 May

Coldplay are a bit like the popular cheerleader at school. Pretty, polite, confident and completely lacking in substance. Their failings are obvious – so obvious in fact that even the too humble for his own good Chris Martin is aware of them. And yet ‘Ghost Stories’ is currently number 1 in 72 countries for a reason. You don’t get to be this popular, for this long, if you haven’t got a few things going for you.

They occupy an unusual position. Once upon a time, if you can remember, they were actually critically respected, to the extent that they quickly became the quintessential ‘most overated band’ in cool circles. This tag led a lot of people to actually underate, or at least overlook, them. I still don’t think critics give them enough due. Your typical Coldplay album is full of songs that find some breathing space in the tussle between conflicting emotions. Theirs are songs of sadness that beg to be belted by drunk masses in English fields. They find the sweet spot between melancholy and exuberance. The emotions they sing about are corny and universal, and Chris Martin is no Bob Dylan, but listen to the audience bellowing back the lyrics of ‘Yellow’ and tell me you don’t feel something – even if you don’t know what that feeling is. Their music is for the moment when those insular emotions need to be released to the world.

Since 2005’s commercially successful but overblown ‘X&Y’, Coldplay have been wandering down a garden path that has been rewarding and frustrating in just about equal measure. ‘Viva La Vida’ was in love with Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ and it lacked the tunes of previous albums; however it showed off Johnny’s increasingly beautiful and ethereal guitar licks and demonstrated that the band weren’t going to be pigeonholed. ‘Xylo Mylto’ was more wholly enjoyable, with its glow-fi choruses and felt-tip synthlines. It saw the band taking on Rihanna at her own game and whilst nobody was fooled, they came out of the fight with their heads held high. Still there’s no doubt Coldplay are still best known for the glum balladry that they perfected on ‘Parachutes’ and ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head.’ When Zane Lowe asked Gary Barlow to play some ‘Chris Martin chords’ during an interview a couple of years ago, everybody knew what he was talking about.

So when you can’t beat em, join em. Here they decide to revisit that sound in an attempt to carve out something new from a 15 year old template. ‘Ghost Stories’ find them winding down and revisiting their roots. The album shares a moodiness with their always impressive debut but where that album was in thrall of ‘The Bends’, this one is Coldplay’s ‘In Rainbows’ – albeit a very tame and emasculated ‘In Rainbows’. Sonically it’s restrained and brittle, built around simple XX inspired beats and a wishy-washy sonic palette of ambient synths and softly, softly guitar lines. It seems they learnt a thing or two from both Eno and John Hopkins.

These are simple, unshowy melodies with simple, unshowy lyrics, and simple, unshowy arrangements. ‘Ghost Stories’ has absolutely no ambition and for that reason it was never going to be a masterpiece, but it is all those things you’d associate with ‘classic’ Coldplay. It’s nice, it’s wet, it’s gentle and it’s often beautiful and transcendental – plus it makes brilliant background music. You may not view these traits as good selling points, but clearly a lot of people do, and I’m sure those people will be more than happy with ‘Ghost Stories.’ It’s slight at 9 songs long but it’s brevity means that it’s a consistent record. Only the boring and blustery closer ‘O’ fails to make some kind of impact – well, that and the blatant Imogen Heep rip off ‘Midnight’.

One song breaks the miserable, clear water mood and that’s ‘Sky Full of Stars’, which features production from E.D.M giant Avicii. But hold your horses! It actually works really well. It strikes me that this song shows E.D.M at it’s absolute best; it’s a short burst of euphoric release that comes after a lot of calm and reflection. This is what that genre does so well – you wouldn’t want a full album of this but it’s perfectly positioned here to liven things up just at the right moment.

The lyrics are less convoluted than those found on earlier albums which is kind of a shame – by ‘Mylo Xylto’ I think everyone was starting to enjoy how ridiculous they were becoming, Chris Martin included – but at least there are no palm/face moments. ‘Sky Full of Stars’ Is built around a confusing mixed metaphor where Martin’s love interest is both the sky full of stars and IN the sky full of stars, but this song aside the lyrics are decidedly clear-cut and surprisingly honest and direct. Let’s not beat about the bush any longer: this is Chris Martin’s break up album.

