Archive | September, 2016

Nick Cave / Touché Amore / Blind Pilots – Review

30 Sep

Sadly, death is something we’ll all have to grapple with at some point. And yet very few songwriters ever engage with that particular misery on record. Perhaps it’s difficult to stare into that void long enough to articulate words. This month has seen the release of three records that do grapple with loss in strikingly different ways. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘Skeleton Tree’, Touché Amore’s ‘Stage Four’ and Blind Pilots ‘And then Like Lions.’ These aren’t elegiac albums, rather the songwriters cast their eye over the mourning process, and struggle with processing loss whilst contemplating what has changed and what could possibly be gained. ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ are particularly moving. In their bravery, honesty and almost unprecedented originality, these are two of the most commendable records made this year.

‘Skeleton Tree’ is, on one hand, the fifteenth studio album in The Bad Seeds illustrious back catalogue and so brings with it certain expectations. It is however an entirely different, and singular, proposition once you know that it was recorded in the midst of overwhelming tragedy – the death of Cave’s son, Arthur. Upon learning this, you could almost snap the through-line from his other records, and isolate its as a one off. Even when the record doesn’t directly refer to Arthur’s passing, it seems haunted by it. Every syllable is inflicted with a deep sadness and a kind of longing. We hear it in clear cut phrases and cries that pierce the often cloudy, mysterious lyricism. We hear it in the droning guitars, the ghosts of noise that pulsate in and out of focus and the wails of sorrow from his fellow Bad Seeds that punctuate melodies.

In the film accompaniment ‘One More Time With Feeling’, there is a scene where Cave stares in to a mirror and only just notices the bags around his eyes. ‘They weren’t there last year’ he says. The musical changes are just as subtle. His piano playing seems less heavy handed and ominous. The arrangements aren’t as showy or bombastic. Even on lighter moments like ‘I Need You’ and ‘Distant Sky’, Cave’s voice sounds tired and weary. It cracks and barely bothers to find the gorgeous melodies.

All that said, work on the album was already well under way when the tragedy happened and its dark mood and minimalist aesthetic were therefore already well established. In fact, there is a natural evolution from Cave’s last record, the understated and pretty ‘Push the Sky Away.’ ‘Skeleton Tree’ takes that album’s taut lines and bends them to the floor, utilising drone techniques to heave the atmosphere down low. First single ‘Jesus Alone’ sets the mood and it doesn’t relent from then on in. Only gradually, in the record’s final two songs, does the mood start to alter. The temperature thaws, the instrumentation becomes less heavy and electronic. Ethereal voices, soothing piano chords and a steady beat feel something like hope after the journey we’ve been on. In the album’s final moments we have something like resolution.

The striking sentiment expressed on the final song of Nick Cave’s last studio album was that ‘you’ve got to just keep on pushing, push the sky away.’ The sky being the visual limit. “Push it ‘till it smashes”. Cave said you should smash through that ceiling when you think you’ve got everything. ‘Push the Sky Away’ was easily his most content sounding record but even in that relative joy, he sounded reluctant to commit, and skeptical. He sounded uncomfortable. On ‘Skeleton Tree’ Cave sounds much more in his element – even If the circumstances surrounding its making are truly devastating. His loss has allowed him to make the most necessary and quintessential album of his career. No longer imitating sadness through camp, sleaze or morbid curiosity, he’s now living and breathing it. The results are crushing.

They say there are seven stages to grief. There is a feeling that by the end of ‘Skeleton Tree’ Nick Cave has landed somewhere near grim acceptance. Touché Amore are significantly further back down the scale. Vocalist Jeremy Bolm flits between anger and shock as he grapples with guilt and the unresolved emotion connected to his mother’s slow death from cancer. His mother passed away as he stood on stage in a dirty club, performing with the band. ‘I was told that you wouldn’t have known / told myself I was where you’d want me to be / but it’s not that easy.’ Deciphering ‘Skeleton Tree’ is like walking through a wood on a foggy evening; you can’t see much but occasionally you catch yourself on a branch or bramble. On ‘Stage four’ you can see and feel the trees with crystal clarity and the branches are sharp to the touch.

