Archive | July, 2015

Tanlines ‘Highlights’ – Review

31 Jul

Tan lines reveal the boundary between what is exposed to the sun and what you’d rather remain hidden. It seems a noble aim of any band to take this idea and metaphorically apply it to music – to explore not just the tanned, exposed emotions but to peel off the layers and hold up the pale, secret thoughts and emotions to close scrutiny. Tanlines, the band, straddle this line, producing music that is at times revealing and intimate.

‘Highlights’ is Tanlines second album, and it’s a ‘second verse same as the first’ kind of deal. With their shimmering, crystalline guitars and simple drum machine patterns, the duo recall no-one so much as The Drums, and on lead single ‘Slipping Away’ they produce a song that is every bit as catchy and pop-perfect as anything written by that band. In fact, the opening third of the record is exceptionally sharp and on point.’Pieces’ is a laid back opener that places an irresistible melody alongside a bubbly baseline and jangly Johnny Marr-esque guitar lead. ‘Palace’ is a heartfelt, upbeat ballad with a convincing refrain of ‘I don’t want to know what it feels like, to be lost and alone.’ The stuttering beat and simple arrangement is a fitting match for Emm’s modest and delicate vocal.

The elements don’t always come together so seamlessly. The buzz saw synth that announces ‘Two Thousand Miles’ rubs up awkwardly against a lightweight melody, and from this moment out the duo start moving in unflattering directions. When they drift too far from their mildly Balearic, New Wave sweet spot they start to seem distinctly average. This is true on the slow and dreary ‘Invisible Ways’ and the higher energy ‘Thinking’. And so Tanlines have a seriously limited range that makes for a catch 22 situation; when they stray too far from their strengths they fall flat but when they stick to what they’re good at they become two dimensional and repetitive.

In a similar way, the better lyrics are the ones that don’t strain for ambition or meaning. The melodramatic, universal sentiments delivered on ‘Pieces’ and ‘Slipping Away’ most clearly leave an impression. A few too many lines begin with ‘maybe’ or ‘I remember’ without ultimately going anywhere but there is the sense that Emm is opening himself up and exploring deep memories. ¬†Elsewhere he aims for mystery and ambiguity but ends up somewhere frustratingly vague and indecisive. However when he keeps it simple, Emm is an effective and personable lyricist. This may be faint praise in some respects but Tanlines are a modest band; they aren’t aiming to change the world or start trends, they are simply a workmanlike, somewhat mediocre pop duo. It remains to be seen if they will ever amount (or want to amount) to more than that. There are hints on here that they might.

6/10

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Muse ‘Drones’ – Review

25 Jul

‘Drones’ is a classic example of how artists can make a bad album out of the same ingredients they used to make classic ones (see also: Oasis, U2, Kings of Leon, Jay Z etc). On the surface Muse, possibly the most successful rock band of the past decade, do what they’ve always done – theatrical histrionics, crunching riffs, political paranoia, pop melodies and propulsive dynamics. Sadly though on ‘Drones’ they get the balance all wrong. The album is such a car wreck it’s difficult to know where to begin assessing the damage. From the obnoxious concept, right down to the fine details, ‘Drones’ is a failure of judgment and an absence of effort on every single level.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Drones’ is “a concept album following the protagonist’s journey from abandonment to indoctrination as a “human drone” and eventual defection.” If that single sentence sounds ponderous then just imagine how the album sounds. Muse have always delivered high stakes, pseudo political diatribes but here they dial up the anxiety and conspiracy. Here, for the first time, they sound COMPLETELY devoid of humour – slaves to their unconvincing, patronising and tiresome politics. The really damming thing is that if you break down the story and inspect the mechanics you are left with a bunch of empty phrases, tired slogans and hoary cliches – ‘you’re dead inside’, ‘I’m the virus’, ‘show me mercy’, ‘you rule with lies and deceit’ etc etc.

‘Drones’ fails just as spectacularly on the musical side of things. Aside from opening track ‘Dead Inside’ (which is a bland retread of ‘Panic Station’ anyway), the songs are airless, stodgy and too riff centric. It’s as if they’re trying to worm in to some of Royal Blood’s popularity, only they lack the energy and momentum to pull it off. Sadly they sound like a shadow of their former selves; listening to old songs like ‘Hysteria’, ‘Bliss’ and ‘Time is Running Out’ makes you remember that it wasn’t always like this.

