Archive | November, 2015

Adele ’25’ – Review

29 Nov

Some facts about ’25’: it sold more copies in its first week than the rest of the top 40 combined. It became the biggest selling album of 2015 in a matter of hours and the fastest selling album of all time in six days. It also sold more copies in its first week than any other album in U.S. History. It is currently number one in all but nine countries across the globe. In other words, there are a lot of people heavily invested in Adele and they will all have high expectations for this, her first album in four years. The good news for them is that ’25’ sounds an awful lot like the beloved ’21’ – which is surely what the vast majority of fans want? Adele has teamed up with an enviable cast of producers and songwriters; from established names like Ryan Tedder, Paul Epsworth, Bruno Mars and Greg Kurstin to the relatively untested (when it comes to big pop productions) Tobias Jesso Jr and Danger Mouse. If these names sound somewhat brave on paper, they feel less so upon listening to the album. They’ve added a few new colours to Adele’s palette but ’25’ is undoubtedly a conservative album.

Generally, these songs still dwell in the realm of heartbreak but it’s less the subject this time and more the backdrop. They are about being in your mid 20s and looking back on youth with a mixture of fondness and regret. This is quarter-life crisis music. To that end it is another very serious album that occasionally takes itself a little too seriously. ‘Hello’ was a disappointing lead single. It’s a dreary song that lacks the drama of ‘Rolling in the Deep’, the beautiful sadness of ‘Someone Like You’ or the quirkiness of her early releases. It played in to the hands of the cynics – they’d always maintained her songs were boring and bland. Now they were right. Some of that overbearing moodiness creeps in to other songs as well. The heavy brooding of the gospel ballad ‘River Lea’ feels almost claustrophobic, and closer ‘Sweet Disposition’ merely comes over as an epic remake of ‘Set Fire to the Rain’. You’re left wishing that the biggest selling album of 2015, if not eventually the decade, contained a little more joy.

The songs with a lighter touch work far better; the delicate, Bruno Mars penned ‘All I Ask’ and the sweet, folky ‘Million Years Ago’ are exemplary. But if Adele really is determined to cast herself as the melodramatic diva ‘Hello’ sets her up as, she could do worse than look to the brilliant ‘I Miss You’ for inspiration, which works a melancholic melody around a minor key chord progression, booming percussion and pitch distorted backing vocals (showing just how far the influence of Burial has spread).

The Max Martin produced ‘Send My Love to Your New Lover’ asserts Adele’s playfulness with one of her most sparkling melodies to date. Her cheery, clipped vocals show a restrained side to the singer and the lyrics are buoyant and fair, imparting wisdom with a more generous tone. Ex-lovers are now more than simply agitators and targets; she is thankful for what they have taught her and sympathetic to their new victims. ‘Water Under the Bridge’ is another bright, potential single that shows the discernible influence of Haim with it’s breathy harmonies and rhythmic guitar rhythms.

To my ears there isn’t anything in the same league as ‘Rolling in the Deep’ or ‘Someone Like You’ and overall ’25’ doesn’t quite pack the same punch as ’21’. That album described lost love from a close vantage point in very immediate, raw terms. Here Adele is picking apart scars years on. Her mood is reflective, her style is analytical and her tone is even handed. This is not the visceral break up album 21 was. but that’s the kind of album you only get to make once – to attempt it again would be trite. ’25’ is flawed but irresistible in its own way and a brilliant reminder of why Adele became popular in the first place.

Adele’s greatest weapon has always been her voice. The quirky, cockney affectations that endeared us to her to begin with have all been smoothed out on ’25’. In those early days she was clearly competing alongside fellow Londoners Lilly Allen, Kate Nash and Amy Winehouse. Now, that competition has all but disappeared. In 2015 she ranks alongside the greats – you can hear hints of everyone from Aretha Franklin to Beyonce on ’25’. Her voice is more astonishing than ever; deeper, richer and even more manoeuvrable, it has matured in to something wonderful. This isn’t the most innovative, exciting or consistent record, but as a demonstration of her depth, range and technical ability – not to mention her stunning capacity to find emotion and impress that on the listener – ’25’ is unmatched.



Grimes ‘Art Angels’ – Review

23 Nov

In 1995 Michael Jackson sailed a statue of himself down the River Thames to mark the release of the equally flamboyant and self aggrandising album ‘History’, the most expensive record ever made. It was the moment he publicly addressed himself – a self that was equal parts reality and fantasy, self made myth and persona. It was a complex, difficult and inherently commercial work of art (the album, not the statue of course). One onlooker, present at the recording sessions, witnessed a different star producer in every studio in the building, working on a different element of this extravagant record. Yet conversely, it was Jackson’s most personal, honest and reflective work to date.

