Archive | November, 2014

Run the Jewels ‘Run the Jewels 2’ – Review

30 Nov

I first encountered Killer Mike on Outkast’s mega selling 2003 record ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.’ He turned up on a couple of Big Boi’s tracks and elevated the songs. His voice was distinctive and instantly attention grabbing – a throaty growl that sounded menacing, but also, somehow, likable. You could hear the mechanics of his flow operating at full capacity, straining to keep up with the ideas pumping out of his head. His verses sounded like somebody pushing their luck underwater, holding their breath for as long as possible before finally, triumphantly, rising to the surface. Just as you thought sense was lost, his verses fizzled in to focus at the last moment, and he sounded exhausted.

It was nearly another decade before Killer Mike came to my attention again, through the success of his 2013 records ‘R.A.P Music’ and ‘Run the Jewels’. The former was a storming audio assault produced and performed in a dramatic, but fairly by the book, gangsta rap style. ‘Run the Jewels’ was different. A collaboration with ELP (who also had a successful 2012 with his ‘Cancer for Cure’ record), it sounded like nothing else released that year. Compared to the stodgy, over-produced, badly timed, overrated and pompus ‘Watch the Throne’ album, on which the two biggest stars in hip hop got together (errr Kanye and Jay Z), ‘Run the Jewels’ was a vital collaboration from two underdogs on the attack. They had something to say and they said it with more energy, charisma and brute force then just about anyone else you could name. The world had dismissed them as being past it, but hat’s just the way they liked it; they used the element of surprise to make their mark.

A year later we have ‘Run the Jewels 2’, an equally high octane record that is nonetheless more considered, more serious and more ambitious. It lacks the element of surprise that its predecessor had and it misses some of the spontaneity and goofiness, but it’s still a remarkable statement in its own way.

A large part of the record’s success is due to the persona of Killer Mike. As I said earlier, he manages to be menacing and almost teddy bear cute at the same time. He’s a larger than life figure who is capable of being whatever he needs to be, depending on the situation. In a way he’s a cartoon version of menacing, like the gory hand featured on the front cover. Both ELP and Killer Mike are likeable, which is not something to ignore at the moment – just about every other rapper on the scene, from Kanye, all the way down, are infamous for their arrogance and off-handedness. These two are funny, empathetic, considerate, approachable and book smart as well as street smart, which makes ‘Run the Jewels’ a fairly unique proposition in 2014.

In a way ‘Run the Jewels’ feels like a comeback album, from two veterans who want to be successful but on their terms. They want to be let in to the party, but only if their mates are invited. Thus we get the first meaningful verse Zack De La Roche of Rage Against the Machine has contributed to an album this century, as well as drumming from Blink 182’s Travis Baker. These are not the credible, oh-so-cool guests you would expect to find on such a anticipated record but they work brilliantly. Each one brings their A-game in a way nobody would have expected. Best of all the guests is Gangsta Boo who adds some deliciously vulgar verses to ’Love Again’, which contains the most lurid, and mind-numbingly catchy hook you’re going to hear this year. ‘Love Again’ is the most throwaway track on here, but it contains some interestingly progressive ideas about sexual politics, and in Mike’s gross excess, and Boo’s even more explicit excess, manages to present a new and positive spin on some Hip Hop gender based cliches.

That’s true of just about ever song on here – lyrics that on the surface can appear blunt, extreme and shocking actual speak to some disturbing but necessary truths about society and culture. In under 35 minutes Killer Mike and ELP blitzkrieg through some of the most important topics facing us today; racism, crime, sexism, ignorance and ‘fuckboys’ – which includes just about everyone who goes against their grain. This is a deceptively enjoyable album with severe seriousness lurking below the surface. Throughout the album there is contempt for everbody in positions of power, and an idea prevails that drastic action is needed NOW. They have no time for weak liberals who protest but get nothing done (one of many put downs: ’facist slave you protest to get in a fucking lookbook‘). They apologise to Martin Luther King for their bluntness. In the book of Mike and E.L.P, violent action is needed.

