Archive | June, 2014

Parquet Courts ‘Sunbathing Animal’ – Review

29 Jun

Parquet Courts are an aging hipster’s wet dream. They exert a reasonable amount of passion and energy but don’t expect their audience to do any hard work, their sound is referential and their lyrics are pseudo intellectual. Parquet Courts are well aware of all this because Parquet Courts are almost excruciatingly self aware. There’s probably nothing you could say about this band that they haven’t already thought, and over-thought, themselves. Every inch of album number three ‘Sunbathing Animal’ has been calculated and scrutinised by a band determined to present itself in just the right way. However, it’s an album that manages to be a lot of fun, almost in spite of itself.

Parquet Courts went through the 21st century blog hype cycle with their last album ‘Light Up Gold’ (inital sky-high praise followed swiftly by an almighty backlash) and credibly distanced themselves from all the labels being pinned on them. Like the D.I.Y indie-rock band they are, they barely caught their breath between that album, the mandatory e.p, and this. Their aim seems to be a difficult one; distance themselves from the rather tiresome Pavement and Pixies comparisons at the same time as ironing out the sound they want – which just so happens to sound a lot like Pavement and Pixies. They’re trying to establish their own style whilst wanting to sound like a very specific type of traditional indie rock band. It’s difficult. At what point does the lack of originality become a problem?

Parquet Courts put that question on ice for now, simply by being so damn good at doing at what they do. The band’s sound has evolved somewhat since the ramshackle ditties of ‘Light Up Gold’ but there is a clear through line between that and this. The dry and bleeding guitar tones are still present and correct, and they still use feedback as their secret fifth weapon, but if the last album was lit up gold, then this one has a lot more shade. After the storming and direct ‘Black and White’ we get the charmingly laid back ‘Dear Ramona’, which tells a tale of a mysterious lady who seems to take pleasure in doing the opposite of what is expected of her. After the rocking ‘Always Back in Town’ we get the sluggish ‘She’s Rolling’ and after the frantic title track, and a 30 second interlude, we get the epic ‘Instant disassembly’ where Savage repeats anxiously ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, it’s hard to exhale’. During the album’s second half there are perhaps too many of these plodding mid tempo songs but the admirable intent was to expand the band’s horizons and dig out new possibilities – to an extent they’ve been successful. It goes back to the idea of trying to carve out space in a scene and genre that has very defined ideals and rules. It’s about finding freedom whilst staying captive.

This is a theme of the record. On ‘Sunbathing Animal’ Parquet courts spend a lot of time weighing up the choice between captivity and freedom. Is freedom always freeing and Is there comfort to be found in captivity? On the title track Andrew Savage is at once in thrall to and helpless to prevent the wonder and agony of being in the possession of somebody else. On ‘Always Back In Town’ the monotonous routine of being a lower tier indie rock band is expressed by Savage’s weary, droning voice and the repetitive guitar lick that sheds extra light on the nagging hook when it arrives; ‘I’m always packing my bags, I’m always back in town, according to you.’ Even supposedly free and wild rock bands become burdened with and bored by routine. Throughout the album the band ruminate on conflicting desires and confusing contradictions, making this an album that poses interesting questions and provides very few answers.

All this makes it rather difficult to pin down Parquet Court’s tone. Just when are they being ironic and when are they being honest? The band have been called emotionally unavailable, but I think that’s a slightly misjudged observation. Sure, the conversational singing style masks true feeling in layers of irony and mystique, and their obtuse lyricism misdirects your empathy, but there are real glimpses of sadness and longing here that cut through the reflective surface. On ‘She’s rolling’ Savage can still see a girl ‘in the back of my mind.’ On ‘Instant Disassembly’ he begs a Mamasita to ‘hold me now as I sink.’ ‘Black and White’ speaks of real internal struggle, whilst ‘Sunbathing Animal’ is about being completely helpless and unable to escape your unwanted emotions. Even self-aware hipsters have feelings. Yes ‘Sunbathing Animal’ is a serious, serious album but there is emotion, and humour, to be found. Despite the musical advances this is probably the area in which Parquet Courts have made the most progress. They remain a calculated, intellectual, oh-so-cool indie rock band but there are glimpses of real soul here. If they let their guard down a little more, and continue to expand their sound in weird directions, I think they have potential to make an astonishing album.

