Archive | March, 2017

Circa Waves ‘Different Creatures’ – Review

28 Mar

Circa Waves adhered so closely to the tropes of mid 00s indie rock on their debut that it’s no surprise they trip in to many of the same pitfalls as their heroes this time around. Second album syndrome stunted the careers of bands like The Kooks, The View and Pigeon Detectives to name just three. ‘Different Creatures’ may well do the same to Circa Waves. It’s superficially deeper and darker but has all the real depth of a puddle. They expand their musical interests but don’t cast the net wide enough to find anything truly interesting. In the process they neglect the very things that made them so likeable in the first place – bright hooks, catchy melodies and youthful optimism – qualities that when returned to remind you why Circa Waves once made us so excited.

‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ was a likely blueprint; an album that was successful for Arctic Monkeys by adding new colours to the palette and darkening the shades all ready there. Like the Arctics, you get the impression that Circa Waves have been listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age. Unfortunately they end up sounding like Stereophonics at their least melodic. The riffs on ‘Different Creatures’ are generally beefier than last time around but feel almost claustrophobically stodgy and overwhelming. The mix is packed and the sound is brutally compressed for modern listeners. To my (admittedly novice) ears, It’s actually one of the most poorly mastered albums I’ve heard in a long time.

If you’re willing to work past the aesthetic of the album, you’re left to ponder on the songs – it’s a mixed bag. ‘Wake Up’ is a prickly album opener, where somersaulting drum rolls and a tempo change for the chorus can’t disguise an utter lack of good ideas. It sets the sour mood that trickles down through many of the other songs. ‘Where do you get off’ the singer scolds on ‘Goodbye’. ‘Take, all you do is take’ he moans in an attempt to undo some of the empathy he earned on ‘Young Chasers’. Everything he says seems to be loaded with a deep seated resentment somewhat unbecoming of a man in the flush of young adulthood and on the brink of great success. ‘I’m starting to realise I’m out on my own’ he moans before deciding ‘I’ll fake a crooked smile’. The album is littered with these bitter barbs.

Circa Waves sprint through these moments with so much haphazard energy that it’s rather jolting with they finally have to slow it down. The album’s second side is generally calmer and a whole lot more enjoyable. ‘Crying Shame’ lives up to its title, as it starts so strongly with a gently strummed guitar and nostalgic narrative that recalls the warmer moments on their debut. It only takes 20 seconds though for it to gallop away from this sweet spot at the same breakneck speed as almost every other song on here. It’s still a strong guitar pop song though, and the only one here to elicit any kind of heartfelt emotion. ‘Love’s Run Out’ is nearly there; it’s the only true ballad on ‘Different Creatures’, and reminds me of The Libertines acoustic numbers. It’s sweet and romantic and not at all characteristic of the album as a whole.

‘Old Friends’ is a strangely chill end to such a manic album, but then it’s one song with a more generous, spacious mix. It’s lovely to be able to hear all the different elements – the laid back harmonies, the guitar interplay and a bass that really pops. ‘I want to get drunk with my old friends’ is the lovelorn plea at the heart of the song and it harks back to the central theme of their debut – nostalgia for the mid-00s. ‘Young Chasers’ highlighted sone of the overlooked strengths of the indie rock boom years of 2002-2007. On ‘Different Creatures’ CIrca Waves unwittingly remind everyone of that genre’s downfall, and that it’s not called ‘landfill indie for nothing.

5/10

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The Shins ‘Heartworms’ – Review

22 Mar

Back in 2004, Natalie Portman’s character in the film ‘Garden State’ told us to listen to The Shins ‘New Slang’. “It’ll change your life, I swear.” There was a time when The Shins couldn’t escape their association with that scene and yet very little of the coverage around ‘Heartworms’ has even mentioned it. Perhaps that’s because in 2017 the idea of such a quaint indie rock song changing anyone’s life seems as antiquated as Portman’s massive headphones or Walkman. But this was the world we lived in; a world of dreamers and dreams where indie rock signalled imagination and emotional intelligence. The Shins went on to score the highest charting Sub Pop release of all time with ‘Wincing the Night Away’, signed to a major label and shed most of the unreliable band members, all in the pursuit of indie superstardom. All things considered they became one of the best bands of the 21st century. Again, this ambition seems somewhat unbelievable only ten years on. Indie rock isn’t in the doldrums exactly but those qualities that made people believe a song like ‘New Slang’ could change your life, or send a band to the top of the charts, have been cynically superseded by ironic detachment, hip posturing and a crippling lack of aspiration.

