Archive | June, 2017

The Drums ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ – Review

24 Jun

Right from the beginning Jony Pierce has been adjusting to loss. On ‘submarine’ from their debut e.p, he lamented ‘I did not want to let you go but I knew that I had to.’ As time has gone on, this has become a self fulfilling prophecy. The Drums are like a Russian doll – they’re getting smaller with each new reveal. Initially a four piece, they shed their first member after inter-band squabbles whilst promoting their debut album. The trio become a duo after second record ‘Portamento’. Eventually, at some point last year, founding member Jacob Graham informed frontman Jonny Pierce that he wanted to peruse projects away from the group. Which is where we’re at now. Essentially The Drums is a solo project in everything but name.

This is a shame because it symbolises the end of something. Just as Brexit symbolised a dent in a optimistic post-war dream – representing a sense of mistrust and disillusionment that felt irrevocable – The gradual break up of The Drums undoes a modern version of the Pop dream. In 2009 the group represented the pop ideal; four handsome boys, guitars in hand, writing glorious pop songs about falling in love and having your heart broken. Their outfits referenced Americana and preppy disregard, their songs were the exact half way point between The Supremes and The Smiths. They filtered their sentiments through images of French new wave cinema and Postcard record motifs. Images of surfing, Submarines and sad summers blended with twanging bass lines and frantic rhythms. ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ announces that this wonderful embodiment of pop was always something of a sham. Jonny now claims to have written, recorded and produced most of the band’s material from the beginning. They were never really a band at all – not as such. The drama had been present, and hidden, since the start. The truth is out. The dream has corroded in to reality. Optimism has turned sour.

But ironically, rather than turning in to the disillusioned downer it had every right to be, Jonny embraces reality on ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ and has made a philosophically sophisticated, imaginative and honest record that stands shoulder to shoulder with The Drums earlier work. He confronts hard truths and an unloving world that won’t accept him for who he is. He embraces the implicit loss – of band members, of a partner – and indulges his sadness. He also tackles his complicity in these issues. For the first time he speaks as someone who has wronged as much as been wronged. There is a sense of purpose that was lacking from their last album, a sense of something to strive for. The renewed passion and commitment leads to some of the best melodies Pierece has written in years. You can really hear that he believes in what he sings. Whilst there’s nothing on here as catchy as ‘Best Friend’, ‘Lets Go Surfing’ or ‘Book of Stories’, all of these songs have memorable choruses and fizzy hooks.

Another irony is that the new found freedom has pushed Pierce further back in to his musical comfort zone. Jacob Graham’s deeper involvement on ‘Encyclopaedia’ led to some awkward experimentation and uncomfortable posturing. His departure has allowed Pierce to double down on his initial mandate of razor sharp hooks cut as simply, and vulnerably, as possible. But without having to run his ideas by a committee or represent other people, Pierce has been able to tweak the formula’s just so – this time to his own tastes. So we get unexpected delights like the jazzy saxophone break on ‘Are You Fucked’, the drum and bass inspired effects on ‘Your Tenderness’ and the trippy rhythms on ‘Heart Basel’. Brilliantly, despite these new elements, it never sounds like anyone other than The Drums.

On ‘Enyclopedia’ his tone was sometimes resentful and angry. Bitter songs like ‘Face of God’, ‘Magic Mountain’ and ‘Let Me’ were hugely unlikeable diatribes that rubbed up awkwardly against the more whimsical pop songs. Nothing here is allowed to be either that bitter or that unrooted in reality. The sense of anger has been ironed out and the fantasy has been popped like a balloon. Pierce has talked about the amount of soul searching that took place before putting pen to paper, and for once you can really believe it. When he tackles his father’s homophobia on ‘Head of the Horse’, he does so in a way that is both subtle and moving. He observes his own failures apologetically on ‘If All We Share’ and evokes sympathy without seeking it; he doesn’t seek to cast blame or draw conclusions either.

Of course, the album is brimming with typical Drums overstatement – ‘I pulled up the carpet in my room and slept on the concrete cos I knew you’ – which will not be to everyone’s taste. But this time the melodrama is cancelled out by a dose of dark humour and gritty realism. It doesn’t always pay off; the scathing ‘Rich Kids’ feels like a petulant attack, no matter how worthy a target, and the title track is four minutes of self pity that feels badly placed as a finale. But even these songs sound jubilant and exciting – the biting lyrics offset by elastic rhythms, springy guitar lines and, in the case of ‘Abysmal Thoughts’, whistles and cowbells.

