Archive | February, 2017

Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’ – Review

23 Feb

Ryan Adams is one of the few musicians talented, prolific AND mysterious enough to propagate any kind of traditional rock mythology in 2017. He has a lot in common with Dylan, Springstein and Petty but for my money is the natural successor to Neil Young’s crown. Both artists started as frontmen of charged young bands whose potential far exceeded their output and whose influence greatly out matches their contemporary success. Both had promising early solo triumphs with folky, singer-songwriter fare before heading in to the ditch (as Young once memorably put it) by exploring weirder, darker and heavier themes and soundscapes. 20 years in to his career, Neil Young was seemingly on a hiding to nowhere, making divisive genre albums for his own pleasure. This is where the two depart. Adams has spent the past five years presenting a more refined, professional version of himself and his songwriting, reframing our perceptions of his art in the process.

Adams first pitched the material that wound up on ‘Prisoner’ to the public at the tail end of 2015, in an interview with Zane Lowe. He referred to the work as a ‘double album’ that ranked alongside ‘Love is Hell’ as the most devastating music of his career. That was quite an audacious claim, and somewhere along the way he clearly decided to curb that ambition. He gave the tunes some breathing space, asked famed pop producer Don Was to whittle them down, and then redressed them in slightly more colourful outfits. It has ended up being a streamlined and upbeat (watered down?) version of that initial proposition. The record is therefore a rare thing in Ryan Adams discography; an album about heartbreak that doesn’t actually sound all that heartbreaking. Rather than adopt the bruised and aching positioning of ‘Heartbreaker’ (universally regarded as one of the best sad-sack albums ever made), he matches his sadness pound for pound with confidence to create a largely upbeat record. It’s an interesting choice for material that so carefully dissects the end of his marriage. The melodies are bright, the guitars shimmer and the grooves are mixed prominently. It doesn’t sound quite as mopey as you might expect if you’ve only read the press build up for it, which has largely overstated its morbidity.

To full enjoy ‘Prisoner’ it’s best to have some understanding of how it fits in to Adams’ deep and varied discography. We can loosely group his albums in to types, noting that ultimately every one of his records sounds like Ryan Adams, just filtered through a different lens. There’s the alt-country material (‘Jacksonville City Nights’, ‘Strangers Alminac’), the roots rock material (‘Cold Roses’, ‘Cardinology’) the acoustic material (‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Ashes and Fire’) the punk and metal material (‘Rock n Roll’, ‘Orion’), the commercial material (‘Gold’, ‘Easy Tiger’) and 80s influenced arena rock material (‘Ryan Adams’, ‘1989’). ‘Prisoner’ picks up nicely where those latter two albums left off, to form, as critic Steve Hyden put it, a ‘divorce trilogy’. So after the successful self titled record and song for song Taylor Swift covers album, ‘Prisoner’ competes that trilogy of albums that convey clear continuity and consistency for the first time in his career. While a lot is gained from that consistency (it is going to chart in the top 5 in most of the key markets) it inevitably loses some of the things that made the Ryan Adams of the 00’s so thrilling. That unpredictability, that chaos, and that unadulterated sadness. Instead we get some of the most soundly constructed and proficient pop-rock songs you will hear all year. He has transformed in to a master craftsmen of the genre and by all accounts a funny and humble gentlemen – a complete 180 from the bratty-wonder kid who rubbed audiences and critics up the wrong way with his his drug fuelled antics and a seemingly never ending stream of music that was sporadically breathtaking/sporadically dreadful. Whether this is our loss or gain is ultimately up to you.

Ryan Adams is an artist in his third decade and it’s fitting then that the sound of this record mirrors the 80s soft rock that some of his key influences (Dylan, Springsteen, Clapton) were making during their third decade. In some ways ‘Prisoner’ feels like the destination Adams has been searching for since his early days. As far back as ‘Pneumonia’ he has been after that Johnny Marr guitar sound, and sought it most notably on ‘Love Is Hell’. Here though, for the first time really, the sound on record convincingly matches the sound he adores. The guitar tone is exactingly matched to the jingle jangle heard on ‘Meat Is Murder’ but writ large – perhaps demonstrating what The Smiths could have sounded like if they’d used some of that Warner Bros cash to make a blockbuster arena rock record. A less generous reading is that Ryan is slowly morphing in to his near name same, Bryan Adams. The abundance of reverb and a love for the gated drum sound certainly emphasises that point.