It’s a very, very obvious break up album at that, but then these are obvious emotions that most people have experienced. At one point on the lovely ‘True Love’ he coos ‘tell me you love me / if you don’t then lie’ whilst, on ‘Another’s Arms’, remembering ‘your body on my body’. He’s unable to sleep. He looks at past statements of love like ‘together through life’ and cries. He imagines being with her again one day. These observations and thoughts are not revelatory, unique or insightful but they are undeniably direct, sincere and relatable. Chris Martin’s truth is there on public display and that deserves credit. This can’t have been an easy record to make but, as always with Coldplay, it’s an easy and rewarding album to listen to.

That Cheerleader analogy at the start of this review was actually inaccurate; they’re less a popular cheerleader and more the fat nerdy kid at school. Teasing them is just far, far too easy. Everyone does it, it’s no fun. Just about everything is going against Coldplay; they’re a white, English, Middle-class, sweet and humble rock band who make very popular and very easy going pop music. But if you speak to the fat nerdy kid you’ll find out that below the surface they’re actually really funny and cool. Know what? That analogy isn’t great either. Coldplay are still all surface and little substance. They’re still a bit cheerleader. But maybe if the Fat kid and the cheerleader hooked up, THAT would be Coldplay. Number one in 72 countries, ‘Ghost Stories’ is still bringing people of all stripes together.


Michael Jackson ‘Xscape’ – Review

20 May

Michael Jackson has just made 2014’s best pop album from beyond the grave. Wonders never cease when it comes to the King of Pop, Rock and Soul. This is, ironically, an album fizzing with life; rubbish title aside, Xscape is a surprisingly considered album from top to bottom, and one that makes an embarrassment of the posthumous albums we’re use to from our deceased pop stars. Of course it poses a lot of interesting questions that will keep fans and cynics debating for a long time; is this the album Michael would actually have made? Would he have wanted this released? Does that actually matter? The fact is Michael Jackson worked very closely with producers, he was a perfectionist but at the same time he handed a lot of responsibility to the people he worked with – I don’t think this is a world away from what a new Michael Jackson would have, or should have sounded like in 2014. It certainly sounds a lot more current and lively than ‘Invincible’ did in 2002.

The powers that be have tried to claw back some kind of credibility and cohesion from 2010’s hit and miss ‘Michael’. By hiring Timbaland to oversee and curate this impressively concise collection of 8 songs they have hit a home run. It’s been years since Jackson worked with a single producer, and although these songs were originally worked on with other names, Timbaland has stamped his distinctive production style all over the album. It works for the same reason Justin Timberlake’s impressive ‘20/20 Experience’ (also a Timbaland joint) worked last year. It is a modern sounding album with retro flourishes. It’s sonically ambitious in its scale and scope yet it’s poppy and full of hooks. You can’t help dreaming about what Jackson might have achieved in life if he had worked with Tim and not Will I Am, or Justin Timberlake instead of Akon.

We don’t know a huge amount about Michael Jackson’s working relationship with his producers, as a lot of that process is clouded with mystique. Jackson’s producers are generous with their praise of his contribution to the creative process, often attributing unexpected production or arrangement ideas to the man himself. Jackson, like many creative geniuses, had a rather limited critical vocabulary, and he was unable or unwilling to articulate what exactly it was that he did in the studio. When asked, he would attribute most things to God and often seemed unable to remember the finer details of who did what and how. It seems It was a game of give and take between him and his producers. He would start with an idea that he would hum and beatbox; often he would arrange entire tracks in this way, starting with the rhythm, bass, then piano, guitar and even string and horns. The producers would then translate this into something real, often over the course of many years and at great expense.

As time wore on there is little doubt that Jackson became disinterested in the recording process and he handed over more and more responsibility to an increasingly unwise rota of producers. His decision making became blurred, his songs were left unfinished and half baked. At the risk of saying anything unpopular Jackson decided it was best to say nothing at all. In his world this meant extreme procrastination – that’s why we’ve ended up with ‘Xscape’, an album that takes some of his half baked, unfinished ideas and attempts to do something meaningful with them.

