Archive | August, 2016

Frank Ocean ‘Endless’ / ‘Blonde’ – Review

29 Aug

In the 1990s, highly anticipated albums were birthed with meticulous planning; a gradual roll out of singles and stealth marketing. Remember the queues going around the block for Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ or Michael Jackson’s ‘Invincible’? Remember the displays in record stores? But ‘Blonde’, Frank Ocean’s eagerly awaited new release, was exhaled quietly in to the summer air, late one evening. Upon listening to the album it’s easy to see why Ocean took this strategy. Everything about ‘Blonde’ is understated, unfussy and laid back without ever being entirely chill. A thoughtful minimalism prevails. Over half of the songs lack any kind of percussion, many don’t make it to the two minute mark. Bass, rhythm and anything looking like a dance friendly tempo, are largely absent.

This initially makes ‘Blonde’ a disappointing album, not to mention a confusing one. This is not how we’ve been conditioned to hear blockbuster releases, particularly ones by r&b singers. But of course Frank Ocean is so much more than that. A kind of parallel could be drawn with Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’. There were a band who derailed conventional wisdom, following an acclaimed record and gained tremendous kudos for doing so. But with ‘Kid A’ Radiohead were concerned with deconstructing their art, which meant distorting vocals, synthesising guitars and fizzing drums in to mesmerising pops and clicks. Frank Ocean, in contrast, isn’t interesting in layering, deconstructing, masking or distorting either his art or voice. He strips back, he opens up, he performs as bluntly and vulnerably as is possible and then he records it pretty much as is. The exception is the disarming and unrepresentative album opener and lead single ‘Nikes’. Here Frank’s vocal is pitch distorted to a near comical level as he delivers a kind of stream of conscious take down of modern society. It’s the only overtly political track on the album, as well as the most contemporary sounding one.

Let’s not forget that ‘Channel Orange’ was itself an unexpected, and challenging, proposition after the hit heavy and somewhat streamlined ‘Nostalgia Ultra’. ‘Channel Orange’ in contrast awed us with its maximalism. Lengthy songs that spun stories out of modern myth paralleled with ancient legends. Unusual song structures tempered with soulful arrangements, hypnotically woozy melodies and unexpected interludes. There were confessional unravellings but they were placed in between the grander narratives; arresting in their honesty but paced between character studies of Cleopatra, drug pushers and faded rock stars it felt almost like Frank was hiding in plain sight. There is nowhere to hide on ‘Blonde’. He’s let go of anything putting a distance between himself and personal revelation. Metaphors, imagery, narratives, form and devices to aid clarity or mystery are almost completely absent. These lyrics are freewheeling, uncensored and entirely unburdened by craft.

A couple of days before ‘Blonde’, Frank released another singular statement of intent, designed to deflate expectation or stoke it’s fires, depending on who you believe. ‘Endless’ is a ‘visual album’ featuring short, lo-if musings over images of Frank building a spiral staircase. As a visual work of art it’s seriously lacking – a thin metaphor executed without much obvious enthusiasm – but as a musical piece it’s insightful. On the day of release it was unclear what purpose ‘Endless’ served but it now seems certain that it’s the artsy, uncompromising sibling of ‘Blonde’ and a sounding board for Ocean’s more experimental urges. The songs are avant-garde sketches that barely ever raise the pulse but do feature arresting half-raps, skitty beats and futuristic sounds (things missing from ‘Blonde’). The idea of it is more memorable than the thing itself – I can’t imagine many people listening to it, let alone watching it, more than once. Yet it features a couple of songs that are better than anything on ‘Blonde’. His cover of The Isley Brothers ‘At Your Best’ is beyond gorgeous. Frank sings the sublime melody with such grace, over a luscious Jonny Greenwood string arrangement and James Blake synth. ‘Rushes’ is another stand out, notable for sounding like a fully formed idea played out with compositional forethought. It also predicts a major theme of ‘Blonde’: nostalgia.

Frank ocean has cast his eye to the past before of course – his debut wasn’t called ‘Nostalgia Ultra’ for nothing. Here his reflections on the past are informed by regret and sadness but those feelings are generally usurped by romanticised nostalgia. In his past life he chose sadness and unfulfilled romantic desire over happiness. This has been the same choice reluctantly or unconsciously made by romantics for centuries (you can see why he thought of naming the album ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ – Robert Smith would be proud of these lyrics). He wallows in his regret because it facilities artistic growth and gives a perverse kind of satisfaction. On the spine tinglingly pretty ‘Ivy’, he sings about mistakes and missed opportunities, but you can hear the joyous longing when he says ‘we’ll never be those kids again.’