On the amazing ‘Close Your Eyes’ they state exactly what needs to be done and how. ‘we killing em from freedom cos the tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die, fuck it the lord all sort em.’ If this sounds over the top then remember what is happening in America at the moment with the Michael Brown controversy. Lines from this song seem almost prophetic, such as when LP says ‘I can’t even relax without hearing a siren.’ The rapping on this song is insane, on a purely sensorary level it’s thrilling but the lines read just as well on the page. Take in this verse: ‘Chilly conditions create a villian, the villian becomes a vision, the vision becomes a fallacy, vengence on all the vicious, liars and politicians, propheters of all the prisons, the four head engravers, inslavers of men and women, including members of clergy who rule on you throw religion, and strip the kids to the nude and tell em God will forgive em.’

From this point on the album becomes a mesmerising political work of art. Bad protest songs ask vague questions (see Neil Young‘s recent ‘Who‘s Gonna Stand Up‘), decent ones identify the problems and great ones present solutions. Not only does ’Run the Jewels 2’ present solutions, it does so in a way that is engaging, entertaining and will appeal to disillusioned youth. Yes, it’s crude, brash and sometimes misses the mark but on the whole ’Run the Jewels’ is extraordinary. In strictly musical terms it’s simple and old-fashioned; the production is far from innovative and you’ll find much better technical rappers than E.L.P and Mike. But Run the Jewels has a vibrancy and message that makes it a necessary album in 2014.


Neil Young ‘Storytone’ – Review

19 Nov

I had to laugh at the irony of ‘Storytone’, the gazillionth Neil Young record, and the second of 2014. Here he is singing gushing love songs that make him sound young, when he’s spent most of his career singing about heartbreak and feeling older than his years. On his biggest hit ‘Heart of Gold’, aged 24, he told us ‘I’m getting old.’ Famously, he sounded tired, fed up and miserable. One critic recently noted that on ‘Storytone’ he sounds like a giddy 17 year old and many others have echoed the sentiment with some scorn, as if falling in love should be reserved for teenagers. That he should take this unexpected personal turn is simply a reflection of the contradictory nature of the man – a musical reflection is in the way he is following a no-fi collection of blues covers with an album recorded with a 90 piece orchestra. He follows the muse, whichever divergent directions it may take him in.

I take comfort from these lyrics; that even after forty years Neil Young is still as riled up and as passionate as ever. He’s still angry about the environment, he’s still falling in love and he’s still feeling emotions in the deep end. This is his grandest album to date, yet it’s at times his most intimate. He sounds fed up, optimistic, angry and delighted – sometimes in the same song. The duel nature of the record (one disc of solo versions, a second of full band versions) shines different lights on these tracks, which are either extremely intimate or extremely bombastic, depending on which disc you listen to. In other words ‘Storytone’ is a typical later-day Neil Young record; equal parts genius and ineptness. An often brilliant mess of contradictions and ironies. A record of adventure and experience, and one that is unlike any other in his back catalogue or anybody else‘s.

There are reference points throughout though. The Disney-fied strings recall ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘Such a Woman’, the melodies recall the ‘Comes a Time’ album and the genre experimentation reminds me of his soul-tribute ‘Are you passionate.‘ The orchestral sound is the record’s biggest selling point and occasionally its biggest draw back; the arrangements are sickly sweet and oversell the tenderness, but they aren’t saccharine or overly-schmaltzy – most of the time. The big band arrangements on a couple of the songs are wholly less successful, but perhaps that’s my prejudice, having never been a fan of big band music. To my ears these arrangements sound tacky and clichéd – a picture postcard version of an extinct musical form.

As I say, there is a second disc of ‘solo’ versions of these songs, most of which are better than their orchestral counterparts because they reach the point more urgently and directly. Which is to say that on the other disc there are often huge discrepancies between the band arrangements and the lyrical content. When Young expresses political anger at a lack of action over the environment, the sweeping violins extinguish the urgency of the song and actually seem counterproductive, even comical, in their expensive, inappropriately over the top melodrama. Young asks some important, but rhetorical, questions, which are allowed to linger with more weight on the solo version (even if the words seem too damp, tepid and clichéd to convey any necessary message).

‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up’ is followed by ‘I want to drive my Car’, which is as unsubtle as it sounds. I hope the irony of following a ‘mother earth’ protest anthem with a song about wanting to drive a car isn’t lost on Young. Still if there is a wink and nod, it’s lost on the full band version of the song. The bluesy, chugging, dirty Rock arrangement sounds better than the solo version of the song, which is inappropriately timid and lifeless, but it’s indulgent and celebratory in its love for a gas guzzler which seems hypocritical. ‘Who’s gonna stand up?’ Not Neil Young it seems.