It’s telling then that The Shins first album in five years is a much more modest release than their previous trilogy, and has no illusions of grandeur. The expansive, polished soundscapes of ‘Wincing the Night Away’ are completely discarded. The pristine pop punch of ‘Port of Morrow’ has been dulled somewhat. The album dials back on the far reaching ambition of those records, scaling down to a more manageable level in keeping with their earlier records ‘Oh Inverted World’ and ‘Chutes to Narrow.’ This feels realistic and in its own way somehow more romantic. Valuable lessons have been learnt in the process – they’ve managed to keep the arrangements dizzying, and the production imaginative but the homemade feel certainly works for The Shins in 2017. They’ve spent five years away but ‘Heartworms’ is a remarkably assured and enjoyable comeback.

So you can give a sigh of relief. This is a Shins record that sounds like a Shins record. It’s a legitimate worry these days that bands will change to fit in to the current climate – just listen to the recent Dirty Projectors album to hear how that often pans out. It’s might be damming ‘Heartworms’ with faint praise to say the best songs are the ones that play on traditional Shins strengths, with their usual palate of colours, but it’s true. ‘Dead Alive’ is pitched as a kind of sequal to ‘One by One All Day’, borrowing elements of it’s spooky melody and array of samples and it’s a gloriously catchy standout. ‘Name For You’ brings back the happy harmonies that seemed to get polished under the mix on the last album whilst providing an affirmative message for Mercer’s young daughters. ‘The Fear’ in particular would sit perfectly at home with ‘Chutes Too Narrow’s more lush moments (the song does actually date back ten years). Even after all this time there are few people in the industry who know their way around a pop melody like James Mercer.

The weakest songs are the ones that divert from the tried and tested formula. ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ hint at an admiration for Grimes auteur pop but James Mercer is no young computer wiz kid and his inexperience awkwardly shows. At points on the album, and on these songs especially, the production feels overwhelmingly laboured, presenting Mercer as someone with far too much time, and money, on his hands, playing around with presets and effects to no obvious end. Perhaps this explains why the album took five years to get completed – that’s more than enough time to overthink and overproduce songs that would benefit from a far lighter touch.

It’s a distracting obstacle that these unsuccessful production experiments are front loaded on to the album. Album opener ‘Name For You’ definitely has too many elements competing for our attention. The bloated ‘Painting a Hole’, is track 2. ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ are number 3 and 4. None of these are bad songs but they are badly mishandled and it damages their impact. It takes the gentle ‘Mildenhall’ to steer the ship back to familiar waters. That song establishes an autobiographical theme that runs through many of ‘Heartworms’ songs. It depicts Mercer’s childhood in Sulfolk where he sulked on rainy afternoons and listened to Jesus and Mary Chain mix tapes. On the gorgeously wistful title track he skips the story forward a few years, zooming in on an episode of unrequited love that seems to have left its mark on our lovelorn protagonist. He brings the story up to date on ‘So Now What’, a typically catchy synth-pop number, which succinctly describes the struggles of maintaining a happy relationship in the face of middle age and all its burdens. The message here, as throughout, is that some things in life come and go – including its challenges – but other things are consistent. Like love. Like The Shins.

8/10

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Ed Sheeran ‘Divide’ – Review

19 Mar

Ed Sheehan must be good. There is no other logical reason a scruffy, chubby, ginger, middle class songwriter would currently occupy nine of the top ten spots in the single chart. Right? Is Ed a slippery, sophisticated, Trumpian snake oil salesman or is he the real deal? Most major publications haven’t bothered to find out (though both NME and Rolling Stone have backtracked on early disdain by featuring cover interviews with the singer) because they see no reason to. Ed is a privileged, white male who appeals to middle England – nothing interesting happening there, they conclude.

