Archive | September, 2015

Carly Rae Jepson ‘Emotion’ – review

30 Sep

Carly Rae Jepson may primarily be known for her singles – particularly the classic ‘Call Me Maybe’ – but new record ‘Emotion’ is her first real attempt to be taken seriously as an album artist. The biggest influence on the sound and content of the record is very clearly Taylor Swift. Like ‘1989’, ‘Emotion’ is seriously indebted to the decade that brought us Madonna, Prince and shoulder pads. And like ‘1989’, ‘Emotion’ never sounds falsely nostalgic or old fashioned. The 80s influences dovetail nicely with cutting edge pop productions and a very 21st century approach to songwriting that places emphasis on catchy hooks whenever and wherever they’ll fit – whether musical, melodic, sonic or otherwise, the album is jam packed with them.

This is partially thanks to the astonishing array of talent at work behind the scenes – Max Martin, Arial Richsted, Rostam Batmanlij And Dev Hynes all had a hand in songwriting and production and with them at the helm it’s hard to see how things could have gone wrong. Obviously they don’t. But Rae Jepson must also receive credit for bringing these talents together and for making the album flow seamlessly from start to end. This does feel like an album first and foremost rather than a collection of singles with glued on filler. She co-wrote all the songs here and her lyrical voice has developed greatly since the moon/June rhyming of her early career.

The songs focus on love in the shallow end – early feelings that can seem overwhelming and scary one minute and entirely forgettable the next. ‘Boy problems? Who’s got em?’ She has. The brightest and most memorable hook on here is, simply ‘I really, really, really, really, really, really like you’ as though it were uttered straight out of the mouth of a lovesick twelve year old. Most of her thoughts are boiled down to simple and direct declarations. I rather like Jepson’s innocence – whether real or feigned – as it’s unusual for a modern pop star to talk about love so sweetly. There is no real drama or complication to these romances; they tend to be black and white with no real complexity. It’s love as It was presented to 1950s teenage America, and in this cynical world, that’s a refreshing twist. It’s no coincidence that the song where things do become slightly murky, ‘LA Hallucinations’, is easily the weakest thing on here.

These are twelve, sparkling, clean, PG friendly pop songs that are utterly delightful and moorish on a case by case basis. ‘I Really Like You’ is possibly the best song of 2015 and ‘Your Type’ and ‘Run Away With Me’ can’t be too far behind. If anyone of these tunes came on the radio, you’d smile. In a way this is almost to the album’s detriment; imagine getting a tin of roses or quality street chocolates and finding it full of strawberry cream – it’s everyone’s favourite flavour but after twelve in a row you start to feel a little bit sick and crave something with a bit of crunch or richness or bite.

Carly Rae Jepson isn’t the most distinctive singer, and the one big flaw of the album is that she could have done more to implant her own personality on to songs that ultimately bear the distinctive stamp of various other famed producers. And does she do quite enough to to distance herself from the obvious Taylor Swift and Haim comparisons? Probably not. But then a similar criticism could be levelled at some of the greatest popstars of all time – I doubt if people really cared if The Supremes personality shone through the Motown factory’s grand productions and lyrics, they were and remain fantastic songs. If Carly Rae Jepson continues at this pace she’ll surely be able to rival even The Supremes in the hits stakes. ‘Emotion’ is a clear step on the journey to becoming a great pop star.

7.5/10

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The Libertines ‘Anthems for Doomed Youth’ – Review

22 Sep

‘If you’ve lost you’re faith in love and music, the end won’t be long.’ Those were the immortal words from ‘The Good Old Days’, less a song and more a manifesto for a generation of romantics. The song talked of an idealistic ‘Albion’ and discouraged living in nostalgic yesterdays. ‘There were no good old days, these are the good old days’, rang loud and true and clear. But how to reconcile that instruction with ‘Anthems for Doomed Youth’, a reunion album necessarily steeped in history and mythology that borrows its title from a poem written a hundred years ago?

At times, Doherty and Barat’s fall-outs, spats and extra-curricular work have been enough to make you lose faith in both love and music. Initial promise (Dirty Pretty things arresting debut still stands up, as does the scrappy and endearing ‘Down in Albion’ by Babyshambles) was never lived up to. Babyshambles last record ‘Sequal to the Prequal’ was, for longtime supporter’s of Doherty, a massive disappointment, and the less said about Barat’s solo work the better. To many The Libertines were held up as a missed opportunity, a ‘what could have been.’

