Archive | April, 2015

Blur ‘The Magic Whip’ – Review

28 Apr

When a beloved band returns after a fifteen year break, expectations are bound to be a little unreasonably high. Optimistic fans will be hoping Blur pick up where Parklife left off fifteen years ago, while even the more pessimistic end of the fanbase will be hoping for something of ‘Think Tank’s’s quality. But let’s be realistic. It’s been ten years since Damon Albarn had a hit, and his last few projects (Dr Dee, ‘Everyday Robots’, The Good the bad and the Queen, Monkey the Opera) have been drab and unspectacular affairs. Graham Coxon’s output since leaving Blur 15 years ago has been solid but modest, rarely supporting the audacious claim that he’s the best British guitarist of our generation. As for Alex and Dave, well, their adventures away from music, in the fields of Cheese and Politics respectively, have kept them busy, and relatively quiet since Blur left the scene.

And so in reality, expecting the band to come out of the gates like it’s 1995 is at best unfair and at worst damaging. Remember when we dreamt of Harrison For getting out the fedora and bull-whip for another Indiana Jones? Then came Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The last thing we want is for Damon and co to pull out the fred perrys only to realise they fit as badly as Harrison’s leather jacket. Sure, their comeback shows have been spectacular, but how could they not be?! Get a bunch of thirtysomethings in a field, get them drunk, play some quality tunes and let them re-live their youth – you couldn’t go wrong. But there is a difference between doing that, and making a decent album.

So let’s calm down. Let’s be fair to them and our memories. ‘The Magic Whip’ is what a rational, logical, clear minded fan might expect. It’s the work of four talented musicians, who now lead separate lives, coming together again to re-connect in a way that makes sense on a personal, as much as a musical level. It’s slightly awkward at points, rarely fluid or magical and often sleepy but nonetheless it does display a remarkable bond and synergy that has endured despite the long break. And thankfully, it isn’t hopelessly nostalgic; it casts an eye to the past but doesn’t fix it there. It’s very much an album by Blur as they are in 2015, warts and all, even if they aren’t exactly as we would like them to be.

And so Damon still has an unfortunate proclivity for doom and gloom lyrics and overcast melodies, Graham’s riffs are a little too cookie cutter and Dave’s mid paced plod sounds a tad too much like the work of a middle aged lawyer – which it is (for what it’s worth, Alex’s bass lines are as elastic and bright as ever). But by coming together they do a lot to cancel out the negatives, and actually strengthen a connection that most bands would kill for.

Left to his own devices Damon would certainly be content to make another ‘Everyday Robots’, based on his contributions here. He dwells vaguely on the symbols and signifiers of terror and discontent in the modern age, rarely doing anything other than scraping the surface of ‘big topics’ – where did his sense of humour go? But anyway, Graham’s riffs add colour and drama to the sometimes dreary arrangements, while the rhythm section is a nicely human antidote to Albarn’s recent glitchy beat tendency. It also seems the very idea of being in Blur again (a group that wrote number one hits remember) has rejuvenated some kind of pop instinct in Albarn, at least to an extent. The gleeful ‘OngOng’ is all drippy piano licks, church choirs, major chords and smiles. ‘I wanna be with you’ he swoons, optimistic and enthusiastic for the first time in what feels like ages. Likewise, ‘Lonesome Street’, ‘I Broadcast’ and ‘Go Out’ recapture some of that bubbly pop vibe that they used to have bottled.

Even on the weirder tracks, like the paranoid ‘New World Towers’ and the snappy ‘Ice Cream’, Graham and Alex manage to tease some fun hooks out of some yawning songs, over-riding some of Damon’s persistent cynicism. But then again, that cynicism is equally important in stopping Graham’s naturally insular, nostalgic retro rock tendencies from taking over.
Blur never sound entirely like the band of old, nor do they entirely sound like a Blur for 2015. In its weaker moments ‘The Magic Whip’ sounds like the result of four guys spending a long weekend jamming to no real end. Which is exactly how it came in to being. And so there is no real drive or purpose on display, no obvious design and a sorry lack of cohesive, clear minded song writing.

