Archive | March, 2016

Iggy Pop ‘Post Pop Depression’- Review

31 Mar

Iggy pop is the embodiment of rock n roll danger and was, for a long time at least, the symbol of youthful rebellion. He’s often found it difficult to reconcile that image with the harsh reality of the ageing process. Somewhere along the way his act became a slightly tragic parody of itself. About a decade ago he reformed The Stooges, and his half naked body gyrating around festival main stages became an opportunity for ridicule. Even more so, the cardboard cut out riffs, supermarket production and cliched lyrics of the comeback albums belittled this authentic legend..

‘Post Pop Depression’ aims to set the record straight, and what a righteous aim that is. Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme is present on guitar, and as producer and co-writer he’s rejuvenated Iggy Pop in the most heartening of ways. The vigour is back. The aggression is back. The mystery is back. This is a dirty, real record about dirty, real things. It’s raunchy. It’s poetic. It doesn’t sound like an imitation of his 1970s records, it sounds like an extension of them. It isn’t a Rick Rubin style stripping down – it’s loud and in your face. Josh Homme said Iggy and the band would only play this material live in old theatres where their presence might still be disruptive. That is an optimistic goal but the idea is well intentioned; Iggy needs to regain some of that intimidating power and on ‘Post Pop Depression’ he goes some way to achieving that.

Re-asserting attitude at the age of 68 Is hard enough but harder still is writing songs worth giving a damn about. Therefore the biggest success here is that Pop’s genuinely given us his most memorable tunes in decades. ‘In the Lobby’ is the most captivating track, with shimmering guitars and a gruesome baseline underpinning his nastiest melody since who knows when. ‘It’s all about the hook’ he moans and as if to highlight the point, the song is filled with hooks galore. ‘I hope I’m not losing my life tonighhhhhttttt’ he roars after every chorus. Lead single ‘Gardenia’ makes a similarly exclamative point. Josh Homme releases a sea of post-punk guitar noise over which Iggy tells us how much he likes instructing a woman what to do. What could so easily be Grandpa spewing some uncomfortable misogyny is in fact a mesmerising treatise about struggle, lust and intoxication. His imagery is concise and reveals his complete awe of whoever Gardenia is, that ‘black Goddess’, that ‘forbidden dream’ with the ‘hourglass ass’ who is ‘stronger than me’.

The lyrics are dripping with raunch and melodrama and it only works because the rhythm section facilitate this sleazy mood. Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys) and Dean Fertita bring a funkiness for Iggy to work with. Helders’ beats, at once recognisable to any Arctic Monkeys fan, are clearly influenced by hip hop but he also has a familiarity with the hard rock style that Iggy is known for. There is none of the thrash work we might expect but his drumming is still powerful and gives space for the songs to breathe. Homme’s guitar work is, as expected, exemplary providing hard riffing, refined licks and ambient psych where necessary. The band are adept enough to play a little disco on the excellent ‘Sunday’ and desert rock on ‘American Valhalla’. You can tell these are experienced players.

The mood does sag a little in the middle. The aforementioned ‘American Valhalla’ is a tad boring, the blustery ‘Vulture’ is uncalled for respite and ‘German Days’ feels more like an exercise in nostalgia than a coherent addition to an otherwise individual record. At nine songs long there’s nowhere for the weaker tracks to hide and it does leave you somewhat wishing for a little more meat on the bone. But in its finest moments, ‘Post Pop Depression’ is a magnificent statement of authority from a legitimate rock n roll legend. If Iggy continues in this vein then hopefully rumours of an imminent retirement are wide off the mark – on this evidence, he won’t go out quietly or politely.



DMA’s ‘Hills End’ – Review

15 Mar

You get the sense that record label execs, the kind who claw desperately at the past, are longing for a Britpop revival. The mid 90s must seem like halcyon days where it was relatively easy to predict trends, find clear cut demographics, sell a ton of records and make real money. Britpop was the last Youth movement that both changed culture and made record companies stinking rich. How desirable it would be to find a new band with the earning potential of Oasis, Blur, The Verve – even James or Shed 7!

Every few years these execs test the water by signing a bunch of young, equally nostalgic bands, but if the Britpop revival wasn’t happening for Brother and their laughable ‘gritpop’ efforts, at a moment when guitar music was in vogue, then it certainly isn’t happening In 2016, when it certainly isn’t. Pretty Vicious, The Sherlocks and Blossoms are some of the new bands having their hats thrown in the ring by moderately enthusiastic PR men and none of them are particularly standing out, it has to be said. Far removed geographically from that bland bunch are DMAS who picked up transmissions of Mancunian swagger all the way from Austrailia. Of all the bands staking a claim, DMA’s make the best case.

