Archive | March, 2015

Tobias Jesso Jr ‘Goon’ – Review

30 Mar

Tobias Jesso Jr came to light through the attention of hype blogs, gained credibility thanks to the involvement of former Girls member Chet Jr White and received rave reviews for early demos that he put out on Youtube. It’s like he read the manual for gaining indie cred. And yet nothing about his music feels at all indie. In almost every sense he has more in common with the less credible (but brilliant) Sam Smith than any of the artists on his small label, ‘True Panther Sounds.’ He’s cited his major influence as Adele, not Randy Newman, which is who he gets compared to by the hip websites. It’s telling that critics have ignored the similarity between Adele and Jesso Jr when it’s blatantly Adele with whom he has most in common. In almost every sense ‘Goon’ is a traditional singer-songwriter record that is built on simple lyrics, catchy melodies, soulful production and a rich vocal.

But ‘Goon’ is a strong album without standing out in any particular respect. The lyrics especially fail to leave a lasting mark. Jesso Jr told a disappointed Zane Lowe that he writes the lyrics last, and barely pays them any attention. While this may be a defensive remark from a sensitive soul deflecting attention away from some very personal sentiments that are expressed in the lyrics, the point stands that they don’t sound particularly laboured over. These are confessional songs that don’t really confess too much. He starts with a thread and by the end of the song that thread gets lost in a sea of mixed metaphors and moon/June rhymes. It means that the sweet and dramatic ‘Just a Dream’ falls apart when you hold its central idea up to even the slightest scrutiny (basically if the singer could say one last thing to his child before dying it would be that ‘there’s a thing called hate and there’s a thing called love too’ – hardly comforting or inspirational last words). Compared to the wealth of heartbroken singer-songwriters who have released sophisticated albums over the past twelve months (Bjork, Angel Olsen, Lykee Li, Sam Smith, Jessica Pratt, Jessie Ware, Taylor Swift, Natalie Prass etc) Jesso Jr’s lyrics are simply too predictable, bland and vague to really cut deep.

But Jesso Jr’s point would surely be that the lyrics simply serve the melodies, and it’s a point borne out in the work of his hero Adele. Adele has never been a gifted lyricist and yet people were too busy swooning over her gorgeous voice and humming her sticky melodies to notice. She was able to bring emotion out of the most simple words in the most effective ways. Jesso Jr also drags emotion out of these songs without exerting himself. He has a talent for crafting classic melodies that feel just new enough to prick the ear and familiar enough to comfort the listener. His voice certainly isn’t Adele standards, not even close, but it has personality and sincerity and he connects to the songs in his own way.

As for the songs themselves, ‘Goon’ is consistently very good. The less ambitious songs are the more successful ones; the short, acoustic ‘The Wait’, the Pet Sounds influenced ‘Leaving L.A’, which is easily the strangest and most interesting song on here, and the lo-fi ‘Bad Words’ which contains the most subtle and heart-tugging vocal performance on the album. When he takes the theatricality up a notch on some of the songs he is less effective. ‘How Could You Babe’ is catchy and moving but the lack of airplay and chart interest despite widespread attention suggests that the general public aren’t really feeling it. ‘Without You’ is pitched as a classic break-up ballad but lacks a killer hook or original thought. Too often Jesso Jr settles for just good enough, without looking beyond the obvious cliches that anchor too many of these songs.

Jesso Jr has already been talked about in league with the greats, but while ‘Goon’ is a good debut, I’d suggest that kind of talk is premature. He has both McCartney’s wide eyed wonder and Lennon’s attitude but as of this moment he has yet to write a song that can be held up next to the classics. Luckily he has talents that aren’t restricted by taste or time. He will surely get better with experience, and this form of music never goes in or out of style, meaning the best is hopefully still to come.

7/10

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Bjork/ Natalie Prass/ Jessica Pratt – Review

16 Mar

Break ups are complex. Most people have experienced at least one and yet no two are the same. Maybe you see it coming over many months, even years, or maybe it comes suddenly. Maybe your heart was torn open by an atom bomb or maybe it dissolved, little by little. Who caused it? Who initiated it? Who was sad about it? Was it a clean break? Do you stay in touch? Were there children involved? These are a few of the many variables that can alter the ‘break up and many of these complexities are borne out in new release by Bjork, Natalie Prass and Jessic Pratt.

Most singers and bands will weigh in on the subject at some point. Some will dedicate songs to it, some will dedicate albums to it, and if you’re Taylor Swift you will dedicate an entire career to it. There is nothing wrong with this, despite what some (often sexist) critics will tell you in their Taylor Swift reviews. In fact, I’d argue that Pop dissects heartbreak with more success than any other form of art. And yet these critics often reduce the ‘break up album’ to a cliche, dismiss it or in Taylor’s case, mock it – especially if it’s made by a woman it seems. The ‘break up album’ has almost become a by-word for the ‘messy, self-indulgent, singer-songwriter’ album.