L.A Reid’s (head of Epic records and this album’s executive producer) logic is that he chose songs Jackson had demoed dozens of times – that’s how, Reid reasons, you know Jackson liked the song. That logic seems flawed to the extreme; after all, if Michael really loved the songs why would he leave them on the cutting room floor in various states of undress? Nonetheless, these 8 songs are all reasonably strong, some of them would be considered single material, let alone album material, in a lesser artist’s hands. Certainly these tracks are better than the ones that featured on 2010’s first posthumous collection ‘Michael’, and the production is more up to date.

Jackson’s primary influence in later life was classic romantic poetry and great works of art. He really wasn’t as engaged in pop culture as some people might assume. This is what influenced the broad stroke optimism and despair that washed over songs like Heal the World and Earth Song in equal measure. Jackson’s heroes were ambitious, doomed and out of sync with the times. So was he. Jackson was increasingly happy to make grand, unusual artistic statements at the expense of dance songs. So epics like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ and ‘Xscape’ which deal with child abuse, alienation and persecution are in that tradition. By Pop’s modern low standards these songs are strange, difficult, even bizarre but Wordsworth dealt with exactly the same topics. Sure, Michael can’t articulate his views in a way that will avoid scorn and ridicule from closed-minded critics, but then Wordsworth couldn’t sing or dance or arrange music. When digesting ‘Xscape’, and pop music in general, you have to remember that lyrics are part of a bigger picture. I chose to look past the shortcomings and admire the ambition and imagination of these offerings.

Still, without doubt Michael Jackson was at his most potent when he sang about supposedly straightforward things like love and loss (preferably to the sound of cowbells, horns and a Disco beat). ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, presented here in three forms, is the breeziest Michael Jackson song recorded since the Thriller Days. ‘Off the Wall’ fans no doubt have Daft Punk to thank for the lovely throwback production. There is no agenda here, no grand ambition or important statement. It’s a love song that expresses unadulterated joy in a simple and enthusiastic way. His voice is stunning and it glides all over the silky strings and just-so beat. It’s a refreshingly modest joy to behold. ‘Chicago’ and ‘Loving You’ are equally relaxed and enjoyable and both feature production that sounds of our time and of his time as well.

I’ve seen some reviews that take issue with Michael’s later material for being too bitter and angry (read just about any review of ‘Xscape and you’ll find these accusations in one form or another). This is offensive. These people are assuming that a pop star in Michael Jackson’s position had no right to express his anger, as if this emotion is reserved for the young, moody and indie. Michael Jackson’s anger was valid and (mostly) well expressed. It never overwhelmed or defined his albums, and it doesn’t here. Rather it serves to highlight just what a perilous and sad situation Michael found himself in as the 20th century moved in to the 21st century. These songs make me feel empathetic and I can relate to his pain. Likewise some people have a problem with a song like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ because of it’s controvesial content. The song condemns child abuse. Perhaps these people have forgotten that Michael Jackson was acquitted of all Child Molestation charges put against him by a jury of his peers. If anyone has the right to sing about this subject it’s him. Can you imagine Justin Beiber or One Direction addressing a subject like this? Of course you can’t. Pop stars lack bravery but Michael Jackson never did.

The later songs on the album, the ones recorded in the late 90’s, can’t match the 80’s material.That once breezy voice does lose some of it’s charm as it becomes noticeably angrier and more confident – His vocal performance on ‘Xscape’ is full of ticks, whoops and exclamations, that draw attention away from the melody. The title track is the one mis-step on the album, and unsurprisingly it is the most recent composition on here. Rodney Jerkins isn’t a hack, but he’s certainly no match for Michael Jackson’s talent. It reminds you that ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ is a fantasy; a fantasy of what a Michael Jackson song may have sounded like in 2014. It’s an old melody glued to a contemporary arrangement and it wouldn’t exist if Michael Jackson were still alive. If Michael Jackson was still alive we would have more songs like ‘Xscape’ and less like ‘Love Never Felt so Good.’ But then that’s what this album is, a fantasy. And that’s what Michael Jackson was, in both his art and his life, a fantasy. ‘Xscape’ is an un-real album from an un-real artist for un-real times. I can’t think of a more perfect vehicle for our own fantasies and projections about the King of Pop. Take from ‘Xscape’ whatever you want but accept it for what it is; another out of sync move from an out-of sync genius, still surprising us from another realm.


