Archive | May, 2016

Modern Baseball ‘Holy Ghost’ – Review

30 May

You’ll often hear the phrase ‘rock music is dead’ but the pervayours of this theory are usually snobbish hipsters who ignore rock groups that don’t appeal to a hip demographic. For example, The 1975 (a huge and brilliant rock band) are routinely dismissed because they appeal to teenage girls. It’s a similar prejudice that makes Modern Baseball one of the most criminally overlooked bands out there – ignored because they pitch themselves to an emo/pop-punk fan base. However, as anyone who has been to a MOBO show will know – rock music is popular and very much alive and thriving. in ‘Holy Ghost’ Modern Baseball have created the most vital guitar record of the year so far and to ignore it would be folly indeed.

Modern Baseball have built a career around the mantra ‘whatever, forever’, their memorable lyric from 2014’s ‘Rock Bottom’. It appears on t-shirts, accompanies Instagram posts and has generally caught the imagination of their fans. But this humorous aside masks the fact that modern Baseball actually care a great deal. Their humour and slacker style can be deceptive, and hides the aching sincerity just beneath the surface. Although usually centring discussions around girls and a lack of romantic success, their songs have contained thoughtful examinations of 21st century couple politics, social media interactions and young adulthood anxieties. ‘You’re Gonna Miss it All’ was one of the catchiest and funniest guitar albums of recent years. ‘Holy Ghost’ sees them ditching the sarcasm, the puns and the snarl; to use a cliched adjective, it is utterly raw, often uncomfortably so.

The record dramatically broadens the band’s horizons by expanding upon their musical ambitions and broadening lyrical themes. The record deals with Jake Ewald’s grandfather’s death and Brandon Lukens’ battle with depression, substances and self-harm. As a consequence of their being on the road, many of the songs also deal with being away from your loved ones at the time you need them most. We also hear the band struggle with faith, social insecurity, emotional honesty and most memorably, brotherhood and survival. It’s heavy stuff that is dealt with smartly. The record speeds by like a bullet (Lukens’ half passes by in just over ten minutes) so there isn’t really time to dwell on the weighty subject matter initially, it takes multiple listens for everything to sink in.

On ‘Sports’ and ‘You’re Gonna Miss It All’ the band would generally bounce from a Brandon song to a Jake song and back again, but this time around the record is very strictly divided between the two. Side A belongs to Jake, side B belongs to Brandon. It’s an unusual strategy that is undeniably awkward (the only modern president I can think of for that is Outkast’s ‘Speakerboxxx/ the Love Love Below’). But the decision was no doubt necessary as the two songwriters have evolved in quite different ways. Jake’s music has grown more sophisticated, ambitious and indie rock orintated. Brandon’s songs on the other hand are, if anything, shorter and more sneering that they’ve ever been. He no longer laces his emo sentiments with humour and his melodies are more acidic, his singing more fractured.

On ‘What If’ Brandon sings ‘Please save my soul, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore’. His voice trembles as he audibly comes undone. You’ll rarely, if ever, hear a singer who’s prepared to present themselves in such a vulnerable state. There is still tremendous power in music that is this blunt, this frantic and this uncensored. These songs were written over a single weekend, most don’t play by the traditional pop song verse/chorus structural rules, and the band probably didn’t waste too much time trying to get the perfect take. These tracks are the direct product of intense passion.

There is a moment on ‘Breathing in Stereo’ where Brandon quivers as he sings ‘I’m not the same as I was but that’s cool, whatever’. The nonchalance is briefly back with a sting. But along with it are the self assured words of a man coming to terms with himself. Because although Modern Baseball evidently do care a great deal, they also realise that it’s important not to over-invest. You can get caught up in the things Modern Baseball spend a lot of time thinking about – the past, social media, other people’s perceptions, expectations etc- but at the end of the day the only person you have to answer to is yourself. You can’t control how others view you. ‘Holy Ghost’ is often dark and uncomfortable but the ultimate message is one of hope and survival that comes from within, with the help of people who truly love you. Whatever forever.

