Archive | August, 2014

Jenny Lewis ‘The Voyager’ – Review

26 Aug

Jenny Lewis has had a long and varied career, the kind that makes her a bit daunting for a new listener. On new album ‘The Voyager’, Lewis shares some of the details of her past lives, from her youthful sexual experiences, to relationship breakdowns and right up to present day concerns. More than previous albums, ‘They Voyager’ feels richly autobiographical and authentic. It’s also Lewis’ most colourful and vivid album to date.

Recorded with Ryan Adams, ‘The Voyager’ is a perfectly judged blend of country, AM pop and AOR Rock.These are modest, uncool genres and they are a good fit for Lewis’ powerful but unshowy voice. She clearly feels at home singing songs in this style and the familiarity allows her to be somewhat playful. She knows just how far she can push the her voice on ‘Head Underwater’, just when to bring out the weepy violin on ‘She’s Not Me’ and just how far she can hold our sympathy on ‘Slippery Slopes’. The album is endlessly melodic and exploratory, particularly the first half which is equal parts heartbreak and enthusiasm. You get the impression that they did dozens of vocal takes and carefully chose the best one. Her voice sounds great, and it hits every rolling note with precision and ambition. The songs are polished, not at all raw, but there is sincerity here. Lewis is a woman burdened with memories who has produced songs swelling with real emotions.

Lewis is a likeable, funny and single-minded protagonist, but occasionally a sense of victimhood comes over strongly, some of it justifiable. I guess that is inevitable when you’re this open; as she says on ‘Late Bloomer’, ‘forgive the candor’. This is a woman who has been ignored, passed over and discriminated against. This is a woman who watched as a man took the girl she wanted, who calls out double standards for women in the music industry, feels strongly the ticking time bomb in her womb, suffered through insomnia and stared her own mortality in the face. She has suffered but equally she is no fool. She is the one who cheats on her husband, she is the one who ‘has to have’ her desired object and then promises to write but doesn’t. She is the one with her voice loud and clear in the centre of the mix – Jenny Lewis is a confident lady.

Like producer Ryan Adams, Lewis is self obsessed in the way that all good singer-songwriters are, but unlike Adams she’s not living in a self-contained bubble. She looks outside herself and sees the bigger picture clearly. For example, on the title track she ruminates on the voyager spacecraft disaster, and the metaphors within, and elsewhere she reflects on 9/11 and the parallels to her own miniature disasters. She is a charming host and she deals with the characters she encounters with empathy and kindness. This is someone cut open by the recent past finding solace in mistakes of her distant past that have healed over in to scars. These songs are reminders that things have been bad before and will eventually be forgotten or learnt from. It’s the act of healing and the process of liberation. Life is a voyage and the album is a reflection on the whole shabang. “Nothing lasts forever when you travel time.” Indeed.

7.5/10

5 Seconds of Summer ‘5 Seconds of Summer’ – Review

22 Aug

The other day I stumbled upon an obnoxious and condescending “vlog” on youtube by some guy called Beez, in which he attacks the credibility of 5 Seconds of Summer. His basic argument is that the band lack “ethics” and musical technicality, and should not be taken seriously as anything other than a necessary “gateway band.” The video is right to cite the important of so-called gateway bands – Kaiser Chiefs introduced me to Blur and the generally awful pop-punk bands of the early 00’s made me a lot more receptive  when I came to listen to The Ramones. But what troubles me is this guy’s dismissal of 5 Seconds as anything more than a stepping stone and his disdain for genuine fans of the band His patronising tone and bad attitude make me all the more determined to jump to the defence of this young and enthusiastic group.

His argument falls apart fairly quickly, around the time he says that 5 Seconds of Summer aren’t worth considering on the same level as Good Charlotte or Slipknot (never mind that Good-Charlotte co-wrote the album closer ‘Amnesia’ or that the album was produced by the singer/songwriter from Goldfinger). His statment makes you realise the folly of throwing stones in glass houses and of criticising bands from a snobbish position of supposed superiority. The guy seems to assume that he has impeccable taste and if you disagree with him, then, as he puts it “shame on you.”  What makes him believe Good Charlotte are so great? Someone might point out theat they are hardly The Beatles. But then would you compare The Beatles to Mozart? What this man needs to realise is that perfect taste is an illusion and beliving you have it makes you susceptible to acting like an annoying tool. I’m not going to stand here and laugh at him for listening to Slipknot because I don’t rate that music – I may disagree with him but I hope my tone would be polite and my arguments fair and open-minded. At the end of the day, if this music appeals to this many people, it must have some positive qualities – right?