8/10

 

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Sam Smith ‘In the Lonely Hour’ – Review

22 Jun

You’ll recognise Sam Smith’s voice before you recognise his name. His vocals were featured on two of the biggest hits of last year, Disclosure’s ‘Latch’ and Naughty Boy’s ‘LA LA LA’ and he’s already had 2 numbers ones of his own (‘Money on my Mind’ and ‘Stay With Me’). Add to that his impressive Stateside success (2 top 20 singles, 1 top 10 single and an SNL performance) and you’ve got enough evidence to justify the slightly ridiculous ‘male Adele’ tag. And as reductive as that tag is, he IS kind of a male Adele; an old fashioned singer-songwriter who places massive emphasis on that stunning voice, and accompanies it with simple and subtle musical arrangements.

Smith has never been in a relationship, so he wanted to write an album for all the unrequited lovers out there. It’s a brave mission statement and an interesting proposition for a record that isn’t just another break up album. Smith’s perspective is sad and lonely – he sings of love as seen through the naïve eyes of somebody on the outside looking in. It makes you realise that most pop music is sung from the perspective of good looking, successful, well-adjusted people; Sam Smith isn’t that. Not everyone is fortunate (or should that be unfortunate) enough to have felt the type of heartbreak you’re used to hearing about. Sam Smith allows us the privilege of seeing things from a different and far more vulnerable perspective.

Smith’s voice is a thing of great precision; it rises and falls with absolute grace, it quivers without breaking and it expresses more power than the words could ever hope to express when read on the page. In his hands, an uneventful phrase like ‘I’m in love with you and you’ll never know’ becomes a dangerous weapon capable of melting even the most hardened heart. His voice blows like a breeze through all the cracks and cranny’s that lead to your soul. This has become the fastest selling debut album of the year for a reason and that reason is undeniably this voice.

It’s a bit difficult to describe how or why these songs are so dramatically effective, especially as on the surface they appear completely nondescript. Sam Smith has made an unspectacular, innocuous, middle of the road pop album – at least on the surface. There is nothing here that bites or growls, nothing that builds a tempo and nothing that excites your feet or challenges your brain. So why is it so moving? That is the inexplicable power of music – especially music this universal and passionate. OK the song writing is slightly clichéd, the chord progressions are standard and the arrangements are uninnovative, but that familiarity allows Sam Smith enough comfort to push himself vocally and emotionally – you can tell this is the type of music he loves and feels at home with.

The expanded version of the album features fourteen songs, of which about a quarter somewhat flat (not a bad ratio for such a commercial entity) and they fall flat for fairly boring reasons. He relies on clichés a little too much here, he over-emotes a little too much there, but you’re left thinking about the songs that do make a mark rather than the ones that don’t. The tragic ‘Leave Your Lover’, the heart-breaking ‘Not in that Way’ and the already classic ‘Lay Me Down.’ The best songs are the simplest, the ones with just a guitar or piano and voice. This is a surprising twist in the Same Smith story as the tunes that introduced us to him are some of the busiest, most fizzing and innovative pop songs of recent times. ‘Latch’ and ‘La La La’ turn up as welcome bonus tracks, but of the new songs only the ADHD sounding ‘Restart’ attempts (and fails) to cover the same ground. A missed opportunity? Perhaps, but if you want more songs in that vein you can always stick Disclosure’s ‘Settle’ on. That isn’t what Sam Smith is about. ‘In the Lonely Hour’ is a modest vocal pop album that in no way sounds groundbreaking or contemporary. But at the same time it isn’t bound to the conventions and trends of 2014; It’s timeless.

8/10

Kasabian ‘48.13’ – review

17 Jun

Kasabian headline Glastonbury next week and it’s been a long time coming. When they allegedly turned down a low slot 2 years ago it was because they were waiting to be invited to top the bill. When ‘Fire’ went top 5, and confirmed that the band had staying power, they had one eye on Glastonbury. When their debut tried to bridge the gap between acid heads, smack heads and pot heads, they had one eye on Glastonbury. When they stood on a stage at The Charlotte as an unsigned Oasis Covers band and performed to three people, they had one eye on Glastonbury. New album ’48.13’ is a means to an end – that end being the pyramid stage next Friday night.

They could have phoned this album and nobody would have blamed them. Put out an album with 12 ‘Fire’s’ and the jobs a goodun. But that is decidedly what they haven’t done. Few albums that have been labelled ‘lad rock’ are as utterly weird, eclectic and thoughtful as ’48.13’. Sure, It’s a bit cringey when they hire some cockney cliché to do a rap (which features the delicious line ‘The biggest criminal I ever met wore a suit’) and ‘Ezee eh’ is absolutely ridiculous – but they know it. They flaunt it. They embrace and ultimately exploit that silliness whilst never using it as something to hide behind. This is an album that has a lot of heart and soul beneath the silly exterior.