But in moments we are given aesthetic sweeties to remind us of the good old days. ‘Lonesome Street’s guitar has a tone that is remincitant of ‘Parklife’, whilst Coxon’s vocals on that track have the same Syd Barret feel of ‘Starwhaped.’ Likewise, the backing vocals on ‘Go Out’ have all the ‘Ohs’ and ‘awws’ in all the right places, just as they were on ‘The Great Escape.’ ‘I-Broadcast’ has the chugging punk vibe of ‘Advert’ and ‘Globe Alone’ whilst ‘I Thought I Was a Spaceman’ could have been taken from ‘13’.

Sounds. Backing vocals. Guitar tones. Sometimes just an unidentifiable feeling. These are the things that very briefly make you feel the things you felt the first time you heard ‘For Tomorrow’ or ‘End of the Century’ or ‘Song 2’ – whatever your entry point was. I say this as someone who only really got in to the band fairly recently, and I can only imagine how somebody who experienced Blur first time around will feel upon hearing these songs – I imagine Goosebumps and hairs on necks may be involved. But they are only brief, sensory thrills that simply trigger older, better feelings and memories. ‘The Magic Whip’ isn’t stuck in the past, but it does rely on it a little bit to hold your attention. But Blur do enough, and do it so naturally, to suggest that they do have it in them to make something more significant – something classic. If this is what 5 days jamming and a whole lot of Stephen Street tinkering achieved, then I wonder what would be possible if some serious forethought, song writing and effort were involved?

7.5/10

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Panda Bear ‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’ – Review

26 Apr

Panda Bear has one of the most distinctive voices (I mean both figuratively and literally) in 21st century indie rock. As both a solo artist and member of cult band Animal Collective, he is responsible for some of the most challanging albums of recent years. But ever since 2009’s classic ‘Meriwether Post Pavillion’, he’s had some difficulty living up to his formidable reputation. 2011’s ‘Tomboy’, the follow-up to the genius ‘Person Pitch’, was tedious and drab, if occasionally rewarding. Meanwhile Animal Collective’s 2013 record ‘Centipede HZ’ was dire in almost every sense – noisy, brash, aggressive, glitchy and incohesive. Lesser bands have made worse albums, but I can’t recall a great band (which they undoubtedly are) making anything as uncharacteristically awful. Add that to the list of solo albums made by fellow Animal Collective member Avey Tare, (the boring ‘Down There’ and the OK ‘Slasher Flicks) and you have every reason to think the Animal Collective talent pool has run a little dry.

‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’ may not completely silence the critics but it’s easily the best thing Panda Bear has done since the ‘Fall be Kind’ e.p, five years ago. In many way it neatly summarises both the good and bad qualities of Panda Bear’s output to date. Like his best work it’s confidently tuneful, with memorable and ambitious melodies that push and pull and seem to be in constant flight. The harmonies are here and sound as glorious as ever. The arrangements are strange and often confrontational, with an emphasis on oddball rhythms and disorienting surges of sound. But along with the good, we’re reminded of the bad. Unlike the trim and cohesive ‘Person Pitch’ and ‘Tomboy’, ‘…Meets the Grim Reaper’ is too long – a good three tracks too long. This makes it inconsistent, cluttered and frustratingly fussy. It also has far too much going on in parts. Take for example the catchy single ‘Boy’s Latin’ – a song that would work much more effectively if it was stripped down a bit and simplified.

