Archive | September, 2014

Christopher Owens ‘A New Testamant’ – Review

30 Sep

The backlash against Christopher Owens has begun. But why? Only a few years ago he was being hailed as a genius. Sentimental, romantic songwriters like Owens tend to have a very short critical currency. Brian Wilson, Jonathon Richman, Rivers Cumo… all very intense artists who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves. They all had a brief fairly period of praise and adulation followed by many years of critical scorn (before going full circle – at least in the case of Brian and Jonathon). Was it justified? That’s not entirely black and white – indeed I could write a whole article about the eccentric reception history of Weezer’s records, all of which sort of sound the same yet have very different reputations.

In all those cases though it’s arguable that at some stage a switch flicked in their brains. They crossed a line from ‘heart on sleeve’ and ‘romantic’ to plain ‘corny’ – almost as a self-defence mechanism. At the start, In the case of Beach Boys, Weezer, Modern Lovers (and Girls) there was some serious tension between darkness and light. They knowingly courted that tension. The sentimentality and sweetness was offset by; fuzzy guitars and raw production (in the case of Weezer), melancholic melodies (Beach Boys), and a punk aesthetic (Modern Lovers). You could actually apply all those things to the music of Girls. We all know about the real trauma and tragedy behind the songs which made them more powerful. But at some stage, as if to protect themselves from their past deamons, these artists retreated in to themselves, and started to rely on traditional cliches and affectations. Rivers Cumo, Brian Wilson, Jonathon Richman – they put their darkness to bed long ago, which makes them much happier human beings but far less interesting artists. So yes, their modern albums may stylistically resemble their best work, but there is something almost false about it, made all the more apparent by our knowledge of past capabilities.

Which is where we find ourselves with Christopher Owens. He’s off the drugs. He’s quit the difficult band. He’s settled down with a girl. He’s happy. But like ‘Lysandre’ before it, ‘A New Testement’ is both too much heart and not enough heart. It’s all surface heartbreak, and lots of it, but it rarely goes deep in the way his old material did. It’s note perfect, sounds magnificent, hit’s all the right marks, but that in itself is quite telling. Where is the chaos and disorder that marked his best work? It‘s not here, that‘s for sure. The subversive, lo-fi production is long gone in favour of a polished and shiny pop production circa 1972.

For this album Owens went through his old notebook and picked out 12 songs that he wanted to record. Some of these tracks date back to the same time period as the ones featured on Girls debut album. Therefore, there is perhaps inevitably, a second rate quality to many of them. That said, a second rate Christopher Owens song is still an impressively accomplished thing.

There are a handful of great tunes on here, and I’m reminded that Owens’ is his generation’s finest pop balladeer. ‘I Just Can‘t Live Without You‘ tackles everything we‘ve come to expect; heartbreak and living up to familial expectations. ‘Mama didn’t raise no quitter and I just wanna make Daddy proud / and somehow I just keep on breathing though you’re not around, but I don’t know how.’ On paper it reads as corny but as delivered by Owens it’s a tragic and succinct unpacking of some pretty heavy ideas. ‘It Comes Back to You’ features a heavenly, swirling organ that recalls a couple of songs from ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’, while the backing singers from that album also turn up on the slightly too sickly eulogy, ‘Stephen.’

The more upbeat songs are slight and springy. They are also more straight up, what you see is what you get, than we’re used to from Owens. They aren’t as odd as say ‘Lust for Life’, as funny as ‘Big Bad Mean Motherfucker’ or as vibey as ‘Morning Life’. These higher tempo songs are short, sticky but ultimately unmemorable. ‘Nothing More than Everything to Me’, ‘Never Want to See That Look Again’, ‘My Trouble Heart’ – you just need to see the song titles to know that Owens trades in stock metaphors and clichés a a little too much for his own good. He always has to an extent, but here it feels slightly destructive, especially as the lyrical predictability isn’t offset by musical unpredictability, as it was in the past. His work with Girls touched on shoegaze, lo-fi punk, r&b, metal and surf-rock. These songs are mostly straight up singer/songwriter fare in a country rock style.

