Archive | February, 2016

Animal Collective ‘Painting With’ – Review

25 Feb

Animal collective personified blog buzz back in 2009, when indie-rock bands put away guitars, started digging The Beach Boys and dialled up the ambition. Grizzly Bear, Deerhunter and Dirty Projectors were all big but none received quite so much hype as Animal Collective. In ‘Merriether Post Pavillion’ they had an album that deserved the acclaim.

Seven years later and the muted response that has greeted ‘Painting With’ is emblematic of just how far (this particular flavour of) Indie Rock’s stock has fallen. The genre has reverted to type; it’s back to being insular, lo-if, scene based and rooted in punk values. Nothing wrong with that, but it does make the expansive, ambitious, melodically and harmonically driven sound of Animal Collective seem out of place. Seven years later, indie rock has far more modest aims. In its confusion, bizzare singularity and skewed targets ‘Painting With’ typifies this deflated mood perfectly.

The group’s last album, ‘Centepiede HZ’, was a messy and overwhelming collection that could easily be the worst follow up to a classic album that I can recall. The good news is that while ‘Painting With’ still has some of that album’s less pleasant traits, it’s not quite as over the top and busy. It’s not rammed to the rafters with layers and layers of noise. It’s not drenched in reverb. The songs aren’t long and dirge like. These, at least, are positive steps in the right direction.

And in ‘Floridada’ and ‘Golden Gal’, they possess two positive singles. The two tracks bubble along with an irrepressible enthusiasm that is infectious rather than annoying. They’re busy but not so crammed with ideas that you can’t tell one hook from another. The melodies are highlighted and not overwhelmed by what is happening in the margins. But these are the exception. For the most part the tracks on ‘Painting With’ are restless and lacking in space for quiet contemplation. Listening to it from start to finish is akin to being repeatedly whacked around the head by a hyperactive child with a rubber mallet. It is an irritating, headache inducing experience.

The group have a increasingly disruptive attitude which steers them towards disorientation. The sounds are there to dazzle you in to a state of confusion, whilst the lurching, grasping rhythms seem perfectly designed to trip you up. Take album closer ‘Recycling’ as an example. The song starts with a blaze of beeps and burps including a sound mimicking an alarm going off to one imitating a gurgling tap left to drip overnight. Then bells start ringing low down in the mix as synths fade in like a rising sun. At 38 seconds a kick drum starts keeping time but the synths, which now start bending, pay no attention to this and continue to warp in and out of tune to their own invisible beat. Suddenly you realise a clock is ticking in the background, also to its own rhythm. When Avey and Panda Bear enter the scenario at the minute mark they are lost in their own world, oblivious to the crazy soundscape we’ve been landed in. They trade syllables, in the now customary way, in perfect alternation but somehow completely oblivious to one another. There is no emotional or spiritual connection. They say things but who knows what – their singing style and the dubious mix makes the words inaudible. And ‘Recycling’ is the prettiest, most soulful song on the album

As impressive as the vocals, on a purely visceral level, can sometimes be, the songs exist with an utterly hollow core. In the place that it matters, Animal Collective are lacking. There is also a distinct lack of groove; for all their love of exotic sounds and world music, Animal Collective remain the whitest group in all of human existence (musically, not racially). As technically accomplished as the group undoubtedly are, you have to wonder – to what end? Their syllable swapping is impressive but ultimately unmoving. The strange musical sounds are curious but hardly unprecedented. In the end It’s a thoroughly exhausting album to listen to. Animal Collective know some tricks, sure, but what good are these skills if they don’t implement them in a credible way? Like a Brazilian footballer who dribbles and nutmegs his way around the pitch so artfully but shoots the ball in to the rafters when staring at the mouth of the goal. The group’s daunting reputation prevents widespread criticism but this mess surely deserves nothing else?