If musically ‘Prisoner’ feels like culmination of years of hard work and perseverance, then it does thematically as well. ‘Prisoner’ ups the stakes on past Ryan Adams albums; it’s not just a break up album, it’s a ‘divorce’ album. I guess 20 years in to your career you need some kind of gimmick or selling point, and Adam’s well publicised divorce to actress Mandy Moore has certainly grabbed the headlines and serves as a useful influence. Ryan Adams is to break up music what Brian Eno is to ambient; the question was never if he would address the split on ‘Prisoner’, it was a question of how. As I discussed earlier, he approaches the topic with clarity of thought and an ultimately positive outlook. If it’s true that he wrote the most devastating songs of his career after the split then they don’t appear to have found a home on ‘Prisoner’. Only the weepy ‘Shiver and Shake’ made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, with the tragic line ‘I close my eyes, I see you with some guy, laughing like you never even knew I was alive.’ Generally though the tone is even handed and fair.

Where once he might have given everything away (‘Heartbreaker reads like an intimate diary where locations, characters and specific details are named and dissected), these days Adams’ has learned to leave a little bit for himself. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the older he gets, the more he seems to rely on cliched imagery. The bespoke narratives and observations that once marked him as a rare lyricist of serious poetic intellect have largely disappeared in the rear view mirror. You get a sense of what I mean from the song titles: ‘Prisoner’, ‘Doomsday’, ‘Breakdown’, ‘Tightrope’ – it wins no prizes for originality. As a consequence some of the personal agony that marked his early classics like ‘Come Pick Me Up’, ‘Avenues’ and ‘La Sienega Just Smiled’ gets reduced. We can see so much of ourselves, and everyone else, in these lyrics that we loose sight of Ryan Adams. At times we could be listening to any Nashville hack with a guitar – if it weren’t for his sublime voice and first class melodies.

But this is my reaction many, many listens down the line. Listen instantly to the pulsating riff-age of ‘Do You Still Love Me’, the harmonica’s wail on ‘Doomsday’ or the moment his voice cracks on ‘Tightrope’ and comparisons to past work become invalid. This is top to bottom engrossing stuff. On ‘We Disappear’, the downbeat, atmospheric album closer, there is a line about the heart that could sum up Adams’ approach to songwriting. ‘Didn’t fit in my chest so I wore it on my sleeve.’ In many ways ‘Prisoner’ is more reserved than we’ve come to expect but it’s still a remarkably emotive and powerful collection of songs about a very real and all too common occurrence – the end of a marriage. Honestly, If classic love-lorn guitar pop is your thing then you’re unlikely to hear anything better this year than ‘Prisoner’. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.

8/10

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Japandroids ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ / Cloud Nothing’s ‘Life Without Sound’ – Review

18 Feb

Japandroids and Cloud Nothing’s have always mined similar territory, so it’s somewhat fitting that they are releasing new albums on the same day. it’s also been interesting to witness their reception, and thus observe how far guitar music’s stock has fallen with the very sites that worshipped these bands only half a decade ago. That was capital R Rock music’s last gasp in some respects – at least as far as being a commercially viable and critically appreciated form of artistic expression. Now, unless you’re a heritage act or a new one with an overtly (and right on) political message, or some kind of subversive element, you are unlikely to be given the time of day by trend setters in 2017.

In this climate Japndroids and Cloud Nothing’s feel strangely like dinosaurs of a long past era – even though they are still in their mid to late 20s. Coverage of Rock music that is this unabashed, ambitious and enthusiastic is currently hard to find in mainstream publications. Many bands have ditched guitars all┬átogether (I mean just LISTEN to the new Linkin Park single – it could legitimately be an XX song), and you probably wouldn’t blame Japandroids and Cloud Nothing’s if they did the same; but instead they double down on those traits that bought them acclaim in the first place, whilst artfully expanding their horizons. The results are a little mixed but generally positive, showing what can happen when you stick to your guns.

You couldn’t accuse either band of lacking a consistent aesthetic. Cloud Nothing’s last three albums have each featured greyscale photographs of vague, somewhat blurred, buildings with a whole lot of sky and empty space. Meanwhile, this is the fourth Japandroids album to feature a moody black and white portrait of the duo on the cover. Similarly, the music contained always has been, and continues to be, variations on a well established idea; in Cloud Nothing’s case spazzy pop-punk played with anger and unquestioned conviction, in Japandroids case, Springstein-esque escapist rock recorded on the cheap. They know what they like and they like what they know. ‘Life Without Sound’ and ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ don’t change those formulas much. The hooks are thicker and left to simmer on a lower heat but they are unmistakeably the work of the same bands.

If there is a difference in how the two groups have progressed, it’s that Cloud Nothing’s have the technical ability and lyrical capacity to expand and polish their sound in interesting ways, where Japandroids don’t. It isn’t the duo’s fault – they’re ultimately a rock n roll powerhouse, and when they play to those strengths they are as good as they’ve ever been. Lead single ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ is a tornado of a song that connects broad images of dreams, cold wars, condemnation and God over a furious beat and fuzzy guitar licks – and that’s only the first verse. At their best, there is nothing subtle or understated about this band. ‘No Known Drink or Drugs’ and ‘In A Body Like a Grave’ are equally frantic and hook heavy, ensuring the album begins and ends with its best songs. In between there are some more forgettable moments. ‘True Love and A Free Life of Free Will’ is as hard work as that ponderous title would suggest, while ‘Arc of Bar’ unsuccessfully adds electronic elements to a song that mixes unfortunate metaphors about ‘hustlers and whores’. ‘Midnight to Morning’ is a more interesting variation on theme, mainly thanks to its catchy chorus, with its stacked harmonies and inspirational message.