There on the front cover, in a clear and bright photo we have a snapshot of Christopher and the musicians in front of a white background. Like the songs within it’s a little bland, completely honest, corny and actually a little brave. Above them, in unshowy black font is the name of this record. ‘A New Testament.’ A better title would probably be ‘Another Testament’. It’s more, and perhaps less, of the same. Nothing “new” about it. But the more I think about it the more I think those first two Girls albums were a misdirection. The debut was called ‘Album’ and both of those records were thought to be weighty, singular, era-defining ’statements’. It now seems clear that Christopher Owens isn’t here to make a couple of one off classics. He’s a career artist. The type destined to make dozens and dozens of albums all of a similar style and all of a similar quality. Like Jonathon Richman before him. His sanity and happiness comes at the expense of truly classic songs, so in their place at these likeable but PG versions. I can see him making a record that sounds like this in thirty years time. See if I’m wrong. This is Christopher Owens and this is what he does.


Julian Casablancas ‘Tyranny’ – Review

25 Sep

There is a fine line between cool and un-cool. You want to stand out enough to get noticed but stand out too much and you’ve crossed an invisible line. Julian Casablancas has been riding that line for 15 years now. For a while he was the coolest man on the planet; debauched without being a waster, mean without being threatening, well dressed but in a barely bothered kind of way. Casablancas just about defined early 00’s vintage, rock star chic. Then, just by a whisker, he crossed that line and by the release of ’Angles’ in 2010 suddenly seemed quite un-cool in a slightly tragic way. This is where we find him now, but more so. In 2014 he seems debauched in a self-destructive sense. In interviews he seems barely awake and functioning. His style has gone from vintage chic to tramp chic. Slight shifts that sent him from coolest man alive to embarrassing dad at a disco (even if he was invited to said disco by Daft Punk – his cameo on ‘Instant Access Memories’ was actually the best thing he‘s done in a while).

This partly explains just how The Strokes last album, ’Comedown Machine’, went so badly wrong. The record was an attempt at sleek and stylish grooves and sexy dynamics. The band didn’t do a bad job of sounding the part but Julian himself sounded strained, out of focus and, at times, bored. He once owned the role of sleek, stylish, sexy front man but now he just can’t pull it off. Which is why his second solo album, ’Tyranny’, is a much better fit for him. It’s the audio equivalent of Julian Casablancas as he is today. It’s messy, incoherent, odd, idiosyncratic, druggy, full of personality and utterly, utterly bonkers. It’s a pretty bad record, but it’s the first one in a while where Julian sounds comfortable.

It’s the follow up to 2009’s enjoyable but fairly unremarkable ‘Phrazs for the Young’ an album that, unlike ‘Comedown Machine’, sounded like The Strokes may have a viable future in synth pop after all. ‘Tyranny’ on the other hand is much harder to pin down. Think about it too hard and it’s likely to screw you up. Is it a rock album? I guess so, but it often leans in heavier directions. Sometimes it sounds like world music from some dodgy 80’s cassette tape, as recorded by a hardcore band. There are nods to electro and synth pop but they get buried below a lot of noise. And don’t even try to read anything in to these drunk-zen like lyrics, just accept them for the crazy ramblings of a mad-man, and see if you can prise any joy from them in that way. That’s if you can hear what he’s actually singing; his phrasing is often incoherent and his vocals are, understandably in some ways, very low in the mix.

Yet this is Julian Casablancaa, and THAT voice still holds a whole lot of memories, all of which come flooding back at varies moments on the record. When his voice soars and exclaims ‘I don’t want to live on a farm anymore’ he sounds more alive than he has in many years. His voice is put through various filters here, and at times it takes on a similar vibe to ‘Is This It’s’ fuzzy bliss. Still, production tricks alone are not enough to make a classic album. It’s like everything else is falling apart, and he’s holla’ing from the debris and ruins – yes he sounds good, but it’s the sound of a man breaking down.

‘Tyranny’ is an impossible record to get to grips with, let alone define, and deliberatley so. Not in an interesting, thoughtful way either, it’s just a maze. Or a hall of mirrors. Or a book of false riddles. The songs themselves, yes there are songs hidden away amongst the racket, are a hit and miss bunch. To listen to them properly you almost have to undress them of their horribly unnecessary baggage, and try to hear what’s at their core. ‘Human Sadness’ has a melodic underbelly and lovely bassline (until it explodes in to a garish monster) while ‘Take Me in Your Army’ and ‘Off to War‘ bookend the album with some simple and sticky tunes. This is about as good as it gets. It’s telling that in Julian’s equally chaotic and awful live shows of late he’s been covering The Strokes ‘Ize to the World’, the worst song on 2006’s ‘First Impressions of Earth’. At the time I considered ‘Ize…‘ an experimental piece of filler on an album that deliberately pushed the boat out in new directions. For some reason Julian has taken it as a template. The heavy riffing, the overburdened mix, the horrible puns – they all carry over. The likeness is most obvious on ‘Where Eagles Fly’ which tellingly happens to be the most catchy song on here.

