Archive | October, 2016

Kings of Leon ‘Walls’ – Review

25 Oct

‘It feels good to be the fucking underdog. We’re a comeback team.’ That was Kings of Leon three years ago, but if you’ve read any of the more recent interviews with the band you’ll see they’re spinning much the same narrative again. In fact, they’ve been positioning themselves like this at least since 2007’s ‘Because of the Times.’ Plucky underdogs on the comeback trail. This time it may have felt more necessary to position their new album, ‘Walls’, as their comeback, and themselves as underdogs. Last album, ‘Mechanical Bull’ sold a fraction of the amount shifted by its predecessor ‘Come Around Sundown’, which itself only sold a third of the number of copies of 2009’s phenomenally successful ‘Only By The Night’. Are Kings of Leon running short on new ideas?

They’re certainly using similar selling strategies, only this time less convincingly. And as a part of their fan base since the very beginning, I’m personally feeling less patient. ‘Walls’ is presented as a ‘return to form’ but whereas ‘Mechanical Bull’ was a supposed return to their early, scuzzy rock n roll roots, ‘Walls’ is a return to the polished arena rock form of ‘Only by the night’. That was an album with a faceless, U2-aping sound, made palatable by the abundance of undeniable anthems. So imagine if they kept the sound but took away the anthems. Say hello to ‘Walls’ (an anagram, bizarrely, for ‘We Are Like Love Songs’).

‘Walls’ is by a fair stretch the band’s weakest record to date, worse still than the bloated but ultimately redeemable ‘Come Around Sundown’. It’s an utterly bland but obviously proficient album with no stand out songs to speak of and nothing interesting or original to say. There’s nothing dreadful here either but that’s only because the band haven’t risked putting a foot In to unknown territory. Every hook, every melody, every lyrical motif has been tried, tested and market researched before. Everything is fine but also frustratingly safe.

It’s a shame because their last album, ‘Mechanical Bull’, was a very good KOL album that saw the band wearing in convincingly as a dependable, mid life rock band. It sounded live, honest and authentic. ‘Walls’ is more of a mid life crisis album. The band try unsuccessfully to dial the clock back ten years, revisiting sounds but adding nothing new in the process, despite supposed intentions along those lines. Enthusiasm and energy are lacking from start to finish. Only ‘Waste a Moment’ carries any kind of momentum and only ‘Around the World’ concedes anything to funk or rhythm.

Producer Markus Dravs allegedly coaxed KOL in to new poses, at one point telling them to play like they were Sex Pistols (I honestly can’t imagine which song that refers to). Sadly then, the band always go for the easy option. Riffs, melodies and lyrics sound interchangable and many songs simply sound like older, better ones. ‘Waste a Moment’ is almost identical to ‘Supersoaker’. ‘Reverend’ could pass for ‘Revelry’. Synths and strings are used sparingly on certain tracks, which is certainly a new tact for the group, but they are used like window dressing. You wish they’d made a new instrument the focus instead of a background detail. ‘Walls’ ultimately falls in no man’s land. It is neither a grizzly rock and roll record nor is it the ambitious, populist effort the band had intentions to make. It’s the easiest possible record that the band could have made at this point in their careers – a bland re-run of ‘Only by the night’ without that record’s clear strengths.

On ‘Walls’, the low key, atmospheric closer that resembles every other low key, atmospheric closer in the band’s back catalogue, Caleb sings ‘a man ain’t a man unless he has desire’. Ironic then that ‘Walls’ doesn’t convey any obvious signs of true desire. It presents a band reliant on vague, cliched platitudes, happy to rely on old tricks and lacking an awareness of their true strengths. ‘Walls’ debuted at number one this week in the U.S, their first album to do so. That’s some success right there, it’s just a shame they’ve had to airbrush their sound to achieve it.




White Lies ‘Friends’ – Review

16 Oct

White lies first two albums positioned the band as a blockbuster, big budget Joy Division – or was it a cut price Interpol? The sequel to Editors? The remake of Depeche Mode? The P.G Placebo? Whatever the comparison, they did very little to carve out an identity of their own. Third album ‘Big TV’ attempted to do exactly that, and was reasonably successful, but it didn’t do enough to save the band from being dropped by their label. If I hadn’t seen fourth album ‘Friends’ in the new releases section of HMV, I wouldn’t have sought it out. I probably wouldn’t have thought about the band again, truth be told.