On the face of it they appear to have been transported here from 1997, that year when baggy got too baggy and sportswear truly infiltrated the Britpop look. Bucket hats, cargo pants and puma trainers are the order of the day once again. Musically they tick a lot of the boxes as well. Vocalist Tommy O’dell has a sweet voice that is best suited to the mid paced semi-ballads that fill the second half of the album. The arrangements are simple and unambitious with predictable chords played in a predictable order on predictable instruments. Lyrics are ‘moon/June’ obvious and very little will strike you as being inventive or unexpected. Can you roll with it?

That said, there is something undeniably moving about the sweet sentiments behind ‘Delete’ and ‘So You Know’. They deliver an emotional blow that isn’t easy to pull off – if it was I have no doubt that far bigger bands like Kasabian and Catfish and the Bottlemen would at least give it a go. Ironically, It takes confidence to be this vulnerable; DMAs lay their hearts on the line using the most rudimentary language and the results are often rather lovely. ‘Step up the Morphine’ and ‘Straight Dimensions’ even add some jangly rickenbackers, which we all know sound glorious when offset by a nice acoustic guitar. All this leads me to the conclusion that DMA’s are a bunch of romantics at heart. This whole Manncunian act ain’t washing.

Which is kind of a problem. At least a third of ‘Hills End’ is made up of heavy, mid paced rockers; the kind which need to be pulled off with swagger and attitude. DMAS don’t have much of either. ‘Timeless’, ‘Too Soon’ and ‘Lay Down’ are melodically sound and make all the right gestures but they’re soppy, apolitical and lack bite. Despite appearances, there is nothing here to inspire a movement, or even get kids to look up from their iPhones. DMAs may have watched the music videos but they never read the ‘Definitely Maybe’ lyric sheet. Which wouldn’t be an issue if they didn’t go out of their way to convince us they belong in that lineage. They have the songwriting chops and the heart, they just don’t have the teeth. But then that lack of bravado, cockiness and bluster is also a bit appealing; do we actually want a new Liam Gallagher? DMAs genuinely seem like a modest bunch and they know how to write catchy, moving ballads. So ‘Hills End’ is no ‘Definatley Maybe’ and DMA’s are no Oasis – but they’re no Menswear either.



Michael Jackson ‘Off the Wall Reissue’ – Review

7 Mar

‘Off the Wall’ is the easiest entry point for anybody new to the world of Michael Jackson (there must be a few people out there right?), and what better time to start exploring than now? This month sees the release of a new reissue, packaged with an excellent Spike Lee documentary about the making of the record.  it’s the easiest entry point because it has the least baggage. So much of MJ’s later work was fascinatingly, intrinsically linked to contextual factors. You can’t talk about ‘Thriller’ without talking about race. You can’t talk about ‘Bad’ without talking about his relationship to masculinity and femininity. You can’t talk about Dangerous without talking about his changing face. You can’t talk about ‘History’ without talking about the Child Molestation accusations. Of course all these topics, in one way or another, have roots in Michael’s adolescence and are interesting to think about in relation to ‘Off the Wall’, but it also feels unnecessary. ‘Off the Wall’ is an album where it’s entirely suitable to focus on the music and only the music. As far as possible it feels fairest to try and leave external factors out of discussion, because it is an album that is so much about the transformative power of the groove. For Michael Jackson, the groove is where it all began.

‘Off the Wall’ is a product of its time; spawned at the tail end of disco, inspired by nights out at Studio 54 and indebted to the Philly Soul sound of Gamble and Huff. But it hasn’t dated like so many records of that era have. It never resorted to cheesy proclamations or used now dated slang or colloquialisms. Producer Quincy Jones was far too experienced to pander to fads. The arrangements are sophisticated and classic – not a world away from the work he was doing decades before for Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles. It’s a timeless record.

Released in 1979, ‘Off the Wall’ was Michael’s coming of age album. Sort of. Rather than signifying confidence or freedom (it was his first solo album away from the watchful eye of his father, the controlling hand of Berry Gordy and without his brothers involvement) It connotes the ackwardness, uncertainty and anxiety that coming of age entails. Sure, In its discussions of romantic love, it’s sophisticated arrangements and its grown up grooves, it is a world a way from the childish escapism of the Jackson five years; but it’s equally far removed from the hyper-fantasy of ‘Bad’ and the stuning realism of ‘History’. It exists almost in its own world and occupies a moment rarely captured on vinyl. Michael was young, only eighteen, and since when have eighteen year olds had access to Quincy Jones, orchestras, the best session musicians in the country and a big budget to express what they’re thinking and feeling? The album finds him at one with eighteen year olds the world over; full of the confidence that leaving home brings but equally full of fear and doubt.