Cloud Nothing’s are also tuned in to good vibes and positivity. So much so that they’ve described this as their new age album. It certainly has a lot more happy energy than its predecessor, the snarling and cynical ‘Here and Nowhere Else’. The band still manage to temper that positivity with some truly dark moments; listen to that morbid piano that opens the album and instantly dials the clock back to ‘No Future/No Past’, the similarly ambitious opener of ‘Attack on Memory’. ‘I came up to the surface, released the air’ he exhales more clearly than we’ve heard before, his vocals pushed high in the mix. This is never going to be called first class poetry (the vaguely uplifting mantras that pepper the songs boarder on the indestructible and sometimes cliched) but it’s a nice about turn from the emo moodiness of ‘Here and Nowhere Else’.

Baldi retains his almost unparalleled ear for hooks. He stacks and builds melodies like he’s trying to constantly better his last one. If ‘Life Without Sound’ isn’t quite as hook intensive as usual then that’s only because nobody could keep up that frantic pace. Generally the songs here are slow burners that nudge their way into your memory over time. The sound is more polished and the mixing and arrangements incorporate interesting details that make songs like ‘Enter Entirely’ sound fuller than they might have a few years ago.

‘Life Without Sound’ often hints at being a classic indie rock album in the lineage of R.E.M, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr but it never QUITE convinces you that it belongs there. Perhaps it’s something to do with its slimline appearance (nine songs in just over half an hour) and the fact that it tails off after ‘Modern Act’ (the final two songs flirt with shoegaze effects that don’t elevate the songs past being – bluntly – boring). But that’s not to say Cloud Nothing’s will never reach those giddy heights. In fact, ‘Here and Nowhere Else’ is perhaps the finest balls out rock album of the past decade and if their reputation rested on that alone then their place in music history would be assured. ‘Life Without Sound’, like ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’, inches the band in to new territory whilst retaining all of what made them so likeable to begin with. That isn’t easy. Both these albums prove, if proof were needed, that there is a place for gutsy, intelligent rock music in 2017.

Japandroids ‘Near to the Wild Heart…’ 7/10

Cloud Nothing’s ‘Life Without Sound’ – 8/10

Foxygen ‘Hang’ – Review

15 Feb

Foxygen’s debut album may have been called ‘Take the Kids off Broadway’, but it’s only now, four albums in, that the band have truly indulged their theatrical inclinations. ‘Hang’ is a sprightly eight song, thematically linked, collection that incorporates honkey tonk piano, an opulent 40 piece orchestra, tap dancing, rag time jives and sleigh bells. You suspect that Foxygen had something like ‘The Soft Bulliten’ in mind when they conceived the project but the truth is it’s far too slight and lightweight to live up to that challenge. It wears it’s 1970s influences so obviously on its sleeve that it has no chance of transcending pastiche – albeit an entertaining one.

Of course Foxygen have always skirted close to this edge. ‘We Are The 21st Century Ambasaders of Peace and Magic’ mined Dylan and Beatles records pretty mercilessly, but did so with wit, humour and hooks galore. This time around the band seem more interested in Todd Rundgren and ‘Hunkey Dory’ era Bowie, not to mention obscure Broadway soundtracks. It’s this latter influence that will dictate your response to this album; I can see it being loved and loathed in equal measure. There is an uncanny quality to Foxygen’s music that is occasionally creepy. Perhaps it’s just personal taste but the vaudeville sound and vocals on ‘Avalon’ are actually quite repellent – so accurately mimicking the sound of early Broadway whilst never attempting to match the key ingredient – sincerity. This is something of a fatal flaw.

He may not wear his heart on his sleeve but lead singer Jonathan Rado Is a great producer (as he demonstrated with his work on last year’s excellent sounding ‘Light Upon The Lake’ by Whitney). ‘Hang’ sounds flawless. You have to conclude that it probably sounds exactly how the band intended – and you can’t really fault them for that. The grandiose string arrangements don’t sound this overblown and ridiculous by accident. At only eight songs long it never really has the opportunity to outstay its welcome and it’s enjoyable more often than not. There are even moment where Foxygen excel in their new setting and remind you of how great they were on tracks like ‘No Destruction’ and ‘San Fransisco’. They never really unlocked that potential but on ‘Follow the Leader’ and ‘America’, if not elsewhere, they make you think that they still might, some day.

6.5/10

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