Which is why comeback single ‘Gunga Din’ was a pleasant surprise. It didn’t sound nostalgic or cynical at all. The nice, lilting verse with knowing lyrics, the reggae tinged strut to the guitars, the rowdy sing-along chorus and that chaotic climax. It’s a good song – a little more polished than The Libertines of old (all smoothed over edges and reverb kissed vocals) and the poetry is clunky at points, but all things considered, ‘Gunga Din’ is the best single to come out of either Doherty or Barat’s camp in at least 7 years.

It turns out the album isn’t a nostalgic cash cow either, but rather a living, breathing, passionate ode to enduring friendships and overcoming hard times. On the surface, songs like ‘The Milkman’s Horse’ and ‘Fame and Fortune’ reminisce about ‘the good old days’ but it doesn’t take much digging for the cynicism and disappointment to become apparent. The Camden described on ‘Fame and Fortune’ is a place where people are taken advantage of, where innocence is stolen and dreams are savaged. ‘Barbarians’ is partially about wanting to ‘scream out loud and have it off with a mental crowd’ but behind that desire for good times is the sense that ‘the world is fucked’. It’s an album that focuses on the strains put on friendship, the sadness that comes with experience and the struggles involved in staying sober and happy. But none of these things drag our heroes beyond the possibility of redemption and salvation. ‘It’s a glory hallelujah day’ is a key lyric, and that speaks to a sense of optimism that resounds at key points on the record. The album may dwell on yesterday but never at the expense of today, and there is always an eye towards a better future.

The Libertine aren’t content to rest on their laurels. The controversial decision to hire Ed Sheeran producer Jake Gosling as producer initially seemed strange but it speaks to the band desire to progress and stay relevant. Gosling brings out their lurking pop instinct and does a nice job of highlighting hooks and catchy melodies. If Gary’s drums seem tame and the guitars lack a bit of ferocity (even on the supposed ‘Fury of Chonburi’) then that is surely a price worth paying for an album full of memorable pop moments? Listen to the threadbare demos hiding on the Internet and you’ll appreciate how Gosling has worked some magic here. With its clean pop-rock sound, strong melodies and ambitious arrangements, the album more closely resembles Babyshambles excellent ‘Shotter’s nation’ than any other libertines record – no bad thing as far as I’m concerned.

But there are some blasts from the past here. The aforementioned ‘Fury of Chonburi’ Comes closest to capturing the ramshackle spirit of The Libertines self titled album and the glorious ‘Heart of the Matter’ rattles along at a bruising pace, with some classic, on the nose lyricism from Doherty (‘no one can hold a light to your misery / you’re the number one being hard done by’). ‘You’re My Waterloo’ is the album’s centrepiece and it’s the oldest song on here, dating back to the band’crooning days, pre ‘up the bracket’. Doherty’s abandoned the melodramatic, cockney affectations and acoustic guitar, replaced by a more tragic, world-weary vocal and haunting piano riff. ‘Anthems for Doomed Youth’ finds a decent balance between good old fashioned rockers and these more measured, melancholic ballads.

The Libertines always had a more varied oeuvre than they were ever given credit for. Listen to ‘Up the Bracket’ and you’ll hear sea shanties performed in punk rock fashion, music hall via indie and do wop backing vocals over pub rock. They continue to in incorporate different styles here, drawing together a gospel choir on ‘Belly of the Beast’, girl group harmonies on ‘Glasgow Coma Blues’, 60s pastoral psych on ‘Fame and Fortune’ and cinematic balladry On ‘Dead For Love’. It’s an ambitious and wide reaching musical drama that always sounds like The Libertines, just not entirely as we are used to them.

Pete and Carl have been in and out of the papers for a decade now and their relationship (purely platonic but akin to a great romance nonetheless) has always provided source material for their lyrics, although never quite as explicitly as it does here. One song has Barat urging Doherty ‘to toe the line’ while another has Doherty bluntly stating ‘it makes no odds that you care, anymore’. The buzzing ‘Glasgow Coma Blues’ is the most obviously autobiographical song of the lot; they exchange shots at each other, one line at a time, before lamenting the loss of innocence in the chorus. ‘What happened to the joy in the hearts of the boys?’ – a variation on the question posed over a decade ago on ‘What Became of the likely lads.’

