Archive | April, 2017

Gorillaz ‘Humanz’ – Review

30 Apr

Over the past two decades and five albums, Gorillaz have created their own demonic, melancholic, star-studded world. If you’re already a signed up member, you’ll find a lot to love on ‘Humanz’, a typically madcap entry in to their discography. The tempos are faster, the grooves are slinkier and the sonic palette is more modern but it’s surprising how distinctively recognisable Gorillaz albums continue to be. ‘Humanz’ really does sound at one with ‘Plastic Beach’, ‘Gorillaz’, ‘The Fall’ and particularly ‘Demon Days’. There isn’t anything else out there that sounds quite like this. That’s even more commendable when you consider the vast quantity of guests Damon Albarn collaborated with – this time he hooked up with the likes of De La Soul, Danny Brown, Grace Jones, D.R.A.M and Benjamin Clementine.

Of course, as with past efforts, some collaborations bare juicer fruits than others (for my money ‘Strobelite’ ft. Peven Everett and ‘Submission’ ft. Kelela are the highlights, whilst ‘We Got the Power’ ft. Noel Gallagher and Jenny Beth feels like the biggest missed opportunity). The record well and truly runs out of steam after ‘Busted and Blue’, when the tempos slow down and the overcast mood becomes slightly too oppressive. It’s no shock to learn that when pitching the album to potential collaborators Damon called the album a ‘soundtrack for a party at the end of the world’. All Gorillaz records have been similarly apocalyptic, not to mention too long, too scatterbrained and too bleak – that’s part of their appeal to many fans, who will no doubt lap ‘Humanz’ up.

If this Is an imagined soundtrack for an end of the world party, then Damon himself plays the nagging parent, putting a downer on the vibe. Almost every time he opens his mouth he brings the mood down. It’s particularly noticeable on ‘Let Me Out’, where Mavis Staples and Pusha T’s synergy is interrupted by one of his typically lethargic melodies. This is similarly true of ‘Saturnz Bars’, where a usually irrepressible Popcaan gets dragged down by one of the sleepiest choruses Damon’s ever concocted. This disconnect between Damon and his collaborators is jarring, and the better songs songs on here are the ones where his presence is minimised.

Or indeed, brought to the forefront. The highlight of ‘Plastic Beach’ (still Gorillaz most well rounded effort) was the gorgeous ‘Melonholy Hill’ – essentially a Damon Albarn solo track. Here the equivalent number is ‘Busted and Blue’, a minimalistic number with a beautifully sad melody given an understated performance. The song highlights the album’s theme of disconnection (from political leaders and the world at large) and undercuts the cartoon group’s association with technology by emphasising real love over computer love. ‘Where do they come from, the wires that connect us…I can’t get back without you, be my love.’ It’s a message also reiterated in the album’s dying seconds when Damon reunites with his one time enemy Noel Gallagher’ to proclaim ‘we got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens, we got the power for that’. It’s an encouraging message that overrides the album’s prevalent cynicism, made more powerful because of Noel and Damon’s shared history. If those two rivals can build such a positive bridge then there truly is hope for all Humanz.



Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’ – Review

24 Apr

Kendrick’s Lamar’s new mantra is ‘What happens on Earth stays on Earth.’ We hear it again and again on his impressive new album ‘Damn’ and it signals the clear intent behind the record. This is a knotted, spiritual album that acts like a clearing out of the junk of the soul prior to entry to a higher realm. The God frequently referenced on the album is the Old Testament God and Kendrick’s beliefs are not fashionable, evangelical or simplistic. He references curses, punishments and exile, and makes his sins (and their consequences) abundantly clear. Even more so than on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, he’s talking from the depths of despair to a stained society. But ‘Damn’ was released on Good Friday for a reason, and thus Kendrick also gives glimpses of redemption.