4.5/10

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Bloc Party ‘Hymns’ – Review

24 Feb

Few bands seem quite so oblivious, or indifferent, to their strengths as Bloc Party. In 2015 they emerged as wiry nerds with a penchant for making thoughtful indie rock bursting with sky-scraping choruses and natty hooks. They possessed a sentimental lyricist who probed and examined worldly matters as well as the more personal ones. His guitar interplay with Russel Lipock was ingenious, the work of two best friends with an instinctual understanding of each other’s style. In Matt Tong and Gorden Moakes they had the most inventive and talented rhythm section in the country. Underpinning it all was that repressed but easily combustible aggression that resulted in some of the biggest indie anthems of the young century – ‘Banquet’, ‘Helicopter’, ‘Like Eating Glass’, ‘Positive Tension’ and ‘Hunting for Witches’ for starters.

Their last two albums unsuccessfully rallied against those qualities, to varying extents. For this spiky bunch of post-punks, forays in to grunge, dance and blues rock ultimately felt indulgent – they were like musical tourists on a gap year. Left field turns are easily accepted if pulled off (as the career of David Bowie was a testament to) but Bloc Party never did, in my opinion. It just seemed so counter-productive. The nimble, duel guitars became sluggish and heavy, Matt Tong’s acrobatic drumming got replaced by a drum machine, and at some point all Kele’s melodies started sounding the same, whilst he upped the cynicism and paranoia in his increasingly bitter lyrics.

Weak songwriting, unrecognisable musicianship and tiresome lyrics were just the start. On ‘Four’, the ‘Nextwave Sessions’, and to a lesser extent 2008’s hit and miss (mostly hit, to be fair) ‘Intimacy’, Bloc Party sounded tired and barely bothered, devoid of both the physical and emotional strength needed to deliver the intense anthems they started off with. All of which is to say, I was a big Bloc Party fan feeling seriously let down. Not that the band owe me anything at all. In ‘Silent Alarm’ and ‘Weekend in the City’ they gave me two of the favourite indie albums of my youth. If those records are Bloc Party’s sole contribution to music history then that’s enough. But a part of me still hopes that they will somehow return to their former glory.

But those of us hoping for a return to the values and style of ten years ago will be disappointed. ‘Hymns’ is not ‘Silent Alarm’ redux. Nor could it be; Tong and Moakes have been replaced. For most bands, losing the drummer and bass player wouldn’t be a massive deal but Bloc Party have always been their rhythm section. It was their most distincitive feature. Then again, considering how drained and out of sorts they sounded on ‘Four’, it isn’t necessarily a band thing. Besides, ‘Hymns’ is made up mostly of quiet ballads, not the kind of material that requires a rhythmic work out. Slow songs have always been the trick up Bloc Party’s sleeve, going back to their very first e.p, and here they get the spotlight they deserve.

Lyrically Kele returns to the honest (sometimes uncomfortably so) mode that has worked well in the past. Thankfully there are none of his well meaning but somewhat didactic and broad lyrics about politics. Here his lyricism is simple and effective and he sings about things he is experiencing first hand. There are also some funny references to the past, things like ‘I’ll sing you a song like I used to, don’t you remember?’ and ‘rock n roll has got so old’

The ballads are mostly moving and the band incorporate electronic and dance influences far more subtly and seamlessly than they did on ‘Intimacy’ – even if the results aren’t quite as exhilarating. The more traditional elements are also incorporated with subtitly and the mix of the old and new never feels jarring. The choir, of sorts, and the organ riffing that fills out ‘The Good News’ are suitable and not glued on. The R&B and soul influences dovetail surprisingly nicely with Kele’s melodies, which are far more ingenious than anything he’s done this decade. Particularly lovely are the break up songs ‘Exes’ and ‘So Real’ which cut to the bone with heartfelt lyrics and sweet, falsetto melodies. ‘What am I supposed to do, when the only good thing about me was you.’ It’s not Shakespeare but it does the job. Less endearing is his sneering disdain towards religion, which becomes obvious on a couple of the tracks. Kele cherry picks symbols of gospel music – devotional lyrics, choirs, organs – but there is none of the depth or poetry. Instead he uses these classic motifs, along with lyrics, to affirm a cynical atheism. It’s cheap and badly judged.