All these years on and there are no clear answers or resolutions for poor Pete and Carl. Recent tabloid drama (cancelled gigs and suggestions of a relapse for Pete) reaffirms that old habits are hard to kick. But the sheer brilliance of songs like ‘Glasgow Coma Blues’ demonstrates the magnetic, charismatic connection between the two songwriters that elevates their bickering above the tabloid soap opera it is sometimes dismissed as. I don’t think anyone will be hailing these songs as classics in the same league as ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ or ‘Time for Heroes’ but at a time when even the bigger groups of the 2002-5 indie boom have fallen by the wayside or split (The Coral, BRMC, The Strokes, The Thrills Franz Ferdinand, White Stripes etc), The Libertines resurgence and enduring popularity is surprising and reassuring. Ten years ago their split marked a cynical end to an era – I don’t think anyone would have predicted that in 2015 they would be the last gang in town. Frantic guitar music, romance and real friendships will never die. The Albion sails on course.

8/10

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The Weeknd ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ – Review

13 Sep

The first time I heard The Weeknd, I remember thinking ‘he should be massive. Why isn’t he massive?’ This was around the time ‘House of Balloons’ came out as a mixtape and he was starting to build buzz online. But he so clearly deserved more than hype. That silky smooth voice, so indebted to Michael Jackson, that indulgent, hazy production and those catchy but unusual melodies that lingered for months. The Weeknd so clearly deserved stardom. But then so did The Ramones and that never happened. So did Rodriguez. And The Zombies. But those bands courted popularity and The Weeknd just never seemed interested in it. There was no sign this reclusive songwriter, who declined interviews and didn’t perform live, who gave away three albums for free in the space of a year, had any desire to be anything more than an underground artist.

It’s hard to believe but it’s been six years since ‘House of Balloons.’ Currently The Weeknd sits atop the billboard chart with his first number one single, and his album has just hit the top spot in the UK. This sounds and feels like justice. It’s also logical that it should be number one. ‘Can’t feel my Face’ explodes the idea of what a Weeknd song can be, by bringing out the already inherent ‘popiness’ in his music but retaining the sense of mystery and individuality. The baseline is brought to the forefront, the vocals are clearer and more dynamic and the drug allusions are vague enough for a PG audience. This is The Weeknd but not quite as we remember him.

The album’s success is all the more deserved because it’s the first album since the debut that doesn’t feel disappointing. The Weeknd followed up ‘House of Balloons’ with ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes of Silence’ in 2010, both of which had their moments but felt like lesser retreads of the debut. His 2013 major label breakthrough ‘Kissland’ on the other hand was a complete letdown; tasteless, overlong and with no hits despite a lot of major label money being spent on finding one. The Weeknd seems to have recognised this as ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is everything ‘Kissland’ was not.

‘Real Life’ opens with crunching guitars and beats that sound like they’re being swallowed and digested. It’s a strange start to a major album but that strangeness is fleeting. The simple, somewhat elegant piano chords that punctuate the chorus, along with the violins in the middle eight and the hook’s universal sentiment all announce that ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is a pop album. Not only is it a pop album, but it’s the kind of pop album that features guest slots by mammoth stars like Ed Sheeran, Labrynth and Lana Del Ray. But it’s Pop in the way Kanye West or Vampire Weekend or Jessie Ware are pop – it’s pop on his terms. As such, ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is one of those rare albums that has a clear, unique and identifiable artistic personality that will also translate for a mainstream audience without sacrificing much of its originality. It leans towards the mainstream as well as the underground.

But maybe it doesn’t go quite far enough in either direction. ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is half way to the album fans like me have been wanting since we first heard that excellent debut. It’s a disciplined, ambitious and exciting take on The Weeknd’s signature sound, put through a Pop filter. But it isn’t as distinctive or dark or irresistible as ‘House of Balloons.’ And there is also the nagging sense that he just doesn’t quite go far enough towards creating that all killer/no filler pop album either. Besides ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, there is a lack of classic songs. ‘Earned It’ and ‘The Hills’ may have already been moderate hits but neither particularly charms me. ‘Earned It’ in particular feels sloppy, bland and unusually tame. There is a wealth of quality on the album but little you would define as ‘outstanding.’

There is also the sense that Tesfaye is still too guarded and mocking to invite serious affection; that he’s still holding his audience at arms length. Like Kanye before him, Tesfaye Is a flawed human being making music that seeks to examine those flaws whilst revelling in them. Unlike Kanye, he doesn’t go far enough to wrestle with those daemons. He remains an unlikeable and mean spirited character. His language is frequently misogynistic and nasty, whilst his sleazy tales of drugs, violence and theft lack the glamour they once had. His stock defence runs along the lines of ‘this is art, like it or lump it’. That’s not good enough. Much of the album is largely, explicitly autobiographical, so how do we pick which bits we except as truth and which bits are artistic licence? He can’t tell us to buy into his sincerity and open heartedness one minute but dismiss the inexcusable stuff as ‘artistic licence’ the next.

That ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is enjoyable despite the often jarring language and content is to its credit. From the opening of ‘Real Life’ to the beautiful climax of ‘Angel’, the album is top to bottom a fun ride – overlong, certainly, but ambitious, eclectic and expertly produced. The Weeknd has always been a unique entity, and even if he never made a good album again, his place in the history of pop music would be guaranteed thanks to the enduring stylistic influence of ‘House of Baloons’. But ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’, and ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ in particular suggests that won’t be his only artistic legacy.

7.5/10

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Foals ‘What Went Down’ – Review

10 Sep

It’s easy to forget what Foals were like when they first started releasing music – remind yourself by watching the ‘hummer’ video. Spiky, tuneless, more than a little pretentious but bags of fun. For better or worse Foals traded in that youthful vigour and enthusiasm for the guarded intellectualism and brooding seriousness that has come to define their recent work. Yet they remain appealing to a mass audience, in fact their popularity has only increased. They are the art rockers who appeal to lad rockers and lad rockers who appeal to art rockers.

Despite making their name with irritating math-rock, Foals have known their identity for a while now and there isn’t a huge amount to differentiate ‘What Went Down’ from the two albums that proceeded it. Airy vocals mix with interlocking grooves and just a dash of funky, picked guitar lines that can break into corrosive riffs at the drop at a hat. If the formula feels tired then that’s only because Foals have become so good at it. Less atmospheric and pretty than ‘Total Life Forever’ and stodgier than the nimble ‘Holy Fire’, ‘What Went Down’ first and foremost feels like Foals first proper rock record. It’s the first one that front to back would convince in an arena setting. With James Ford on board, most well known for Arctic Monkeys, Florence and Mumford and Sons, you have to think that was a goal.

Typically Foals best songs have been their singles; from the earworm hooks of songs like ‘Casius’, ‘Miami’ and ‘My Number’ to the brash swagger of ‘Inhaler’ and the soothing beauty of ‘Spanish Saharia’, they’ve amassed quite a stunning collection. Early singles from ‘What Went Down’ Could have been an early indication then that things weren’t quite right. ‘mountain at my gates’ and ‘what went down’ aren’t bad but they fall short of the usual standard. The rising and falling tension of ‘Inhaler’ is replaced a straightforward guitar assault that leaves little space for a memorable melody. The crushing riffs and screaming vocals fail to convey emotion, and the oblique, metaphorical lyrics don’t help the situation. The insightful intimacy of ‘My Number’ is replaced by metaphorical, natural imagery so predictable it verges on cliched. But a weak introduction to the record actually opens up quite an interest development in Foals story. This is the first of their albums that isn’t top heavy and reliant on singles. That allows deep cuts like ‘Night Swimmer’ and ‘Lonely Hunter’ to grab attention.

So it’s an album less about the big moments and more about little ones. The opening guitar lick of ‘Birch Tree’ is delicate but memorable. It recalls ‘Snow’ by Red Hot Chili Peppers, a strange comparison until you notice the funky tight baseline and rhymes (‘dancer’ with ‘cold romancer’ with subway chancer’) and realise that Foals always had more in common with the Chili peppers than a lot of people would care to admit. They are a band who like to incorporate unusual time signatures, exotic rhythms and funky grooves but aren’t afraid to rock out or be silly when the moment calls for it. ‘Shake off’ and the title track are easily their heaviest moments to date, and they’re enjoyable if somewhat clunky and uninspired.

For the most part It really does feel like Foals are firing on all cylinders here. It’s hard to think of what else they could do or achieve without a radical reinvention. But as easy as they are, and always have been, to like, they remain difficult to love. Their lyrics are slightly too oblique and distant, the vocals lack warmth and strength, and the arrangements are stiflingly overthought. Foals attention to detail and immaculate playing is impressive but I don’t hear sparks of spontaneity or unguarded emotion. They are constantly caught up in the finer details and end up losing sight of the things that make bands beloved – passion, intensity, conviction and the sense that something necessary is being said and all is being risked. ‘What Went Down’ is enjoyable, well designed, eclectic and interesting – it’s another good album. But it further convinces me that ‘good’ is all this band are capable of.

7/10

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