So instead of ignoring Five Seconds of Summer outright, lets give them a fair shake. What is it about this band that appeals to so many people?  The thing I like about them is that they are teenagers writing about teenage anxieties with nativity, enthusiasm and humour. They are engaging with fresh emotions at the shallow end and singing openly about teenage issues like being stuck in ‘the friend zone’ and wishing you were 18. Listening to them almost makes me feel that young again. It reminds me of a time when I didn’t have to over think everything, and when emotions were more black and white and people were free of baggage that is acquired over age. There is life in these songs and innocence over experience. This is equally true of the music. They ape Fall Out Boy on ‘English Love Affair’, Busted on ‘Heartbreak Girl’, Green Day on ’18’ and Bastille on ‘Everything I didn’t Say’. They probably only heard these bands for the first time fairly recently and they try to replicate their idols music with enthusiasm and verve. Without wishing to be patronising, it’s likely that they haven’t traced Punk’s family tree back very far and so what you’re hearing is a cute imitation of an imitation of a sound that was born decades ago. Yet they approach the style with such passion that you can’t help but be won over.

So 5 Seconds are a youthful band making music that is soaked in the blood of young heartbreak with the musical DNA of the biggest rock bands of recent years. That’s fine by me. From the off the album is a battering ram of compressed guitars and powerhouse drumming complimented by almost invisible radio-friendly sheen and glitter. It starts with the two best and best known songs, ‘She’s So Perfect’ and ‘Don’t Stop’ which are witty love songs featuring on point brand references and knowing winks to older fans; they immediately let you know that 5 Seconds of Summer are working on several different levels for different listeners, in the same way Shrek was sort of the first kids film to appeal equally to adults. There are lyrical nods to Kurt Cobain, Green Day and Bon Jovi, and for those playing closer attention the musical winks are even more enjoyable (the classic pop-punk chord changes on ’18’s’ Bridge for example). The guitars are surprisingly heavy, the content is occasionally weighty and there is a fair bit of musical variety. In other words it’s an enjoyable album on an instantaneous, surface level but there is stuff going on under the surface that makes this a meaningful rather than meaningless album.

5 Seconds aren’t the first teenage boys to pick up guitars to pick up girls, you can go back to The Beatles, The Monkees right through to Mcfly and Busted. 5 Seconds of Summer don’t do it as well as any of the above; their songs can be amusing but they aren’t as funny as Busted, the melodies are hummable but not as hummable as Mcfly’s, nor do I believe they have the staying power of their 1960’s forbearers. I’d like a bit more variety, especially with the tempos and song structures, all of which follow similar instructions, but there is more to like than dislike here. I like that the music emphasises melody over trendy production techniques. I like that each song contains more hooks than a bait shop. I like that the lyrics have bite and personality – even if the personality sometimes feels overly-familiar and slightly bratty. Yet that familiarity is also a strength, because it means every man and his dog will find something to instantly enjoy here. Unless you’re a snobby youtube critic. Come on, resistance is surely futile.

7/10

Lana Del Rey ‘Ultraviolence’ – Review

15 Aug

Some people like their pop-stars to be clear cut and purposeful. You know where you’re at with Rihanna or One Direction or Ed Sheeran. There is nothing really murky about them. Lana Del Rey on the other hand is impossible to pin down – which makes thinking about her, and talking about her difficult. She is a complex web for fans and critics to untangle, and that sounds like too much hard work for some people. ultimately she is a victim of her ambiguity; her ambiguous relationship with gender, drugs, violence and fame. How much of what she says is sincere and how much is an act, a persona, a stage-show. That’s the other big thing Del Rey has an ambiguous relationship with: Authenticity.

But authenticity is a joke in pop music anyway, always has been. Was Elvis authentic? The Beatles? Alice Cooper? Joy Division? Think of where these acts started, think of their influences and think of their accents, their style, their politics. It doesn’t take much consideration to realise that pop music has always been about artifice as much as art, and it doesn’t take much more consideration to realise that Men get away with it a lot more than women. So Lana Del Rey isn’t her real name, big deal. Was Joey Ramone real? Or Ringo Starr? Or Frank Ocean? So Del Rey may be a victim of ambiguity, but she’s equaly a victim of sexism and ill-informed ideas about authenticity. It’s hard to ignore these questions, and I won’t, but can we focus on the music, and draw out the joy of ‘Ultraviolence’ rather than the controversy?

After only one album Del Rey has established a unique persona that is ripe for analysis, argument and parody. Some artists spend careers trying to achieve that. Like her or loathe her, Del Rey is unique, and those type of artists are rare in 21st century pop. OK, I concede that at times she tips over from an artist with a distinctive personality to an actual parody of herself. Lines about churning out ‘beat poetry on amphetamines’ ultimately go nowhere, feel silly and unnecessary, whilst a statement like ‘you don’t think I understand the freedom land of the 70’s’ just don’t make sense. It doesn’t help that the characters she writes about increasingly resemble archaic cinematic stereotypes with little relevance in the modern age. HOWEVER, all things considered I’d still take this hyper-fantasy over the alternative; Del Ray cast as another bland retro-soul singer. The songs may be daft and at times uncomfortably regressive, but at least they’re dazzling and captivating. And you can’t overlook the fact that her sadness, whilst exaggerated and romanticized, is also rooted in sincerity. If this is 100% acting then she’s a convincing actress.