In contrast to the opulent ‘TPAB’, on ‘Damn’ Kendrick goes direct – as if extravagant jazz arrangements and expansive funk samples are an indulgence we can’t afford in the Trump era. The truths delivered are sharper, clearer and pointed – the backdrops hit just as hard. Lamar is talking to a mainstream audience in language they will understand. The beats are thicker, harder and heavier. The samples draw more from soul and r&b. There are DJ scratches and drops that hark back to the late 80s, courtesy of the legendary Kid Capri. Nothing is unprecedented but that feels inclusive rather than disappointing; it may lack the musical flair of ‘Untitled Unmastered’ and ‘TPAB’, or the dark, distinctive atmosphere of ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, but it turns out Kendrick does old skool hip hop just as well as anybody.

To Pimp a Butterfly’ was structured around a poem that was revealed line by line in between the tracks. There is no such framing device here, although repetition is once again used to tie thoughts together. Samples of a Fox News debate about the social influence of Hip Hop are deployed throughout the record. One inflammatory extract comes courtesy of political commentator Geraldo Rivera who says ‘hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years’. Kendrick Lamar imagined this album as the most appropriate response. It froths with an anger and vulgarity that already has Rivera doubling down on his position. But equally there is unparalleled intelligence, imagination and integrity that you’d like to think would surprise the Fox News talking heads. The songs are sequenced to create a dialogue; they sing to each other. So ‘Humble’ follows ‘Pride’, ‘Love’ follows ‘Lust’ and ‘Duckworth’ follows ‘God’. All roads lead to ‘Fear’, the longest, most ambitious song on the record and the culmination of all the questioning and internal wrestling.

When Kendrick Lamar is at his best (and he’s at his absolute, fiery best on at least half these cuts) there is nobody in Hip Hop, Pop, Poetry or culture at large who can currently match him. Everyone else in the game should be exhausted just trying to keep up. Unfortunately, at times, Kendrick is slowing down and mimicking their moves – perhaps trying to let the crowds get a better look. On the (thankfully not included) stand alone single ‘The Heart IV’, Kendrick sounded out a siren call to the opposition. He’s clearly keeping tabs. And If he doesn’t call them out directly on ‘DAMN’ they he certainly tips them his hat. ‘Love’ is the worst offender; a diminished ode to such a grand topic that almost seems to say ‘anything Drake can do I can do better’. ‘Loyalty’ is another frustratingly slight and insubstantial song that features a guest appearance from Rihanna, who can’t muster a hook worth savouring. On ‘God’ (another title deserving of more than it receives) his casual drawl falls at the exact halfway point between Future’s and Young Thug’s. And I’m not the only person who hasn’t been sold on ‘Humble’ (alhough it is currently number one in the States). The song’s demanding, patronising tone has upset some feminists while his repeated use of the word ‘bitch’ in the refrain feels below someone of his intelligence.

If these concessions to mainstream tastes and lesser rappers are disappointing then they shouldn’t distract from what is largely a singular release from a true individual. Part of Kendrick’s talent is his vocal versatility – he’s always enjoyed trying on masks and subtly shifting tones, moods and his cadence. But he’s always best when he plays himself. On a physical level, nobody else could come close to matching the ferocity of Kendrick’s delivery on ‘DNA’, his sheer verbal dexterity on ‘XXX’ or the way constant rhymes and half rhymes trip of his tongue with such apparent ease (often flaunting natural onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration in the process).

Back to that central masterpiece, ‘Fear’; what exactly is Kendrick scared of? Well, what have you got. He lists his fears in all caps on the track listing – ‘LOVE’, ‘PRIDE’, ‘LUST’, ‘DNA’, ‘DUCKWORTH’ (himself), and ‘GOD’. Mainly God. ‘Damn’, used as a verb, is something that God does. Damned, is how Kendrick feels. But closer to home, we live in a world where we damn each other as well. Constantly. Maybe one explains the other and vice versa. Kendrick is trapped in one such cycle. It’s a complex idea that Kendrick spends an hour unpacking. He contemplates salvation whilst staring down the gun of temptation; speaks of his sins in crude terms over explosive beats; preaches forgiveness whilst chastising enemies; Acknowledges his flaws even while flaunting them. He states it most clearly on ‘DNA’; ‘I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.’ As I say, this album is Kendrick’s decluttering of the soul and an acknowledgement of his inherent (human) contradictions. It’s his attempt to come to terms with the ballers, Fox News, critics, gangs, God – but perhaps most importantly, himself.