I’m a fan of oddball individuals making rambling and reflective music (I like Babyshambles ‘Down in Albion’ more than most). It’s not that this type of record is the wrong outlet for Julian’s personality, it’s just that the basics that make any album enjoyable (melodies, neat structures, coherent lyrics, a sense of rhythm, clear progressions) just aren’t up to scratch. It’s badly put together. In fact I can’t remember the last time I finished listening to an album and felt proud that I got through the thing. This isn’t a short disaster, it’s a long one – over an hour. Initially I thought It’d grow on me; it’s the kind of dense, overloaded album that often does take time to worm in on you, but in actual fact the second time I heard it was even more agonising than the first. It’s just no fun.

Despite everything, ‘Tyranny’ is absurdly admirable and often captivating (in the same kind of way we’re drawn to watching a car crash). Casablancas has made exactly the type of record he wanted to make, and who are we, his fans, to begrudge him that? He’s got guts, and unlike ‘Comedown Machine’ at least it’s a spectacular failure. But for those of us who are still holding out hope for another ’Is This It’, ’Room on Fire’, or even ’First Impressions of Earth’, ’Tyranny’ is the most damming nail in the coffin yet. I could be convinced this was his attempt to let the weirdness out of the system, a detox if you will, before returning with a rejuvenated Strokes. I COULD be convinced, if he didn’t sound so annoyingly comfortable on ’Tyranny’. I get the vivid impression that he doesn’t see this as a kooky one-off. I think this is the direction Casablancas wants to go in. If ‘Comdown Machine’ strongly hinted that The Strokes were struggling to remember their identity, then ‘Tyranny’ suggests that Julian at least has no intention of remembering. The future is more of this.


Avi Buffalo ‘At Best Cuckold’ Review

22 Sep

Four years have passed between Avi Buffalo’s self titled debut and its follow-up. When Avi released that album he was 19. Now he’s 23. That’s a a fairly crucial time in anyone’s life, and it involves a substantial amount of growing up. But Avi’s debut was one of the most brilliantly juvenile and enthusiastic debuts in recent memory. These songs were bursting with lustful hormones; it was all ‘Summer Cum’ and ‘Five Little Sluts’. Avi approached music with zeal and youthful exuberance and he attempted things more cynical musicians would have scoffed at. He was assured and confident in a way that only teenagers can be, and it led to critics calling Avi a ‘young prodigy’ and the ‘best songwriter in Sub Pop’s history.’ It was my favourite album of the year. In other words Avi’s youth wasn’t an irrelevant factor in his success, it was crucial to the construction, subject matter and likeability of that album. So how do you reconcile that with the inevitability of the aging process?

Avi has answered that question resoundingly with ’At Best Cuckold.’ This is not the clichéd ‘mature’ second album, but he’s learnt enough lessons to make sure that this isn’t a crude and inappropriate attempt at revisiting teenage indiscretions. He’s still horny, he’s still disarmingly forthright, and he still approaches classic sounds with absolutely no reverence. At the same time it’s not as wild and spontaneous as the debut. The arrangements sound much more carefully considered and everything slots together with more understanding.

These tuness are bustling with details but never sound overburdened or overloaded. Listen to any given song and you will probably hear a range of guitars, piano, keyboards, strings, horns and many other instruments all interweaving and circling each other. It says a lot about his skills as a producer and mixer, as well as songwriter and performer, that every element fits perfectly. He also places main emphasis on the gorgeous melodies, which are never overstated or show-offy – in fact he reduces ‘choruses’ to single lines repeated over and over again, or sometimes he’ll miss them out altogether in favour of a piano lick or something more subtle. It’s almost a way of misdirecting the listener’s attention. It’s not that he can’t write a hook (‘Memories of You’ shows that he certainly can), it’s very clearly a choice to let the songs unfold naturally without a verse/chorus restriction. It works charmingly. He recalls nobody less than James Mercer of The Shins circa ‘chutes to narrow’ somebody else who could conjure complete and beautiful melodies with seemingly no trouble

