Archive | June, 2016

Whitney ‘Light Upon the Lake’ – Review

30 Jun

At the turn of the decade there were seemingly countless bands creating lo-fi, romantic indie pop. The Drums, Girls, Summer Camp, Tennis, Smith Westerns, Magic Kids, Cults, Surfer Blood, Young Friends and Best Coast are some groups that spring to mind. Most of them have now broken up or faded in to obscurity, which seems a fitting fate. After all, these bands were interested in utilising moments of momentary, lustful pleasure and conversely, overwhelming but short lived heartbreak – the type of summer rain mood that feels so seismic one day before fading in to obscurity the next. These bands articulated the joy and the agony with unfussy language, swooning melodies and simple arrangements, recorded cheaply straight to Garage band. Whitney are a throwback to this era in that they literally contain members of key touchstone Smith Westerns and Uknown Mortal Orchestra, write songs about nostalgia and exploit their understanding of classic pop songwriting to expose heartbreak in all its glorious beauty.

If you want to trace the line back further than 2010 then don’t stop until you reach The Band’s seminal debut, ‘Songs from the Big Pink’, but be sure to make a detour at Neil Young’s Harvest. With it’s clear cut melodies, soulful vocals and loose country rock arrangements, ‘Light Upon the Lake’ owes a debt to those two albums in particular. But Whitney don’t get hung up on replicating past masters. They aren’t half as reverential as we’ve come to expect throwback rock bands to be. They aren’t bigging themselves up in the press, they don’t strut around the stage like wannabe Mick Jaggers and they make no attempt to hide their barely woken, half baked smiles. They are enthusiastic admirers of classic rock but they’re pretty chill about it and you get the impression that they listen to as much 90s r&b as much as anything else.

It’s this casual sincerity that makes ‘Light Upon the Lake’ such an endearing debut. It’s so laid back and easy going, it’s a wonder it doesn’t fold in on itself. Everything about it contrasts with the fussy and tongue tied alternative music currently in vogue. The sound of the album almost replicates the crisp warmth and crackle of vinyl. From the shimmering, jangly guitar licks to the warm baseline, cheery horns and faintly double tracked vocals over top -everything is layered with such seeming ease and precision. It wraps you up and overwhelms you like the sticky heat of bed sheets on a summer night. What’s most remarkable is that the late July vibe was conjured by the band during the coldest winter in icy Chicago’s recent history.

The lead single is called ‘Golden days’ and the title alone acts as a kind of thesis. These are tunes that idolise the recent past but equally bathe in the sadness that comes saddled with the nostalgia. They sing mainly about breaking up and falling apart but they often sound totally smitten with the whole concept of loss. The wistfully pretty title track dwells on this feeling over one of the most evocative sounds, a sweetly strummed Fender Jaguar. ‘Lonely haze of dawn, when old days are gone.’ They hit that pop sweet spot between jubilance and heartbreak, youth and manhood, old and new .

Whitney spend the album ‘searching for those golden days’ but it seems likely that in decades to come they will look back on this as a kind of golden age. It seems one of those of the moment records that they will find hard to top. With simple clarity they write about things most people can relate to and express their thoughts with utter conviction and a first class understanding of musical craft. They seem uncertain if they want to return to the past, forget it or simply dwell in the loss – that hazy uncertainty will be familiar to anyone also coming undone in their mid 20. If you’ve ever wanted to escape down an ocean view freeway, or if you miss old friends, or if you lay awake at night struggling to shift thoughts of somebody just out of reach – ‘Light Upon the Lake’ will speak to you.

8.5/10

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Car Seat Headrest ‘Teens of Denial’ – Review

25 Jun

Car Seat Headrest is the pet project of prolific band camp-er Will Toledo. His ‘proper’ debut, December’s ‘Teens of Style’ was a compilation of re-recorded songs that served as an introduction for a wide audience. Now, only a few months later, we have his first release of brand new material since signing for a label, ‘Teens of Denial’. As its title suggests, the album is closely linked to its predecessor; Toledo is still painfully self-aware, still painfully obsessed with his own mortality and still painfully self-indulgent. While the records are clearly twins, they are twins with different personalities and interests. It’s more of a straight up rock record than ‘Teens of Style’ – it’s got a cleaner sound, the riffs are thicker and deeper, the bass is creamier and the arrangements are generally less quirky and distracting.