Father John Misty ‘Pure Comedy’ – Review

17 Apr

Let’s get something clear to start with – Father John Misty is an incredible talent. His singing voice is angelic and his instinct for harmony (as exemplified with both Fleet Foxes and in his solo work) is almost unparalleled in contemporary indie rock. At his best he’s also a brilliant lyricist; sharp, imaginative, funny, incisive and often extraordinarily insightful. All these skills coalesced in 2015 on the excellent ‘I Love You Honeybear’, a record that struck a very fine balance between cynicism and enthusiasm, disillusionment and passion.

There was one outlier, both musically and lyrically, that left a more sour taste. The miserable ‘Bored in the U.S.A’ was more overtly political than the other tracks. Over moody piano noodling, canned laughter and opulent strings, Misty sarcastically saluted the flag. It sounded misjudged in the context of that album, and the last thing anyone walked away from it thinking was “can we please have a whole record of that.” But with ‘Pure Comedy’ that’s what we’ve received. A whole 74 minutes of it.

Outwordly, this is a record about how messed up the world is. Really though, it’s all about Josh Tillman himself. You might really dislike him, and he knows it, so he’s going to get in there first. As he told the guardian last month, “I’m not bamboozled by the fact that people are disgusted by me. I’m not my biggest fan either.” This forms part of his complicated defence mechanism. He makes self awareness seem like an almost chronic disability. He already has an answer for every criticism, and then he raises you one. Reading his interviews is exhausting, and keeping up with him on this album is no easier. The problem is, if you’re going to preach a political sermon about how crummy everything is, you better make the congregation like you first. Misty doesn’t seem bothered if people like him; In fact he seems to actively court unpopularity. Taking down music critics, and even Ryan Adams, is one thing, but Taylor Swift as well? And what had 6music djs Ratcliffe and Maconie done to cause him upset?

One thing that radiates in abundance on ‘Pure Comedy’ is Misty’s scorn for the human race. ‘Not bad for a bunch of demented monkeys’, he barks tellingly on ‘Total Entertainment Forever’. The way he talks about his fellow humans on the title track- sneeringly as ‘them’ and ‘they’ – and refers to leaders as ‘goons’ (perhaps not unfairly) as if he were above everyone else, only adds to the negative impression. ‘I Love You Honeybear’ worked so well because Misty’s sincerity bubbled below his dark humour and sarcasm. It was an internal wrestling match rendered fascinating by gorgeous melodies, harmonies and inventive arrangements. On ‘Pure Comedy’ his sincerity is inscrutable and the sheer length of the record, with its downbeat, repetitive musical ideas, makes the album feel like an unfurling, never ending nightmare. An overlong, indulgent, self obsessed, nihilistic slog, inflated with ideas of self-importance. Perhaps Misty’s tone would be more bearable if his subjects weren’t so tedious. He chooses easy targets – the religious right, superficial LA, modern art, hipsters, pop stars – and tries to take them down in the most smug ways possible. We shouldn’t be prepared to grant Father John Misty the title of Genius simply because he sits behind a piano and preaches angelically about a multitude of contemporary sins. There is nothing about ‘Pure Comedy’ that is innovative or original – nothing that Randy Newman or Paul Simon didn’t do much more smartly and savagely decades ago.

If you can stomach the sarcasm, scorn and general bad feeling then you will find Misty still has a sharp wit. When his observations carry less menace he is able to convey some interesting ideas – about narcissism in particular. Take for example ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’: the dying man in question pauses before taking his final breath and checks his news feed, to see what he is going to miss – ‘and it occurs to him a little late in the game / we leave as clueless as we came.’ Moments that so elegantly combine humour, clarity and wisdom were easy to find on ‘I Love You Honeybear’ but here they are frustratingly few. Still, listen to any given song in isolation and you’re likely to feel a whole lot more forgiving. Ive just sat through the ten minute ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’ and it sounds lush and opulent, particularly the final three minutes. But listened to sequentially, this song arrives over an hour in to the record, after a string of similarly paced, similarly ironic, similarly long, similarly moody, similarly disdainful songs. Perhaps over every other fault, that’s the most damning; the album is just too boring musically. There’s only so far that voice, those melodies, and those harmonies will take you – not as far as Father John Misty imagines.