It’s not the album I thought they’d make. With Arctic Monkeys about to quieten down, and Glasto on the horizon, I assumed they’d go for an ‘AM’ style assault on the charts and play to the lack of rock music out there at the moment. In fact ’48.13’ is the most left-field, experimental record the band have yet put out. Only on the storming album opener ‘Bumblebee’ do the band really exploit their riff-rock heritage. That song is a deafening, crushing and actually quite awful beast but it isn’t the norm. The album has more in common with rave than it does rock, and at times it sounds more like ‘Yeezus’ than ‘Morning Glory.’

‘Eez eh’ is one of those songs where you do a double take the first time you hear it. It’s so out there, so brazen, so cheesy… but by about the fourth listen I was totally hooked. The song is so self-consciously, transparently, cynically crafted for a festival that it almost beggars belief – but the festival it has in mind is Creamfields rather than Reading. ‘Eze eh’ is almost as blatant as the lighters aloft closer ‘S.P.S’ which has clearly been written for the end of a gig but is far too self-conscious to work as a real anthem. It’s difficult to find a balance between irony and sincerity, silliness and seriousness, and here, and at other points, Kasabian don’t get it right – and it’s always when they’re trying too hard. The euphoric ‘treat’ is a lot less desperate for an audience’s attention but is all the more likely to be a live stand out because of that.

I’ve always felt Kasabian had it in them to write this generation’s ‘drugs don’t work’ or ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘end of the century.’ On that front they’re still letting me down. Whilst their rock tracks still rock excessively, their ballads are very subtle, quiet and nonchalant. In other words not at all what you want from a band like Kasabian. Those are the type of songs that truly transcend genres and audiences and bring people together – particularly at festivals and I feel a little let down that they don’t even attempt to write a real ballad on ’48.13’. But I suppose that’s the thing about this band. Kasabian don’t want to be pigeon holed and they aren’t particularly bothered by what you expect them to do, or even what you would like them to do. Kasabian don’t want to be that type of band. They don’t want to be ANY type of band. However ridiculous it may seem to outsiders, Kasabian see themselves as Rock music’s Kanye West; constantly shifting and defying expectations.

For all its faults ’48.13’ is an album that attempts new things and does so with good humour and startling confidence. Kasabian sound like a young band excited by the possibilities of rock n roll. The group were initially tagged as the ‘new Oasis’, something that has haunted them throughout their career, but this is Kasabian’s fifth album and let’s not forget that five albums in to their career, Oasis’ creativity was derelict and their ambition stagnant. When Oasis celebrated their ten year anniversary by headlining Glasto in 04 they were ridiculed as being lame dogs, past it in every sense, living off past glories. When Kasabian take to the same stage next week they will be a band in their prime who have truly earnt their reward. Kasabian’s time is now.

6.5/10

The Horrors ‘Luminous’ – Review

8 Jun

The Horrors have built a career on shocks. It seems like a lifetime ago that I came across five ghoulish faces staring back at me from the cover of NME in 2006. The Horrors had been playing shows a matter of months and yet they were already deemed exciting enough to warrant an NME front page. With their comic names (Faris Baldwin became Faris Rotter), nightmarish costumes and bizarre stage antics, The Horrors provoked reaction with just about everything they did; except that is the music, a thrilling strain of garage rock which got completely overlooked. Three years later it was the music that shocked when in 2009 they released ‘Sea Within A Sea’, a stunning,  kreutrock epic that erased any notion of The Horrors as all style and no substance.  2011’s ‘Skying’ was another interesting left-turn, into a murky realm where Synth Pop and Shoegaze cross pollinated. It certainly wasn’t as strong as 2009’s ‘Primary Colours’ but it was another excellent album that surprised a lot of people.

I’ve spoken to people who are interested in this record only in so far as it can provide another shock. Those people are going to be disappointed with ‘Luminous’, as it’s virtually the identical twin of ‘Skying’. Sadly the band are ploughing the same ground with diminished rewards. The big difference is that where that album had guitars that sounded like guitars and synths that were made to sound like guitars, this album has synths that sound like synths and guitars that are made to sound like synths. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. The relegation of the guitarist Josh Hayward and the promotion of Synth wizard Tom Coward means that this is a rather tame album compared to its predcessor. The Horrors attitude and commendable ferocity has always been initiated by the throbbing axe-work of Hayward. Here he sounds relegated to a bit player. Compard to ‘Skying’ and certainly ‘Primary Colours’ and ‘Strange House’, This is the sound of a neutered band.