The album almost plays like an Animal Collective compilation that attempts to represent the variety of styles the group have experimented with over the years. Admittedly the quality is more ‘B-sides and album tracks’ than ‘Greatest Hits’ but it’s still nice to be reminded of the breadth and depth of Animal Collective’s musical interests. Thus ‘Mr Noah’ recalls ‘Strawberry Jam’s’ fizzy, oddball explosion of colour, ‘Crosswords’ takes us back to ‘Merriwether Post Pavillion’ and ‘Tropic of Cancer’ revisits the mournful contemplation of ‘Young Prayer.

And so there is an air of finality about ‘…Meets the Grim Reaper.’ Panda Bear has the feel of a man pausing for breath and looking back on his achievments. A lot has been made of the fact that death is refered to on many of the songs. Certainly it’s a theme, albeit one that’s ambiguously referenced in a conversation that goes off in all kind of directions. He may sing ‘this is the last time’, ‘Dark cloud descend again’ and ‘give it all up on the other side’ but he also sings about his dog’s broken leg more than a couple of times. Basically, the album’s too surrealistic and silly to take all that seriously. Also, because of the nature of his singing, and the somewhat muddy, echoy mix, it’s hard to discern what Panda Bear’s actually saying a lot of the time (without a lyric booklet). In other words, don’t worry about placing too much emphasis on the words.

But that said, as it reaches the final third the album develops a clarity and focus that puts a new spin on the experimentalism of the first two thirds. As a gentle piano becomes the backdrop and the spotlight shifts to Panda Bear’s beautiful vocals, you begin to see the album’s arc; a representation of growing up, from strange, overwhelming chaos to a kind of peace and serenity. ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Lonely Wanderer’ cut through the noise and provide an oppertunity to reflect, listen and be thankful. The first half of the album is concerned with the pressures and confusions of modern adulthood, and at the end Panda Bear offers something like resolution. Not death though, but certainly a type of quiet retreat. ‘What have you done… was it worthwhile?’ If the album is akin to a musical trip down memory lane, then its ending points in a new direction forwards.

7/10

Courtney Barnett ‘Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit’ – Review

23 Apr

‘Oliver Paul, 20 years old, full head of hair, worries he’s going bald.’ As opening lines go, that’s a pretty great one. And it’s not the opening line of a novel or short story – it’s the opening line of a pop album. More specifically, Courtney Barnett’s new record ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I just Sit.’ Each song begins in a similarly dynamic and engaging way. How about: “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first, a little pesticide can’t hurt” or “I lay awake at four, staring at the wall, counting all the cracks backwards in my best French.” Courtney Barnett knows how to grab your attention, and she’s getting much better at keeping it.

That was the problem with her debut, ‘Sea of Split Peas’ – she grabbed our attention but then let it slip with songs that went on too long, or felt lethargic and undercooked. The fantastic ‘Avant Gardener’ and ‘History Erraser’ aside, there was a lack of depth and focus to the album that made repeated listens a bore. On her new album, Barnett has made a massive and unexpected leap forwards in terms of quality, as well as consistency. The debut had two great songs, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think…’ has an album’s worth of them. The leap forward is all the more remarkable because Barnett hasn’t re-written the rule book or taken a dramatic left turn – the songs follow a similar template to the one laid out on ‘A Sea of Split Peas’ and they don’t do anything drastically different. It’s just a case that the songwriting is sunnier, the melodies are more memorable, the hooks are stickier and the tunes are more urgent. It’s the kind of leap Radiohead made from ‘Pablo Honey’ to ‘The Bends’.

Here Barnett gets to the point quickly. The record doesn’t open with a long dirge or repetitive riff, rather it begins with Courtney opening her mouth to speak. And she barely pauses for breath for the next forty minutes. Only a couple of lacidazical tracks exceed the four minute mark, and even they don’t feel half as long as they actually are. On the whole the songs are short, classically structured and effectively arranged. There’s a bit of soulful organ that pops up here and there, guitar effects are used only when necessary, and solos are short and unfussy. Barnett has assembled a tight band of musicians, whose technical proficiency never gets in the way of the simple and direct songwriting.

