Archive | October, 2015

Janet Jackson ‘Unbreakable’ – Review

21 Oct

Janet Jackson is more than an icon – for my money she has done more to influence contemporary pop and r&b than any other artist of the last thirty years. Her collaborative approach to songwriting and production is now the norm and her experimental but melodic r&b has inspired everyone from Beyoncé and Frank Ocean to the more avant-garde Grimes, Natalie Prass and How to Dress Well.

It’s funny how time alters perception. At the release of her last album, 2008’s ‘Discipline’ Janet was vastly underrated. That album, an ok dance-pop crossover, failed to find a large audience and it seemed Janet only interested some people in relation to her elder brother Michael. In that sense it felt like the conversation surrounding her had regressed by thirty odd years. She was back to being Michael’s younger sister rather than an artist in her own right.

Since then the world has been introduced to ‘indie r&b’ or ‘pr&b’, a genre Janet very much predicted and directly influenced. Proponents of the genre came out to praise her effortless melodies, breezy vocals and unusual arrangements that drew on many traditions. In particular, the stunning ‘Velvet Rope’ has become a touchstone; a rare moment when a pop star took control of her own career and forged an unusual and unprecedented path forward, finding success in the process.

First single ‘No Sleep’ plays right to this new audience. With its subtly trippy beats, casual melody and sensual lyrics it encapsulates the mood of 2015 r&b perfectly. The album is at its best when it plays in this sweet spot; ‘shoulda known better’ and ‘2 B Loved’ meander smoothly towards the groove while ‘Broken Hearts Heal’ takes the vibe down a few more notches, allowing Janet to reflect on the death of her brother and breakdown of her relationship over some gentle piano noodling. The more upbeat songs are generally less successful, though still enjoyable. The title track, ‘Damn Baby’ and ‘Burn It up’ make up the early group of songs destined to be released for radio and feature easy hooks and poppy, contemporary production. They aim for the dance floor, and may well succeed in luring people there, but none strike me as being classic and they concede too much to mainstream taste, which is out of sync with the rest of this very independent, single minded record.

And so ‘Unbreakable’ is, at times, a frustrating album. One of those frustrations is how sleepy Janet sounds. Of course, one of her great strengths has always been that laid back vocal style. She’s always been a quiet, thoughtful singer, which has worked well for both her dance numbers and the hush hush ballads. It’s also made her angry songs, of which there are plenty, even more impactful and unexpected in that context. Here though there is no anger or anything close to it. Janet sounds as sweet and seductive as ever but there are points where she’s far too tired and non committal for far too long. Jam and Lewis co-produced, as they have done throughout Janet’s career, and they have to be held partly responsible for not prising more intense, emotive reactions from her.

In many ways ‘Unbreakable’ is a modern slant on the same themes and subjects that inspired ‘The Velvet Rope.’ That record dealt with love and depression from the perspective of a young woman and ‘Unbreakable’ tackles the same topics from the vantage point of age and experience. 20 years on things seem less urgent and less world altering. Perhaps that’s why she Janet sounds so calm. The pessimism is replaced by, not quite optimism, but something approaching it. Insecurities still rise to the surface at points but the general mood is uplifting, certainly towards the end. The message behind ‘gonna B alright’ is conveyed in a somewhat contrived and cliched manner but it’s drenched in sincerity and truthfulness. ‘We all need a little love when we’re down in the dumps, but we’re gonna be alright.’ Who’s going to argue with Janet? ‘Unbreakable’ is the sound of someone who’s been through the wars of life and survived – not unscathed, but alive and content. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but ‘Unbreakable’ captures the sense of resilience and exudes the confidence that comes with experience – and it sounds perfect for 2015.



Ought ‘Sun Coming Down’ – Review

15 Oct

It’s impossible to listen to Ought and not instantly start listing comparisons in your head: Talking Heads, Joy Division, The Fall, LCD Soundsystem, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah etc. Their sound is inherently referential – how could it not be when you’re a young indie band starting off in 2015? But what is striking upon listening to ‘Sun Coming Down’ is how little any of that matters. When something is this good, who cares what it reminds you of, even if it reminds you of a lot. On ‘Sun Coming Down’ Ought make a good case for being heirs to the indie rock crown – of the current crowd, only Parquet Courts make music this exhilarating whilst remaining such rigid purists.