In 2015 Grimes has made a record that on many levels mirrors History (and, it should be added, in many ways doesn’t – there isn’t a malicious revenge song aimed in the direction of a high court judge, for example). It’s sonically rich and excessive, musically pop minded but still relentlessly ambitious. Lyrically it dissects and deconstructs a persona that has been carefully crafted over a few years. It is both Grimes most autobiographical work to date and also her most playful and subversive. Where MJ spent a literal fortune and used a small army constructing his album, Grimes has done it all by herself – for a fraction of the price no doubt – on her home computer. It is a testament to how far technology has developed in 20 years but it’s equally a testament to Grimes’ talent, her ambition and her artistic vision.

She dips her finger in every pie on the windowsill. The anime inspired cover art is her own. The bizarre, colourful videos are her own. She wrote the lyrics, played every instrument and produced it all by herself (there’s one brilliant slam track aimed at critics who thought she couldn’t). She makes her way through genres just as vivaciously; each song is a mind bending assortment of sounds spilling over from EDM, dream pop, punk, hair metal, 90s pop, indie and r&b. Even more specifically, samples are pulled from TV shows, movies and world music while lyrics reference comic books and Pokemon. It’s such a wide ranging, far reaching, inclusive mix of styles that it can initially feel overwhelming. But the fact it’s all filtered through a pop lens renders ‘Art Angels’ an accessible and enjoyable thing to listen to and not just admire. Simply, these are the most exciting, and in many cases catchy, Pop songs released all year.

Like the best contemporary pop music, the hooks come relentlessly. Opener ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’ Is short and quiet, with high pitched vocals that float above an ornate arrangement. It is a deliberate red herring, or a pallet cleanser, for the next two tracks are equal parts cream and crunch, that take the record in the complete opposite direction. First there is the country inspired ‘California’ and then the bruising ‘Scream’ which features Taiwanese Rapper Aristophanes. Here Grimes repurposes herself as a behind the boards producer, much like her Male contemporaries Caribou and Jamie XX, who she has previously compared herself to.

The insatiable ‘Flesh without Love’ and ‘Pin’ seem to concern themselves with romantic love but for the most part Grimes steers away from this subject matter. Instead, she dissects a range of very modern social anxieties that, like pop music, seem banal on the surface but actually reveal a lot about human nature. She chews on topics as diverse as sexism, nationality, envy, betrayal and self harm, often using abstract symbolism or bizarre analogies to convey her point. Here, as in every respect, Grimes seems at once apart from the crowd and representative of it. She articulates the thoughts and values of a generation of young women in a way that is unusually frank and colourful. There is none of the pretension of St. Vincent, but she doesn’t resort to the vacuous, confused platitudes that litter Beyonce and Rihanna’s pseudo feminism. Grimes is direct, interesting and sincere.

‘Art Angels’ won’t please everybody and in fact could end up being quite divisive. Sadly, one feels it is too weird for the mainstream and not weird enough for fans of Grimes older work. But for those of us content to judge it on its own terms and not in comparison to ‘Visions’ or the top 40 Chart, ‘Art Angels’ is a thing of great beauty; a near perfect marriage of innovation and familiarity.



New Order ‘Music Complete’ / Disclosure ‘Caracal” – Review

14 Nov

The other week, New order and Disclosure occupied the top two positions of the UK album chart; two very different bands in many respects but bound by similar perspectives. Both groups tackle dance music but come from an indie background. And both groups changed the face of their genre, albeit thirty years apart.

Although both albums were highly anticipated, and there must have been certain pressure, New Order’s task has to have been the less formidable one. After thirty odd years and ten albums, their reputation is assured, come what may. They were dance rock pioneers who altered the course of popular music. There is no arguing with ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Temptation’ or ‘Regret’. Disclosure on the other hand are in a far more vulnerable position. Debut album ‘Settle’ was certainly acclaimed and influential but the Pop music landscape is more fickle in 2015 than it was in 1985 and there are no guarantees of continued interest. New Order’s fan base will always be there but Disclosure need to consolidate their early success with another great album.

This is telling in the two very different moods. New Order sound relaxed, confident and self assured. Disclosure on the other hand sound uneasy and, for want of a better word, a little bit desperate. ‘Caracal’ is  full, from start to finish, of songs straining to be hits. No space is left for ambiance or texture and there is a curious lack of movement and energy throughout. Every song wants to be THE ONE. Their debut was built as an album but this has been built as a collection of potential singles. And devastatingly, considering that aim, none of them are quite good enough.

