Archive | June, 2015

Christopher Owens ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ – Review

30 Jun

It’s a brave move by any musician to open an album with a blatant reference to their most well known song. But Christopher Owens isn’t simply trying to recall the dead past when he opens ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ with the same down strummed D chord that opened ‘Lust for Life’, track one on Girls debut album – that chord represents something altogether more fundamental. It’s symbolic of a new beginning. If his last record, (the polished, likeable and unspectacular ‘The New Testament’) took the full sound of Girls classic ‘Father Son, Holy Ghost’ to a logical conclusion for both artistic and practical reasons (he’s been quite candid about the financial burden of producing such lavish sounds) then that D chord quite consciously dials the clock back further, to when Girls were a small, lo-if indie concern and expectations were low. By starting the album in the same way that he opened his debut, Owens is resetting the clock at zero.

If nothing else the record makes good on that promise of a new start. It feels like a genuine renewal, for better or worse. Instead of gospel choirs we get school choirs and the melodies have a nursery rhyme simplicity. Instead of a string section we get garage band presets. The arrangements are scrappy and unfocused whilst the vocal takes are deliberately sloppy. Girls ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ was justifiably praised as being one of the best sounding albums of recent years, but ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ knowingly goes in the opposite direction.

In my review of his last album I praised the consistency of Owens’ songwriting while comparing him to Brian Wilson and Rivers Cumo – other artists who flew too close to the sun, got burnt and retreated into a simplistic state of sappiness and sentimentality, as if too scared to commit to anything as raw and powerful as ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Pinkerton’. That’s where Owens has been heading for a while now and on ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ he continues down the sugary path laid down on ‘The New Testament’. The lyrics contain none of the bile, bite or bruising of his work with Girls and instead we’re given stock metaphors, easy cliches and an almost delusional sense of optimism -an optimism that is undone on the best, and uncoincidentally most heartbreaking songs.

These moments of undiluted honesty and sadness are far fewer on this record than on say ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ but when they come they are still beautiful. When he sings ‘we can’t go back, there’s just no way’ on ‘Waste Away’ you can hear the longing and despair pouring out of him, likewise when he asks for somebody to teach him how to love on ‘To Take Care of Myself Again’. In these moments he retreats to familiar chord progressions and unfussy arrangements that have served him well in the past, and it’s here where the magic happens.

But it’s a little harder to forgive the predictable musicality when the lyrics are cornball or the emotions are undercooked. His childlike sensibilities are endearing until they are brought front and centre on the chintzy ‘Music of my Heart’ and ‘What About Love.’ And a couple of the love songs feel too guarded and generic to make any impact; the four song suite starting with ‘Susanna’ being an example. Least appealing of all are the tracks that have potential but feel under thought and undercooked – ‘Ive got nothing to say but there’s so much on my mind’ he moans on ‘Coffee and TV’, one of three songs about feeling lazy and unproductive that we could do without.

Warts and all, Christopher Owens is a likeable artist with a singular vision and distinctive aesthetic. ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ is not his strongest effort, in fact it may be his weakest, but it never sounds like anybody’s work except his – and when you use classic rock n roll tropes as rigidly as Owens does, that is an impressive achievement.

6.5/10

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Sun Kil Moon ‘Universal Themes’ – Review

21 Jun

At his best there is nobody quite like Mark Koselek, AKA Sun Kil Moon. He is a maverick, a true original and somebody capable of spinning stories so relatable and moving they can fairly be described as astonishing. But ‘astonishing’ is only what he is capable of, and far from an accurate description of the bulk of his work. Take last year’s critically acclaimed ‘Benji’. Centred around the theme of death, Benji’s eleven tracks were broadly similar – long, melancholic, hyper detailed, depressing, cuttingly simplistic and free from any kind of colour of metaphor. Each story was related like an epiphany. But while the input was identical the output was far from it. Fine lines separated works of genius like ‘Ben’s My Friend’ and the yawning ‘Prey for Newtown’. It was a wildly inconsistent record to my ears that Never deserved the hyperbolic praise that greeted it.

That may sound unfair, but to me Sun Kil Moon is a career artist, and that is at odds with how ‘Benji’ was received. He’s released dozens of albums, all of which are of a similar quality. ‘Benji’ undoubtedly contained some career highlights, but it wasn’t a radical departure from previous records in either form or quality. It therefore seemed slightly ironic that this most nondescript and modest of artists should be suddenly and unexpectedly thrust in to the spotlight. The public meltdown that ensued (including but not limited to; a bizarre spat with War on Drugs, misogamist lyrics on a ‘diss’ track, and a public rant about ‘hillbillies’) seemed like the reaction of a man who had no idea how to cope with success and popularity arriving in midlife.

‘Universal Themes’ seems both reactionary and consolidatorary. It is a ‘screw you’ to the haters. Didn’t like the long songs on ‘Benji?’ Well these songs are even longer. Thought he could be a bit more sparing with the details? This album is even more diaristic. The language is even more matter of fact. The stories are even more mundane. At the same time it’s no radical departure, and whilst it lacks stand outs like ‘Ben’s my friend’, it’s roughly as good, or as bad, as any Sun Kil Moon record that precedes it.