If Cave is cryptic then Bolm Is blunt to a disarming degree. His lyrics are amplified by his anguished vocals; he shouts till he’s horse and only sings when the music can withstand nothing else. You can’t imagine a line like ‘I can’t worship the God that let her fall apart’ being delivered with anything but an angry howl. He describes the relationship with his mum, the guilt he feels at being away from her at key moments and he unpicks the process of mourning. He doesn’t spare us the finer details; he name checks places, songs, people and memories – anything to give the listener insight in to his grief. His delivery may be unabashed hardcore but the music that supports him is far less easy to pin down. It’s rooted in a punk and hardcore sensibility but the album opens with a beautiful post-rock passage. Elsewhere we hear echoes of post-punk, emo, shoegaze and metal. Generally, I’ve never heard punk music that’s so melodic at the same time as being so aggressive. It’s truly progressive stuff regardless of the brave subject matter.

Blind pilot’s ‘And Like Lions’ can’t help but sound naive in such outstanding company. The band’s lyricism is neither as vividly direct as Touché Amore nor as ambigous as Nick Cave’s. Instead these songs have a pretty but somewhat vague, ethereal nature that makes them difficult to fathom and pin down. These are songs that wash over you but they are not songs to get lost in. We are told they were informed by the death of singer Israel Nebeker’s father and the breakdown of his relationship; two devastating events that unfortunately coincided with one another. There is certainly a prevalent sadness that is hard to miss but Blind Pilot use bright chord changes and uplifting melodies to create something positively transformational and cathartic. Imagine the half way point between Fleet Foxes credible indie-folk and Mumford and Sons populist sing alongs and you have this album.

Blind Pilot convert tragedy in to something close to celebration through sheer will power, faith and resilience. Their final message is ‘And then we are like lions / we are golden in our hearts.’ Blind Pilots use myth, metaphor and natural imagery to distance themselves from tragedy whilst growing as people because of it. Nick Cave and Touché Amore are less willing to commit to a resolution so positive. ‘Skeleton Key’ and ‘Stage Four’ are nothing but unresolved reality. Cold, unflattering reality. There are no affectations or metaphors that will heal the wounds or bring them closer to acceptance. Both Cave and Touché Amore come to terms with loss in their own way but they won’t concede anything like having ‘golden hearts’. The cover of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is pitch black. ‘Stage Four’ is called that for a reason. These records are dark, difficult and unflinching – but that’s why they are so important.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘Skeleton Tree’ – 9/10

Touché Amore ‘Stage Four’ – 9/10

Blind Pilots ‘And then like Lions’ – 6.5/10

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Jamie T ‘Trick’ – Review

25 Sep

You wait six years for a Jamie t record and then two come in quick succession. ‘Trick’ follows the surprisingly introspective ‘Carry on the Grudge’ and sees him ditching the ballads in favour of the hip hop influenced punk of his first two albums. As much as I enjoyed ‘Carry on the Grudge’ I did miss the bounce and swagger of those early records, which remits me of their era (those post-nu rave, “indie landfill” days) better than just about anything else and have aged remarkably well when so much else hasn’t. This time around he returns to his signature sound; clever, quick cockney rhymes over power chords and a head spinning beat. He does this whilst broadening his lyrical themes to incorporate social disparity, anxiety and political instability.

It reads well on paper but Jamie hasn’t entirely navigated the leap from youth to adulthood with that much sophistication. In fact, ironically,  the better songs are the bratty, immature, punchy ones – ‘Tescoland’, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Drone Bombs’ are reminiscent of Jamie T classics. ‘Robin Hood’ sounds a bit like Mike Skinner fronting The Ramones, and is as glorious as that combination sounds on paper. Here, if not elsewhere, Jamie rolls back the years and nearly makes you forget that we are in 2016. Last time around he was staring down his past, this time he’s embracing it. On these tracks in particular, the record’s politics often feel murky, expressed in the past tense. Reclaiming the effortless debauchery of his debut has come at something of a cost.