Some of these songs tell relatable narratives about growing up and some serve straight up lyrical unloading and venting. Toledo is a fine storyteller and frequently blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, to the disarming point where you’re never quite sure of his sincerity or motives. About halfway through the epic ‘Ballad of Costa Concordia’, a break up ballad that focuses on personal psychosis, Toledo starts singing Dido’s ‘White Flag’ and doesn’t stop till he’s sung the whole chorus. It’s a breathtaking moment, not least because ‘White Flag’ is a brilliant song that rarely gets heard anywhere these days, and about the last thing you expect to hear it is on a Car seat Headrest song. Really though It speaks to Toledo’s willingness to play with his audience’s expectations and the tunnel vision that seems him doing exactly what he wants, how he wants.

On ‘Fill in the Blank’ he has a conversation with himself, moaning about *fill in the blank* before putting himself back in his place – ‘you have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough to like it!’ This is Car Seat Headrest’s opening gambit, and the album gets no less conflicted as it rambles on. On ‘Vincent’ he takes sadistic pleasure in the unpleasant hordes of tourists that flock to his college town every summer. On ‘Joe Gets Kicked out of School…’ He rattles through the pros and cons of drug use with some of the most on point lyrics about the subject I’ve ever heard. At another point he ponders his own incompetence by using an extended metaphor relating to the sinking of the Costa Concordia (a disaster largely believed to have happened due to the negligence of the ship’s captain). This is just how Will Toledo’s brain operates, he’s forever battling his own anxieties and thinking of unusual ways to relate that experience.

As great as ‘Teens of Denial’ is, it is frustrating at times. In the good ol’ 1980s, the decade to which Toledo clearly owes so much, ‘Teens of Denial’ would have been a great 40 minute, 8 track album with a handful of really good b-sides to go with it. The songs would have been trimmed in length by necessity. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times as much as anything else Toledo sings about that this is such an indulgent record. Almost every track could stand to lose a minute or two and twelve of these songs in a row is just too much when they are this crammed with ideas. After nearly nine minutes of ‘Cosmic Powers’ you get eleven minutes of ‘Costa Concordia’ followed by six more minutes of ‘Connect the Dots’. The second half of ‘Teens of Denial’ is just exhausting, and that holds it back for being a truly classic 21st century rock record.

Taken in smaller doses, it’s still one of the most thrilling things you will hear all year. Whip-smart, self-deprecating, funny and likeable, Toledo has one of the most distinctive lyrical voices in contemporary indie. The album’s best lyric comes during a reflective moment on the otherwise brutal ‘destroyed by hippie powers.’ “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled a lot and loved the beach boys?” He could have left that as a rhetorical question, hanging in the air – the song’s glorious harmonies would have hinted at the answer (he never really left). Instead he provides his own answer; ‘what happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses.’ Like much of what Car Seat Headrest does, the line is overkill (he’s even annotated the lyric on Genius.com to provide context) but it’s also brilliant. The challenge in future will be learning to refine his wilder instincts without dampening the brilliant idiosyncrasies that define Car Seat Headrest.

8.5/10

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Spring King ‘Tell Me if you Like To’ – Review

18 Jun

When Zane Lowe premiered his Beats 1 Radio show, the first song he played was by a young Manchester band called Spring King. It reminded me that for all his stateside rebranding, Zane made his name as the radio equivalent of NME, championing Young British Indie bands during the boom years of 2003-2008. With bubblegum melodies over somewhat tame, neutered post-punk, Spring King would have melted in to the background at that time but with a lack of competition, they have emerged, in no small part due to Zane’s patronage, as 2016’s most hyped new band.