9/10

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Radiohead ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ – Review

22 May

There was a time when Radiohead were the most important band in the world, something that you have to remind yourself of when listening to ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, a reflective, personal record that does everything to diminish its own significance. That time when Radiohead were angry, conflicted, political, popular and groundbreaking – that time my friends is called the past. For all their strengths, and this being Radiohead they are still a band with so many, they’ve made a quiet record with modest aims and mixed success.

They wisely bookend the album with their two best songs in at least a decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s because the songs were written over a decade ago. ‘Burn the Witch’ can be traced back to the ‘Hail the Thief’ days whilst ‘True Love Waits’ has been a fan favourite and concert staple since the mid 90s. Releasing them officially only now can be interpreted cynically as showing a lack of new ideas. Alternatively you could argue that it’s a case of the stars finally aligning for these songs. You could certainly make this case convincingly when it comes to ‘True Love Waits’ which is given a breathtaking, minimalist arrangement that compliments one of Thom Yorke’s finest ever vocal performances. Like a more alert and sober take on the sparse despondency of ‘Motion Picture SOundtrack’, the song relates some of the record’s simplest sentiments with one of its most memorable melodies. ‘Burn the Witch’s bruised politics and orchestral bite feels slightly less in keeping with the rest of the album’s sedate glow but it’s a fantastic tune nonetheless.

Then there are the newer songs – newness being a relative term. Many were debuted a few years back during acoustic Thom Yorke shows, and most retain that folky atmosphere. You can divide the keepers and the throwaways pretty evenly. ‘The Numbers’, ‘Desert Island Disk’, ‘Ful Stop’ and ‘Present Tense’ are varying degrees of bland and monotonous and are impossible to recall, even after hearing the album many, many times. ‘Identikit’ is better, one of the few songs other than ‘Burn the Witch’ to have any kind of tension or energy.

One of the rare songs that hasn’t been heard before is the gorgeously melancholy ‘Daydreaming’, an early album standout. The track introduces the album’s key theme – romantic disentanglement. ‘It’s too late, the damage is done’ Yorke purrs cryptically. He’s no more enlightening when he sings ‘have you had enough of me?’ or ‘different types of love are possible’ or ‘I feel this love turn cold.’ It all adds up to something frustratingly vague but often devastatingly beautiful. A breakup album? It’s never really that cut and dry, though it often points in that direction. This uncertainty is symbolised by the soundscape of the mesmerising ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ where the red raw melody floats through beats that makes a sound something like bullets muffled by clouds. It’s delicate and lovely but somewhat unsure of the point it’s making.

All in all the album measures up to a pretty but somewhat insubstantial album with a couple of classics to add to the collection and a few songs you’ll  never particularly want to hear again. In the rush to be the first to review the album, surely critics were too generous too soon – perhaps they were in awe of this great band. Now that the dust has settled surely the final conclusion must be a simple and blunt one – sure; sophisticated, stylistic, mature, nuanced, measured etc, but overall, isn’t it just a little boring?

As stunning as ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ often is, in its own way, I’m left longing for a Radiohead song that once again attempts to transcend the solitary process of listening through earphones – the best way to experience this and all other Radiohead albums since ‘Kid A’. I don’t know about a pool, this album often has all the actual depth of a puddle. I want a Radiohead song that wears its heart on its sleeve and lets you stare into THom Yorke’s soul as you belt the gigantic chorus right back at him. Radiohead used to craft honest to God anthems, it was their greatest strength, but ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ falls short on them. It falls short on anything with that level of passion and drama. Yes, puddles can reflect great beauty and ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ often does but surely Radiohead can access their old well of genius?