And this is a gorgeous album to indulge in; her voice is worth the entry price alone, and the string arrangements are the perfect accompaniment. Dan from the Black Keys has done a fine job of creating a luscious and spacious backdrop for Del Rey’s melodies that are seductive and tough in equal measures. The string arrangements are suitably subtle (her lyrics and voice would over power anything more showy) but they still know when to lay on the glitz and shmultz. The Hollywood-ness of the album isn’t quite as intoxicating, and at times overpowering, as it was on the debut, but it’s still a bright lights and big town type of record. Which is perhaps why it enthralls so many and repulses a fair few.

The imagery may be rooted in the 1950s but Lana Del Rey is the ultimate 21st century defeatist. Her lyrics are built as perfect tweet size couplets that can be copy and pasted to anyone’s tumblr post or instagram picture. Her popularity among teenage girls is staggering, and it’s partly because of the self-obsessed nihilism on display here and partly because of how she presents it. Online social sites demand that you make personas and present an image that may be completely divorced from reality. For that reason, Del Rey, an artist with real-life, intense emotions, who presents them in a slightly manufactured and completely stylised way is their queen. Look at the song titles; ‘Cruel World’, ‘Sad Girl’, ‘Pretty When You Cry’ – Del Rey’s sadness is tangible and real but she frames the sadness in cinematic terms and presents ideas with imagination and style. ‘Ultraviolence’ is a difficult album to get to grips with but it’s an easy one to enjoy. It works on many levels.

7.5/10

Slow Club ‘Complete Surrender’ – Review

5 Aug

It seems you have to be moderately antagonistic to be in a duo. It’s more like playing off your partner, rather than with them. I am of course thinking of Jack and Meg, but equally it applies to The Black Keys or No Age or even Royal Blood. But then at the other extreme you have the folk duos of the 60’s who placed great emphasis on harmonising and melting in to each other. Even then though the duos were often pitted against each other, dueling partners in romance and therefore song. This friction intensified in mainstream pop where the likes of Ike and Tina, Marvin and Tami, even Sonny and Cher used blatant animosity to produce some sparkling songs of conflict. Slow club, a duo from Sheffield on their third album, strike me as being a different proposition entirely. They are clearly not lovers, nor are they in any kind of battle. There is a duality but there is no antagonism, friction or conflict to speak of. ‘Complete Surrender’ is a conversation between two old friends.

Slow Club rarely harmonise, nor do they eye each other out or confront one another. Mostly they sing in unity, wading through melodies hand in hand. Still each song has a leader, and Charle’s songs bounce off Rebecca’s. She sings of heartbreak and he offers kind consolation or advice. He sings about missing his friend and you wonder if he’s referring to her. It plays out like a dialogue where his mysterious musing is tempered by her brutal honesty whilst her insecurity is bolstered by his newly found confidence. She asks questions that he seems to answer and he gives optimism when you feel she’s got none left. It’s a perfectly balanced record.

Charles’ songs sound more like Slow Club tunes of years gone by, slightly twee and sentimental but ambiguously so. It’s hard to say what ‘Tears of Joy’ or ‘Everything is New’ are actually about, but they’re pretty songs that emote some kind of sincerity. These songs are more restrained than Rebecca’s numbers, and they’re laced in metaphor and poetic flourishes that expand their simplistic surface meanings.  They find the narrator in a quietly happy state of mind which affords him more time to observe and discuss ‘punk rock kids,’ ‘the boy with his head on the table’ and ‘mina’ – whoever they all are, we don’t find out much more about them frustratingly. Rebecca on the other hand is very much in a heartbroken state of mind, and therefore her songs unambiguously autobiographical and rightfully self-interested. Throughout the album she shares her realisations with stunning candour and directness –  ‘I’ll never move on’ and ‘I’m so much older than I want to be’, things like that.

Rebecca’s songs also have an intensely direct musicality as well. These are pure pop songs with pop song choruses and pop song arrangements and pop song sentiments. Horns and strings are deployed generously and shmultz is a prerequisite. The album was produced by Colin Elliot, responsible for Richard Hawley’s lush ‘Coles Corner’, and ‘Complete Surrender’ feels like the genuine article. It’s not a homage to Northern Soul and 60’s pop, it’s more than that. These are songs that live and breathe genuine emotions, and avoid imitation. There are no pretences, no knowing allusions – every musical detail sounds like a necersary, even vital communication straight from the heart.

‘Complete Surrender’ is a soothing album, often as sombre and reflective as it is melodramatic. Rebecca’s voice is capable of being silky and soft one minute then quickly shifting in to something almost jaw droppingly powerful. In many cases it’s the delicate moments of reflection that offer the most reward. confessional lyricism on ‘Friends and other things I’m sure of’ it is utterly moving, and Charles’ stream of consciousness meandering on ‘Number One’ lets us peer at unadulterated honesty.  He tells the unamed subject (possibly Rebecca) ‘Anytime you want to sing i’m here, just like tonight’ and he sells us on the idea. As much as this album is a dialogue between two friends, it’s also an album that invites you the listener to feel involved. These are warm, involving, intimate songs that reach out and seem to talk to you personally. It’s an album about the devastating impact of love that ironically leaves you feeling reassured and optimistic about the necessity of relationships. These two voices alone, working so beautifully together, are evidence enough that two people can coexist in love and harmony.

8.5/10