The album improves dramatically as it goes along, and by the end it transforms in to a joyously enthusiastic and sentimental record. Young’s love lyrics remain as finely detailed and poignant as ever, especially on the poetic ’Glimmer’ and ’I’m Glad I Found You.’ Best of all is ’When I Watch You Sleeping’, which sounds great in both its sleepy, hush-hush acoustic version, and the soft country rock take featured on the other disc. Throughout the record’s second half Young sounds innocent and experienced at the same time, brilliantly standing guard against the dangers of loves whilst hopelessly falling victim to its spell. He’s in love with recent memories but old ones lurk in the back of his mind. He is cynical one minute, realistic the next and throws caution to the wind completely by the final track. He is a wise man overcome by happiness but aware that such happiness is fleeting. In this sense the record is unique in the company of recent albums by Young’s peers. At its best ‘Storytone’ is over and above recent releases by Mccartney, Paul Simon, Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.

You listen to those greats and you can hear their age, but listen to Young and he sounds much the same as he always did, which perhaps goes back to the idea that he’s always sounded old. His voice is croaking and straining a little more these days but it’s really not that far removed from the voice that brought us the 1970s classics. My favourite Young records have always been the ones that emphasised the voice, and by extension the lyrics, which goes some way to explaining why I prefer ‘Storytone’ to its more critically acclaimed predecessors ‘Psychadelic Pill’ and ‘Americana’. The intimate and classic ‘Live at Massey Hall’ proved that Neil Young could be captivating on his own, without any backing band. ‘Storytone’ quietly, but emphatically, re-emphasises that point, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. It also reaffirms Neil Young as a complete one off.


Damien Rice ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ – Review

15 Nov

When Damien Rice last released an album I was still at school. Youtube and facebook were in their infant stages and there was no such thing as Spotify. Myspace was big. Bush was president. I don’t need to go on; you know how much the world has changed in the last 8 years. And here, suddenly and unexpectedly, we have a new Damien Rice record, as if nothing has changed at all. It isn’t hard to imagine Rice doing much the same thing to an ex; turning up at the door years later with a bunch of flowers, a sorry smile, a slurred ’hiya’, expecting to pick up where he left off. It’s over Damien, this boat has sailed.

He’s just that kind of guy. He is, as he seems to be aware, one of life’s losers. A moaner, a complainer, self-indulgent, self-obsessive even. I mean this fondly – we have all felt like Damien Rice at some point. We have all felt lonely, needy, Picked upon. We have all looked to the sky selfishly and asked ‘why me.’ In the darkest, most melancholic hour we have all felt like Damien Rice. And in those solitary moments, his two previous albums ‘O’ and ‘9’ could sound like the most vital, necessary music ever produced. They were so intimate, so desperate, so heartfelt, so generous and sharing, and so crushing, that if you were in just the right mood they could hold you close and comfort you or finish you off. These weren’t albums I regularly listened to, or thought had any great artistic value, but they were albums that possessed me in certain moods, albums’ that, in a way, I valued as much as anything else in my collection.

On ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ Rice has stepped out of his old mind-set and moved away from the misery in order to reflect upon it. He’s re-cast himself as a sage; a man of wisdom and knowledge, a man who is no longer there to indulge in sadness but to meditate on it and to advise about it. Last time around there was an unfiltered connection between the heart and the mouth. Here his feelings take a detour through the brain. What comes out is therefore more considered and on the whole less affecting. It’s also, often, a load of nonsense. ’It takes a lot to know a man, it takes a lot to understand,’ he begins one song, before spending nine minutes(!) trying to do just that without getting any closer to understanding. On ’I Don’t Want to Change you’, the nice first single, he presents himself as sensible, empathetic and understanding – no longer the needy man-child he once was, he’s now willing to do just about anything his muse desires. What is he willing to change about himself? Everything. What does he want to change about her? Nothing. Unfortunatley he sounds desperate rather than confident. Throughout the album this facade of sophistication and maturity remains unconvincing and tiresome.