7.5/10

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Deakin ‘Sleep Cycle’ – Review

19 May

Deakin is Animal Collective’s unknown quantity. He wasn’t involved in their greatest success (‘Meriwether Post Pavillion’) or their biggest failure (this year’s poorly received ‘Painting With’). His contributions have been modest and his voice has been the least heard. Nonetheless, his one vocal addition to the fairly unlistenable ‘Centepiede HZ’, ‘Wide Eyed’, resulted in the album’s finest moment. ‘Sleep Cycle’ is his first solo album and it suggests that perhaps Deakin had more of an influence than we thought. In its tone and soundscapes it recalls the lush beauty of ‘Feels’ and ‘Song Tungs’ era Animal Collective. It’s a short but lovely record.

In fact It’s a shame ‘Sleep Cycle’ is flying so low under the radar as it’s the best thing to come out of the Animal Collective camp since ‘Fall be Kind’. It has none of the restless uncertainty of Panda Bear’s ‘Meets the Grim Reaper’, and it’s nowhere near as annoying as ‘Centepeide HZ’ or ‘Painting With’. It’s ethereal melodies and earthy instrumentation return us to the band’s early artistic endeavours when the group were basically folky hippies with an interest in electronics and psychedelic indulgences.

Whilst an unremarkable singer, it’s notable how similar Deakin sounds to Panda Bear, albeit with a less angelic tone. His melodies, set free by simple, Unfussy lyrics, are ambitiously fluid and compelling. He’s obviously been paying close attention to his band mate over the years. This comfortable familiarity is offset by the unexpected musical journeys he takes us on. ‘Sleep Cycle’ was initially inspired by a trip to ‘Mali’ and you feel the unfamiliarity of those surroundings in the dislocated beats, shuffling rhythms and acoustic oscillations. Occasionally field recordings are utilised with impressive effect, as on the short centrepiece ‘Shadow Mine’, On which Deakin pants and whimpers ‘when I get lonely…’ over what sounds like a religious chant. This part-instrumental / part field recording helps to break up the album in to two distinctive sections.

Here then is the AnCo member who understands pacing. Deakin knows that you can’t just hit your listener over the head with disorientating sounds and beats right out the gate and then continue to batter them in to submission for the rest of the album. ‘Sleep Cycle’ builds beautifully, starting with the acoustic ‘Golden Chords’ which slowly washes over ambient samples before melting in to the more poppy ‘Just Am’. It’s only with perfect timing, after yet more build that we get the frantic and unnerving ‘Footy’, which is as loud and brash as anything on ‘Painting With’ but isolated and surrounded by more lush and ornate textures. Listening to ‘Footy’ feels like you’ve reached the top of the mountain, or any high; everything before was leading to this point and everything after gently brings you down.

Clocking in at half an hour with only five ‘proper’ songs, ‘Sleep Cycle’ leaves you wanting more. It’s a slight but meticulously crafted album. Far from being the disposable member, it turns out that Deakin was a crucial clog in the Animal Collective machine. Based on this evidence, they will sorely miss his contributions for as long as he stays away.

7.5/10

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Drake ‘Views’ / Skepta ‘konnichiwa’ – Review

14 May

From Drake’s Boy Better Know tattoo to the funny impersonation that opens ‘Shutdown’ and his surprise appearance at a post-Brits Section Boyz show – The Drake/Skepta love in goes from strength to strength. Skepta has clear admiration for one of the biggest stars in Hip Hop and Drake clearly feels the same (he’s even signed a kind of deal with Skepta’s indie label BBK). While they’ve been on the scene for a while now, they have achieved differing levels of success and that has influenced how they’ve approached their most recent albums, both released this month. But whilst there is much to bind them, these albums speak more to their differences than their similarities, with wildly different aims and outcomes.

Where Skepta is riled and fully of energy, Drake seems to be running out of new things to say, and by its very nature, Rap requires that you have a lot to say. On ‘Views’ he sounds lethargic, bored by his own success and totally lacking inspiration. Drake has never been the most wordy of rappers but here he leaves far too much space for sub-standard beats while he croons nonchalantly about nothing much at all. Superficially there isn’t too much to differentiate this from past work but it lacks the fierce spark, the desperation, the hunger and the determination. It is truly Drake by numbers.