I think the main ingredient lacking is any sense of deliberate, tongue in cheek pomposity. The best muse songs are the ones that embrace their obvious silliness; the ridiculously overblown ‘Knights of Cydonia’ or ‘supremacy’ – the songs on ‘Drones’ take themselves way too seriously and that is a massive mistake. It makes the album unlikable and in the end, unlistenable.

Matt Bellemy has always been a distinctive and impressive frontman – a technically gifted vocalist with personality and great command of the audience. He’s also been a natural songwriter, with a fine nose for hooks and an ear for melodies. Those traits are just about the only things salvageable from ‘Drones’ but that comes with the depressing knowledge that he’s resting on his laurels. ‘Drones’ has boggy riffs, zero sense of humour, a lack of energy, a paranoid concept but it’s ultimately a victim of sheer laziness. There is the sense that Muse could be great, if only they could be bothered.

2/10

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Tame Impala ‘Currents’ – Review

21 Jul

I bet the first thing you thought when you first heard Tame Impala was – ‘doesn’t he sound like John Lennon?’ After that you were probably struck by how authentic the music sounded – perfectly mimicking the sonics of 60s psych rock – while simultaneously expanding and reimagining its possibilities. On ‘Currents’ Kevin Parker still sounds remarkably like the late great Beatle, and still authentically mimics the sounds of classic rock. This time though Tame Impala are being more subversive and less respectful. More experimental and less guarded. More pop minded and less obtuse. Tame Impala remain the same band – which is to say, Kevin Parker (who wrote, recorded, mixed and performed on the entirety of the record) is the same person. But as he makes explicitly clear at several points – he’s changing.

Where ‘Lonerism’ played pretty closely to the psych-rock rule book, ‘Currents’ casts its eye across many genres. Yacht Rock, Synth Pop, Soul, R&B and even Disco are all clear influences. Kevin Parker’s great skill is in making all these genres, that once seemed so distinct, sound like natural bedfellows. He makes you reconsider the relationship between styles and instruments but never at the expense of the songwriting, which is where he really puts emphasis.

It’s a fairly massive transition from the sound of ‘Lonerism’ to the sound of ‘Currents’ but it doesn’t particularly feel like it. In fact Parker makes it seem like the most natural evolution in the world, in the same way Bon Iver went from acoustic guitar to gigantic band arrangements without anyone raising an eyelid. Tame Impala succeed for exactly the same reasons as Bon Iver. firstly, the most distinctive thing about them has always been Parker’s voice and his crystalline melodies. Both are as distinctive as ever on ‘Currents’. Secondly, he’s such an accomplished musician and producer that he makes everything sound so effortless. It’s quite an accomplishment to switch from guitar based rock to synth based pop and make it sound so natural – intensified by the fact that he did it all on his own.

Like ‘Lonerism’, ‘Currents’ main thematic concern is romantic failure. Parker isn’t one to dissect how it ended or why but rather he’s interested in the aftermath, and the effect it has on the psyche. In other words, he’s always been a bit self interested, even selfish, and that is one of the big takeaways from ‘Currents’. ‘I know that I’ll be happier / and I know you will too’, he adds almost as an afterthought. He wants to see the girl again because there is so much he wants to tell her. He was doing fine till he saw her with someone else and spends at least one song trying to break the couple up. But he only left her in the first place because he saw a better future for himself! His reasoning for acting like a massive Dbag? Cause he’s a man. At least he’s honest.

Elsewhere he’s spouting off new age nonsense that doesn’t really convince: ‘let it happen’, ‘maybe I was ready all along’, ‘yes I’m changing’, ‘finally taking flight’, ‘feel like a brand new person’. Maybe he wants to be better. Or maybe it’s just the drugs talking. Anyway, we don’t listen to Tame Impala for a master class in lyricism. It’s the melodies we want, and boy are THEY masterful. It’s always difficult to describe melodies, even more so when we’re dealing with sublime ones like this; melodies that glide , fall and rise with a deftness of touch that surely belongs to angels. Melodies that are soulful and pop minded and feel both ancient and brand new at the same time. Melodies that never seem constructed or the end result of a thought process and never ever feel like hard work.

He’s just as nimble with the musical side of things. Kevin Parker is better with the fine details than any other musician currently making music (except for maybe Daft Punk). He knows how to make the bass sound like Paul Mccartney’s circa ‘Revolver’. He knows how to get the hush hush 10cc backing vocals. He knows which synth to use where and how to mix them so that they sounds perfect. It speaks volumes that I didn’t miss his guitar once when I first listened to the album. When it does show up, on the funky ‘Less I Know the Better’ and in the shimmering coda to ‘Love/Paranoia’ it sounds absolutely vital to those moments, not just an accessory.