Though exhausting, the hype isn’t entirely unwarranted and it’s easy to see why the old-guard publications have fallen for Spring King. They look good, sound proficient and make grungy rock with pop gloss. The razor sharp hooks of ‘Detroit’ and ‘Summer’ dice their way in to your memory through repetition, and it’s always refreshing to hear guitar music like this pepper radio playlists. But the unashamed familiarity of Spring King’s sound brings out the cynic in me. There is such a glaring lack of originality that is frustrating not just because they mimick classic bands but because they mimick newer and better (but less buzzy) bands.

Spring King pitch themselves somewhere between the dark bark of Eagulls and the frantic pub-rock of Palma Violets. In fact if you heard any of these songs from a distance you might mistake them for one of those bands’ tunes. Spring King fail to carve out their own name but end up with an enjoyable and filler free record nonetheless. It’s a typical example of a major label taking an alternative sound and watering it down for a mass audience. It does the job. And underneath the scrubbed and polished surface there are some genuinely interesting ideas. The brief sax break near the end of ‘who are you’ is an unexpected joy. The hooligan chants that reverberate around ‘City’ add a dark dimension. The Harmonies on ‘The Summer’ are blissful.

Trek Musa does enough to mask his lack of inherent vocal ability by shout singing over organ swells, choppy guitar licks and foot to the floor drumming. There is a lack of danger and violence that would have elevated these songs to a more exciting space but it is what it is. ‘Tell Me if You Like to’ is a fine major label debut by a young band with enough potential to be given another chance.

6/10

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Chance the Rapper ‘Colouring Book’ – Review

13 Jun

‘Am I the only nigga still cares about a mixtape,’ asks Chance the Rapper on the uncharacteristically brash ‘Mixtape’. If it’s true that the format has fallen out of favour then what can’t be doubted is Chance’s commitment to the mixtape. ‘I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom’ he says later on, on ‘Blessings’, and really he does both. ‘Colouring book’ can be downloaded for free and just became the first mixtape to chart in the top ten on streaming data alone. ‘Colouring Book’ really doesn’t sound like something to be given away and dismissed though. As its title and artwork suggests, it’s a colourful, exuberant and detailed piece of work that is a cut above both ‘Acid Rap’ and last year’s ‘Surf’, the brilliant collaboration with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment.

Kanye features on the opening track ‘All We got’ to provide a mumbled, auto tuned melody and on the album’s final song he gets a shout out where Chance conveys his excitement at being Kanye’s latest protege. Chance has certainly inherited Ye’s melodic ease and interest in Soul music but if we are talking about a line of succession then Chance has a more convincing claim to Drake’s crown. He is a sentimental, naturally nostalgic 20-something who frequently casts his eye to the past. On ‘Same Drugs’, a kind of modern update of Beach Boys classic ‘Caroline No’, he croons over a gently lilting piano line and synthesised string arrangement about how an old love has sadly aged. On ‘Juke Jam’ he details the history of a relationship formed in childhood, with the help of Justin Bieber who delivers a memorable and brief chorus. These songs, and others, paint a picture of a more humane rapper than we’re used to seeing scale the heights of the Billboard 200. Chance is more generous and less egotistical than Drake or Kanye and therefore his songs are a lot less conflicted, and probably less interesting than those rappers at their best. He is a lot more likeable though and ‘Colouring Book’ shines with the warmth of his personality.

Like ‘Life of Pablo’, colouring book has been described as a gospel album and it certainly sounds a lot more like one than the aforementioned Kanye record. We’re used to rappers discussing the Gospel but few have ever done so with such sincerity and unguarded conviction. ‘I’m gonna praise him till I’m gone’ he sings on the devotional ‘Blessings’, while he makes his faith even more explicit on the positively evangelical ‘How great’. ‘God is better than the world’s best thing’ he preaches over a gospel choir and church organ before unknotting his beliefs for the nonbelievers with some of the most credible raps about God you will ever hear. This is Chance’s gift – to take a massive subject like religion, personalise and simplify it and the make it appealing for everybody. He does it with blissful melodies, purposeful rapping and simple beat making. Forget about anything else, his skill of communicating the benefits of spirituality for a mass audience is one that few other people on the planet possess.

