Archive | November, 2016

Bruno Mars ‘XXIVk Magic’ – Review

30 Nov

It’s been four years since Buno Mars’ last album, a lifetime by modern standards but perhaps not by 1980s pop star standards – which is the yard stick Bruno Mars clearly wants us to use. His homage to the shoulder pad decade extends from minor elements such as fonts, the disc label and running length to more significant ones like production details, instruments and musical motifs. Bruno Mars has always been referential to a fault and here he ups the ante.

It works. ‘XXIVk Magic’ is Mars’ best work to date. His first two albums contained some classic singles but almost nothing else of note. ‘XXIVk Magic’ is his first to work from start to finish as a solid, cohesive album. It skews the recent pop trend for blockbuster running lengths, instead focusing on nine well selected and sequenced songs that flow seamlessly from the uptempo numbers on the first half to the varied, more seductive tunes on the second. Throughout he demonstrates an ambition and songwriting expertise that would have scared Prince and MJ.

It’s not just 80s Pop that Bruno tips his hat to – he loves the 90s just as much. ‘Finesse’ could easily pass for a New Jack Swing song, and boy doesn’t Mars know it. Every sound, melody and instrument sounds painstakingly exacted from an original source. The saving grace with that song is that you can’t exactly pin-point which specific source that is – reminding me more of the genre as a whole than any particular song – so that it comes over as irresistible, escapist fun. When the references are less obscure, the fun is marred somewhat by a constant nodding recognition that any half-knowledgable listener will experience. ‘Versace on the Floor’ exhibits top rate songwriting and production but the keyboard sound is ripped straight from ‘She’s Out of my Life’ (Greg Philengenos even plays the part – say what you want, but Bruno is a slave for detail) while the chorus exactingly mimics key sounds of ‘Sexual Healing’. On the title track (great fun in its own right) he borrows Kendrick Lamar’s exact cadence to the extent that it almost sounds like an impression. On ‘Perm’ He says ‘tonight Matthew, I’m going to be James Brown’ and, damn, he just about pulls it off. This ‘dress up’ pattern repeats on just about every song, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so.

All this explicit homage is more than a bit distracting, and likely to get Mars in some legal trouble (‘Uptown Funk’ has been involved in all kinds of lawsuits since its release’). It’s a shame because often it draws attention away from Mars’ first class songwriting and productions skills. Once or twice his imitations simply highlight the gap in quality between those aforementioned artists and Bruno. As good as he is here, he’s never that good. If he channeled his energies and talents in to something more sonically original, innovative or singular then there is little doubt that he could make a truly classic album.

There’s also the fact that a lot of ‘XXIVk Magic’ can seem frivolous in the context of so much political and social unrest. Bruno Mars is an artist who glorifies and quantifies success; you’re reminded of this by his music videos, artwork and song lyrics. Bruno has what so much of us are without and he isn’t afraid to flaunt it, from the title of the album all the way down. There is a level of boastful bravado that may put some listeners off when a billionaire just used similar tactics to worm his way in to the White House. Bruno Mars is not a songwriter who offers commentary on that particular political moment or engages with the wider world in general – this is not his mandate, and fair enough. But there is a kind of politics at work here anyway. The music of Bruno Mars is on one level joyous escapism – and who doesn’t need half an hour of escape at the moment. But more importantly, there is an argument being made in these upbeat R&B songs. This type of mainstream music has historically brought people of different races, religions and genders together on one dance floor. It offers a positive and inclusive representation of a proud black culture that even Trump voters can get on board with. Bruno offers a genuine common touch that doesn’t discriminate or offend. His music serves to draw us together by reminding us of common aspirations and desires. We can’t afford to dismiss an artist who achieves this with such ease and style.

8/10

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Review Roundup

26 Nov

Keaton Henson – ‘Kindly Now’

Painter, poet, songwriter, classical composer, electronic beat maker, illustrator, film maker – It could be reasonably argued that Keaton Henson is a jack of all trades and master of none. In every project he undertakes, comparisons to others come just a little bit too easily. His latest singer-songwriter release, ‘Kindly Now’, borrows too liberally from James Blake, Damon Rice and Bon Iver; he leans a little too heavily on cliche and corny sentiments that will have you cringing before anything else. But then there’s that voice, a weapon that is quite unlike any I’ve ever heard, and therefore the only original thing about Keaton Henson. Fragile to an unnerving degree, you can hear that he means every single sentiment, however gooey or dopey. ‘Kindly now’ isn’t a great album but it is at times a moving one. ‘Old Lovers in Dressing Rooms’, ‘Alright’ and ‘No Witnesses’ are particularly affecting, which goes to show that you don’t have to be an innovator to tug at people’s heart strings