It’s not a flawless record by any stretch; there are a few boring moments, particularly in the middle. You get the impression they were going for minimalism with ‘Into the Earth’ But it just sounds lacking. ‘Fortress’ is awful – nobody wants to hear Kele singing about sex in a register he can’t quite reach. More surprisingly, lead single ‘The Love Within’ is dreadful. This is the type of energetic song they used to do so well but the disgusting, tuneless synth distracts our gaze and the chorus arrives to late to achieve any kind of impact.

More fundamentally, Bloc Party are still not fully utilising their greatest assets. Almost all of the elements that made their debut so compelling have diminished or dissolved entirely. That energy, rhythmic ingenuity, ambition and guitar interplay are nowhere to be found. But there are now at least signs that, in their place, Bloc Party are starting to develop new strengths. ‘Hymns’ is for the most part a definite step in the right direction. It’s a lovely, contemplative and enjoyable record. Bloc Party are a band that have lost their wings but are slowly growing new limbs.

6.5/10

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Kanye West ‘The Life of Pablo’ – Review

15 Feb

Man I wish I loved the new Kanye West record. Failing that, I wish I hated it. I wish it perplexed me as much as ‘Yeezus’ did. I wish it moved me as much as ‘808s and Heartbreak’ did. And how ever unlikely, I wish it rocked my world as much as ‘College dropout’ did. Those distant days of 2004, when I downloaded the mp3 files of that album on to the school computer and played them on a very old version of real player, feel like a lifetime ago. Kanye’s been able to turn on that very same tap time after time after time, with each subsequent album being a beacon of inspiration. Each one has awoken a sense of discovery and rediscovery in the way only a handful of artists have ever been able to do. The Beatles of course and then Bowie, Neil Young, Dylan, Radiohead, Prince and MJ. Artists defined by reinvention. All those artists powers gradually diminished, although never disappeared. These runs don’t last forever. After ‘John Wesley Harding’ Dylan released ‘Nashville Skyline’, a good record but hardly a classic in the same breath as its predecessor. After ‘Lovesexy’ Prince put out the Batman soundtrack (ok, maybe the dropping off slope was pretty steep for him). After twelve years of restless creativity ‘The Life of Pablo’ signals that Kanye is at this point in his career.

Which is not to say that ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a bad album, far from it, it’s just the first one that doesn’t wear the label ‘classic’. I actually like it a lot more than ‘Yeezus’, it just wont ignite the sameextreme reactions. It isn’t groundbreaking or innovative. It isn’t flawless. It isn’t a work of genius. Initially, It’s hard to see what the album’s unique selling point actually is. It’s the first record in Kanye’s discography that doesn’t immediately convey a new personality. Instead it can be viewed as a compilation of past flavours. Some songs veer towards the minimalist nihilism of ‘Yeezy’ whilst others are minimalist in the more emotionally vulnerable vein of ‘808s and Heartbreaks.’ The album’s length and sonic ambition recalls the opulent grandeur of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ but in tone it feels much closer to ‘Late Registration’. Then there are the interludes that recall ‘College Dropout’s’ tiresome skits.

It surely would have been better for Kanye to make good on ‘Ultralight Beam’s gospel promise that is curtailed after track two. Otherwise only the feel good ‘Waves’ adds gravitas to Kanye’s argument that ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a gospel album. These songs are without doubt the most interesting new developments on here. But he is an artist prone to greatness, even when he’s as inconsistent and scatterbrained as he is here. ‘The Life of Pablo’ is constantly engaging, even when it provokes negative reactions, and almost always enjoyable at the very least.

