Archive | August, 2015

Spector ‘Moth Boys’ – Review

31 Aug

In a recent interview with Drownedinsound, Fred McPherson answered three questions with variations on the statement ‘we’re not there yet’. He’s always been like this; self aware and self critical, almost cripplingly conscious of his class, intellect and Spector’s unfashionable sound. He knows that early interest in the band had a certain flash in the pan quality, and as he made clear in the title of the first album, he enjoyed it while it lasted. But now, on ‘Moth Boys’, he plots to move things forward whilst retaining the essential qualities of that debut – bright melodies, crisp production and finely observed lyrics.

To that extent it’s a moderately triumphant album. While there isn’t a chorus on here as memorable as ‘Never Fade Away’ or a hook as catchy as those found on ‘What You Wanted’, the songs add up to something more substantial than before. Spector have something to say and they say it with surprising sophistication.

‘Enjoy it While It Lasts’ was warmly received but arrived five years too late to make any kind of impact on the charts. Their three years away has only pushed the band further out of the limelight and if anything their synth pop indie is even less in vogue than it was in 2012. Rather than being deterred, if anything ‘Moth Boys’ is even more staunchly 80s than ‘Enjoy it whilst it last’ – sounding less like The Killers doing Duran Duran, and more just Duran Duran. ‘Cocktail Party’ is most obviously in love with that decade, from the comical slap bass right down to the groovy percussion that opens the song. Dev Hynes cowrote and produced the number and it’s drenched in his ‘Blood Orange’ Style. ‘Decade of Decay’, another Hynes production, tackles the cooler end of the 80s by channeling some of joy Division’s gloomy, tightly wound grandur.

The further the album travels towards its final destination, the darker and more claustrophobic the sound, and lyrics, get. ‘Wet End’ and ‘Bad Boyfriend’ are unflatteringly honest portrayals of selfishness, arrogance and greed. Both songs are hooky in a certain twisted way, but deliberately hold back from being the type of sky scraping anthems that come so easily to Spector. There are interesting layers of irony and subtlety here.

The predominant subject of the album, as it was on the last one, is the relationship. In contemporary guitar music, only Alex Turner has a better capacity for describing modern intimacy with this level of wit, humour and sophistication. Fred depicts love as something that has to compete for attention with technology, substances and other distractions. Brilliant single ‘Stay High’ depicts scenarios of contemporary affection; ‘Bonding over people we hate/ one socket left I let you charge your phone, these are the ways that we show our love.’ These songs live in 2015 and the characters are very much the children of twitter and Instagram, captive to images on screens and cynical about old fashioned romance. The most telling moment comes when Fred sings ‘if you think you’re lonely now just wait till we’re alone’ but the implication is that in the age of the iPhone, we’re never really alone and we’re never really happy.

‘Kyoto Garden’ is a pretty moment of clawing despondency where Fred bellows ‘If I was you I’d hate me too, I get it’ over the sound of twinkling garden chimes and booming synth pad drums. The song contains one of several drug references on the album; while the early instruction is to ‘stay high’ in order to preserve and prolong fleeting movements of joy, the album grows more cynical as it progresses, drawing pictures of drugs’ destructive and divisive nature on ‘Cocktail Party’ and ‘Bad Boyfriend’.

The final song is a dead end; ‘heaven let me down, it wasn’t worth dying for.’ This is a clear metaphor; the characters of these songs use and get used by drugs and technology, they seek success and recognition, look for happiness in relationships and then end up feeling let down and despondent. They are the moth boys of the title, flying towards lights that ultimately frazzle them, whether that’s drugs or happiness or fame – they’re all mirages. This is quite a bleak and powerful message from a band formally known for their silly exuberance and lack of substance. The fact that they haven’t lost any of their pop smarts makes ‘Moth Boys’ an even more impressive artistic statement.

8/10

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The Maccabees ‘Marks to Prove It’ – Review

26 Aug

The maccabees have had an interesting career arc; from indie-pop scallywags to introverted art rockers, it seems the grittier their sound becomes the more records they sell. ‘Marks to Prove It’ continues the trend by being their most uncommercial yet most successful album to date. But while fans seem to lap up the new stuff, I find it slightly disappointing that a band once known for their fizzy, energetic songs have become so dowdy only four albums in.

In a recent interview with BBC breakfast, Felix claimed (perhaps hyperbolically) that the maccabees have been working on ‘Marks to Prove It’ every day for three years. He also said the eleven songs that ended up on the record were the only ones written In that time, which (if we are to take Felix at his word) works out at roughly 90 days spent on each track – about the same length of time The Beatles spent on The White Album. Upon listening to the record it’s difficult to say how exactly that time was spent – probably on getting the lush sounds just so, but not on the songwriting, which is generally weak. The melodies are often forgettable and the words are typically vague and non committal – themes and motifs are easy to detect (anxiety with modern life, booze as escape, claustrophobia, deceptive appearances) but the patchwork lyrics are cryptic beyond sense. Which is a shame, because Orlando clearly has a lot to say, and he has one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary indie rock with which to say it

Opening track, ‘Marks to Prove It’ sets the tone for the record. It describes people going about their everyday lives, secretly feeling depressed, shamed in to denial but craving some sort of acknowledgment. The maccabees seem equally unsure about what they really feel, and how to present those feelings. They frantically storm through the track with none of the ingenuity or melodicism of their early work, but rather with a newly found anger and despondency. It’s a red herring as far as the music goes; things get decidedly less grungy as the record moves forward until its cut glass clarity and spaciousness becomes the album’s ultimate defining feature.