New Order’s ‘Music Complete’ has no greater aim than sounding like a New Order album, which it does. It isn’t always the case that when a band return after a long time out that they sound like themselves but New Order have done a magnificent job of retaining the elements that made their music so memorable. The bass line of ‘Singularity’ SOUNDS like Peter Hook’s classic Joy Divison bass, even if it isn’t Hooky himself playing. The camp samples on ‘Tuti Fruity’ could have been snatched from ‘technique’. The synths are genuine mid 80s synths and the melodies are typical Bernard Sumner melodies. Brilliantly, they mingle this nostalgia with something new and exciting. These tracks aren’t dated, they simply sound authentic and true; the work of auteurs with an inimitable style and unique point of view.

Contrary to popular wisdom, New Order have never made a bad album and so ‘Music Complete’ can’t be called a return to form. But considering the pop and rock leanings of their last two albums, it can be called a return to their classic, late 80s, dance sound. Disclosure’s ‘Carcel’ also sticks solidly to Disclosure’s signature sound (albeit with a darker vibe and slower pace) but this feels more disappointing considering their age and position in contemporary culture; they should really be pushing boundaries and challenging with more innovation and ambition.

Of course these are just my expectations and wants, projected, perhaps unfairly, on to Disclosure. Taken out of this context, stripped of the hype and with expectations put to one side, ‘Caracal’ is a strong, if unextrodinary, dance pop record. It’s leans more towards r&b than ‘Settle’ ever did but many of its sounds and motifs are recognisable to anyone who heard that excellent debut. Ultimately though they pay offs aren’t as enjoyable second time around. The production feels safe and the songwriting is is somewhat laboured. It takes quite something to write a song that doesn’t send Sam Smith to the top of the chart at the moment, as evidenced by his completely forgettable Bond theme hitting the top spot recently. The fact that his sole contribution to ‘Caracal’, ‘Omen’, didn’t even crack the top ten speaks to its utter mediocrity. If Sam smith wasn’t on it I wouldn’t even expect it to break the top 100.

For the most part Disclosure have worked with popular, established singers this time around, which only draws attention to the second rate material. Would ‘Nocturnal’ have stood out on the weeknd’s recent album? Or ‘Magnets’ on Lorde’s? Or ‘Good Intentions’ on Miguel’s? The honest answer is no. They are all solid pop songs but they aren’t brilliant. The tracks that feature fresh talent fare better, perhaps because they have a more discernible sense of risk and the unknown. Rising star Kwabs shines on the moody ‘willing and able’ and ‘Gregory Porter’ is a revelation on album standout ‘Holding On’.

New Order’s ‘Music Complete’ also features a lack of upper tier material, which is all that holds this back from being the late career classic it nearly is. First single and opening song ‘Restless’ has a catchy chorus but it’s too long and bleak to be worthy of a greatest hits slot. Closing number ‘Superheated’ is as close as they come to writing a hit even if its sugar sweet melody comes courtesy of guest star Brandon Flowers, who is on a hot streak of his own at the moment. But overall, New Order have done enough to deserve all the recent acclaim. They’ve distilled their influential and instantly recognisable sound in to a modern, enjoyable and finely produced collection of songs. They’ve also, inadvertently, shown up the heirs to their indie dance crown, who have stumbled over that age old pop problem – how on earth do you follow up a classic debut album? It may have been Disclosure who claimed the number one position in the album charts but New Order have shown that, actually, they are still top of the pops.

New Order ‘Music Complete’ – 7.5/10

Disclosure ‘Caracal’ – 6/10



5 Seconds of Summer ‘Sounds Good, Feels Good’ – Review

9 Nov

It doesn’t take much to topple the throne on which a boy band sits. Most of them stay together for five years at the very most and it only takes one bad single, literally in many cases, for the dream to shatter. And so it all hangs in the balance for Five Seconds of Summer, heirs to Busted and BFFs with One Direction, who seemed to burst into public consciousness overnight, in the UK at least. Their early singles were fizzy, relentlessly energetic, enthusiastic and utterly addictive. The album itself was also pretty good as these things go. 5SOS looked like a boy band, talked like a Boy Band and walked like a Boy Band – but they were better than most. Alas, second album ‘Sounds Good, Feels Good’ undoes a lot of the good work of that debut.

The band have teamed up with established pop-punk idols like Good Charlotte, Goldfinger and All Time Low to co write this material. These writers take the band out of their youthful sweet spot and in to deeper, darker, but always family friendly, waters. We still get a healthy dose of ‘why won’t she date me’ concern but these anxieties are now conveyed alongside slightly more weighty themes. So ‘She’s kinda Hot’ addresses society’s prejudice against teenagers, ‘invisible’ tackles depression, ‘Permanent Vacation’ is about youthful despondency and ‘Hey Everybody’ becomes some kind of teen pop communist manifesto.

