Archive | October, 2014

Taylor Swift ‘1989’ – Review

29 Oct

‘Welcome to New York’ is the first song on the new Taylor Swift album, her self-stylised “pop” record (as if her other albums weren’t pop). But it’s less a pop song and more an idea of a pop song. A representation of a pop idea. The idea of pop as escapism or a dreamscape, as well as New York as an escapist location or dream of a city. The New York she describes has little to do with the city itself and more to do with the city of her imagination, and all the wonderful new things it represents. The track is dire; a bland Katy Perry rip off that pales in comparison to ‘Red’s two classic lead singles (‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’) but it lays out Taylor’s ambition. ‘Everybody here wanted something more’ she says, and later, ‘it’s a new soundtrack’, ‘the lights are so bright’ and most tellingly ‘everybody here was somebody else before.’ The song is the musical equivalent of this idea. Taylor has packed her bags and set up camp in a new dimension. Supposedly.

Actually ‘1989‘ isn‘t all that different. Sure the guitars have faded in to the back ground, and trendy production is occupying most of the space, but it still sounds like a distinctly Taylor Swift type of record. Ok, ‘Welcome to New York’ is different. It’s the first TS song I can remember that isn’t about an affair of the heart in any way. 80% of her songs are about heartbreak, 15% are about the heady, magical ‘in love’ stage, and then you get the anomalies like ‘Mean’ which are about other emotions. But ‘1989’ is still a Taylor Swift album and it’s still predominantly about heartbreak. ‘Welcome to New York’ is an unnecessary red herring, and a couple of other clangers aside (the Press-baiting ’I Know Places’ for example) she’s still singing in the first person about… feelings.

The difference is she sounds somewhat removed from the heartbreak this time around. ‘Red’ was raw, bloody, sad and at times angstyy and bitingly confident. On ‘1989’ she’s taken a step back, relaxed and considered things from a distance. She sounds mature and wry. That’s the album’s downfall in a way, because the main thing Taylor Swift has going for her is her youthful, emotional honesty. She gets so close to the listener you can almost feel her breath on your face. You get to know her through her songs, and through her lyrics which in the past have been funny, forthright and clever. On some of these songs you feel a disconnect between the Taylor you’ve come to know, and the character she presents. She plays an unconvincing femme fetale on ‘Blank Space’, a reckless diva on ‘Style’ and uses an alcoholic analogy on ‘Clean’. These songs are as expertly crafted as ever, and feature fine melodies and buzzing production, but they lack a certain familiarity and truth.

Equally lacking is first single ‘Shake it Off’ which is so damn catchy it tries to convince you it’s half decent, but don’t let it fool you. Think back to the first time you heard it, and the disappointment you felt. The cheap and clichéd chorus may get stuck in your brain but it won’t make you smile like ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ did. It’s also a little too self aware for my liking, which is completely the opposite of what I usually like about Taylor. She’s somebody who gets so caught up in a feeling that she can’t see straight, and certainly can’t tell when she’s being melodramatic, soppy, embarrassing or repetitive. ‘Shake It Off’ is addressed to the haters, and it draws you out of the moment, and forces you to reconcile with the uncomfortable truth of what pop music really involves in 2014; i.e, a whole lot of press battles, social networking, blogging, vlogging, you tube commenting and basically all the stuff I find vaguely repulsive about the modern industry.

For me the album works best when Taylor sticks to what she‘s done well in the past. ‘Out of the Woods’ is one of the more successful songs; its rooted in verses that have the familiar autobiographical details with the ring of truth before reverting to a simple and sticky refrain (for those of you who use Taylor Swift songs as a who who of her boyfriends, this one is supposedly about a certain Harry Styles). ‘Stay’ is excellent; it marries finely detailed lyrics with an acrobatic chorus, while ‘I Wish’ is classic Taylor Swift in a new sparkly 80s style outfit.

For the most part the change in sound works better than the sometimes shift of lyrical focus. I still don’t buy in to Taylor Swift as some kind of Katy Perry-alike, nor does anyone with a right-mind desire such a thing, but the change isn’t a drastic one and it’s pulled off with aplomb by musical wizards Max Martin and Shellback. But half the reason ‘We are Never Getting Back Together’, ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘22’ stood out is that they were bright and modern electro-pop songs in a field of more traditional country-pop. Here they’ve tried to replicate those songs 13 times over and so nothing really stands out. In fact nothing comes close to matching either of those three songs.

The lack of a killer single aside, overall, ‘1989’ is a successful record.; it‘s easy to listen to, often great fun, and it‘s commendably ambitious. Ultimately the obvious flaws are easy to look past because Taylor Swift is the most human superstar we have and humans make mistakes in the quest for better things. What’s important is that she’s a determined pop-star, and an enthusiastic musical explorer. Her vision of New York may be clichéd, two-dimensional and unrealistic but the things it represents to her are righteous goals – freedom, opportunity and adventure. ‘1989’ is an important stop on that journey.