But coming so soon after ‘Benji’, it does feel like overkill. Many of these songs are repetitive and respin themes and ideas perfected on the last album’s best tracks. There are also tracks that continue Koselek’s stubborn, belligerent streak. Naming your song ‘I’m an Indian and I work at a Gas Station” is inviting criticism, and many of these tracks paint him In a douchey light. That, supporters will claim, is a strength of the artist however much it is a criticism of the man, because he is unafraid to confront his own anxieties and hang ups whilst goading the critics at the same time.

On the positive side this is a far more adventurous album than ‘Benji’ when it comes to the music. Acoustic balladry is still the baseline for most of these songs, but he spins off into unexpected directions, like crunching stoner rock on ‘with a sort of grace…’, lo-if indie on ‘Ali’ and even indulgent prog on ‘The Possum’. It’s ambitious, and very, very messy, and never really sustains a mood or momentum but you get the feeling that’s exactly Sun Kil Moon’s intention.

At points it does feel like we’ve reached a tipping point, and that Sun Kil Moon has jumped the shark. As I said earlier, he isn’t doing anything radically different to before, but the stories are more predictable and less interesting, and his conversational tone feels confining and in the context of his past work, cliched. But maybe I’m being as flighty as critics who unexpectedly heaped accolades on ‘Benji’ because, as I’ve said, ‘universal Themes’ isn’t a radical departure. The simplest and most obvious criticism is that it’s just a bit boring. Ten minute acoustic rants just aren’t all that enjoyable, however insightful they may be. And I felt that way about ‘Benji’ too, and his older records. It’s just a question of how much tolerance you have for this stuff. I think I’ve found my Sun Kil Moon threshold, and ‘Universal Themes’ is it.

5.5/10

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The Vaccines ‘English Graffiti’ – Review

6 Jun

What did you expect from The Vaccines? That is the question. Well, it was the question posed in the title of The Vaccines debut album and it’s the question that hangs over their new record as well. Do you expect them to be England’s next Arctic Monkeys or Coldplay, the young arena band for the connoisseurr? Do you expect them to make good on their early promise of short, mysterious lo-if records that mixed Suicide and Beach Boys influences? Do you just expect them to give a damn this time around after 2012’s apathetic, worn out and self defeating (though still stupidly catchy) ‘Come of Age?’

The Vaccines know your expectations, as a band crippled by self awareness. They know they are manufacturers of enjoyable, throwaway, pop punk but with their impressive knowledge of music history they know they will need to do more than that to leave legacy. They’ve wrestled with their limitations before, to no end. Reading the lyric sheet to ‘Come of Age’ was like listening to a one sided therapy session; even the upbeat singles had self loathing hooks like ‘I’m no teenage icon, I’m no Frankie Avalon’ and ‘there’s no hope.’ It’s no surprise that singer and main songwriter Justin Young had several breakdowns in the aftermath of that album.

Hyper ambition and crippling self doubt are not great bedfellows, and neither are particularly healthy when your band’s key strength is making simple, modest guitar pop. When they stick to what they do best the results on ‘English Graffiti’ are as brilliant as their early hits. Lead track ‘Handsome’ initially comes over racked with the same anxiety as the ‘Come of Age’ material But the chorus assures us that the tongue is now in cheek and seems to suggest that the album is going to be a little less of a downer than ‘Come of Age’, which is welcome. It’s a great little nugget of pop rock. Sharp, funny, melodic and fizzy, it sounds like The Vaccines of old but with a bit of a twist.

’20/20′ is another song in the mould of their debut; romantic yearning over the top of surf guitars, doo wop backing vocals and foot to the floor drumming. It’s as good as anything they’ve ever written. ‘Radio Bikini’ takes us back to their early demos, with a sweet melody paired with fuzzy distortion. The lyrics are nonsense but it works. The band are wholly less successful when they venture in to new territory. You get the impression that they want to sound nothing like The Vaccines as you know them, which might be a credible ambition depending on your perspective. Disappointingly though they fail to establish any kind of new identity, they merely sound like imitators of other distinctive bands.

Justin decried journalists who have pointed out the similarities between their own ‘Dream Lover’ and Arctic monkeys ‘Do I Wanna Know’, calling it a lazy comparison. Well sorry, lazy it may be but it’s also brain crushingly obvious and transparent that the two songs are similar in both tone and ambition. ‘Dream Lover’ is an inferior imitation with watery vocals, bland lyrics and none of the sexiness. ‘Give Me a Sign’ is EDM as interpreted by people who have never set foot on a dance floor and ‘All Afternoon in Love’ is lounge pop imagined by people who have read about it on Wikipedia. At least these songs are enjoyable and somewhat memorable, which is more than can be said for bland and monotonous tracks like ‘Denial’ and ‘I want you so bad’ which are somehow both undercooked and frazzled – weak vocals, anaemic baselines and flimsy melodies combined with a sledgehammer production that is entirely exhausting.

‘We wanted to make an album that sounds great now and awful in ten years time.’ This is another fine, if slightly cynical ambition. What they’ve failed to do on the whole is make music that sounds good now, let alone in ten years time. Contemporary Pop was obviously their primary influence but these sunburnt soundscapes (the mixes sound horribly compressed) are a world away from the light footed and bouncy sounds being produced by the likes of Max Martin. You can forgive the production being a failure as it’s an ambitious and experimental failure. What is less easy to forgive is the monotonous and bland songwriting that sleeps below the production half the time. That’s one thing I never would have expected from The Vaccines..

5.5/10

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