While they’ve teamed up with artists at the punkier end of the ‘pop punk’ spectrum to write the album, perversely, the production is actually poppier than on the debut. The general pace is slower, the melodies are brighter and the quest for hooks is almost exhaustingly relentless and over the top. It’s a frustratingly tame and laboured pop record in terms of pacing but one that fills every second and space with some kind of silly noise or effect. More damningly however, the songs just aren’t all that strong. Early singles ‘she’s Kinda Hot’ and ‘Hey Everybody’ came out just as summer ended and tellingly flopped. Nothing else on here stands a chance of repeating the success ‘She’s so Perfect’ or ‘Don’t Stop.’

What’s most notable about the album, taken as a whole, is how pessimistic it is. The enthusiasm and good humour of the debut is replaced by a teary eyed sadness. Memories linger in the mind, dreams haven’t come true and love has been abandoned. ‘There’s no ever after’, ‘heartbreak I can’t escape’, ‘I’m lonely like a castaway’ – and that’s just one song of many like it. It seems life ain’t so easy at the top, even with screaming teenage girls chasing after you and the world at your feet. But then their understanding of women is often rose tinted or juvenile – they don’t leave any room for subtitles of emotion. Often they come over as petulant and needy; mean spirited at best, sexist at worst.

But then this is actually fairly typical of teenage boys – which is exactly what 5SOS are. They are a likeable, hard working and talented, if somewhat irritating, bunch of lads and we shouldn’t be throwing them under the bus just yet. If you find it hard to stomach a bunch of handsome, privileged, celebrated , drooled over teenage boys singing about how rubbish life is then this album won’t be for you. But give them a break. The lyrics are sometimes precisely crafted and occasionally nuanced; endearingly honest and hopelessly romantic. It’s one respect in which I think the album actually works. ‘San Fransisco’ and ‘Outterspace’ are finely observed, emotive break up songs that convey an authentic, lived experience of lost love. There is potential here.

But the fact they’ve developed a more interesting lyrical perspective is irrelevant when the very point of 5SOS’ existence is to produce hit singles. Make know mistake, that is why we listen to this band. If I wanted emotional maturity and lyrical sophistication I would, and do, listen to Radiohead, Vampire Weekend or whoever. What I want from 5SOS is what ‘serious bands’ just can’t provide. Bags of energy, sugar coated melody, goofiness and youthful spirit. On their debut they provided that and this time they haven’t. ‘Sounds Good, Feels Good’ doesn’t sound good and it certainly doesn’t feel good.


Modern Baseball ‘MOBO Presents: The Perfect Cast’ – Review

1 Nov

Last year Modern Baseball released ‘You’re Gonna Miss It All’, a tightly focused, energetic collection of songs that blurred the line between indie, pop punk and emo. It was simply one of the best album of any genre released that year. They’ve been touring that record ever since, in larger and larger venues, and now they are releasing ‘The Perfect Cast’, a six track e.p that draws a line under this era.

For a such a sprightly and enjoyable e.p, ‘The Perfect Cast’ is dense with ideas and insight. Modern Baseball squeeze more invention and wit in to this six track record than many bands manage in an entire career. The obscure song titles, 15 minute running time and goofy cover art belies a record that is super smart and bursting with ideas. The songs mainly focus on singer Brendon Lukens battle with depression but they are far from self-obsessed or dreary, as we might expect from a band frequently labeled ’emo’. Instead these tracks are thoughtful, charismatic and funny at the drop of a hat. ‘The quarrels with myself are turning into feuds’ Brendon wryly observes; a thought that is typical of this self aware and self destructive songwriter. He has a conversational tone and direct lyrical voice that is perfectly geared for his young teenage audience. When he addresses mental illness on ‘The Waterboy Returns’ his words are reassuring and instructive. ‘You can’t find help in a bottle or cut, they’ll choose the wrong way to remember you, they’ll choose the wrong words to use.’

The band’s third album, ‘Holy Ghost’, is scheduled for release early next year. It is rumoured to be a more ambitious, wide reaching effort that could introduce the band to a larger audience. They don’t want to repeat themselves. Perhaps this is what Brendon is referring to when he sings ‘Paralysed by change but scared to death you’ll stay the same.’ On this encouraging evidence Modern Baseball have no reason to feel paralysed. ‘Holy Ghost’ should be one of the rock events of the year.