On ’Remember Last Time’ from the debut, Avi told us ’I’ve never written a love song’ and you believed him. He was that wet behind the ears. It strikes me that just about all the songs on ’At Best Cuckold’ are love songs of some kind, albeit bruised and sometimes distorted love songs. But in telling us about them, girls, Avi reveals more about himself and his own insecurities. Avi is by turns cryptic (‘Falling waves from the laughing tree seem to rise and fall’), crude (‘my boner pressed up to your chest’) ironical (’and the birds seem so fucking free, they‘re nothing compared to me’), darkly comic ( ‘couple nights ago, I ran over two dogs, then I ate them after’) and heart on sleeve sincere (’asked if I was ready to say I loved you then, said I suppose I am/I think I did but knew it wasn‘t right‘). It’s an entertaining and often disorienting mix. You never quite know what he’s going to say next and you never quite know whether you side with him or not. But isn’t that the truth of being 23? Isn’t that exactly how 23 year olds project themselves in real life. Like the rest of us at that age, Avi is not a two dimensional character, he is essentially a teenager trying to adjust to an adult world. If you peel back the sophisticated arrangements, dark humour and red herrings ‘At Best Cuckold’ is ultimately an album about feeling lost in a scary world. Standing in the shallow end of manhood is equally about feeling like ‘a cheesball on fire’ as it is feeling young and invincible. As he manoeuvres further in to this realm I can see him continuing to improve.


Ryan Adams ‘Ryan Adams’ – Review

19 Sep

If you could sum up Ryan Adam’s impressively vast and varied recording output in just one word, it’s there in the title of his debut album. ‘Heartbreaker’. This is music about heartbreak that sounds heartbroken and seduces the listener in to a feeling of heartbreak. Few possess a voice as persuasive as Adams‘; a voice that is capable of convincing you, luring you and sometimes tricking you in to a sense of lovelorn sadness. This awful but essential emotion is the glue connecting all the elements of a Ryan Adams record – and that’s EVERY SINGLE ONE of his records. The current album is always stylistically different to the one that proceeds it but you can guarantee there will be heartbreak gluing everything together.

This is equally true of Adam’s 14th studio album, this self titled effort. Although it is the first record to bear his name in the title, it is no more or less confessional than any other Ryan Adams album. It could easily be called ’Cold Roses’ or ’Gold’ or ’Easy Tiger’. Or ’Heartbreaker’. The songwriting is typical of the songwriter; tunes that rely on gutsy emotions, simple storytelling with vivid details and bags of sugar-coated melancholy. Even the song titles are typically his: Here we have ‘Wreckin Ball’ instead of ‘Answerin Bell’, ‘Kim’ instead of ‘Amy’, and ‘Let it Go’ instead of ‘Let It Ride’. That isn’t a put down. Adams is a restless and curious musician but he recognises his strengths, and this latest album plays to them. As a collection of songs, it is his best effort since 2008’s ’Easy Tiger’ and you’d have to go back even further to find a better produced collection of his tunes.

After 2011’s tame, oh so nice and ineffectual ’Fire and Ashes’ and 2009’s rigid and hard-rocking ‘Cardinology’ ‘Ryan Adams’ sounds at once more edgy and impactful than anything he’s made in the last ten years. On Cardinology ‘Gimmine Something Good’ would have been treated as a piece of wooden classic rock, played with absolute professionalism by a Cardinals band way past caring. As performed by his new band, ‘Gimmie Something Good’ sounds energetic and filled with passion Adams and his band sound excited by the possibility or rock n roll for the first time in quite a while. Elsewhere the songs are given a mid-80s FM rock sound that would recall Tom Petty or The Boss if it weren’t for the fact that they sound so much like Ryan Adams – despite sounding different to what he‘s done in the past. This retro element of the record has been overstated by some reviewers, but the pillowy drum sounds, reverb and textured guitars are obviously the biggest diversion from the typical Ryan Adams formula, whatever that is. But it doesn’t sound like a step in to unknown territory, in fact it feels like a natural progression.