Superfood ‘Don’t Say That’ – Review

27 Oct

There is a small Britpop revival going on at the moment, inflicted on us by people who were teenagers in its heyday and now hold positions of influence at record labels, blogs and festivals and perpetuated by people too young to remember it first time around. I myself fall in the unusual position of being too young to remember the golden years (lets say 1992-1996) but old enough to remember the downfall (1997-2001). My first memories of Oasis are watching them yawn their way through ‘Do You Know What I Mean’ on Top of the pops and hearing my grandparents discuss the Gallagher brothers’ drunken antics, at the dinner table. Otherwise I mostly remember faceless bands, whose names I never knew, but who clogged the airwaves, Saturday morning kids shows and adverts, and who are now rightly forgotten.

Superfood are roughly the same age as me, and probably have the same experience of Britpop. Unlike me, they retain some nostalgia, and/or genuine love for this malinged period of British pop. To them, it’s more than an inspiration or an influence, it’s their lifeblood. In fact, if you’d never heard of Superfood, and I told you ‘Don’t Say That’ was released in 1996, you would probably believe me. They don’t go down the obvious Blur/Oasis route either (though you will hear nods to those bands at various points), strangely, but interestingly, they seem more keen on Supergrass, Superfurry Animals – basically any 90s group with Super in the band name.

Superfood hail from the B-Town scene, which thrives on revivalism. It has already given us shamelessly generic but endearingly quirky debuts from Peace, Jaws and Swim Deep. Peace ploughed baggy, Jaws, Dream pop and Swim Deep, Synth-pop (all transmitted through a druggy post-libertines haze). Superfood’s weapon of choice is Britpop, and they rarely veer from that mid to late 90s alt-rock vibe. Their TOTAL dedication to this sound would be an undoing if they weren’t so damn charming about how they present themselves. OK, they have NOTHING unique or interesting to say, like nothing, at all, but without the worry of being meaningful they manage to completely let themselves go. The lyrics are cheesy and good fun, the melodies are bright and cheerful and the production is playful. Songs like ‘Tv’ and ‘Melting’ breeze along and you’re a better man than me if you manage to stop yourself humming along.

‘Superfood’ (the song not the band) has more sticky hooks than anything in the top ten at the moment, from the refrain of the title, the ‘duba duba dohhhs’, to the opening beat which is processed to sound JUST like the beat from 5IVE’s ‘If You Got The Feeling.’ And that’s all before you get to the chorus itself – “YOU’RE ALWAYS HUNGRRRRYYYYY.” Even more hook intensive is recent single ‘Right on Satilite’ which diverts just enough from 1996 to pick up some tips from 1966 psychadelia. Superfood are blatant in their pop intent and they write the type of skyscraping choruses you can imagine becoming hits – just maybe in another decade.

Two leftfield instrumentals (imaginatively titled I and II) can’t disguise the fact that ‘Don’t Say That’ is a superficial and completely one dimensional album. The second half in particular feels on the verge of tipping over in to a bland pastiche, something they prevent, but only marginally. One thing all those bad 90’s groups were at least half-decent at was writing lights-aloft power ballads and ‘Don’t Say That’ would have benefited from one of those, as well as something a little quieter and more subtle. But subtlety isn’t Superfood’s strength; at the moment they’re too loud and enthusiastic to write a “subtle” song. And maybe that’s no bad thing, youthful exuberance is lacking in the world of oh-so-serious-indie-rock at the moment, and Superfood, with their day-glo choruses and cheesy lyrics, do a good job of brightening the scene up. And personally they make me look back more fondly on an aspect of my childhood I’d tried to ignore. Maybe Menswear weren’t so bad afterall?


The Drums ‘Encyclepdia’ – Review

11 Oct

The Drums were the last meaningful musical discovery of my teenage years, which sounds ridiculous, so let me try to explain (justify) that position. They came at a time when I was devouring everything from trip-hop to doo-wop to death metal to dub-step. The internet helped me to in indulge in everything that took my fancy but ultimately I think I got bored with the web of noise. So I started to track back. I started to think about what lay at the centre of the music that I LOVED. Really loved. What songs did I honestly want to listen to? What drew me to certain melodies and lyrics? Then I heard The Drums, and they seemed to boil down all the things I had been thinking about. They WERE everything I liked in one neat package. In a way The Drums helped me understand myself, and my taste, much more clearly. They were vital not so much for their songs (which were nonetheless often heavenly) but for their spirit and manifesto. “It‘s just pop music. It‘s three minutes, it‘s a great chorus…cut away all the fat and just be super vulnerable.” They reminded me that essentially I was, and still am, drawn to simple, catchy, romantic, melodic pop songs. All the other embellishments are unnecessary and often just get in the way. They sounded lovesick and idealistic, as I decided pop stars should be. They looked pin-up stylish and seemed destined to call in a new era of guitar pop in the way The Strokes had done half a decade before them.