Perhaps Ocean is simply remembering a time when he had control. Ok, he made poor decisions that he came to regret but they were his decisions to make. Black lives in 2016 are characterised by a lack of control and choice. As he puts it on the very next track, the soulful ‘Black and Pink’, “everytime we have no control”. The song ends with him singing ‘remember life, remember how it was.’ When the present is dark, the past is often the first retreat.

So over the rest of the album Frank delves further and further in to memory. Usually his memories are of the summer and usually they revolve around unrequited love or and epiphany of disappointment. The world is not what we think it is as children. ‘Summer’s not as long as it used to be’. There are lyrical allusions to weed smoke, and sometimes stronger mind bending drugs. The lone guitar is most often the sole accompaniment, emphasising the personal sadness, but there are frequently other voices and instruments whirling away very low in the mix, as if to symbolise the noise we keep repressed in our minds as we try desperately to bring a single moment back to life. To process it and to make sense of it.

We live in turbulent times for young, black citizens. And as the most articulate young African American songwriter, a lot of people are looking to Frank Ocean to comment on the situation. They won’t find what they are looking for on ‘Blonde’. I’ve already read critics who are clutching at straws, longing for him to be the voice of black protest, trying to put words in to his mouth. Ocean is simply more interested in the personal than he political here. More interested in making sense of his life than in making sense of other people’s. And in as much as the personal and the political are always inter-linked, then sure, this is an implicitly political record. But it is is no ‘What’s Going on’ or ‘Black Messiah’. ‘RIP Trayvon, that nigga looked just liked me’ is as close as he ever gets to commenting on the current ‘black lives matter’ troubles. It is however a kind of protest album, if you this about it.

Whatever you wanted from Frank Ocean, I can’t imagine that too many people wanted what they got – an awkward, largely experimental collection of quiet anti-pop songs. But as the rolling stones once sang ‘you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.’ That song’s message has recently been corrupted – it is currently being used in Donald Tump’s campaign rallies. In these unreal times of political uncertainty it is more important than ever for intelligent young artists to think outside the box and take part in the conversation on their own terms. ‘Blonde’ is a statement of singular determination to be and say precisely what Frank Ocean wants, regardless of what else is happening in society and culture at large. Frank Ocean is unconventional, thoughtful, sensitive and confident. He’s developed a rich black voice, full of intelligence and personal insight. He will not conform. For that reason more than anything else, ‘Blonde’ and ‘Endless’ are important works of populist art. In that respect, this is a kind of protest music – a protest against the wide spread dumbing down in society, a protest against conformity, a protest against lowered standards and a protest against doing what is expected of you.

8/10

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Blossoms ‘Blossoms’ – Review

24 Aug

Blossoms emerged as 2016’s most hyped new band on the back of a promising e.p and some perfectly selected summer support slots for Kasabian, Last Shadow Puppets and Stone Roses. Their debut album entered the chart at number one, which despite the lack of competition (very few labels bother to release albums in August) is still an impressive achievement for a band who were largely unknown twelve months ago.

‘Blossoms’ is not a bad collection of indie pop songs either. Lead singer Tom Ogden has a fine voice, very reminiscent of a hundred other male indie voices you can’t quite put your finger on. Similarly, the songs are your typical light-psych meets hard boiled indie rock fare; the type of music that The Zutons, Delays and The Coral popularised much more ingeniously ten years ago. Maybe it’s just my nostalgia speaking but Blossoms would surely have faded into the background when the competition was that strong?

The band’s saving grace is their pop instinct. These songs are precisely produced and will sound at home on Radio 1. ‘Getaway’ is basically structured like an EDM song and ‘Sweet Honey’ isn’t a million miles away from what Taylor Swift was doing on ‘1989’, with its shimmering synths and bubbling baseline. In one sense it’s a safe hedging of bets (you can already hear the cries of “sell out!”), but surely it would have been far safer to put out an obscure and stubbornly uncommercial record like Toy, Temples or Wytches recent debuts. Instead Blossoms, like The 1975 and Wolf Alice, are here to win hearts and minds. They want to be heard and they realise that will initially involve some compromise. And where they do compromise, they do so smartly.