6/10

Crying – ‘Beyond the Fleeting Gales’

You couldn’t think of a more indie band name than Crying and so appropriately their music also brings to mind a particular strain of romantic, melodramatic 1980s indie – bands like The Wake, Orange Juice and The Field Mice. But Crying don’t play it straight, not by a long shot. The intense, rather standard, emotional sentiments are enhanced to near IMAX levels on their debut album. Van Halen and Pokemon Yellow loom just as large over ‘Beyond the Fleeting Gales’, a record that is practically the definition of post-genre. Hyperactive rhythms, felt-tip guitars and glassy, bombastic synths characterise this very distinctive album. The sugar-rush provided by early tracks ‘Premonitory Dream’ and ‘Patriot’ can’t quite sustain what is an exhausting listen but in brief bursts ‘Beyond the Fleeting Gales’ offers one of the more convincing answers to the questions being asked of guitar music in 2016.

7/10

Wilco – Shmilco

The illustration on the cover of Wilco’s new album, ‘Shmilco’, depicts a man sticking his finger in to a socket and getting electrocuted. If only that had literally happened to Wilco. Anything to get them going! ‘Shmilco’ is a disappointingly sleepy album from the legendary band, who have earned the right to take it a little easier – without a doubt – but this is a bore. I just don’t buy in to what Tweedy is singing this time around. The emotional platitudes used time and time again are the nearest fruits on the tree and his singing sounds inexpressive and laboured. The quiet, acoustic arrangements don’t scan as country, folk, pop or rock n roll and actually get lost somewhere in between. Melodies are unmemorable and there is a lack of experimentation, which is surprising considering experimentation has been Wilco’s go to guise for at least the past decade. After last year’s brilliant return to form, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Shmilco’ feels like a tiresome disappointment.

4/10

Meat Loaf – ‘Braver Than We Are’ – Review

17 Nov

It often seems unfair to compare new albums to old ones but Meat Loaf practically encourages it. He often refers to albums as sequels (and has twice literally titled them as such), uses recurring visual motifs in artwork and videos, and openly compares each new album to his initial classic – ‘Bat out of Hell.’ That grandiose masterpiece has aged well; it’s sheer bombast, tongue in cheek humour and knowing musical references sit better in our post-modern times than the po-faced Rock world of the 1970s.

In the years that followed ‘Bat…’, Meat worked sporadically with its chief author, the elusive and strange Jim Steinman. The initial follow up, ‘Dead Ringer for Love’ lacked its predocersor’s cohesion and thematic unity, whilst a full blown sequal, the commercially successful ‘Back Into Hell’ did what sequels usually do – more of the same; bigger but not better. ¬†Fans have been clamouring for the duo to reunite for another album and at long last their wish has come true. ‘Braver Than We Are’ sees Meat and Steinman teaming up for the first time since the early ’90s.

It genuinely pains me to say that ‘Braver Than We Are’ is a damp squid (and that’s a nice way of putting it). Whereas ‘Bat out of hell’ took its cues from classic rock n roll archetypes and teenage heartache, ‘Braver than we Are’ trades those influences in for theatrical camp and fantasy inspired mumbo jumbo. There is little of the wry humour, sopping wet emotion, dynamite hooks and earworm melodies that made ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ such an irresistible classic. That record was overblown, of course it was, but ‘Braver…’ is something else entirely. You’re exhausted two songs (a whole fifteen minutes) deep in to the thing. Then there are another eight songs to go.

Meat’s singing is laboured and strained. He’s been a notoriously inconsistent live performer since the very beginning but this is the first time he’s sounded bad on record. And he does sound dangerously bad. Like ‘he’s going to keel over at any minute’ bad. It doesn’t help that he’s singing Steinmen’s most perverse lyrics to date – lines like ‘errection of the heart’ and ‘who needs the filthy moaning passed from thigh to thigh’, don’t read well and they sound even worse when belted out theatrically by an old age pensioner.

The last Meat album to feature Jim Steinman songs, albeit ones recycled from past projects, was 2006’s ‘Bat Out of Hell 3’. A late career highlight made without Stienmen’s blessing, that record was full of heart, ambition and memorable melodies. Since then Meat’s put out a couple of surprisingly weird albums that replaced¬†the usual sky-scraping anthems with admirably restrained rock n roll numbers. In other words, Meat aged in a more interesting way than anybody could rightfully have predicted. But then again does anybody really go to Meat Loaf for energy or admirable restraint? On that front, and that front alone, it’s nice to have Meat Loaf attempting to be Meat Loaf again.