British Sea Power ‘Let the Dancers Inherit the Party’ – Review

14 Apr

I’d completely forgotten that British Sea Power had a new album out this month; not a big deal for most people but the fifteen year old me would not be happy. British Sea Power were, for a brief time, my favourite band and the first one I saw live. They were my Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Galaxie 500 before I’d heard any of those bands. They brought something identifiably unique as well. A love for foliage and tea, wildlife and typography, trench coats and taxidermy. I loved their inclusive and progressive idea of Britishness, where tradition mixed with tolerance. I remember counting down the days to ‘Do You Like Rock Music. NOw other priorities have obscured the band from view somewhat. Adult life, with all its turbulence, is fittingly the principal theme of ‘Let the Dancers inherit the Party’.
It’s been four years since the last proper British Sea Power album but in that period they’ve toured multiple times, released a book, made to two obscure film soundtracks, reinterpreted their back catalogue with brass instrumentation and reissued their debut album in a lavish, extensive box set. As a fan it’s often been exhausting to keep up with the band’s more idiosyncratic, indulgent impulses; I’ve often wished for a return to short, direct post-punk anthems. Because – forget about all the intellectual posturing, historical lyricism and diverting interviews – British Sea Power arguably work best as an oddball rock band in the grand tradition of odball rock bands.
So it’s agreeable, in a way, that BSP’s new album is refreshingly free from gimmicks, quirks, constructs and overarching narratives. It easily counts their most straightforward record to date. They dispense with extended Post-rock jams, brass arrangements, and obscure lyrics – pitching the album as one that could logically have arrived between ‘Open Season’ (which contained two top 20 singles!) and ‘Do You Like Rock Music’. For better or worse, British Sea Power have simplified and intensified with a muscular album that also shimmers brightly thanks to a bright and clean production.
Opening track ‘Bad Bohemian’ has been all over 6music playlists now for months and it’s easy to see why. It strikes just the right balance between smart and accessible. The gasping intro to ‘International space station’ also sounds readymade for a football focus compilation, while ‘Keep on Trying’ could almost pass for a recent Coldplay song, it’s so euphoric and trebly. These songs are so much more immediate and enjoyable than anything BSP have put out this decade. But do they really stand up to the old classics? One consequence of returning to a signature sound is that new flaws and failings are brought into greater contrast. Like trying on an old outfit and realising it no longer fits or feels in vogue. ‘Let the Dancers Inherit the Party’ often feels like this.
The album’s title might initially seem odd – if you’re anything like me, you don’t associate BSP with dancing. It is a line borrowed from a Ian Finley Harrison poem and makes more sense in the original context. The full extract reads “When I have talked for an hour I feel lousy / Not so when I have danced for an hour / The dancers inherit the party / While the talkers wear themselves out and / sit in corners alone, and glower.” And so what BSP are endorsing is doing over talking. Action over discussion. To this end, there is a distinct (but frustratingly vague) political undercurrent driving this record forwards.
Unsurprisingly for a band whose biggest hit to date served as an invitation to Eastern Europeans (‘of legal drinking age’) to come on over, a sense of Post-Brexit, Post-Trump despair looms over the album. ‘It’s sad now how the glass looks rather empty’ they sing right out the gate. Later on they exclaim ‘Kings of propaganda, won’t you take another look at all the things you’ve done.’ Quotables along these lines are easy to find but typically they never add up to anything substantial. ‘Let the Dancers Inherit the Party’ keeps up the recent BSP albums taste for intellectual waffle and pointed jabs that ultimately leave you feeling empty and unworthy. Like the very prophanda Kings they set out to take down, BSP know how to craft excellent sound bites without offering any real substance.
Some of that hollowness creeps in to the music as well, which is gorgeously rendered but lacking in originality and depth. Considering all the great work they’ve made in the past, British Sea Power sound strangely neutered here. They’ve flirted with normality before but they’ve never sounded this invested in simply going through the motions. As I said at the beginning, that aim for simplicity wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the execution is lacking in spark. Their typically unique subject matter is rendered moot by the tepid vocal delivery. The melodies are half-hated at best; echoes of great songs they’ve made before or great songs that could be, with a little more conviction. The best songs arrive in the first half, before the repetition becomes tiring and the hooks start to muddy. British Sea Power have earned the benefit of the doubt of course. As the smartest, weirdest purveyors of pop-rock and indie, they’re within their rights to aim for something as commercially accessible as this album; which could well serve as a warm invitation for newcomers and beginners to join the BSP party.



Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ – Review

2 Apr

Phil Elverum’s career has in many ways been defined by clear consistency. He has recorded music as Mount Eerie since 2003, the same year he married Genevieve Gosselin. Like waves that calmly lap on the shore, Mount Eerie records wash up every eighteen months or so, each one sounding roughly the same, and roughly as good, as the one before it. But any sense of consistency was surely disrupted in 2015 when Genevieve was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Within twelve months, Genevieve lost her battle.

This is the difficult subject matter of ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, a record that chronicles the months before and after Genevieve’s passing in uncomfortable degrees of detail. It opens with the line ‘death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not’ and gets no less direct as it progresses. This album is an open wound slowly being healed by the air. Padding the autobiographical lyrics and simple melodies are unfussy musical arrangements – usually a guitar and tepid beat to just about hold things together. Most of the instruments used belonged to Genevieve. The album was recorded in the room where she passed away.

Over the last two years we have been gifted with some of the most moving albums about grief – ‘Carrie and Lowell’, ‘Skelleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ to name just three. But even in this context, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ feels unprecedented. Its insights about coping with loss feel poetically specific and universal at the same time. With what sounds like the most delicate ease, Elverum has crafted perhaps the definitive musical examination of mourning.

The passage of time – and its ability to simultaneously heal and exasperate pain – is a key aspect of this record’s framework. The narrative is roughly chronological; Elverum often counts how many months have passed since the death, as if crossing out days on the calendar. It creates a sense of momentum, only there’s never a clear sense of what we’re moving towards. Time is creeping on, the gap between the past and present is growing, but days, and thoughts, blur into each other. He never strays far from a handful of familiar chords and melodies, whilst he often repeats the same lyrics, scratching for some kind of revelation that will make things easier. The quietly tick tocking drum beat mirrors the seconds passing in half time, the barely there vocals strain for closure. This is the dull, thick fuzz of grief.

The songs often end with a simple, direct thought that expresses grief in the rawest terms possible. ‘I Love You’, ‘Death is real’, ‘how could I live?’ Art aims to convey real or imagined experience in the hope that it elicits some kind of vivid reaction and understanding. This is what mount Eerie achieve. Art that is as brave and brutally honest as this Is in some ways the most necessary, even if it happens to be the most difficult to consume. Of course, confessional art should not get a free pass simply by the nature of its candour (I am one of many who feel Sun Kil Moon’s haphazardly autobiographical lyricism is greatly overrated). There has to be a degree of craft and contemplation, otherwise what separates art from the glut of misery memoirs and tragic life stories that clutter shelves in book stores? But not to worry, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ is the product of not just aching sincerity but also subtle craft and instinctive innovation.

There are many details of mourning that Mount Eerie manage to write about with real understanding. For example; Elverum spends much of the album seeking out and questioning signs and symbols. Contemplating if there’s any significance in the sound of a closing door, air coming through open windows, a fly buzzing around the room. Wondering if hundreds of Canadian geese on the beach, and later two Ravens flying towards the sunset, could contain any symbolism. In the final song he might finally have found what he is looking for. Hiking with his daughter, he hears the sound of a crow as they weave ‘through the cedar grove’. His daughter starts muttering ‘crow’ to herself. ‘And there you are’ Elverum sings cryptically. The record’s final line. The mysterious symbolism of the crow recalls the central metaphor in Max Porter’s recent novella, ‘Grief is a Thing With Feathers’, another piece about the grieving process written from the perspective of a young father. At points Elverum’s lucid poetry also reminds me of Sharon Olds, C.S Lewis, Mark Kozelak and John Darnielle. Yet perfectly, it’s also a distinctly unique album with no precident. ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ confronts tragedy head on and that bravery is rewarded. This is an album for the ages.