But we must do better than that. Something in the music of Ed Sheeran taps in to a universal desire. His hooks are clingy enough to lodge in intelligent minds for months on end. His melodies have soundtracked countless wedding dances. Politicians are always talking about the man on the street, well the man on the street listens to Ed Sheeran. People enjoy his music because it sounds familiar yet modern. They’re songs you can imagine appearing in films or soundtracks. There’s a nice mixture of styles, tempos and themes – you can imagine different songs soundtracking different, everyday routines. And even the stranger songs on the album are held together by some absolutely huge sounding pop songs. Mainly, ‘Divide’ will be popular because it’s distinctly pleasant. And pleasant is something most people can get on board with.

In fact ‘Divide’ is an ironic title for an Ed Sheeran album. Few albums are less likely to divide an audience; this is nice, middle of the road pop that is, by design, almost impossible to hate. And whilst it may be hard for some critics to believe, it also appears fairly easy to love. Just ask the fans who have streamed the singles from it literally billions of times. That said, it is fitting that he has chosen mathematical symbols as album titles; few albums this year are likely to be more calculated. Ed is a self confessed music industry nerd who is just as interested in the business side of things as he is the music. He has engineered this album to tick as many boxes, and appeal to as many market areas and target audiences, as possible. Sheeran used to wear his heart on his sleeve, now he’s wearing his ambition there instead.

But if there’s one thing ‘Divide’ proves, its that sometimes artifice and calculation can be nearly as affecting as pure sincerity. I know that the syrupy ‘perfect’ is pure shmultz; It has a prom night, ‘Lady in Red’ quality to it that should be repellant – but isn’t. Nothing about its chord progression, string arrangement or heartfelt sentiment is original – in fact the song is massively cliched and contrived – but packs an emotional wallop that is pretty undeniable. Sheeran himself thinks it will end up being the song, that in generations, he is remembered for. At this stage that might be hard to argue with. There are other warm hearted moments like this as well. ‘Dive’ is a gorgeous doo-wop-esque ballad that highlights Sheeran’s increasingly robust vocals. ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is a moving eulogy for his grandmother that reveals the immediate aftermath of her death in a way that wouldn’t sound completely out of place on the new Mount Eerie record.

Elsewhere he’s moving ever further away from his initial heartbroken sweet spot. In a recent interview, Zane Lowe assumed Sheeran had been influenced by U2 on the ‘Joshua Tree’ kissed ‘Castle on the Hill.’ But he insisted he’d never heard the album, or any other U2 album for that matter. In fact he’d nabbed all the ideas from Snow Patrol’s ‘Fallen Angels’ record. This anecdote sums up Ed Sheeran. In his down to earth way, he has no qualms or hang ups about his perceived uncoolness (which is actually what makes him pretty cool). The fact that he references Snow Patrol (and not just any SP album, but ‘Fallen Angels’, their commercial flop and critical nadir), or in the same interview professes his love for Figtstar, Nizlopi, Damion Rice and The Corrs tells you everything you need to know (EXACTLY say his fans. EXACTLY say the haters).

For such a massive seller, his last record ‘Multiply’ had a significantly disproportionate amount of duds. As well remembered as ‘Sing’ and ‘Thinking Out Loud’ are, does anyone remember ‘Nina’ or ‘Afire Love’? Like ‘Multiply’, ‘Divide’ is a patchy album that features as many throwaways as potential classics. The folky ‘Galway Girl’ (a cynical attempt to appeal to the large Irish fan base) has a fun ‘so bad it’s good’ quality, whilst the likes of ‘What Do I Know’ and ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ are forgettable in less interesting ways – they’re bland, generic and verging on kitsch. But at least these songs are politely bad. Ed took a year off before recording ‘Divide’ to go travelling, and in its weakest moments the album plays like a kind of Gap Year Travelogue where he bruises the surface of one culture before sailing on to the next destination. ‘Barcelona’ features Spanish guitar and a vaguely Mediterranean vocal chant whilst ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’ is called, well, ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’, and here Ed borrow’s Paul Simon’s exact intonation and some vaguely African guitar licks to riff on some ‘deep’ themes about throwing up on car seats and making mistakes. Yep, It’s pretty bad.