The last month has been a happening one for fans of the break up album, and for fans of broken hearted female singer-songwriters in particular. Bjork’s album, ‘Vulnicura’, is wide-reaching, eratic and forensically detailed. At once it’s an almost unlistenable record as well as a beautiful and ambitious work of art. It treats the break up as the monumental event it no doubt was to Bjork. She considers it from the early signs of break down to the terrible aftermath. She borrows here from Sharon Olds’ 2011 poetry collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which took a similarly precise, chronological approach to detailing the end of a marriage. Bjork dispenses with metaphor, rhyme and colour almost entirely. Her words are blunt and cutting where the music is often sweeping and ornate.

‘Vulnicura’ is devistating and not a record you would want to spend too much time with. It’s a record that, in its innate sadness, drags you down and immerses you at the bottom of an emotional sea. However there is a sense of clarity that energes at the end of the album, as Bjork reverts inwards and contemplates the significance of the relationship’s demise. ‘When I am broken I am whole’ is probably the most revealing line on the album, and variants on it can be found in three of the songs. There is the reveal that through the artistic process Bjork has cleansed herself and found some kind of closure. Like people who stick those therapeutic pins in their body, the temporary pain of dwelling on sad emotions ultimately subsides and leaves Bjork feeling renewed. And despite the sadness, Bjork sounds more energised, open-hearted, ambitious and on-form than I’ve ever heard her. It’s an album you won’t want to spin too often but you’ll never forget it.

Jessica Pratt takes the oppossite approach to Bjork, lyrically at least. In contrast to Bjork’s strict narrative style, Pratt’s lyrics are impressionistic, imaginative and pretty. Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the thread, but that makes it all the more hard-hitting when one of her lines really rings clearly. ‘Your love is just a myth I devised’ she sings on the heartbreakingly honest and stunning ‘Back Baby.’

The musical design of ‘On your own love again’ is also in complete contrast to ‘Vulnacura’. The delicate and nimble finger-picking of an old acoustic guitar, recorded live on to tape, is the only instrument you really hear on the album. Pratt’s confident and sophisticated style keeps the songs from becoming bland or obvious but without the voice there is no doubt the songs would be slightly lacking. But what a voice. Breathy and fragile it sounds older than the hills and is easily the best thing ‘on your own love again’ has going for it. Over nine songs, this distinctive but limited combination of voice, guitar and heart torn melodies wears a little thin and a bit more variety may have be welcomed. But in its brightest moments (‘Back Baby’, ‘Strange Melody’ and ‘Greycedes’) ‘On Your Own Love Again’ is stunning in it’s direct simplicity.

Somewhere in between Bjork’s realism and Pratt’s impressionism we have the more traditional singer-songwriter fare of ‘Natalie Prass’. Prass’ lyricism is more conventional than her counterparts but is just as devestating. ‘I don’t feel much, i’m afraid I don’t feel anything at all’ is her opening gambit and things get even more forlorn from here on in. She describes a love that is flagging and on it’s last legs and throughout the album Prass inhabits a wide range of emotions. There’s doubt and insecurity on the upbeat ‘Why Don’t You Believe in Me’, resigned misery on ‘Your Fool’, desperation on the chilling ‘Violently’ and optimism on ‘It Is you’.

Produced by her Label Boss and fellow retro-devotee Matthew E. white, ‘Natalie Prass’ is decorated in sugar-sweet orchestration and luxurious horn flourishes. Compared to the bare boned simplicity of ‘On Your Own Live Again’ and the more experimental ‘Vulnicura’, ‘Natalie Prass’ sounds colourful, poppy and expansive. The sophisticated arrangements lend the album cohesion but also allow for different subtleties to reveal themselves. ‘why Don’t You Believe in Me’ is Motown-esque with it’s fuzzy bass line and Soulful horn licks. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘It is You’ would fit comfortably in any old disney film, thanks to the flutes and ornate strings, not to mention the innocent lyrics that talk enthusiastically of love, in deliberate contrast to all the brooding cynicism that comes before it.

I’ve lived with these three album for two months now and I’ve found myself enjoying them and ranking them differently from week to week. ‘Natalie Prass’ was the most instantaneously enjoyable thanks to the poppy melodies and sticky hooks. ‘On Your Own Love Again’ is more of a slow burner but I’ve probably listened to it more than the other two albums. That said, it has a fairly limited range and creates a rather overcast mood. Bjork’s album is the most obtuse and complicated of the trio. It’s unbearably sad, too long and often quite oppressive but it’s also captivating and more ambitious than anything else you will hear in 2015. All three albums prove there is life left in the ‘break up album’ whilst unpacking and disproving so many of the cliches that mysoginistic and boring critics continue to throw at female singer-songwriters.