And that would have been my loss. With ‘Friends’ they’ve made their best album to date; an infectious collection of big room synth ballads, short on subtlety but loaded with emotion and drama. It opens with ‘Take It out on Me’, the most hook laden song on the record, which establishes the structure and motifs used repeatedly on the album; a slow burning verse that bursts in to a bright, synth heavy chorus with a simple refrain that you’ll be itching to get out of your head all day.

The main problem with prior White Lies albums was how unjustifiably seriously the band trelated them. The songs were dripping wet with tears and conveyed a super seriousness that wasn’t warranted by often ridiculously, laughably pretentious lyrics. ‘Friends’ takes itself a whole lot less seriously. At its best, it’s like they’ve opened the curtains and realised its a sunny day. ‘Morning in LA’ virtually says as much. Sadly, they don’t sustain this mood over the entire record and the album sort of spirals back to the usual, dull weather. But side A at least feels a whole lot less dour and sensible and it’s a lot better for it – smiles suit White Lies better than frowns.

Over ten similar sounding, similarly paced songs there’s no doubt White Lies numb the effect of the record’s early, buoyant appeal. ‘Hold Back Your Love’, the tropical ‘I Don’t Want to Lose It All’ and the gorgeous ‘Summer Didn’t Change a Thing’ (where the guitars seem to sparkle and shimmer like they’ve been left out in the summer sun) are such obvious highlights. The record’s final four songs are forgettable, a trend that was established on previous White Lies albums. A top heavy pop album is no great disaster but it does rather spoil things. White Lies simply play the same card one too many times. When the mood sinks and the melodies don’t stand up, the repetitive structures and Samey arrangements begin to grate, revealing holes in White Lies armour – they just don’t have any surprise tricks up their sleeve.

Such is the general disdain for White Lies, I could almost be talked in to dismissing ‘Friends’. The early reviews have being pretty universally unkind, and convincing – until you actually listen to the thing. At that point I find it hard to actively dislike the record. I understand the haters; the songs are too long, too generic and full to bursting with vague, hallmark greeting card platitudes, the kind of which usually send me running for the hills. But damn, if White Lies haven’t written a handful of soaring rock anthems. Honest to goodness tunes. Ballsy, aiming for the back seats, tunes. Good for them, I say.



Kaiser Chiefs ‘Stay Together’ – Review

8 Oct

Kaiser Chiefs have always had a populist bent and competitive drive that would see them sell their own mothers for a number one. Underpinning this is a desire to be top dogs in every sense (they did name an early single ‘Loves Not A Competition, but I’m winning’ – that’s just who they are). So the same impulse that led to lead singer Ricky Wilson becoming a judge on The Voice and host of a sky one quiz show has now influenced a complete artistic about-turn on the Xenomania produced ‘Stay Together’. The adrenaline fuelled indie rock of yore has been squeezed in to a sickly sweet electro-pop sound that dispenses with subtlety (‘this is pop music, we are writing and recording pop music’ repeats an American voice on the Pet Shop Boys aping ‘Press Rewind’), riffs and good taste. Hey, anything to stay in the public eye right?

Good taste is probably overrated anyway, and what little Kaiser Chiefs ever had isn’t particularly missed. The problem isn’t that Kaiser Chiefs have ballooned in to an unflattering and awkwardly positioned pop monster. The problem is that it serves absolutely no purpose because they left the tunes at home. To put it another way; nobody is going to want to be your friend if you’re a horrible person on the inside, no matter how fabulously you’re dressed. ‘Stay Together’ is flashy on the outside but totally nondescript at its very core.

Lead single ‘Parachute’ is shamelessly produced to tick all the right boxes – it’s got a drop, a nagging hook, four to the floor beat and the cleanest spit polish Caroline records could afford. It just isn’t all that memorable. Neither is second single ‘Hole in my Soul’, opener ‘We Stay Together’, the punny ‘High Society’ or the more familiarly indie ‘Still Waiting.’ ‘Good Clean Fun’ is memorable but only for the cringe inducing lyrics which go ‘why are you so mad, sex makes everything better’. Kaiser Chiefs used to be funny and you get the impression that is what they were going for here. It doesn’t work. Then again Kaiser Chiefs also used to have insatiable energy, they used to be socially aware, they used to have a group dynamic, and they used to write catchy choruses. They used to be a different band.