There are moments of undiluted sincerity though. On ‘Colour Me In‘ he says ‘Love let me down’, which feels like an understatement of the year from Damien Rice. Then there‘s ‘The Greatest Bastard’, a perfectly crafted ballad both lyrically and musically. It’s still in the reflective mode but comes from a less zen-like place. it’s sung from the perspective of somebody who is tired of fighting, tired of loving and broken in to fragments. His voice is rasp and heartbreaking, especially when he sings ‘some dreams are better when they end.’ It’s the best song on ‘Faded Fantasy’ by a long way, and sadly the only real moment of true clarity and restraint on a record full of bluster and indulgence.

‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ is hard work. You pass the quarter of the hour mark before you even reach the third song. That would be indulgent by prog-rock standards, and when it’s mostly just Damien and his instrument, it‘s unbearable. There are only 8 tracks here yet the record would be a double if released on vinyl and I just find that too much of a liberty. Very little about the record is good enough, especially from an artist who has had eight years to work on it. The melodies are mostly unexceptional, the guitar playing is functional and the string arrangements are overbearing and predictable. Structurally most songs are the same – start off quiet before exploding in to a worlwind of noise and passion a few minutes later. It is a useful formula but it’s used time and time again to diminishing effect.

Damien’s tried hard to convince us that his time in the shadows has made him a more experienced and stable human being, unfortunately, perhaps directly as a result of this, he’s taken many steps backwards as a confessional singer-songwriter. There are moments of insight and emotion on the album but they get lost in a lot of excess and indulgence. ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ is simply a quiet, boring, unmoving and meandering mess. His gain is our loss.


Jessie Ware ‘Tough Love – Review

6 Nov

On 2012’s ‘Devotion’, Jessie Ware positioned herself perfectly in a world that suddenly found r&b and indie as bedfellows. With her powerful lungs and ear for a catchy pop melody, she seemed more likely than some of her peers to crossover in to the mainstream. She’s floating even further towards that end-goal on second album ‘Tough Love’, particularly on ‘Say You Love Me’, a song written by Ed Sheeran, that sounds exactly how you’d imagine an Ed Sheeran penned Jessie Ware song to sound. I like it. She uses her voice to great effect, pushing and pulling at the melody, building towards something climactic and emotionally resonant. Purists may wince at these concecions to the mainstream, but Jessie Ware has never been a purist; ‘Devotion’ was the bastard child of different styles and ideas, ‘Tough Love’ even more so.

Elsewhere she pairs down on the melodrama and peels back some of the more extravagant production features of the debut. Like The XX’s second album, ‘Coexist’, ‘Tough Lough’ finds Jessie Ware crafting a minimalist sound, pushing melodies to the forefront and holding back in most other areas. In the album’s weaker moments, the songs can sound like sketches, void of colour and fine detail, but in its most successful moments it becomes just the opposite – finely observed, expertly refined and deftly handled. The beats are clear and crisp, the sonic eccentricities highlight emotions from the margins, and the synths seem to pulsate in and out of focus.

It’s no surprise that ‘Tough Love’ sounds so gorgeous, the list of names behind the boards reads like a who’s who of this indie/r&b/pop crossover moment. As well as Jessie herself we have: Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), James Ford (Arctic Monkeys/Haim/Florence and the Machine), Miguel, Benny Blanco (Katy Perry/Britney) and Benzel. With so many people involved it could easily have turned in to a chaotic mess, but it never does. It’s held together by Jessie herself. She has a clear confidence and a good understanding of what makes pop music work. She is an auteur, if you are generous in allowing the definition to expand to somebody unafraid to collaborate when it is needed.

Another thing holding the album together is the thematic links between songs. Jessie explores love in depth; ‘Tough love’ ‘cruel love’, love that is spoken, love that is unspoken, love that is unrequited – you get the idea. Misery and melancholy is Ware’s forte, but she’s always one step removed from the crushing phase of heartbreak. These productions are too clean, polished and thoughtful to inflict any real sadness on the listener, and the lyrics come from a place of reflection. She’s thought about things, considered them and decided with a clear head what she is going to say and how she’s going to say it. It puts ‘Tough Love’ one notch below more impassioned and bruising heartbreak albums by Lykii Li, Sam Smith and Angel Olsen this year, but in other ways ‘Tough Love’ is more impressive. Ware’s voice is a silky smooth alternative to Lykii Li’s boom or Angel Olsen’s cry. The songs never quite penetrate emotionally but they skim the surface like birds skim gracefully along a lake. It’s a beautiful sound, and an optimistic vision of what mainstream pop could stand for in 2014 and beyond; something brave, diverse and feminine.