Only the revolution never came. It couldn’t, by that point the internet had made such an idea impossible, let alone obsolete. The Drums spoke to me, but not to a mass audience. We could still dream though and The Drums taught me that all the best pop songs are basically dreams anyway. However, It wasn’t long before the dream crumbled. In less than a year they lost a member, and a second would leave soon after. The follow up album, ‘Portamento’, whilst fairly similar stylistically and in terms of quality, felt radically less ambitious and optimistic. The band themselves sounded deflated and let down by everyone and everything; band members, the industry, the music press, religion, the establishment and basically everything other than the music. But even their faith in that seemed to be wavering just slightly. The simple pop songs on the debut were cinematic in vision. They were idealised versions of pop. On ‘Portemento’ the songs came with a heavy dose of realism – and nearly too much cynicism. Their faith in the world was gone, and their faith in the ideal of pop was going the same way.

Their silence in the intervening years has also been telling. They are back as a duo and with almost none of the self mythologizing that made them cover stars in 2009. The photo that adorns the front cover of ‘Encyclopaedia‘ (of them stone-faced, huddled up on a sofa, next to an empty space) is as close as you can get to catching two men with their tails between their legs. ‘Encyclopaedia’ is the musical equivalent of that. It gives up entirely on the manifesto they laid out at the start. The minimalism is replaced by a passive aggressive assault of sounds and ideas. The romantic lyrics are often replaced by bitter attacks on the haters. Short and snappy songs are replaced by long and slow ones where choruses arrive too quickly and are drummed in to you with sheer doggedness many, many times. They sound like a different band – in fact they are literally a different band (two members down and with Johnny “Two Wounded Birds” Aries given a song writing credit on half the songs). As they once sang, The Drums MkII are hard to love.

First single, and opening track, ‘Magic Mountain’ is like a child wired on e-numbers being asked what they did at school today. They fall over themselves in a mad attempt to unload as much information as possible. This is what they’ve learnt since Portamento. Apart from sounding, to my untrained ears at least, out of tune and poorly mixed, the melodic and lyrical content is trite and obtuse. It’s a comeback that announces, ‘we’re back and on our terms’ but it sounds almost defensive, like they’re expecting hostilities. This is a band hardened by experience, a far cry from the enthusiastic and inviting group that wanted to go surfing.

Ahh yes. The surfing song. The song that has hung like an imagined weight around their necks. The song they spent so long trying to ignore then escape and then begrudgingly accept. The song that contains their greatest hook to date and floats on air compared to the heavy, burdened material on ‘Encylopedia.’ Their ‘Creep’, in a backwards kind of way. Nothing here competes with ‘Lets go Surfing’ or any of the other lovably lightweight songs on the debut. Almost every track has an agenda. Almost every track has an argument to make and a point to prove. That makes ‘Encyclopedia’ a lot more hard work than any fan would want it to be.

So the Drums are pretty hard to love on ‘Encyclopedia’, but some of these songs still make it very easy to like them. Hints of heartbreak (still Johnny’s best subject matter by a country mile) are there in the excellent pop songs ’Deep in my Heart’ and ’There is Nothing Left’ two songs inexplicably buried near the end of the album. These two tracks in particular are nice updates on the drums signature sound, proving that experimentalism isn’t inherently bad for the band. This is especially true when bold innovation is mixed with classic hook-writing on ’Kiss me Again’; here, the whoops that spring out of Johnny make him sound like he’s having a good time, almost in spite of himself. He’s rarely this open hearted though.

Whether he’s bashing religion (and as a consequence about half the band’s potential audience) on the cynical and mean spirited ‘Face of God’, or bigots, on the reductive and slightly childish ‘Let me’, The Drums are taking complex ideas and reducing them to petty slogans, which is different to simplifying and demystifying complexity (as they clearly believe they are doing). These are worthy topics for the band to explore – indeed they took on religion convincingly on Portamento’s ‘Book of Revelation’, where Johnny found comfort in an atheistic world view, and used that lack of faith as a foundation to build free love without fear of divine retribution. In contrast ‘Faith of God’ is silly, sarcastic and taunting.

There are however some concessions to fans who still place stock in the idea that pop songs should be catchy and enjoyable, not heavy-handed and bloated. Fans who understand, as they once did, that you can often find great meaning in music that initially appears to be meaningless. The romantic ‘National Park USA’ is OVERLY melodramatic but it sounds pretty and vaguely hopeful. Equally nice is the album closer ‘Wild Geese’, a song written by Jacob, where his layered synths take centre stage. There is a clarity at the album’s end that is rarely found in the preceding forty minutes. The so/so ‘Cant Pretend’ and ‘I hope Time Doesn’t Change Him’ have potential, but are weighed down by chugging rhythms and over-stuffed arrangements. What happened to ‘three minute pop songs’ and ‘cut away all the fat’?