Barnett deals with everyday themes better than any lyricist since Alex Turner on Arctic Monkeys debut. But whereas Turner talked almost exclusively about nights out, Barnett casts her eye in countless directions. At times she’s intrinsically observational and at other times slyly personal. But whether she’s singing about an existential time crisis, depicting a young man’s mini-breakdown or trying to impress a swimmer in the adjacent lane, Barnett is always making the mundane seem interesting and the interesting seem mundane. Whilst her lyrics seem, on the surface, to be clear cut and almost mechanically dry and straightforward, they often make larger points about the state of the world, or the state of her mind.

Of the personal songs, ‘An illustration of Loneliness’ is the most effective. It finds Barnett in restless state, unable to sleep, and occasionally remembering that she misses her partner. ‘I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling, it’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream…I’m thinking of you too.’ Here, as elsewhere, she strikes a convincing note about pampered millennials; busy being bored, easily distracted, heart on sleeve sincere but overly self-aware. ‘I wanna go out but I wanna stay home’ she moans at another point, and who hasn’t been there? That’s the beauty of her lyrics – you don’t have to look too hard to find yourself staring back.

Take for example the stunning ‘Depreston’, which finds Barnett and her partner searching for a new house. It describes in meticulous detail the tedious process of finding your first home and the somewhat scary implications of what that means. ‘it’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in, or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one.’ Read off the page the lyrics appear straightforwardly descriptive and unemotional but the performance elevates the song and adds extra significance to the words. It’s Barnett’s most affecting vocal performance to date – an actual ballad that she sings rather than just sing-speaks – and what a surprisingly lovely voice she has, both distinctive and warm. The melancholic guitar and sad chord progression lend the song a tone that makes the idea of buying a house seem less like an exciting leap in to adulthood and more like a depressing harbinger of middle age – like you’re settling down and giving up, conforming to the norm and actually, undoubtedly, growing up. Her continuous reluctance (‘I guess it wouldn’t hurt us’ / ‘how’s that for first impressions’ / ‘it’s a deceased estate’ / ‘I can’t think of floorboards anymore’) is palpable and easily relatable. Like many of us, Barnett resorts to sarcasm when the reality of the situation becomes too heavy (‘aren’t the pressed middle ceilings great?!’) and the ambiguous closing line (‘If you’ve got a spare half a million you could knock it down and start rebuilding’) Makes me wonder what we’re meant to take from the song.

But Barnett is often like that – not vague, just a bit elusive. She doesn’t want to provide answers or give lectures or offer didactic meaning; she wants to tell her story and then get out. Her songs may seem mundane or insignificant, and maybe they are, or maybe you can prise some kind of revelation from them. Certainly, you’re going to have to read between the lines, and look around the edges of the songs if you’re at all interested in understanding the real Courtney Barnett. Not that that seems a particularly worthwhile endeavour or one that she approves of. ‘Don’t ask me what I really mean, I am just a reflection of what you really wanna see, so take what you want from me.’ If anyone wants to dissect these songs and call her the voice of a generation – which is no stretch – then she isn’t going to agree or disagree. Likewise if you want to jump around to these songs in a club and pay the words no real attention, that’s your prerogative as well. Her approach is to tell you a bunch of stuff that happened and leave you alone to sit and think about it. Or just sit.

8.5/10

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Kendrick Lamar ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ – Review

12 Apr

On 2012’s breakthrough album ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, Kendrick Lamar introduced himself as a Hip Hop artist with a director’s eye for image and detail. His songs formed an autobiographical ‘slums to stardom’ narrative about the young rapper’s early life, that was cinematic in scope and style. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly doubles up on the breadth and ambition of ‘Good Kid’ by starting a thought-provoking discussion about fame, desire, faith, race and doubt. ‘Good Kid, Maad City’ was presented as a ‘short film’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is undoubtedly a blockbuster in its own right.