I’ve heard ‘Off the Wall’ frequently described as an album of liberation, a claim recently repeated in Pitchfork’s review of this reissue. But this is not something I’d necessarily agree with. To hear Michael on these tracks is to hear a human being trapped, seeking liberation, but not there yet. He’s working day and night to provide for his lover, unable to indulge in the pleasures that the nighttime can otherwise provide opportunity for. ‘Rock With You’ registers as a dream or fantasy of escapism more than anything else. ‘She’s Out of My Life’ is a rumination on regret and longing (no matter what the critics say about his love life, this is undoubtedly a soul who experienced what it was to love and loss). ‘It’s the falling in Love’ details romantic desire, but it’s a repressed desire, and no wonder – ‘Girrlfriend’ finds him in love with a girl who is already taken. This is not the sound of a man who is liberated, this is a man confined. The Prom tuxedo and smile he flaunts on the cover are symbols of maturity, of somebody who is self-assured and comfortable, but they are a charade. Beneath the surface the reality was somewhat different

Almost all the great pop songs are designed to make you cry or dance. ‘Off the Wall’ splits the difference by making songs you could dance to whilst bringing a tear to your eye. But it’s more than just a love letter to the groove – it’s instructive. When the world grinds you down, when love is denied, when fantasies are at arms length, when work pressure extinguishes romance, what else is their to do but dance, dance, dance? This is the argument contained in the rhythms of ‘Off the Wall’. It’s the drive behind the imperatives ‘BURN this disco out’, ‘GET on the floor’ ‘LIVE your life off the wall’ ‘DONT STOP till you get enough’. Michael has problems but he also has the answer. Dance! This is dance as escapism, dance as freedom, dance as release, dance as salvation. It’s perhaps in that sense that Michael begins to liberate himself.

The best songs on ‘Off the Wall’ are the ones that MJ wrote himself. What’s striking is that even at this early stage in his career he was approaching music from an outsider’s perspective. The otherness, the strangeness, of ‘Don’t Stop Till You a Get Enough’ and ‘Working Day and Night’ is astonishing. They don’t sound like songs that could have been written by anyone else. Consider his breathy falsetto; his singing isnt smooth, it’s restless. His melodies are punchy, rhythmic and indebted to James Brown. Listen to the hiccuping beat boxing at the start of ‘Workin Day and Night’. His voice is thoroughly masculine, in the tradition of soul men like Sam Cooke, its confident but seductive, sensitive and self assured – you have to be self assured to sing in such a daring falsetto. Listen out for the now iconic, but then startling, ‘owws’ that punctuate these songs sparingly. His was a voice unlike any other.

Every instrument is played with precision, mixed so that its perfectly placed in the melting pot. I’ve been listening to the album for years and there are still new details that pop out every, single, damn, time I listen to it. ‘Workin Day and Night’ in particular is full of unique percussive elements that took me years to fully digest and appreciate. The masterful mix, surely the most accomplished in the history of popular music, was completed by the tragically overlooked Bruce Sweden and of course, Quincy Jones. The arrangements are all just so, or as Q himself put it in an interview ‘not too dense, not too airy.’ Nothing else sounds this good, before or after.

It may be easy to pinpoint how ‘Off the Wall’ sounds so good but there’s a spiritual dimension to it that’s harder to get to the bottom of. Trying to explain how these sounds add up to something that moves the soul as well as the mind and body is like trying to catch water as it slips through your fingers. I suppose ‘Off the Wall’ is an album that recognises, and is about, the tremendous effect that music can have on the body and equally, the soul, and MJ practices what he preaches. The music transcends. And when all that has been explored, he also has an answer for what happens when the music stops playing; ‘And when the g-roooove is dead and gone / you know that love survives so we can rock forever’. If ever a lyric summed up Michael Jackson’s legacy, this is it. This music leaves a mark on the listener that endures beyond the process of just listening to a song. Love is what is left behind. It’s fitting that the lyric is pulled from his most joyous song, ‘Rock With You’. When all the nonsense dies down for good, when the lights in the disco die down, it’s this love that will endure.



The 1975 ‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ – Review

5 Mar

The 1975’s second album is called ‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of it.’ There are seventeen tracks. One of those tracks is a six minute ambient instrumental called ‘Please Be Naked’. Another is named ‘The 1975’ and is itself a new arrangement of a track called ‘The 1975’, which was the opening song on their debut, ‘The 1975’. The target audience for the album is 14 year old girls. Lead singer Matty Healy said in a recent interview ‘it’s art. The world needs this album’. If any of these facts make you feel queezy then you have two options. You could stop reading now and try to avoid the band at all costs. Or you could embrace that queezines. Try and listen without prejudice (as one of the band’s influences, George Michael once said). Try and listen as a hormonal, uninhibited teenage girl might listen. Learn to love The 1975, because on this evidence, they’re going to be massive.