It’s not all like this though. On much of the record a dark cynicism prevails that ultimately becomes draining, especially by the time you get to ‘Police Tapes’ and ‘Solomom Edge’, both of which use political cliches and drab, dub inspired soundscapes. These songs don’t really play to the strengths of Jamie T as a songwriter. Despite moments of light and joy, ‘Trick’ is ultimatley too dreary, too often which won’t give it the same replay values as its predecessors. Nor is there much depth on this dreariness; Across the entire record, only ‘Self Esteem’ aims at the personal revelation and honesty that made Jamie’s comeback record ‘Carry on the Grudge’ such an interesting proposition.

Rapping about about super serious themes over nostalgic tunes. Stuck on the past whilst trying to paint a picture of modern Britain. At his best when he makes it sound like 2007 but boring when he tries something new? All of which rather makes it sound like Jamie can’t win, like he’s in a bit of a catch 22 situation. Maybe these are my prejudices and confusions coming through. But I’m sure there is a compromise to be made and that Jamie T has a much better album in him. One that combines the past and the present in a much more satisfying way. The question is; how do you hold on to the past whilst walking towards the future with conviction? Damned if I know. Damned if Jamie does either.

6/10

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Angel Olsen ‘My Woman’ – Review

14 Sep

‘My Woman’, Angel Olsen’s fourth album, has received a surprising amount of hype. It’s only surprising because her last album, 2014’s excellent ‘Burn Your Fires for no Witness’ rather flew under the radar. Perhaps Olsen anticipated the hype train, as she appears to swerve out of its way on the apologetic and understated opener ‘intern’, where she introduces herself as ‘just another intern with a resume’. The music doesn’t do much to refute that modest declaration. The low key synths are a new tact, but everything else is old hat for Olsen and the song misfires as a rather unassuming opener. Things get better and they get better quickly. The other songs on Side A are short, sweet and upbeat. Olsen weaves country pop influences with mid 90s alt-rock and psych-folk more seamlessly than ever. At any given moment you could be listening to Sleater-Kinney, Mazy Star or Dolly Parton – but really you could never be listening to anyone other than Angel Olsen. She’s quietly carved one of the most distinctive and resonant voices in contemporary guitar based music and it shines as brightly as ever here.

Olsen is a fine lyricist; vulnerable to heartbreak but hardly a pushover, she believes in romance as escapism and true love as a necessary end. ‘I’m gonna fall in love with you someday’ she croons promisingly within the first minute of the album, and it sounds gloriously like she’s singing it for you and only you. The way she flickers between self doubt and determination, optimism and pessimism is endearing and very human. On ‘Give Up’ she theorises with a telling self awareness: ‘Everytime I see you, I tell myself I’ll never have this feeling with another.’ It’s a clever kind of modern, self aware romanticism.

However I’m not convinced that all the songs work entirely to that advantage. There is less emphasis on the voice on this album and more of a focus on the band playing around her. The voice and guitar are rarely left alone to simmer as they were to glorious effect on ‘Burn Your Fires For No Witness’. Instead we get some fairly rote arrangements that only really set on fire on the two extended guitar work outs, album centrepieces ‘Sister’ and ‘Woman’. On ‘Woman’ Olsen sings in in a hushed vibrato, in a way that recalls Jessica Pratt’s idealised folk balladry. There are jazzy intones and a stirring kind of nostalgia on the equally gorgeous ‘Those Were the Days’.

Things get more stoney faced and pessimistic on ‘Heart Shaped Face’, a soul splitting number that shows off Olsen’s falsetto. ‘There is nothing new under the sun. Heartbreak ends and begins again’. That could be the defining lyric on the album. It almost sounds like a parting message, and easily symbolises Olsen’s clear resolve and core belief better than any line on the actual album closer, the forgettably bland ‘Pops’. ‘My Woman’ certainly isn’t a flawless album but it’s never anything less than ambitious, truthful and deeply human. She hasn’t rested on her laurels and instead she’s made her most eclectic collection of songs to date. As she says on ‘Intern’: ‘Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, still gotta get up and be someone’. Angel Olsen is definitely someone.