‘Currents’ is an exemplary album in many respects but it isn’t perfect. Its flaws are all the more niggling, because so many things about it ARE perfect. The melodies, which as I’ve described are heavenly, meander in a typical stoner rock fashion that seems to contradict the production at times. The slacker style would be fine on ‘Innerspeaker’ but as the emphasis here is very much on ‘pop’ you just wish there was a little more bite. The beats snap and click with immaculate precision and so the melodies feel slightly at odds with that. Where is the intensity? There is also a lack of intensity in the tempos, which are all virtually identical; at thirteen tracks long the album falls in to a rather sleepy pattern that it never really wakes out of. Are the two interludes necessary? Would the slow building and slow releasing ‘Let It Happen’ be more dynamic and impactful if it was edited? Also, the lethargic, spoken word ‘Past Lives’ puts a roadblock to the album’s momentum that it never really recovers from and you end up feeling the album would be a much better pop record if it was ten minutes lighter.

These things don’t stop ‘Currents’ from being a great album, although I do confess to preferring the energy and dynamics of ‘Lonerism’. But you have to credit Parker with a degree of self-awareness – he is changing, and in almost ever respect it’s for the better. He is quite simply an artist at the peak of his powers, heads and shoulders above anyone else in his field right now.

8.5/10

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Jamie XX ‘In Colour’ – Review

15 Jul

The title of Jamie XX’s debut solo album, ‘In Colour’, suggests that the album is directly opposed to the records made by his band, The XX. You see, The XX are black and white, from their album art to their stage design to the simplicity of their music. That’s one thing Jamie obviously didn’t want his solo album to be. We equate colour with complexity and personality, two things critics of The XX would say they lack. As an artist who has delivered on his promises time and time again, it’s therefore a disappointment to find that ‘In Colour’ doesn’t make good on that title and jubilant cover art. For the most part, It’s a dull and uninspired album.

From the off it’s clear that Jamie XX is interested in nostalgia. If the UK Hardcore breakbeat and sample at the centre of ‘Gosh’ don’t make that clear then the wailing synth siren that comes in towards the end of the song certainly will. Throughout the album Jamie nods to the past all too politely; signifiers of trance are sprinkled like sugar, there are field recordings of conversations from club nights and samples from old doo wop records. As a result of all this looking back, Jamie forgets to look towards the future. You could put on Rinse FM right now and hear a bunch of tracks that are more innovative and far less acclaimed than anything on ‘In Colour’.

But this is not really a dance album. For starters you would have a really hard time dancing to many of these songs. It’s an album meant for the comedown rather than the rave itself. The beats are slippery and the reverb gives a sense of the good times fading out of view. Meanwhile the groove is nowhere to be found. This type of introverted, comedown dance is usually a strain of the genre I love, but here there just isn’t enough to get a grip on. When working within the confines of r&b inspired indie pop with The XX, the stark minimalism isn’t a problem, but in the context of ‘dance music’ it kind of is. The baselines are anaemic and, too often, barely register on a physical level. The sampling is uninspired and boring; take for example how the steel drum, a glorious instrument when used to its full potential, is wasted on ‘obvs’. Stripped of vocals, emotion or some sense of dynamism many of these songs feel empty at their core and lacking in flavour.

There are however signs that he hasn’t entirely lost the knack for crafting finely tuned, forward thinking, exciting music. The three songs featuring Oliver and Romi from The XX are among the finest things he’s ever done – which is high praise indeed. The melodies are exquisite, the production is subtle and the lyrics, that speak of loneliness and depression, are beautifully moving. In actual fact, you could easily swap these three songs with tracks of the group’s last record ‘Coexist’ and I doubt anybody would notice.

‘I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times’ is the best thing on here not featuring Romi or Oliver, but there is also a strong and distinctive vocal at the centre of this track, which adds to the argument that Jamie works best with vocalists in the room. Young Thug’s inspired rap adds something completely out of the blue, while the clashing dancehall and doo wop samples rub up against each other perfectly, adding one of the album’s few moments of tension.

Four brilliant tracks out of eleven does not make ‘In Colour’ a great record, but it does make it one worth buying. Jamie’s done enough over the years to earn our trust and support, and nothing on ‘In Colour’ diminishes that; but the mediocrity is surprising. Jamie XX is a fine DJ, an excellent producer and an insanely talented guy all round. We’ve become so used to him churning out classic albums and singles that it’s a little bit difficult to accept ‘In Colour’, a record that is fantastic in parts and utterly sleepy at other points. He still works best when collaborating with singers and rappers within the realm of R&B/hip hop influenced indie pop. So if Jamie XX really wants to be a dance producer then he needs to discover the groove – and a lot more colour.