But there’s more imagination here than he may be given credit for. Imagination In the sense that he could be churning out the same generic hooks and production tricks as every other huckster with one eye on Spotify. Sheeran’s references are at least pretty unique for someone in his influential position. At the end of the day, barring some kind of surprise Adele release, ‘Divide’ will be the biggest selling album of this, and possibly next, year. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best album of the year, or even the best Ed Sheeran album, but there are worse albums than one that conveys love and positivity with no filter through classic songwriting, and a heartening mix of tradition and subtle invention.

6/10

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Surfer Blood ‘Snowdonia’ – Review

10 Mar

Surfer Blood were once gloriously unencumbered by complication. Their music first gained kudos in the beautiful summer of 2010 when their lo-fi pop-rock singled them out as a young Weezer for the chill-wave generation. For a hot minute it looked like they might actually fulfill that ambition as well. Debut album, ‘Astro Coast’ owned the hyped and its follow up e.p ‘Tarot Classics’ upped the stakes and polished the grimy surface. Nobody was surprised when they then signed to a major label and were earmarked to work with Gil Norton – this was wish fulfilment aligning with common sense.

Then the proverbial hit the fan. Big time. In a series of events that still aren’t entirely clear, lead singer John Paul Pitts was accused of domestic battery. The charges were contested and later dropped but that kind of fog doesn’t clear easily. The controversy was increased by songwriting and posturing that seemed tone deaf to potentially ackward implications – a boy flexing his muscles on the album cover, lyrical references to being ‘true blue’ and ‘squeezing blood’ etc. Things went from bad to much worse last year when guitarist Thomas Fekete tragically lost his battle with Cancer. It’s understandable that with all this STUFF, their music gets somewhat ignored.

If all this feels like a whole tonne of context then that’s because new album ‘Snowdonia’ is pretty much all context. You can’t escape your preconceptions of what Surfer Blood have done or what they’ve become. But if you’re expecting new album ‘Snowdonia’ to be one long apologia then you’re going to be pleasantly surprised/disappointed. This music tries so hard to return to the band’s unfussy roots that any background details feel somehow lose significance. ‘Snowdonia’ is a breezy listen, clocking in at just over half an hour, it contains the warmest melodies and stickiest hooks Surfer Blood have recorded since their post debut e.p.

On ‘Frozen’ Pitts seems to burn the type of major label execs they must have encountered at Warner Bros. ‘Roll your sleeves to show off your tattoos/ He’s great friends with Seymour Stein, I never knew’. That whole experience didn’t end well for the group and they address that disappointment as well: ‘And in an instant everything was lost, Seems like somebody got their wires crossed.’ But the song ends positively: ‘Your free trial is ending soon, either way it won’t stop the birds from singing.’ The song’s breezy tone and laid back melody match this positive outlook that is consistent through the album. Even on the elegiac ‘Burning flags in F and G’, Pitt’s processes his grief through euphoric remembering of past glories.

The album does lack some of the qualities that their debut had in spades – urgency and an emphatic sense of purpose. But then those qualities can so often boil over into aggression – something no doubt Pitts Is doing his best to steer clear of these days. And so ‘Snowdonia’ has all the temper of warm bath. It’s gentle, sixties inspired guitar licks and sunny day harmonies hint at renewed calmness in the face of understandable anxiety and grief. The lyrics are somewhat less ambiguous in laying out Pitts aims. Album opener states “In a world so full of murky intentions, we’ll make ourselves a home.” He’s largely true to that promise and carves out a quietly interesting space in a field of homage indie rock acts.

It’s therefore ironic, or perhaps fitting, that a band who have made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years should make such a modest and unfussy record. ‘Snowdonia’ may not live up to what we once hoped for from this band but it’s a whole lot better than we might have anticipated just a couple of years ago. In 2017 it sits quite nicely on its own terms, freed from the shackles of the band’s past and uninterested in making ambitious promises for the future. In that sense it’s the first Surfer Blood album not to make forward glances or backward stares. It simply is what it is – A laid back and enjoyable rock record at a time when those are increasingly scarce.

7/10

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