The band are still at their best when they are at their most tuneful. Lead single ‘Something Like Happiness’ pairs the album’s best hook with an uptempo, horn filled arrangement and simple lyric. It still speaks to modern’s society’s ills (in this case envy, uncertainty and cynicism) but it does so in a way that is thoughtful, direct and nicely sentimental. Sentimentality has always been at the heart of Orlando’s songwriting and it’s there in parts. It’s in the kind of twisted ode to friendship, ‘Kamakura’, and the chiming guitars of gorgeous finale ‘Dawn Chorus.’ They need more of this bleeding heart honesty and less of the faux-poetic grandeur.

There are points on this album where the band sparkle as brightly as they’ve ever done but those moments are overshadowed by the darker and less interesting songs. Like many directors in Hollywood right now, The Maccabees seem to equate darkness with authenticity and therefore assume that serious, interesting art needs to be gloomy. In fact the lack of humour and colour makes this a tough album to sit through, and it simply isn’t credible or sophisticated in its bleakness. ‘Marks to Prove It’ is a fairly bland and boring album from a band capable of producing so much more if only they weren’t insistent on taking themselves so seriously.

5/10

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Albert Hammond Jr ‘Momentary Masters’ – Review

4 Aug

For as long as The Strokes have been inconsistent, Albert Hammond Jr has been consistent. Dependable. Always guaranteed to produce, or at the very least say, something thoughtful, colourful and convincing. In 2006 The Strokes put out the bumpy ‘First Impressions of Earth’ whilst Albert released the power pop masterpiece ‘Yours to Keep’ (still the best solo album from any member of the band). More recently in 2013 The Strokes put out the deflating ‘Comedown Machine’ and Albert released the delightfully uplifting ‘AHJ’.

In the years between ‘First Impressions…’ And ‘Comedown Machine’, as the rest of the band squabbled and told tales to the media, Albert could be relied upon to give honest insights about current relations, interesting anecdotes whenever an album anniversary came about, or gracious thanks when honours and awards were handed out. On the rare occasions the band have performed live, Albert has always been the one holding things together. Julian and Nick may look disheveled and barely bothered but Albert’s enthusiasm has kept the band ticking over.

‘Dependable’ is not where he has been at in his personal life – not until recently at least. It seems almost comical that in 2015, post spinal tap and post Amy Winehouse, rock stars can still fall victim to excess and addiction. But Albert Hammond Jr did. As he puts it, he was a walking, talking cliche. The opening track on ‘Momentary Masters’, ‘Born Slippy’, picks up where last year’s ‘AHJ’ left off, by drawing a line under that whole period of his life. ‘Sometimes the sun goes behind the clouds, you forget the warmth that could be found.’ It may not be a particularly original metaphor but here, as the opening line, it feels like an apt one. ‘Momentary Masters’ is a bright and optimistic album that moves Albert out of any shadows through its exuberance and sheer enthusiasm.

‘Now that we’re not perfect we have to be good.’ This is one of several lyrics on the album that could be about The Strokes. From the title down, Albert is telling us that the band are no longer the unbeatable force they once were. There was a time when everything they touched turned to gold but as anyone who heard ‘Comedown Machine’ will attest, that isn’t the case anymore. Fittingly, ‘Momentary Masters’ is indeed good and not perfect. Albert has scaled back on the wide ranging ambition of his first two albums, instead dialling in on the airtight groves and lite-funk that has always been at the heart of his guitar playing. It’s inherently a more modest and low key release than anything he’s worked on before but that works in his favour. By playing to such a narrow framework Albert is able to quietly push and pull at the edges of his comfort zone with out fear of any unmitigated disasters. By doing what he knows best, Albert essentially ensures that nothing could possibly go wrong. And it doesn’t.

There are only nine original songs, plus a better than expected cover of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, and the longest of those tracks is four minutes. It’s the kind of record that you could happily listen to twice in a row (what a contrast with Julian Casablancas’ last album) as it breezes by, all hooks and choruses and not an ounce of fat. The production is scrappy, and not particularly flattering to Albert’s rather flat vocals, but it suits the punky simplicity of songs like ‘Losing Touch’ and ‘Razor’s Edge’.

The ‘Momentary Masters’ alluded to in the album’s title could well be The Strokes but it could equally be any of us. We all have a fleeting moment in the sun and not everyone is good at dealing with that intense scrutiny. ‘You and I got burned in paradise’ he sings on ‘Caught by my Shadow’, which adds to the sense that Albert’s time in the spotlight was detrimental to his well being. But statements like this are offset by a general sense of renewal and optimism, captured in the catchy hooks and sunny melodies. Albert was burned but he’s getting over it, ironically with the help of the biggest drug of all, the thing that got him hooked to begin with – rock n roll.

7/10

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