7/10

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Wolf Alice ‘My Love is Cool’ – Review

9 Jul

Wolf Alice have been hyped to the heavens over the past month, with NME hyperbolically calling ‘My Love Is Cool’ the best debut of the decade, and various other publications breaking out rare 5/5s and 10/10s. But hype is not new to Wolf Alice. I first encountered them two and a half years ago when their debut single ‘Leaving You’ made them ‘the band to keep an eye on in 2013’. But 2013 came and went without much more news from the Band’s camp, except for the single ‘Fluffy’, an intense punk rock song that seemed about as far removed from ‘Leaving You’s quiet contemplation as was possible.

2014 saw the release of more wildly opposed songs; from the upbeat and baggy ‘Bros’, to the gorgeous ballad ‘Blush’ and the grungy ‘Moaning Lisa Smile.’ The only thing that these diverse tracks had in common was the hype that greeted their release. But hype can be healthy; Wolf Alice are passionate and that inspires excitement in a cynical industry that almost discourages it at times. Hype means people are interested and the strange assortment of singles suggested the hype was justified. The question with ‘My Love is Cool’ is how would they align these diverse songs in to a single, cohesive unit and how would they balance established fan favourites with new material?

They don’t satisfyingly answer these questions on ‘My Love is Cool’, an album that is understandably frustrating if you’ve been a fan of the band for a while. They have somewhat overstated their grungy side whilst holding back on some of their best songs (‘White Leather’ and ‘Blush’ are personally missed). I know the argument; these songs are readily available on iTunes if you want them, but the old-fashioned part of me believes that you should put your best material on the album, and they haven’t done that. The appropriately watery ‘Soapy Water’ and the bland album closer ‘The Wonderwhy’ could easily have been replaced and this would have been a much stronger album for it.

Still, I want to review what is on the album as oppose to what isn’t. Even with the notable omissions and the slightly erratic smattering of styles, ‘My Love is Cool’ is indeed one of the best debut albums of the year – if not quite the decade. Its success lies in the irrepressible enthusiasm of the band, and their desire to try their hand at anything and everything, even when the results are shaky. From the slinky indie of ‘You’re a Germ’ to the shoegazing ‘Lisbon’, from Elly’s Lana Del Rey impression on ‘Silk’ to her Hope Sendaval Impression on ‘Turns To Dust’ – the band have all the excitement of children in a fancy dress shop, unsure of which costume to pick.

They have supported the 1975 and Peace and drawn frequent comparisons to The Cranberries and Hole. The fact that this album could appeal to fans of all these bands speaks to its range and depth. You don’t finish the album with a clear sense of the definitive band Wolf Alice will turn in to, but at the same time they have already developed a strong, if slightly Indistinct, voice of their own. That’s mainly down to lead singer Elly’s searching lyricism.

Like Peace, Wolf Alice are unafraid to discuss a range of weighty topics. Unlike Peace, Wolf Alice have the sophistication and subtlety to pull it off. They address depression, anxiety, jealousy, nostalgia, isolation and mortality over the course of an album that never feels content to fall back on clich√©s. These are issues that will be at the centre of the lives of wolf Alice’s target audience – teenagers – an audience who are used to being patronised or ignored. Wolf alice never do that.

When Elly sings about depression on silk, she demystifies cliches (‘at least your not boring? Nobody wants to feel this sad!’) and pinpoints precise and difficult emotions with astonishing success. Likewise, throughout the album she deals with young love in a way that is anything but predictable; on ‘You’re a germ’ she sings about a predatory older lover in a way that offers no easy judgments and on ‘Lisbon’ she nails the complex feeling of unrequited love with delicious images of ‘smoking your menthols’ and ‘wearing all of your clothes again, they’re wearing thin but it’s one way to be together.’ she lays it on thick at times and occasionally overplays the sentiment but this is another acceptable consequence of that enthusiasm I was talking about earlier.

Unlike most young indie bands on the receiving end of this level of acclaim, you can see a future for Wolf Alice. Previous hyped young things like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Maximo Park, The Drums, the Vaccines etc peaked with their debut album – Wolf Alice have got something here that can be built upon. Not a masterpiece in of itself but the seeds for a future one.

8/10

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