Five years ago Donald Trump fired Meat from the celebrity apprentice for ‘being too emotional’ which right now feels like high praise. Unrestrained emotional honesty was one of the things that made him so loveable in the first place. However unlistenable this record is, you can never doubt the sincerity is fully on display. Nobody does what Meat Loaf does. Nobody even attempts it. ‘Braver Than We Are’ sounds like nothing else released in 2016. To me, It scans as a disaster but that’s often the consequence of putting your heart on the line. In a way the title rings true, Meat Loaf is braver than we are – You’d have to be to even attempt this.

2/10

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Joyce Manor ‘Cody’ – Review

2 Nov

‘What do you think about Kanye West?’ It’s a pertinent, not to mention divisive, question and a loud way for Joyce Manor to start the discussion. It helps that it’s the stickiest hook in their most accessible song to date. First single, ‘Fake I.D’ is bright, funny and to the point. It depicts an everyday, insignificant conversation and doesn’t hang around to dwell on the implications of that question (which could inform, and probably has informed, a thousand think pieces), or any other topic. It’s an example of Joyce Manor’s rationale. They’re the equivalent of a party guest who comes in late, says some things, makes you laugh and then disappears before you have time to process what exactly just Happened.

But for those paying attention, Joyce Maner have been making some of the catchiest pop punk of the past decade. For such a low key, low stakes band they inspire an awful lot of admiration from people of influence. Pitchfork critic ‘Ian Cohen’ described their last album, ‘Never Hungover Again’ as one of the top five rock albums of this decade. The 1975 and Blink 182 are known fans. With those kind of backers you suspect it wouldn’t take much for Joyce Maner, who have a knack for catchy tunes and pop instincts, to launch a successful mainstream breakthrough.

‘Cody’ is sort of that record, and it sort of isn’t. It’s undeniably their most commercial work to date – in terms of production, style, song structures and length – but it doesn’t concede much to contemporary popular taste. Kanye West reference aside, it doesn’t particularly engage with the finer details of 21st century life. Nor is it a full blown assault on the charts on every front – those (myself included) who think Joyce Maner have an ‘Enema of the State’ or ‘Dookie’ in them, if they ever choose to indulge their pop sensibilities, won’t find quite enough evidence of it here. Once you get past the disappointment that they didn’t entirely ‘go for it’ in that respect, you’ll discover a great record in its own right (it’s also worth noting that for every fan like me there is another who probably regards anything close to an ‘Enema of the State’ as a complete sell out – think of ‘Cody’ as a compromise).

Pop punk is rooted in all things d.u.m.b. But it’s a knowing dumbness that is easy to misinterpret. The Ramones are the most obvious example; a band whose repetitive, often ironic or sarcastic lyricism could be read in all kind of harmful ways and whose down stroke, power chord riffing belied a serious dedication to craft and extensive knowledge of the rock cannon. On first glance it’s easy to read too much, or nothing at all, in to Joyce Manor’s simple but often ironic or deceptively deep lyrics or disregard these songs because of their brisk pace, short lengths and lack of traditional structure. But these songs encourage a more thoughtful and empathetic response.

‘Stairs’ is the clearest example, a song that presents singer Barry Johnson as initially cute, then slightly creepy, then legitimately ‘call the police I have a stalker’ creepy. It would be easy to cast Johnson a dim light here; the uncomfortably misogynistic thrust of the lyrics would certainly be game to chastise. Actually though, the confessional neediness that the singer describes, not to mention his incompetent domesticity, probably rings true for many men of his age. If you wince perhaps that’s because you see something of yourself in the narrator’s anxiety? ‘I’m 26 and I still live with my parents, oh I can’t do laundry, yeah I can’t do dishes.’ It’s funny till you realise the joke is kind of on you.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many people saw their own lives reflected in ‘Cody’s’ brief but powerful assessments of young adulthood. Pop punk is sometimes seen as juvenilia personified, a reputation forged by the crassness of the 90s generation of bands like Blink 182, Green Day and The Offspring, but ‘Cody’ is as complex as it is gloriously fun. As dark as it is funny. As inquisitive as it is declarative. There has always been a more reflective strain of the genre – think of The Descendants or The Undertones. Joyce Manor add to that heritage.

8/10

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