This album is about the education of Kendrick Lamar. It’s a tangled web of complexities, anxieties and contradictions that is unknotted with honesty and conviction. This is a man who entered the Rap business to escape the Ghetto, but is ultimately still trapped there – ‘institutionalised, for both better and worse. Rap gave him an escape but also condemned him to a life of sin and temptation. Rap is also the very thing that saves him, and brings him home. He spends all of ‘Momma’ telling us that he knows ‘everything’, a typical Hip Hop boast that is taken to the poetic extreme through hyperbole and repetition, but ends with Kendrick accepting that that he actually knows ‘nothing’. Lamar asks to be saved, asks to be redeemed, looks to God and believes that everything will be alright in the end. ‘My rights, my wrongs – I write ’til I’m right with God’.

It’s difficult to remember an album as carefully developed as this one. Interspersed between the songs are extracts from a poem, that is revealed to the listener, line by line, with each extract carefully relating to the song that follows it. And so while the album lacks an excplicit concept, there is this central artistic device that smartly allows Kendrick to dive in to different subjects and themes.

On ‘u’ he speaks to himself in third person, filled with self-hatred, trying to better himself but struggling. ‘Loving you is complicated.’ near the album’s finale he realises that love comes from within, and so ‘u’ gets flipped to ‘i’, a declaration of self-belief. That’s one way in which the album can be read, as a story of slow realisation and redemption. Along the way Lamar dissects questions of Race and faith in such astonishing detail that I can’t even begin an analysis here. Characters arise and disappear, each with their own baggage, adding to the story; the Spanish-speaking maid who witnesses Lamar’s mental breakdown in a hotel room, the South African beggar who turns out to be God, the small child who resembles a young Kendrick Lamar and reminds him of his roots, Snoop Dog, 2Pac, Nelson Mandela, various family members with their differing beliefs and wants. Lamar mixes the profound and the profane, the big ideas with small details and he interacts with both the rich and the poor, the superstars and the homeless.

Musically this is the most adventurous and open-minded record I’ve heard in a long time. It weaves together free Jazz, Prince Pop, 90’s girl-group r&b, Sly Stone funk, psychedelia and even a Sufjan Stevens sample. It comes over like a more twisted take on Andre 3000’s ‘The Love Below’ without any of the killer pop moments. Which isn’t to say that ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is difficult or hook free, it’s just that the hooks are more subtle, the grooves more subversive and the melodies less repetitive. If lead single ‘i’ suggested a turn to a more radio friendly, retro soul-sample sound then it was a brilliant red herring. Likewise the trap influenced ‘Blacker the Berry’ is equally unrepresentative of  a record that makes no other concessions to the hip hop styles and sounds of 2015. But it’s all the better for it. The album submerges the listener in a sound that is warm, rich and, crucially, alive. A backing band of super talented musicians support Kendrick on most of the songs, which means that ‘To pimp a butterfly’ would be a rewarding album even without Kendrick’s rapping.

But consider the rapping for just a second – and not what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. On a technical level, Kendrick Lamar has to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. His rhyming on ‘For Free’ is unprecedented in its ingenuity, ferocity and breathless delivery. His pauses are perfectly timed, his flow is diverse and adaptable, his tone is rich and emotive and he has excellent control of pace. Even when the subject matter is trite or crude (trite, rarely, crude, often) you have to admire his sheer skill and versatility as a rapper. If there were a Hip Hop olympics, Kendrick would be winning gold for both the 100 meters and the marathon.

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ ends with ‘Mortal man’, a typically strange and surreal track in which it is eventually revealed that the poem that has been read throughout the album is actually being addressed to Tupac Shakur’. After reciting the poem again, Lamar asks Tupac a series of questions, including one about how he managed to keep his sanity. There is no real answer because, of course, Tupac is dead. The silence at the end of the conversation feels ominous, with Lamar asking ‘Pac, Pac, Pac?’ If penultimate track ‘i’ seemed to offer a solution and uplift, then ‘Mortal Man’ piles on more doubt and more questioning. There is no happy ending, just a lot to meditate on.