Damon Albarn ‘Everday Robots’ – Review

9 May

20 years ago Damon Albarn titled Blur’s breakthrough album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ but he never really sold us on the idea. There was too much wit, humour and energy contained in the songs to make you believe that modern life could be anything other than a blast. Then there was layer upon layer of irony that made you question the authenticity of that and every other statement that left this supposed cockney’s lips – did Blur really think modern life was rubbish or were they being ironic? It seemed the answer was yes or no depending on which day and in which mood you caught them in. ‘Everyday Robots’ attempts to sell us this idea once again. Stripped of all the qualities I mentioned above (wit, humour, energy and irony) it’s a lot easier to buy in to the world view, that yes, perhaps, modern life is rubbish after all. Or at least, it is for the 50 odd minutes you have to listen to this.

There Albarn is on the cover, perched on a stool, in front of a grey background, staring at his feet, almost looking ashamed to be sitting below his own name – and let’s not forget that this is the first time ‘Damon Albarn’ has appeared at the top of any album. He’s not with ‘Blur’ or ‘Gorilaz’ or ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ anymore, and Albarn hardly looks happy to be out on his own. This surprising lack of confidence and bravado from the victor of ‘the war of britpop’ is evident in the drippy, half-hearted melodies, the barely there choruses, and the pale, minimal instrumentation. Over the years his output has been remarkably hit and miss for such a legendary artist, but even so, I wasn’t expecting quite so much apathy and disdain on what is essentially a debut solo album.

Albarn sounds like he barely has enough energy and motivation to make it to the end of track one, let alone track eleven. If you think about it, his songs have always been kind of miserable; I’m not talking about the obvious ‘Think Tank’ and ‘13’ brand of miserable, but on Parklife there was more than a fair share of sadness beneath the layers of satire. Even ‘Country House’, a song guaranteed to get a euphoric reaction wherever it’s played, features the line ‘I am so sad I don’t know why.’ Blur escaped all the emo sad sack labels Radiohead got tagged with but in 2014 it’s shockingly obvious that as Thom Yorke and co have learnt how to let loose and relax, Albarn has learnt how to mope. Or maybe this trait was always there but was tempered by the gregarious personality of Alex James and the frenzy of Graham Coxen’s guitars. Maybe Albarn has always been this dreary and I just overlooked it.

The vague theme of the album, carried over many but not all of the songs, is that technology is getting in the way of traditional values. The point seems to be that whilst it’s easy to connect with people online (‘statuses’ are mentioned and social networking is referred to) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to connect on a human level. He has a fair point but is it a point worth listening to on a pop record? Not really. Not when it’s expressed so blandly. The language is vague, abstract and unengaging – a world away from the detailed and fizzy language of ‘Parklife’ and ‘The Great Escape’. It’s a similar story with the arrangements which are equally vague, abstract and unmoving. A whole lot of disjointed pops and whistles over some moody acoustic strumming.

So we are introduced to ideas like; technology is an hollow, easy fix (‘If you’re lonely press play’), it gets in the way of human interaction (‘it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on’) and it can even be a bit dangerous (‘be aware of the photographs you’re taking now’). I wonder if Albarn realises how much of a dad he sounds like? It’s his tone as much as anything else that makes this such a monotonous record. He’s one thing he never was with Blur – preachy and judgmental. Disengaged as well.

He’s better when he’s being less high and mighty. ‘Hollow Pond’ appears to be the most autobiographical track on the record; it references the 1976 heatwave on Blur’s breakthrough in 93 among other things but it never really sticks at any point long enough to build a narrative – it’s ultimately a bit of a blur, but still likeable. At times this can be a beautiful album – lets not overlook the fact that Albarn is one of pop music’s best song-writers, and he doesn’t drop the ball when it comes to the melodies. ‘Mr Tembo’ is the prettiest of many pretty tunes. It turns out that on the least serious song on the album (it’s about a displaced elephant) Albarn hits upon the album’s greatest moment of clarity and revelation. Describing the elephant, Albarn observes ‘It’s where he is now but it wasn’t what he planned’ a line which is ripe for interpretation. That’s always been his greatest skill; finding wisdom in normality, and depth in silliness. If he treated all these subjects with this lightness of touch then you imagine he’d accidentally stumble on some greater insights. Mr Tembo is a song about things not turning out how you planned, and ultimately I don’t think ‘Everyday Robots’ has turned out as planned.