If The Drums had followed their original recipe, ‘Encyclopaedia’ would be a vastly superior album. Sure a bit of trimming and lipo-suction couldn’t help the badly-judged lyrics, or the average choruses that fill some of these songs, but it would certainly make ‘Encyclepdia’ less of a chore to get through. I still believe in The Drums, and the idea of pop they originally championed, but ‘Encyclopaedia’ is a depressingly deflated record; one full of potential that hasn’t been realised. Maybe they have another great record in them, but this isn’t it.


Jamie T ‘Carry the Grudge’ – Review

4 Oct

“What happened to Jamie T?” I asked a friend last year. “He’s in prison,” they replied. I didn‘t doubt it. He’d been away for so long and had a reputation as a rather ill adjusted, debauched, symbolically charming cockney lad, always one drink away from trouble. In actual fact he wasn’t in prison. His reasons for the long absence are more typical – a mixture of family problems, personal anxieties, musical dissatisfaction and a lack of anything interesting to say. When he did return, with the moody and introspective ‘Don’t You Find’ and a couple of low key gigs, devoid of his few hits, it seemed he was back with a whisper, not a bang. Then came ‘Zombie’. Then came Reading Festival.

‘Zombie’ sounded familiar and new. It’s an elastic song, endlessly enjoyable and re-playable. It served as a vital reminder of Jamie’s talent as a songwriter. Reading Festival had the element of surprise and it proved that there was a greater demand than ever to hear from him. The gig was rammed and reportedly went off in epic style. And he brought back ‘Sheila’ and ‘Sticks and Stones’. Zombie sat along side those classics with ease. HERE was the bang.

‘Zombie’ is sort of an anomaly on ‘Carry the Grudge’, which is on the whole darker, more intense, mature and reflective than either ‘Panic Prevention’ or ‘Kings and Queens.’ The “cheeky lad” persona still seeps through in his distinctively slurry vocal style, but the exuberant character who made you believe he COULD end up in prison is as much a relic of 2007 as Nu-Rave and The Paddingtons. It‘s still a distinctly “Jamie T“ type of record though; fluorescently quirky and abundantly tuneful, but there is added shade in which surprising shapes and ideas emerge.

Running through the record is a sense of melancholy. Mistakes have been made, love have been lost, and people have been pushed away. Jamie T is not the confident lad he was. His lyrics on ‘Zombie’ may be slightly self-deprecating (“blood shot eyes and blood in my teeth” “sad sack, post teen” “walking like a zombie”) but there IS a sense of self-hatred running through the album. On ‘Mary Lee’ he despairs over what a ‘stupid young boy” he was and on ‘Turn on the Light’ he tells us that he “knows what it’s like to feel love and not like yourself.” It never gets too dark and deep, his sense of humour and love of a hook prevent that, but his lyrics have a serious tone that I wasn’t expecting.

Opener ‘Limits Lie’ establishes the mood of the thing with a chiming, love-sick guitar, understated organ and laid-back beat. It slinks forward, emphasising melody over sophistication, and it takes its time commanding your attention. The album continues at this pace until ‘Zombie’ two tracks later. It’s an understated way to introduce you ‘comeback’ record. The first verse of ’Limits Lie’ acts as a quick re-acquaintance; he seems to ask ‘remember my name?’ Maybe that’s not a question, maybe it’s intended as a command – ‘remember my name!’ If it is, it’s one of the few imperatives on the album. Most of the time he seems frustratingly content to wallow in self pity; the few nuggets of optimism and enthusiasm seem slight concessions to his fanbase. In the end you get the impression that Jamie’s very aware of the distance between 2009 and 2014, when really he has nothing to worry about. His lack of confidence doesn’t equate to a lack of public interest.

It’s a bit of a scatter-shot record, and a couple of the tracks miss the mark. The scuzzy riffs and juvenile lyrics of ‘Peter’ don’t sound ripe, especially compared to the subtly of the tracks that follow it. ‘Rabbit Hole, the best contender for second single, is initially enjoyable but its scrappy sound wears easily. ‘Trouble’ is much the same.  ‘Rabbit Hole’ is as close as Jamie comes to rapping, but then he was never a rapper so much as somebody who had so much to say and so little patience that he just had to get his words out as quickly as possible. That enthusiasm and energy is lacking somewhat on ‘Carry the Grudge’, which is possibly the price we pay for ‘maturity’. If that’s the case then it’s a shame, but the album ultimately survives this sacrifice and transcends anything Jamie’s done in the past. It’s an unusual comeback in that it’s his finest album yet.