9.5/10

Circa Waves ‘Young Chasers’ – Review

2 Apr

There’s a website called theinbetweenersmusic.co.uk that lists the songs played in the first season of The Inbetweeners. Alongside now classics by Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines and The Strokes are less well-remembered (but at the time equally popular) hits by The Kooks, The Maccabees, The Automatic, The Wombats, The Fratellis, and The Guillemots. Their music was often as predictable as their names (The *insert noun*) but more often than not their songs were chirpy, energetic and endlessly replayable. Tellingly, these bands were incredibly popular.

In 2015 guitar pop is under-represented in the singles charts, but ten years ago these bands were routinely scoring top ten singles, number one albums and soundtracking the Nation’s favourite tv show. It’s easy to be snarky and unkind to these bands (most critics still are) but in an age when just about every genre has been re-evaluated and reclaimed by musical apologists, it seems that, unfairly, this type of very British, very White and very middle class indie-pop is the only genre not being given a second chance. Even Slipknot’s new single has been playlisted by Radio 1, yet Brandon Flowers new one hasn’t. It’s a perverse form of snobbery that seems to exist as an apology for years of indie Rockism that pervaded culture in the mid to late 00’s.

You could look at it another way. We just got sick of all those bands and that sound and style overstayed its welcome. Second and third albums by those bands were almost universally awful and the later crop of bland New Yorkshire bands were enough to make even the hardened indie-pop fan head to “Pigeon Detectives free” retreats. But it was great to grow up at a time where you could see a band at a pub venue one month and realistically expect to see them in the charts the next.

This year has seen a very slight revival in the form of Peace, Catfish and the Bottlemen and now Circa Waves, who have been releasing moderately successful singles for the best part of eighteen months. Circa Waves are more straight cut and energetic than Peace, and more lively and tuneful than the drab and boring Catfish and the Bottlemen, but they all share a similar nostalgia for ten years ago. Their sound has so much in common with their mid-00s forbearers that it’s impossible for me to hear the sunny ‘T-Shirt Weather’ and not start thinking about for the summers of my own youth. Nostalgia is certainly the trump card in Circa Waves deck and I’m betting it’s the reason they’re becoming so popular. ‘T-Shirt Weather’ is about remembering; remembering being young, carefree, warm and happy.

Over thirteen short and spikey songs, Circa Waves recall many of the bands mentioned above without sounding too much like any of them. For example, I can’t remember any of those bands sounding quite so straight and narrow as Circa Waves. By that I mean they sprint to the finish line, eyes firmly forwards, no time for a ballad, guitar solo, harmonies or any rhythm that could trip a song up. There is almost no variety on ‘Young Chasers’ and absolutely no experimentation. They reference Ride and Pavement in interviews but you won’t hear a trace of those influences here. The View or The Wombats sound positively avant-garde in comparison.

But there is something charming and old-fashioned about that. In the age of Spotify and YouTube, bands are expected to show off their diverse range of influences. But why should they? If Circa Waves prefer Indie to r&b why should they shoe in Destiny’s Child backing vocals just because it’s in vogue? The band play to their strengths and they make music that sounds like the music they love, that much is clear.

‘Young Chasers’ is what it is. It doesn’t push boundaries, it isn’t political, it isn’t deep and it won’t start a nu-rock revolution. It’s ‘merely’ an incredibly fun and enjoyable collection of indie-pop gems that never, not once, gets boring despite being so genreic. The point is it’s generic of a genre that has been out of vogue for a long time, and therefore sounds, even to my ears, fresh and exciting. I personally can’t wait to hear ‘Get Away’ at an indie-disco or a crowd of teenagers singing along to ‘Fosils’ at Reading and Leeds so we can make pretend it’s 2006 all over again.

7.5/10