8/10

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Catfish and the Bottlemen ‘The Ride’ – Review

5 Jun

Catfish and the bottlemen have arguably become the biggest Young British rock group. Sad, bewildering even, but true. Their ‘Best breakthrough’ gong at this year’s Brits sealed off a campaign that saw them put out a platinum, top ten album and scale the upper end of the bill at all the obvious festivals. In 1986 it was The Smiths. In 1996 it was Oasis. In 2006 it was Arctic Monkeys. In 2016 it’s Catfish and the Bottlemen?

How this all happened is beyond me. Now, I’m not immune to the charms of old fashioned, meat and potatoes indie rock bands and I’ve given spirited defences to recent revivalist albums by the likes of Peace, Circa Waves and Spector. But Catfish and the Bottlemen just don’t hold up to even the most generous scrutiny. How have they attained this level of success? It can’t be for superficial reasons – they dress badly in dreary black, have awful haircuts and can’t really be called cute. It’s not for musical reasons either; they peddle the same three chord rock that we’ve been hearing for years in such a mundane and predictable way it almost beggars belief. They have absolutely nothing on the landfill indie bands that are now retrospectively and unfairly mocked. Has the the stock of British guitar music fallen so dramatically that Catfish and the Bottlemen are the only option for young music fans seeking salvation from guitar gods? What a depressing thought.

‘The Ride’ follows as closely to ‘The Balcony’ as the similar title and album art design would suggest and a glimpse at the track listing reveals the tiresome theme of the album; the monotony of being on tour. If titles like ‘Soundcheck’, ‘Postpone’, ‘Glasgow’ and ‘Heathrow’ sound mundane well they’ve got nothing on the songs themselves. There is no dynamism to this music and the rhythm section is woefully inadequate. The band’s stock mode of attack is bash bash bash, strum strum, strum with the distortion up loud enough to distract but not quite enough to be a shoegazy thing.

The lyrics are truly laughable. I genuinely don’t think Van whatshisface has a single interesting thought or insightful thing to say. His songs are about trivial things that few other people would waste ink on and he doesn’t bring the beauty or fascination out of the mundane in the way that say Courtney Barnett or Alex Turner do. Take lead single ‘Soundcheck’ where the chorus goes ‘I could chill you out and drive you through the night to your sister’s / you can fall asleep with my jacket for a cover / and wake up just to join me to smoke.’ Firstly, he has a really unhealthy obsession with smoking, like he mentions it on four or five tracks. He’s like a teenager hanging out behind the bike shed desperately trying to impress older kids. Secondly, What point is he trying to make here? What a dreadfully boring thing to sing about. There is no romance or emotion in his utterly drained lyricism.

Half the time it feels like he’s written down his thoughts as they pop in to his head, totally unedited. ‘Forget the time cos I’m 7 hours behind / it’s probably good I didn’t call though (but I also want to).’ He chops and changes like this all the time. His lyrics don’t even aspire to the general, vague platitudes of obvious forefathers like The Verve and Oasis. ‘After all you’re my wonderwall’ and ‘so Sally can wait’ lacked poetry but that didn’t matter when you glued your experiences to them and thousands of people with different interpretations reverberated the words around the stadium. Van the man’s lyrics are simply too grey to catch the public’s imagination (surely?).

Straining to say something positive, I’ll point out the proficient production courtesy of the professional Dan Sardy (from reading recent interviews it appears getting anything interesting out of the band was like getting blood from a stone). It’s remarkable how poor Catfish and the Bottlemen are at writing the type of anthems they so clearly try to emulate. Where are the hooks? Where are the pay offs? Where is the drama? Where is the emotional resonance? From start to finish this is a dreadfully bland and unmemorable collection of mid paced, passionless plodders. But it’s also number one this week. That a terrible album reached number one is in itself not unusual, we’re used to that, but what is depressing is that Catfish and the Bottlemen are one of the very few rock bands capable of attaining that lofty chart position. You would have hoped they’d use their position to create something more inspirational; because if this is the one rock album kids are going to hear this year then what hope is there for the future of the genre?

2/10

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