As ever Kanye West is the master ringmaster and he’s worked with a stellar army of collaborators. From the heralded (Chance the Rapper, Rick Rubin, Madlib, Andre 3000, Pharrell, Rihanna, The Weeknd) to the more obscure (Donnie Trumpet, Cashmere Cat, Mike Dean, Karriem Riggins). ‘No More Parties in LA’ features Kendrick Lamar, who is undeniably the best rapper in the world right now. Indeed, last year’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is, along with ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, a candidate for the best hip hop album of all time. As soon as Kendrick arrives with his verse he blows everyone else out of the water and Kanye is briefly made to look like an average joe at his own party. When Kanye takes over the mic a couple of minutes in to the song he is reserved, as he is for much of the album. But then he builds up steam and unleashes perhaps the best two minutes of pure rap he’s delivered in many years. It’s like 2004 all over again – he’s funny, dramatic, technically superb and a hurricane of ego, personality and controversy. Everything that’s amazing about Kanye flowers from the crack in the pavement. And then the song ends abruptly. And then ‘Facts’ begins. And then we’re back in 2016.

‘Facts’ is surely the worst thing Kanye has ever put on an album (though not as poor as last year’s shocking ‘All Day’), something that seems to be universally accepted by fans and critics alike. It’s not hard to put your finger on why the song goes so drastically wrong. To start with the beat is bland and the bassline is uncharacteristically cold, un-melodic and un-kanye like. Then there’s the rapping. He’s ripping Drake off and it’s embarrassing. This is Kanye West, he doesn’t need to be Drake. Surely he knows that better than anyone? Then there’s the fact he’s spends four minutes dissing Nike whilst defending Bill Crosby. Something tells me the audience’s empathy will be in short supply. After ‘Facts’ comes ‘Fade’ which features some classic house samples and virtually no Kanye. The song has absolutely nothing to say (about Nike or Bill Cosby or anything). I guess it’s fine. Ok,  It’s a pale version of ‘Yeezus’ closer ‘Bound 2’ but it sounds cool. Then that’s it. The album is over. This three song stretch just about sums up this messy album. Mostly enjoyable, sporadically excellent and, every now and then, utter garbage.

This being a Kanye album, there are moments of controversy. Yesterday I saw a tweet that asked ‘mysogony is not ok, why do we forget our feminism as soon as it comes to Kanye West?’ And it’s a pertinent question. He can defend his use of the word ‘bitch’ all he wants but I don’t buy it. He uses the word as a crutch because he can’t be bothered to think of more syllables. It isn’t ok. Even harder to defend is the way he talks about women generally, like how he casually dismisses Taylor Swift (again!) on ‘Famous’, not to mention how he speaks about his own wife and the women he’s slept with. Everyone must worship at the alter of Kanye. ‘Yeezus’ was the first time his misogyny made me deeply uncomfortable, mainly because his delivery lacked the self awareness and context he had provided on previous albums. His language throughout ‘The Life of Pablo’ is equally jarring and increasingly harder to look past.

One of the great things about ‘808s and Heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was that Kanye wrestled with and dissected the wild personality that he had crafted on his first, great trilogy of albums. He sounded self-aware, increasingly confident, mature and willing to unpack that madness and the genius that made him tick. I don’t hear that same conflict on ‘The Life of Pablo’. I hear a man who is quite literally deluded; who brags, who ridicules, who demeans and who often sounds unhinged. ‘Name one genius that ain’t crazy’ he says at one point. I get his message but I’m not sure that’s a get out of jail free card. As on ‘Yeezus’, it’s actually a barrier preventing me from loving this album.

There are other barriers. It feels disappointingly apolitical, which considering what’s going on in America right now, and in the light of recent albums by Kendrick and Run the Jewels Is disappointing. A vague ‘pray for Paris’ is as close as we get to a political message. More crucially, it feels unfinished. Of course Kanye was working on his music right up until the deadline, chopping and changing the track listing as If he was never quite sure of what he was trying to say. This time last year he premiered ‘Wolves’ and called it the opener to the album ‘So Help Me God’. This time last week it was the mellow closer to a suave ten track record called ‘Waves’. Finally it’s been slotted somewhere in the middle of ‘The Life of Pablo’. The tone, sound and content has radically altered so many times but in the end he’s thrown it all at the wall to see what would stick.