Whilst they have the hooks nailed, blossoms have remarkably little to say. That’s the most damming flaw of the record. Their songs are filled with cliches and vague platitudes that signify absolutely nothing of substance. Ogden has cited Alex Turner as a key influence but he has none of Turner’s wit or insight, and ‘Blossoms’ is utterly humour deficient. It unjustifiably takes itself very seriously – a big mistake when you deal almost exclusively in pretend-psychedelic mumbo jumbo. That doesn’t make ‘Charlemagne’ and ‘Blown Rose’ any less hummable though. If they can add a little depth to their songwriting then they may be a band for the future.

6/10

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Review roundup

14 Aug

James Blake ‘The Colour in Anything’

James Blake, our preeminent moping, melancholy man, is back for his first album in four years. Ironically titled ‘The Colour in Anything’, it’s a bland and uncolourful record that follows on from the equally drab and overrated ‘Retrograde’, Blakes second album. His debut album was an influential modern day classic that inspired a generation to embrace minimalist r&b. What exactly he achieved there that he mostly fails to achieve here isn’t entirely clear but it has a lot to do with emotional poignancy, direct vulnerability and clarity of thought. ‘James Blake’ was precise where ‘Colour in Anything’ is muddy. ‘James Blake’ took 37 Mins to say more than ‘Colour in Anying says in 76 Mins. Pretty highlights ‘Points’ And ‘Forever’ suggest there is a great album lurking in here but you have to wade through at least half of the album to find it. If you coax yourself in to a particular mood and have the patience and alertness to listen to seventeen similar James Blake songs then ‘The Colour in Anything’ might just do something for you, otherwise it’s a daunting proposition.

5.5/10

Cats Eyes ‘Treasure House’

Cat’s Eye are the orchestral indie pop project of Rachel Zaffira and Horrors frontman Fraris Baldwin. Their accomplished, self-titled 2011 album proved that this is so much more than just Faris’ “other band”. ‘Treasure House’, the long overdue follow up, doesn’t deviate from the debut lyrically or stylistically. It’s a moody, lush, romantic collection of short pop songs about friendship, falling in love and falling apart. Zaffira’s an opera singer by trade but she holds back, usually crooning in a sensual whispery voice that compliments the feather light arrangements. When the lyrical tone becomes darker, the music follows suit and results in the album’s weakest cuts. Cats Eyes are much more successful when they subtly rework classic templates. The 60s girl group throwback ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’ is blissful fun and the bitter-sweet double punch of ‘Drag’ and ‘Chameleon Queen’ is heartbreaking. So much more convincing than anything The Horrors have done in years.

7.5/10

Pup – The Dream is Over

Pup are a band for that moment when the anger, desperation and resentment bubbles up so high that you’ve got no option but to release it with a scream. The record’s title comes from a conversation lead singer Stefan Babcock had with his doctor. His vocal chords were shredded after months on the road. ‘The dream is over’, the doctor told him. In actual fact, it was only just beginning. The album is crammed with despairing lyrics, sung by a man ravaged with guilt and self doubt. But actually, the band’s ideology is fuelled by a kind of perverse optimism. They name their songs things like ‘if this tour doesn’t kill you, I will’, ‘doubts’ and ‘my life is over’ but their performances act as catharsis. Through group chants, power chords and belly shouts – this is menacing music as a form of preservation. And it’s thrilling.

8.5/10

 

The Strokes – Future, Present, Past e.p – Review

5 Aug

‘Future, Present, Past’ is a four track e.p and palette cleanser after the bitter taste of The Strokes last album, the well-intentioned but badly executed ‘Comedown Machine’, before whatever comes next. As the heavy handed title suggests, the three proper songs on the e.p (plus redundant remix) recall past glories as much as they cast an eye down new avenues. As was true on ‘Comedown Machine’, the more they stick to tried and tested methods, the more successful they are.

There are some classic strokes traits at play here; vocal distortion, the duelling guitars, melodic bass lines, thumping drumbeat etc. When they diverge from this script, they falter. The most experimental track, ‘Drag Queen’ is a strange, bombastic post-punk disaster┬áthat recalls the horrors of Julian’s last solo album. That only leaves two tracks to clean up the mess but luckily ‘Oblivious’ and ‘Threat of Joy’ are bright, melodic and casually cool. A 2:1 hit to miss ratio isn’t ideal when you’re the band of a generation releasing your first record in 3 years but everything about ‘Future, Present, Past’ wants to shrug off that reputation, and expectation, anyway. This is nothing more and nothing less than the sound of five old friends making a fun racket together.

6/10

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