It’s music for scientists  made by scientists. Music that makes half-hearted gestures to the dancefloor but never works up enough groove or energy to coax you there. It’s music that expands, revurbarates, wanders and prods – but never connects. This is asexual music made by men who spent far too long in the studio and not enough time with the groupies. It’s music that is very clever, and don’t the band just know it. They want your plaudits and not your blood or your sweat or your tears. Faris’ lyrics, whilst never complex or particularly insightful, have always been heartfelt and purposeful. For whatever reason, they aren’t doing it for me this time around. At best, his vague musings on love offer simple rewards, in that they melt quite nicely in to the background, keeping your attention fixed firmly on what he thinks matters – the music. They aren’t however an attraction in their own right and because the band excel in so may other ways, it’s one thing holding them back from greater heights.

But this isn’t a bad album; in fact in certain respects it’s astonishing. Sure It’s a mildly boring, long, heavy record with very few moments of levity or drive- but it sounds better than any other album I’ve heard all year. The textures are exactly how the band describe them – luminous. The songs are so dense and layered with glorious sounds that you know have been slaved over and have turned out just so. ‘I See You’ builds and builds like it’s aiming for the heavens, in a glorious reverse of ‘Sea Within a Sea’s’ epic descending collapse. ‘Sleepwalk’ is the exact musical equivilant of sleepwalking, and regardless of whether that is something you want to hear, it’s a commendable sonic achievement. From the swirling reverb of ‘First Days of Spring’ to the twangs of ‘Change Your Mind’, this is a perfectly realised soundscape.

But that doesn’t autmoticlly make for a great album. Thing is, the album also sets a lot of store in the strength of the choruses, only they aren’t all that mememorable. In fact The Horrors have been regurgitating the same melodies for years – ‘I See You’ is basically ‘So Now You Know’ which is basically ‘I Can See Through You’ which is basically ‘Who Can Say’. All fine and good, but we’ve heard it all before. The moody ‘Change Your Mind’ however has noprecedent   in the band’s discography and the poppy ‘Falling Star’ also breaks new ground for the band. On both these tracks it’s the melodies that drive the songs forward, they don’t feel like an afterthought. For me, that’s always the best way to craft a song.

‘Luminous’ is not a disastor but for fans used to reinvention it’s quite a comedown. It’s shocking for it’s lack of shocks. It worries me that the band are moving further away from the spontenaious energy of their early live shows and recordings towards an increasingly sexless and air-sealed sound. The Horrors are gifted musicians and experimental tecnicians and that strength shines here, but they’re also capable of being wild and eccentric, a side to the band that just isn’t represented on ‘Luminous’. For a band used to taking big steps forward it might be worth taking a couple of steps backward to remember where they started – as five ghoulish faces with hunger, attitude and energy to burn.

6/10

Lykke Li ‘I Never Learn’ – Review

5 Jun

‘I Never Learn’ is the third and final part in a trilogy that chronicles Lykke Li’s rather tragic love life. Where her debut ‘Youth Novels’ was enthusiastic and relatively upbeat in the face of rejection, ‘I Never Learn’ is resigned and downcast. Where her second album ‘Wounded Rhymes’ was melodramatic and cathartic, ‘I Never Learn’ is darkly dramatic and doomed. There is little hope offered at the record’s end, and few signs of ‘it’ll be alright some day.’ ‘I Never Learn’ makes its bold claim with its title – Lykke Li accepts her heartbroken fate as a stone cold fact and she’s not going to change.

Lykke Li is the femme female who will walk all over you, break your heart and dump it in the river. She admits as much in ‘No Rest For the Wicked’ when she confesses ‘I let my good one down.’ On ‘Gunshot’ she claims to be a ‘siren, I am ivy’ and has a ‘devil’s hand across my heart.’ Unlike Chris Martin on last week’s ‘Ghost Stores’, Lykke Li plays the predator rather than the victim. Fittingly then, unlike the sad restraint of ‘Ghost Stories’, ‘I Never Learn’ is a powerful, dramatic and exceedingly confident break up album. Lykee Li has just about everyone eating out of her fine and delicate hands.

Li’s voice is naturally soft and brittle; it suits songs like ‘Gunshot’ and her earlier hit ‘Little Bit’ and is less suited to the more bombastic numbers on the album. On ‘Never Gonna Love Again’, a hulking big weepie that dwarfs every other song on here, she sounds nasal and whinny – her mumbled words kind of lose their impact. Sometimes her voice is a thing of beauty but only when it’s dressed in loosely fitting clothes. It sounds better on the sparse and beautiful ‘Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone’ or the more intimate ‘Sleep Alone’.

Nine songs may be somewhat slight, especially when a couple of these tracks misfire, but you aren’t really left asking for much more. This a thematic piece of work with nice cohesion; it rises, falls and swells in just the right places. It’s not ground-breaking or revelatory but it does have a strong identity of its own. Lykke Li’s fate as a perpetually heartbroken femme fatale may be unfortunate for her but if she keeps knocking out albums as strong as this the listener will be the real victor.

7.5/10