Frontman Tim Darcy Has it – that inexplicable, magnetic, alluring quality of the best frontmen. When the band perform you understand you are in the presence of a star. It’s in his facial expressions, the way he wags his fingers and moves his hips, his odd style and the unusual timbre of his voice. It’s in his peculiar mannerisms, his unlocatable accent, his odd ticks and his unguarded enthusiasm. Ought’s debut never wholly managed to be as engaging as their live show but ‘Sun Coming Down’ is more consistently charismatic and charming. From the frantic opening, ‘Men for Miles’ to ‘Never Better’, The album is rich in personality.

‘Sun Coming Down’ is built around its central track, the brilliant ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’. At seven minutes long, ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ is a quietly tortured epic for our strange times. Darcy mocks the banality of small talk as he navigates his way through the working day. Conversational lines like ‘How’s the family’ and ‘good weather we’re having’ are repeated in a sarcastic tone, the vinegary attitude and frantic delivery conveying building despair. The chorus is even better; an ephiany delivered with the unbridled glee of a man who has gone past the brink and come to terms with his own mortality, no longer crippled by fear. ‘I’m no longer afraid to die because that is all that I have left. YES!’

Not everything on ‘Sun Coming Down’ is as captivating as ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, in fact some of it falls considerably short. The title track is six minutes of noisy and unmoving guitar music that never latches on to a melody and this signals a downward spiral. The record’s second half becomes more sluggish and, frankly, downright prickly – with lots of Contrasting tempos, corrosive feedback, tuneless noodling and obtuse lyrics. There is the nagging and persistent feeling that Ought are a great band who have yet to unleash there full potential over a full album. But ‘Sun Coming Down’ is an improvement on their debut. Here we have moments of almost unrivalled creativity from a young band working within the parameters of indie rock. It gives you hope for the future of the genre.



Ryan Adams ‘1989’ – Review

11 Oct

In late 2014, Ryan Adams headed to New York to record a double album about his separation from wife Mandy Moore. In a recent Zane Low interview, Adams described the still unreleased album as the most devastating and powerful piece of music he’s yet recorded. If correct, IF, that’s quite an achievement considering this guy has brought us some of the most beautifully sad records of all time. But according to Adams, even that didn’t scratch the itch. He still felt gnawing emotions that he had to capture and release, yet he’d used up all of his own song ideas and inspiration. So he turned to Taylor Swift.

It was an inspired decision, and for fans of both artists a dream come true. The King of heartbreak covering the Queen of heartbreak’s most successful album. Conceived as a a cover in the style of Bruce Springstein’s bare-bones ‘Nebraska’ before transforming in to Swift in the style of The Smiths, Adams eventually settled on a sound and style somewhere between the two – via his own landmark ‘Love Is Hell.’ Here acoustic guitars melt into a blanket of romantic strings and a swell of jingle-jangle guitars. It’s an undeniably pretty, low-key sound that like all Ryan Adams productions places complete emphasis on the songwriting.

In that department ‘1989’ was Swift’s weakest effort to date; an album less concerned with songs and more concerned with hooks and choruses – which is not a criticism as it worked well for her, but I was interested to see how the songs would stand up when stripped of the production candy that made ‘1989’ such a treat. The answer is surprising. Some of the original album’s weakest songs actually fare better in this simplified context. ‘Welcome to New York’, everyone’s least favourite Taylor Swift song, becomes a more impassioned indie-rocker that sounds at once more knowing and moving. Every fan is aware of Adam’s love affair with the city and his passionate treatment of the song lends a real sincerity to the simple lyrics.

Likewise, the somewhat drab album closer ‘Clean’ is made over to sound like a Sundays song, and the addiction metaphors that sounded strained and unconvincing originally seem somehow more meaningful coming out of the mouth of a recovering heroin addict. Adams also transforms the dull ‘I Know Places’ in to something far more interesting and lively, whilst his punk rock version of ‘Style’ is positively inspired. Adams is never patronising, ironic or glib in his cover versions. If people suspected this was a big joke then that’s proved to be very much incorrect. ‘1989’ works because Adams brings unbridled passion and enthusiasm for this music. The connection he feels to Swift’s songwriting is obvious in every note and his admiration for her craft is clear in how seriously he has taken on this task.