It’s perhaps instructive to approach ‘The Life of Pablo’ as Kanye’s White Album – an extended assortment of every style he’s toyed with before, amalgamated in a seemingly random order, and tackled with an unprecedented looseness and freedom of spirt. There are minimalist ballads (‘FML’), jams (freestyles are basically jams right?) pop crowd pleasers (‘Famous’) bizarre interludes (‘Silver Surfer Intermission’) throwaways (‘FACTS’) an avant grade sample (’30 Hours’) and an ambitious multi-part suite (Father Stretch My Hands). It may not pack quite the same punch as that aforementioned classic but then what does?

Kanye once claimed that ‘Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was perfection, well ‘The Life of Pablo, like The White Album before it, is anti-perfection. The very public and and protracted roll out may perhaps have been a ploy to make this anti-perfection strategy super-dooper clear. He is a father now after all, as well as a fashion designer, video game maker (if you do anything today make sure you check out ‘Only One’) and a general ideas man. Who has the time to make a masterpiece anyway? ‘The Life of Pablo’ might not be one but it’s still more interesting, provocative, infuriating and enjoyable than just about anything released since his last album. I may not love it, or hate it, but when it comes to Kanye the middle ground is a pretty fascinating place.

8.5/10

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Mystery Jets ‘Curve of the Earth – Review

12 Feb

Mystery jets are the Mr Benn of pop. With every new album they put on new costumes to compliment a new musical direction. On ‘Twenty One’, they donned shoulder pads and glitter for their 80s record and on ‘Radlands’, out came the suede jackets and faded denim as the tackled Americana. New record ‘Curve of the Earth’ isn’t so blatant. Actually, it feels like a grown up version of an album the band no longer talk about or perform – their debut, ‘Making Dens’. That album was a modern take on Prog played by kids just as versed in pop and indie. But ‘Curve of the Earth’ is weary instead of optimistic and nostalgic instead of forward thinking. It is, to use that dreadful word, mature. If ‘Making Dens’ channelled ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ then this is their ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

Which is utterly disappointing because Mystery Jets are at their best when they’re at their most playful. I’ve been a big fan of Mystery Jets from the beginning and each of their prior albums have appeared in my top ten lists for their respective years. I was expecting something much more inspired than this tired old thing. The years (yes years) they spent making these nine songs have plunged them in to a kind of darkness. They spent so long working on it, wrapped up in the minutiae of it, viewing it from such a close angle, that they completely neglected the necessary, objective viewpoint. Somewhere in the process they lost sight of the fact that the songs all pretty much sound the same. In isolation they are decent tunes, if somewhat underpumped and overcooked, but together they melt in to one grey blob.

‘Telemere’ was an underwhelming lead single and feels even more out of place opening the album. It’s a long and dreary song that nonetheless comes as close to pop as the album ever veers. At least it does a nice job of displaying Blaine’s still impressive vocals. But in its melancholic, mid paced chug, It exemplifies how the songs drag on. Many  clock in at six minutes, though none run any longer than that, which is an odd length; too long to scan as pop but not long enough to attempt anything truly ambitious or epic. Instead the structures are pedestrian, nothing particularly develops or evolves as the songs play out. The arrangements stay static and the playing lacks any sense of wonderment or inspiration. Only the pulsating ‘Bubblegum’, a War on Drugs rip off, has any sort of energy about it, and that’s easily the best thing on here. The second half of the record is particularly boring with ‘Blood Red Balloon’ and ‘Saturnine’ being devoid of even a hint of energy.

Better are the more stripped back songs. Blaine is a gifted top-line writer with a fine ear for a hook. ‘Bombay Blue’ is sweet and affecting whilst ‘Taken by the Tide’ is a soft and moving account of loss punctuated by aggressive guitar riffs after every chorus. It’s one of the very few songs on here that has any sense of drama or musical tension. Mystery Jets just don’t quite have the technical chops or ruthless ambition to pull off ‘Curve of the Earth’. They are naturally modest, low-key and playful which are all qualities sorely lacking here. The songs just don’t do enough to capture the imagination or hold your attention; it breaks my heart to say it but ‘Curve of the Earth’ is a tired and tiring album.

5/10

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