Bjork ‘Vulnicura’ – 8.5

Natalie Prass ‘Natalie Prass’ – 8

Jessica Pratt ‘On Your Own Love Again’ – 8

Peace ‘Happy People’ – Review

6 Mar

There is a kind of cult of personality surrounding Harrison Koisser. He is an enegmatic frontman – his style mixes classic rock n roll iconography with drag chic and vintage swagger. He has an engaging online persona; a master of Twitter and Instagram, he is witty, friendly and on-trend. He’s also personable with the fans in ‘real life’ and can often be found talking to them before and after gigs. In many respects, Koisser is a one off at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, we live in a great age for indie music, but we are very short of distinctive personalities in mainstream guitar pop – it’s no wonder that Koisser has inspired such devotion from a young audience craving something both unifying and more exciting than the bland and generic rock music being served up by the likes of Catfish and the Bottlemen and Twin Atlantic. Peace are a fun and attractive alternative.

The problem is that this distictive personality and engaging attitude has never really been translated into distinctive and engaging music. His clothes may be edgy, colourful and classic but his band’s music rarely has been. Fans have been trying to position Peace, and Koisser in particular, at the centre of the British indie-verse, in the lineage of Bowie, Morrissey, Gallagher, Doherty, Turner etc but to date Koisser has paled in comparison in the one department where it truely matters – the music.

As likeable as it is, ‘Happy People’ doesn’t do much to change any of that. It’s a good indie pop record that is a great deal more enjoyable and uplifting than most mainstream rock music in 2015, but it’s still frustratingly restrained and generic in some important respects. Very little of the personality that has made Koisser a minor Tumblr celebrity comes through on record; instead he leeches off the legends that he so obviously wants to stand shoulder to shoulder with. That may sound harsher than I intend – I like this record after all – but if fans are going to seat Peace at pop’s top table then we need to evaluate their credentials.

Just what is Koisser’s goal? Who knows. You know those people who smile and say how happy they are, but you look in their eyes and see absolute terror? He’s that kind of person. The happy songs are twisted and the sad songs shimmer with post-modern coyness.It’s hard to tell where the irony ends and the sincerity begins, partly because he paints serious subjects in shades of humour and conversely sings about trivial things as if the end of the world is imminant. Is the rapping on ‘World Pleasure’ (a basic anti-war/ pro pleasure song) meant to sound so jokingly inept? Is ‘Under the Moon’ a deliberatly shallow pastiche? When he tells us that he’s trying to make the world better for our children – is that an honest plea from the heart, is it a reference to ‘Heal the world’ or simply a throwaway line? It’s followed by the response ‘O you!’ And a swell of Disney-esque strings that seem to wink at the listener, suggesting a degree of irony. But the silliness makes for a dull blade to cut with – Throughout the record you never feel like you’re getting to know the real Harrison or his real beliefs.

But you have to give him credit for being endearingly ambitious. Koisser gives us his view on big topics – money, apathy, greed, ego, love, loss, happiness, depression and sexism. He’s admirably adventurous when it comes to subject matter, even if he sounds out of his depth. Ironically though, the best song on here is the most simple and heartfelt. ‘Someday’ describes, in clichéd but honest detail, post-break up contemplation. It desperately wants to be an Oasis ballad, which is brave considering even Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian (the two biggest a names in British Rock) have chickened out of writing one. In my opinion it qualifies as more than good enough.

Mostly the album is filled with spikey and fun indie pop gems like ‘lost on Me’, ‘Money’ and ‘I’m a Girl’ all of which proved themselves as festival anthems last summer (Columbia held up the record’s release for a while). 10 songs deep, there isn’t a dud on ‘Happy People’. Even the fairly middle of the road title track, the weakest song on here, breezes by nicely enough. The reference points and obvious influences are still far too easy to spot (‘World Pleasure’ in particular screams Blondie and Stone Roses) and that continues to hold them out of the reach of greatness, but the songwriting is strong and the melodies are deliciously catchy.

A few years ago ‘Happy People’would have fitted in nicely next to records by Delays, Kaiser Chiefs, Boy Kill Boy and all the indie also-rans. In 2014 though it sounds very much alone, which is kind of sad. There has to be a place for this type of music. It may not be as innovative or interesting as many other records released this year but to the right person – the type of person who was too young for The strokes and needs a rock-god to worship and wants to get caught up in band mania and needs reassuring that other people worry about society collapsing and desire perfect skin and feel lost – this will be an earth shattering record. You may not love it like that but Peace inspire passion like few other bands can right now.

7/10

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