It’s not a flawless record by any stretch, no Ryan Adams album ever is. Like every one of his releases since ‘Gold’ It’s top heavy to the extreme. Around the middle it gets clogged up by stodgy, middle of the road rock numbers like ‘Shadows’ and ‘Feels like Fire’ two songs that seem to stand almost stationary, content to mope in black and white. It picks up at the end, ‘Tired of Giving Up’ is a heartfelt performance that emphasises Adam’s astonishingly rich voice, while ‘Let It Go’ resolves some emotional lose ends whilst keeping things on enough of a cliff hanger to assure you of more heartbreak to come next time around. The album’s best song, by a country mile, is the one that harks back to the original ‘Heartbreaker’ template. ‘My Wreckin Ball’ sees Adams left almost entirely alone with an acoustic guitar, pleading to a girl with a sometimes faint and raw voice. ‘Wont you come and maybe knock me down.’ It’s a level above the similar but far too polite acoustic songs on ‘Ashes and Fire’ and it reminds you that in most senses Ryan Adams is still at his best when he strips everything back. Which isn’t to say that ‘Ryan Adams’ isn’t a success, because it is. He’s built up a new sound that is distinctive whilst remaining referential and comfortable. As he suggests on ‘My Wreckin Ball’, next time it might be a good idea to ‘knock it down’ and sing a few songs with an acoustic by the bonfire of rubble.


Review Round-up

4 Sep

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib ‘Pinata’

Freddie Gibbs, a gangsta rapper from Gary Indiana, has teamed up with semi-legendary producer Madlib for a new collaboration on ‘Pinata’. Gibbs has described the album as “a gangster Blaxploitation film on wax,” and that’s probably the best way of thinking about it. The off-centre beats rub up against some old soul samples as Gibbs spins his stories of wild drugs and wild women with an utter violence befitting of his gangsta status. It’s not refined, it’s not always intelligent and it’s not easy listening, but it is engaging and at times a hugely enjoyable collection. Gibbs has a good control of narrative and his technique is up there with the very best in the game. Despite its uneasy subject matter and excessive running time, ‘Pinata’ is just about the best Hip Hop record of 2014 so far.


Childhood ‘Lacuna’

In 2012/13 I saw Childhood live three times, supporting the excellent Palma Violets. In contrast to the Violets brand of ‘what you see is what you get’ punk rock, what Childhood presented was all together more obtuse and difficult to pin down. Their music was covered in a cloud of brightly coloured mist, literally in their case due to a preference for a psychedelic light show and school disco smoke machine. Seeing them live was akin to getting lost and off your face. On ‘Lacuna’, their full length debut, the band have done an admirable job of retaining the mystique at the same time as unleashing the pop potential of their songs. Yes, the tunes are reverby and dreamy, but there are dynamic, clean guitar lines, the vocals are loud in the mix and there are choruses a’pleanty. ‘Blue Velvet’, still their best song by a country mile, is given pride of place at the start of the record and it serves as a call to arms for nostalgic, indie rock loving peers. There are modern influences though; ‘Falls Away’, with its falsetto vocals drifting over a spacious plain of guitars recalls ‘Echoes’ era Klaxons, whilst ‘Chilliad’ would sound at home on a Neon Indian album. Despite these loose associations with the most volatile genres of the past decade, Nu-Rave and Glo-fi, Childhood have built ‘Lacuna’ on more sturdy foundations; it’s basically a trippy pscych-pop record. And a very promising one at that.


FKA Twigs ‘LP1’

I’ve heard FKA Twig’s debut album, ‘LP1’, described as sex music by several people, but that tag leaves me feeling really creeped out. What kind of sex are these people having? This is an album that doesn’t create a relaxed or sensual mood. It’s purposely glitchy, ackward and disorienting. It demands that you pay attention to it, not another person. Take the excellent ‘Video Girl, a song about Twigs’ former job as a music video star. The song’s tempo noticeably and slowly melts during the chorus, as the drums splutter, pitch-distorted vocals appear and disappear, and synths fade in and out of focus. If it creates any mood in particular it’s one of blisful confusion.

FKA Twigs has a distinctive and singular voice and style; this is one of the most impressively outre pop albums I’ve heard recently, and it’s all the more impressive from a debutant. Also impressive is her assured command of a sustained theme. These tunes beg for stability and happiness in a world full of betrayal and uncertainty. The more experimental numbers, like ‘Numbers’ and ‘Closer’ make this point forcibly with musical discordance and futurist terror. Even the poppier songs such as ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘Give Up’ strike a note of sadness and desperation under the glitter. It’s these two songs in particular on which FKA Twigs makes a serious claim as an authentic r&b artist who could cross in to the mainstream.