8/10

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Slow Club ‘One Day All of This Won’t Matter Anymore’ – Review

10 Sep

Though most people haven’t been paying attention, Slow Club have quietly become one of England’s most dependable groups. Four albums in and not a single howler, they go from strength to strength whilst subtly but distinctively pushing and pulling at their boundaries; adding and taking away, inflating and reducing to make something new. From the chirpy alt-folk of their debut, to the hushed lullabies of ‘Paradise’ and the soulful stomp of ‘Complete Surrender’ (one of the very best power pop records of recent times – greatly underrated). Slow Club continue to evolve with sass and style.

This time around they’ve teamed up with the eminently respectable Matthew E. White of Spacebomb Records, a highly regarded songwriter and producer in his own right who was behind the sound of one of last year’s most memorable records, Natalie Prass’ self titled debut. His work here is less obviously showy, utilising a core band of five principal players and a traditional set up of drums, bass, guitar, organ. If you were expecting the strings and horns that have become both his and Slow Club’s trademarks then you will be surprised by their absence here. The arrangements are rooted around soulful, soothing sounds and beautiful top line melodies.

‘One Day None of this Will Matter’ is essentially the nocturnal continuation of ‘Complete Surrender’. That album sounded out how you feel on a warm summer day. The guitars were dripping wet with reverb, the vocals were soulful and sweet, the arrangements were lively but somewhat sultry. Lyrically it was all overblown lust and sensuality. ‘One Day…’ On the other hand moves things on by a few hours. The sun has gone down but it’s still cool enough to sit outside. Bottles of wine have been opened. The mood is more relaxed, life moves that little bit slower. The arrangements are dry, the harmonies are less pronounced and the melodies meander and saunter to your ear.

This is not an album that makes any grand claims of itself. It starts off with two of its slowest and least impactful songs and only gradually builds in to something more self-assured and, eventually, euphoric. The friendship between songwriters Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson Is at the heart of the record. The harmonies, already reduced on ‘Complete Surrender’, are pushed further out of the picture, as the two songwriters increasingly work more comfortably in singular spaces. As on the last record, it often feels like they are singing to one another, often dishing out advice, concern or offering words of comfort. The big take away from ‘Complete Surrender’ was that strength can be drawn from friendship, especially in times of romantic complication. On ‘One Day’ the message is similar, with a more anxious tone.

By its very nature ‘One Day…’ Is not an especially memorable album; its gentle tempos, sleepy mood and aversion to obvious hooks aren’t conducive to making a lasting impact. But in those moments where the songs live with you, it is a delightful record of a type. One that doesn’t give its secrets over easily and doesn’t demand your undivided attention. Taylor’s songs in particular are gorgeous in a slow moving kind of way. ‘In Waves’ has a nice, rolling rhythm and moaning slide guitars, ‘Rebecca Casanova’ features heartbreaking lyrics over what sound like wind chimes. ‘Champion’ is a fearsome ballad full of cutting self analysis and a classic ascending melody in which she sings ‘I can’t keep up with myself, I’m finding it too hard to be myself.’ In the climax she calls someone her ‘champion – my hero’ and it’s possible she’s singing to Charles, who doesn’t sing on the track.

The two songwriters now live in separate cities and in many ways they sound worlds apart. As on the last album, Watson tends to be responsible for the more abstract, insular moments on the records where Taylor uses her grandstanding voice to reach for the back seats. The album weaves back and forth between the pair’s songs, often creating interesting juxtapositions, often creating plain thematic confusion. But ultimately it does work, and that goes back to the duo’s enduring connection. On ‘Ancient Rolling Sea’, They sing harmoniously, ‘I’m by your side, I’ll always be by your side.’ As long as they stay that way they will continue to go on making moving albums. It can’t be long before more people start paying attention.

7.5/10

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