‘Love Me!’ That’s the imperative, and the hook, placed right at the front of this gigantic slab of pop and the band do everything in their power to convince you that you should. It’s an album that lures you in with juicy choruses, primary coloured chords and bags of personality. Once it’s got you hooked it starts to flex its muscles. Over the course of 75 minutes you’ll hear flashes of Arena Rock, House, Shoegaze, Post Rock, Ambient Music, R&B, Acoustic Balladry and Gospel. All of it is rendered through The 1975’s baby pink pop lens that amplifies the hooks and emphasises melody. The broad strokes are emphatic but the finer details are equally well executed. The production is glistening and detailed. Evocative retro sounds rub against elements of contemporary bass and electronic music which shows The 1975 keep one eye on the past and one on the present. It looks to the 80s for inspiration but They are a thoroughly modern band in their outlook – or ‘post-ironic’ as they put it. They don’t have the hang ups and cynicism that used to blight rock fans for too long (judging by one or two sour reviews, some critics don’t seem to have moved on); they will use the Careless Whisper sax on ‘This Could Be My Dream’ with smiles on their faces, just see if they don’t.

They make unbelievably provocative decisions like calling their album’I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of it.’ They’re trolling the haters. One song on the album is called ‘Ughhh!!’ And it’s about Matty’s own exasperation with his drug habit. Like most of the lyrics on the album it aims at profundity but ends up revealing a certain self obsession. It’s this pretentious element that has raised the eyebrows of A LOT of people, especially as Matty falls flat on his face just as often as he hits the mark. But you appreciate the effort to say something meaningful even when it doesn’t work out. That ambition results in one liners that are as sharp and witty as anything coming out of the rarified corridors of indie rock or experimental music. And when they fall short they do so with humour. ‘Was it your breasts from the start? They played a part’ is just one gloriously ridiculous example. They just don’t care about how daft they sound and that’s admirable because so much modern music lacks risk. Bands are scared to say anything out of the ordinary but The 1975 are never afraid to dip their toes in uncharted water.

Matty Healy frequently comes out with smart Alec remarks dripping with self-importance, as if he’s the first person to make the connection between personal decay and cocaine or realise that celebrities are prone to being vacuous. But his tone Is never didactic or pandering. He treats his young audience with respect and understands that they will come to their own conclusions. He sings frankly about drug use, mental health issues, death, religion, fame and love – the big subjects – and never offers easy answers. He does this with tremendous tenacity and a tongue always near his cheek. He’s utterly pretentious but damn, he knows it, and he worries about it. After name checking Guy Debord he exclaims ‘I’m the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques.’ As preening and smug as he can be, It’s hard to hate him when he comes out with self-deprecating put downs like that.

Some of the criticisms I’ve read, aside from often being utterly patronising and condescending to the group’s young audience, are awfully pedantic. I’ve seen criticisms that they’re too emo, that their songs are poorly structured, that the album’s too long (well duhhhh). Come on. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of emo, who cares how the songs are structured when the hooks hit this hard and hip hop albums, never mind mainstream pop albums, are routinely longer than this and nobody says a word. It’s as if the world has come to expect a group of four guys with guitars to play it safe. The 1975 are a throwback in some respects to groups at the start of the CD era, like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins – bands full of ideas, with the ambition to match. How have THe 1975 answered their critics? In the video for the delicious house-pop number, ‘The Sound’, criticisms flash across a baby pink screen as the band play in a box to a hoard of sneering haters. By the end of the video it’s the critics who are in the box and the only thing they can do is point and scowl.

At at the end of the day I could talk about the unnecessary and overlong instrumentals, the considerably less enjoyable middle section and some of the many lyrical misfires – but that would be missing the point. These things speak to the band’s range and ambition. As is often the case, The 1975s flaws only make them more loveable.

Why aren’t this brilliant band being more regularly applauded? Critics have thus far been allergic to the 1975. They are a serious band making trivial pop music, which is an unfortunate category to fall in to if you’re seeking acclaim. If you’re a male band, play guitar music and have mainstream pop aspirations beyond just the indie/punk demographic then you’re in trouble. It’s the reason Coldplay and The Killers have never received their due – as if what the have achieved is easily attainable?! The lesson they want us to learn, it would seem, is that If you’re in a band you BETTER know you’re place. Leave pop to the pop stars and stick to being alternative. But we’re told guitar music is dead aren’t we? Here are a band with sky scraping tunes, ambition, real personality, good looks, style, a young fan base and bags of attitude. They are a young, talented group putting three minute pop songs on the radio, with guitar solos, and having hits! This is the best pop-rock album since ‘A.M’. My advice? Learn to stop worrying and love The 1975.