That said, ‘Views’ contains a handful of song that are as captivating as anything Drake has made so far. The exotic melody of ‘One Dance’, the mesmerising shuffle of ‘Too Good’, the bubble gum hooks of ‘Hotline Bling’ – these are some of the most memorable moments of the musical year. But spending an hour and a half in Drake’s company is almost inexplicably tiring for something that should be so effortless. The best analogy I can think of is that listening to this twenty track album is akin to being on a long haul flight. You are aware of take off and landing but the time in between becomes indistinct and unusual. The everyday routines and signifiers of time don’t mean anything – it could be morning or night, one hour could be five and you feeling slightly nauseous and uneasy. It usually feels pedantic and archaic to talk about album lengths in the age of playlists and Spotify but in this case there is no choice. It’s simply far too long.

The length is far from the only problem. Drake isn’t interested in redefining himself in the way Kanye has done. Instead he seems more likely to travel down the same path as Nas – churning out variations on the same ideas and themes to diminishing returns. It’s a shame because when he does push the boundaries to see what exists outside of his narrow perspective, the results are fantastic. ‘Feel No Ways’ is a brilliantly simple and untamed moment of exasperation. The distorted, loud beat uncomfortably contrasts with the mushy synth as Drake moans ‘I tried with you’. Of course this increasingly persistent bitterness isn’t his most endearing quality and it’s manifesting itself more and more, not always as successfully as it does here, but on ‘Feel No Ways’ it works well.

‘Redemption’ is the most enjoyable old school Drake number and it’s the one that sent waves of remembrance, of that summer I first heard ‘Take Care’. Those moments are few and far between here. Whilst there are many superficial similarities, the sonic palette is generally much harder and colder than on that generously warm and melodic record. The lyrical tone is less endearing and his particularly unique style of self analysis obviously lacks the same impact it once had. Drake is still one of the most dits inactive and important  artists in Hip Hop, there is enough evidence on ‘Views’ to support that, but if he is to reach the lofty heights of ‘Take Care’ once more, he needs to find that spark, that thing to rally against, a goal.

Skepta has a goal, he has a spark and he’s certainly got things to rally against. Whilst ‘konnichiwa’ is not necessarily an explicitly political album, Skepta does crusade against everyday prejudices and injustices in a way that engages the youth, just as  Bob Dylan, The Clash or Billy Bragg once did. Unlike Drake, Skepta’s rise to prominence has been a long and unusual one. For the past ten years he’s been on the slow boil, picking up a loyal and dedicated fan following and in the process he became one of the few grime artists to make a name for himself outside the scene. He’s been canny in his use of social media and whilst his attention seeking antics have sometimes left a bitter after taste (soft porn music videos certainly garnered the wrong type of attention) he’s been successful in building anticipation for this, his breakthrough record, four years in he making.

It helps that Grime is having something of a second wind. Shout outs from Kanye and Drake have certainly helped but the scene’s rising stars – JME, Stormzy, J Hus, Section Boyz – have done plenty to make their own path. Of the bunch, Skepta is hardly the most eloquent, sophisticated or technically gifted. He holds a simple and steady flow, steers clear of alliterative language, half rhymes and metaphors and rarely uses flowery imagery past the odd blunt simile. Compared to big stars like Kanye and Kendrick he is positively simplistic but this serves his purpose as a politically motivated punk.

The hooks on ‘konnichiwa’ come thick and fast, which is the best thing about the record. It’s so enjoyable from start to finish, a complete contrast to the heavy, dark and long winded atmosphere of ‘Views’. In particular, the stretch that runs from ‘Numbers’ through to ‘That’s Not Me’ is one of the most impressive in the recent history of rap. These songs are filled with unusual samples, memorable bars and catchy choruses. His ear for a pop hook is as finely tuned as Kanye’s in 2005 but he never panders to popular taste in the way that unfortunately Dizze Rascal and Wiley started to do. He knows how to turn an obscure Queens of the Stone Age sample In to a menacing backdrop for some of the most brilliant rhymes I’ve heard in yonks on the ridiculously amazing ‘Man’.