As I’ve discussed, Adams undertook this project as a kind of catharsis, as an opportunity to put to bed his lingering sadness about the dissolution of his marriage. In the album’s saddest moments, Adams undoes 1989’s underlying optimism and replaces it with a hard won sadness that is typical of his best work. The once upbeat Disney pop of ‘How You Get the Girl’ becomes a slow-burning ballad about unbearable loss where his voice quivers and breaks. ‘I Wish You Would’ becomes an equally heartbreaking eulogy for lost love where lines like ‘I wish that you knew that, I miss you too much to be mad anymore’ – could have just as easily been lifted from Adams own ‘Gold’. Adams might have been influenced by Swift but, ironically, these songs reveal his own influence on her songwriting.

For the many successes of the album, there are some songs that for whatever reason don’t work out so well. ‘Shake It Off’, originally more of a theme tune or mission statement, is reduced to a torch burner and stripped of its hooks and snappy production becomes a complete drag. ‘Out of the Woods’ is another song that sounds lacking when stripped of its production flourishes. The repetitive chorus sounds almost comical In this context and it doesn’t help that Adams stretches the song out for six and a half minutes. The likes of ‘Stay’, ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Wildest Dreams’ are all enjoyable and interestingly done but can’t compete with the vibrant originals.

There has been a very mixed response to Adams take on ‘1989’ with some critics cynically focusing on the musical conservatism and rockist connotations of a privileged male validating a young female’s work. Other’s see it as a redundant indulgence on Adams part. To me though what is clear is that the album serves a functional purpose; the recording served as a full stop to a period of time for Adams and afforded him the chance to study one of the best songwriters of recent times. For the listener it allows them to enjoy one of the best pop albums of recent years in an entirely fresh context.

The result is an album that sounds more inspired and impassioned than anything Adams has released recently. It seems to have had a real rejuvenating effect on him. It works because he connected with the material, that much is obvious, and he brings out drama and heartbreak from these lyrics in a way that only he is capable of. Now what do we have to do to hear Taylor covering ‘Heartbreaker’?



Lana Dely Rey ‘Honeymoon’ – Review

5 Oct

Lana Del Ray might just be the most written about, discussed and dissected pop star of recent times – which surely means ‘of all time’ considering the wealth of online criticism that just wasn’t around even ten years ago. From the writers of think pieces and blogs right down to people who leave comments on YouTube; everyone, it seems, has an opinion on Lana Del Rey. But five years in to her dazzlingly successful career and the conversation around her hasn’t really progressed – possibly because she hasn’t really changed. Therefore, a lot of the arguments I made in defence of Del Rey, in my review of ‘Ultraviolence’, still stand and I won’t repeat them here.

But that’s half the problem with ‘Honeymoon’ – it feels static. It doesn’t move the story forward and If anything, ‘Honeymoon’ is a backward step. It’s probably her most focused, cohesive and consistent album to date but that’s a nice way of saying it lacks variety and unpredictability. For the first time she plays it safe. First single ‘High By the Beach’ almost sounds like a lazy pastiche of Lana Del Rey; from the hazy production to the drugs references to the ‘baby bye byes’, it’s the damaged Barbie routine that some people have found grating since the beginning. She is better than this.

‘Honeymoon’ settles in to a monotonous groove early on and it doesn’t snap out of it. Songs meander past the five minute mark more often than not, with barely any rhythm, and thirteen songs is at least three too many. Overtime the lovely string arrangements and lovely melodies melt in to one sticky sweet mess of loveliness. Nothing pricks your consciousness or begs for specific attention. The constant dirge of metaphors and similes, all used to describe the cloying, destructive aspects of dependent love, become tiresome while her reliance on colours as easy signifiers of mood is equally annoying. ‘Pink flamingoes’, ‘yellow skies’, ‘blue’ flames, ‘black leather’, ‘ruby lights’ are only some of the descriptions used to paint similar pictures.

It’s still a perfectly nice album, if you’re content to let it wash over you. Del Rey sounds more beautiful than ever, like she’s finally growing in to that distinctive voice of hers. The mannerisms are less affected and she doesn’t stretch herself in quite so many peculiar directions. Her lyrical voice continues to be distinctive as well (if you can get over the annoyances I’ve talked about). Over her first two albums she created a unique persona; a stylised version of herself who falls hard and struggles with daemons. Here her musings on love, loss, depression and dependence feel even more dramatic than ever. Flaws and all, ‘Honeymoon’ could only ever have been made by one artist. In 2015 It’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd and Lana Del Rey continues to do that with ease. What she struggles with here is standing out from her own past.