This isn’t Kaiser Chiefs finest hour. They barely resemble the original incarnation of the band who were irritating and repetitive but loveable and full of personality. ‘Stay Together’ is mostly an anonymous sounding and bland record. The title is an imperative – ‘stay together’ – but at what cost? They once sang ‘everyone is following the craze, everything is average nowadays’ which in the rearview mirror looks increasingly like a self fulfilling prophecy.




Bon Iver ’22, A Million’ – Review

4 Oct

We have always connected Bon Iver (sort of band, sort of solo project of Justin Vernon) to a sense of place. Initially, we associated it with the log cabin in Wisconsin, where a young Justin Vernon decamped after having his heart broken. Those wistful, folky songs sounded like being alone over winter in the middle of a mid west America. His second album featured a landscape painting on the cover and the song titles each referenced a different location. Now, everything about new record ’22, A Million’ dislocates Bon Iver from any sense of a physical place. Any inkling of the picturesque or the pastoral has disappeared, replaced by an abstract feeling of harsh, modern insecurity and instability. It sounds utterly separated, uncertain and adventurous; because of that, it is very 2016.

‘For Emma, Forever ago’ fEly, in many ways, like an album that could have been recorded at any point over the past fifty years. ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ had a slightly more modern aesthetic but it certainly didn’t personify the sound of the 21st century. There is no mistaking that ’22, A Million’ is a contemporary record in every way. In its discordance it sounds like a necessarily modern album. We hear it in the fragmented soundscapes, the array of samples and loops, the distorted, wild beats, the smirking strings and horns, the abstract lyrical thoughts that never build up steam before moving on to the next subject and the disregard for clarity and directness. In a world where we have our eyes constantly scanning and our fingers and thumbs constantly swiping, tapping and pushing, this is music that speaks to our contemporary sensibility.

We have never been more connected yet in many ways we have never felt more alone. It’s one of the great ironies of the social media generation. Vernon seems to thrive off isolation, which makes him the perfect voice for our times. Last year he had his heart broken (again) and took himself abroad to be alone. This involved relocating to a Greek island, off-season, where he was cut off from society and technology. But where isolation and heartbreak evidently manifested themselves in the sound and songs of ‘For Emma’ (man alone with an acoustic guitar singing in a matter of fact tone about having his heart torn apart), this time the disquiet presented itself in more ambiguous ways. His discomfort seems less rooted in a particular, identifiable thing and is more existential and philosophical. The pivotal line of the opening song is “it might be over soon”, and the line serves as a mantra and motivation. This is his most daring album by a long shot. He is questioning and searching for answers to the big questions. It’s musically all over the map and lyrically just as Changeable.

Vernon is still a man unpacking the past; picking apart memories and dreams to dissect universal truths. He doesn’t give you any narratives to hang on to. Only ‘715’ has any sense of a story, and even there it’s vague. He remembers a romantic night by a creek – a memory he worries won’t mean anything one day. It’s a song about struggling to move on from the past, whilst worrying about a time when that past no longer carries the same sentimental importance. It ends with an imperative – ‘turn around now/you’re my A Team’. It’s about as direct as he gets.

Existential fear guides Bon Iver throughout the album, but never as clearly on ‘715’. Elsewhere he recalls ‘Sharing smoke In the stair up off the hot car lot’ – a gripping opening line to one song that is followed by an increasingly slippery series of oblique images and ideas, stacking up to…who knows what exactly. Vernon’s increasingly experimental strain of lyricism is undoubtedly frustrating to some degree – the deliberately provocative grammar and aversion to narrative devices makes it a difficult record to get a grip on. But no matter how obtuse and difficult the music can be, it still carries an emotional power that transcends all obstacles.

‘Re Stacks’, the last track on ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, offered poetic resolution and a sense of hope. ‘This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be safe with me.’ Hardly a definitive ‘it’s all going to be ok’ kind of statement by any means, but certainly a lot more concrete than anything we find on ’22, A Million’s’ closer. Instead we are left with the refrain of ‘If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in’. It’s acceptance of a sort – vague on paper but positively an affirmation when delivered by Justin Vernon’s clear cut voice. The song may not be as pretty, as raw or direct as ‘Re Stacks’ but the message is largely the same. The world is changing and there is a lot more noise to cut through. Bon Iver will continue to adapt and evolve but even as he does so, some things remain consistently vital – like the power of melody and the human voice. On the surface ’22, a Million’ is a departure from the sound that catapulted Bon Iver to indie superstardom, but it really isn’t all that different at its core: beautiful, honest and thoroughly ambitious.