One of the refreshing things about ‘Konitchiwa’ Is that Skepta doesn’t resort to indefensible insults and he never uses profanity as a crutch. He rarely refers to bitches and niggas unless it serves a clear purpose and his vocabulary, whilst sometimes crude, is thoughtful throughout. Skepta may not be the most technically talented rapper on the planet and ‘konnichiwa’ lacks the gravitas of the great Hip Hop albums of recent times, but Skepta has persevered and taken his time to build an album that is crammed with intelligence, personality and attitude. Compared to the overlong and overstuffed ‘Views’ it overflows with creativity and shows fine attention to detail. After years doing solid work in the shadows, Skepta is finally getting his due.

Drake ‘Views’ – 6/10

Skepta ‘Konichiwa’ – 8/10

Parquet Courts ‘Human Performance’ – Review

8 May

Parquet Courts open their new album with a song about dust. It’s an irritating track that emphasises repetition with the mantra ‘dust is everywhere, sweep!’ Initially it’s fair to suspect that dust is a metaphor for… Something, but the lyrics are so simple, Austin Brown’s tone so deadpan that you’re left thinking it really is about nothing more than dust being a nuscance. But that’s kind of the thing with Parquet Courts – you never know exactly where to position them. It’s an odd, disarming introduction to the new album from a band known for their uncompromising music. They are one of the few traditional indie rock bands making excellent indie rock on their own terms. They could quite easily pass for and late 80s, early 90s indie rock band; Pavement, Wire, Talking Heads and Jonathan Richman would have been perfect contempories. But over the past half decade they have carved out their own particular niche by borrowing the best bits from the music of their heroes and adding their own particular fusion of dry humour and undeniable passion.

The band recently signed to Rough Trade and they are instantly the archetypal Rough Trade band – arty outsiders with poetic souls and good ears for a hook. They pat meticulous attention to detail and have control over every element of their presentation. Their songs are by turns punky, weird, poppy, observational, melodic, loud, frantic, funny, tragic, difficult, wiry, fun. ‘Human Performance’ expands upon their previous albums by going deeper in these different directions. The pop songs are more catchy and codour fully arranged whilst the weird songs get even weirder than we’re used to. ‘Captive of the Sun’ for example shows off Brown’s love of Southern Rap. There’s really no logical reason for it to work but it sounds great, even rubbing up against the acoustic ballad ‘Steady on my Mind’ and the furious ‘Paraphrased’.

‘Human Performance’ is the group’s most collaborative effort to date, with each member contributing at least one song to the record. Andrew Savage, who dominated ‘Sunbathing Animal’ and ‘Content Nausia’ with his stream of consciousness poetry and aggressive style now only leads on half the number of tracks. His songs here are more sentimental than before, the title track in particular being a beautiful break-up ballad where the mundane details of everyday life are elevated to poetry in the aftermath of separation. ‘Ashtray is crowded, bottle is empty/ no music plays and nothing moves without drifting in to a memory.’ ‘Outside’ and lead single ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ are two other on point highlights that seek clarity in the chaos of young adulthood. Austin Brown and bass Player Sean Yeaton contribute the more scattershot and unusual moments to the album. Both men sing-speak in a distinctive deadpan tone than lends quirky humour to their songs.

Like every other Parquet Courts release from the beginning of time, ‘Human Performance’ is imperfect, deliberately so. The unmelodic ‘I was Just Here’ Is purposefully eccentric and ackward, the jamming on ‘One Man, No City’ is knowingly silly and indulgent. Parquet Courts love the quirks and oddities that balance out the sweet and dynamic moments. Their personality shines rough everything from the painted cover art, and  handwritten lyric sheet right through to the sound and textures of the music. ‘Human Performance’ is Parquet Courts fourth great album in a row (ignoring last year’s experimental and almost unlistenable instrumental album) and might possibly be their best. Of all the traits Parquet Courts hold dear, consistency might be the most precious – I can see them keeping this impressive run going for many years to come.

8.5/10

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