In a sense the drums were the record industry’s last gasp at creating a buzz band in the image of the strokes. They received all the obvious handouts – the magazine covers, the chat show appearances, blog hype, the awards (named by both Pitchfork and NME as the best new band of 2009), but in the end this didn’t translate in to sales. Their debut peaked at 14, and everything since has failed to scrape the top 40. Their best known song, ‘Let’s Go Surfing’, is mostly recognised as the soundtrack to numerous adverts. And yet The Drums still have lasting appeal. They will appear in fairly big font on many festival line up posters this summer and ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ will receive significant attention in the music press. To many people who still believe in a lasting idea of pop music and all it represents, The Drums remain something precious to hold on to. Beaten, battered, bruised and three members down, they are still sounding as good as ever. Times have changed but The Drums, and the pop values they represent, aren’t going anywhere.

8.5/10

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Phoenix ‘Ti Amo’ – Review

19 Jun

In this time of massive social disharmony and political upheaval, there has inevitably been an increase in bands commenting on the big issues. Whether it’s through their interaction with the media, superficial lyrics or genuinely deep engagement, the upsurge has been notable. But Phoenix have made a point of looking past the current political situation. They spent a couple of years recording their new album ‘Ti Amo’ in Paris, during what was obviously a tumultuous time. They have described their record as “a safe haven we kind of built subconsciously for our own sanity”, which is either wilfully ignorant or beautifully defiant depending on your point of view. But surely Phoenix’s romanticised, inclusive, idealistic world view is worth indulging in – now more than ever. This is an album that celebrates simple pleasures and honest emotions. An album inspired by “Roman summers, jukeboxes on the beach, antique marble statues, hyper light, hyper clarity and pistachio gelato.” Decadent? Perhaps. But lush escapism is as valid as any other reaction.

Despite these admirable aims, ‘Ti Amo’s successes are mixed. Their last album was released four years ago, and so the meandering opening track and lead single ‘J Boy’ arrived as a bit of a damp squid. The song does eventually squelch its way in to your memory though, and likewise the album is something of an understated slow burner. Like the gelato they so lovingly describe in the title track’s lyrics, these are songs that gradually melt over you. The hotter the weather, the faster they will melt. The reverb drenched guitars, sun kissed synths and elastic rhythms of ‘Fleur de Lys’ and ‘Tutti Frutti’ are infectious, even if the half baked lyrics fail to penetrate. The pace slows to a sweet mush on ‘Fior di Latte’ and ‘Goodbye Soleil’, two songs that betray the massive influence of Italo Disco and French new wave pop. And as nice as these numbers are, they’re so laid back they’re almost sideways. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful that ‘Ti Amo’ is more chill than the bombastically mixed and tightly wound ‘Bankrupt’, an album so exhausting it felt like your ears were being crushed, but the better songs are the more urgent, upbeat moments such as ‘Lovelife’ and ‘tuttifruiti’.

The album’s second half is somewhat more disparate and de-spirited. ‘Role Model’ is the most uncharacteristic song on the album, with a ghostly organ clashing with sparkling beats. The song’s refrain unfortunately recalls the irresistible ‘Rome’, serving only to draw attention the new new track’s failings. ‘Via Veneto’ is a short, sparse synth number that goes nowhere. ‘Telefona’ reminds me of a recent Strokes track called ‘Threat of Joy’, which also made use of retro, down-stroked strums, cutesy synths and a one sided, conversational spoken word introduction. It’s telling that Phoenix music once echoed the Strokes very finest material and they often came over as The Strokes more sharply dressed, continental cousins. Here they are rebounding off one of the more forgettable song’s in that band’s discography.

Don’t get me wrong, ‘Ti Amo’ is a pleasant and inoffensive record. And I have no doubt whatsoever that it would sound glorious coming through those jukebox speakers, on a beach in the Roman Summer. But this is England, and however much you try and close you mind to it, bombs are going off and buildings are burning down. Ultimately, ‘Ti Amo’ fails to transport me anywhere. In brief moments, as Thomas Mars’ romantic French accent utters lovestruck Italian come ons, I’m nearly there, on that beach – but I’m never fully transported. The hooks just not hooky enough. The choruses just not persuasive enough. I vividly remember the first time I heard ‘Wolfganag Amadeus’. Every hook dug deep instantly and intensely. I went back for a second helping and didn’t stop returning for months. I mention this because after hearing ‘Ti Amo’ for the first time, I didn’t return to it, or want to, for several days. It’s lethargic, chilled out atmosphere and lazy melodies just weren’t speaking to me. They are never going to make an album as good as ‘Wolfgang Amadeus’, Recapturing lightning in a bottle is surely impossible, but as they coast down that Roman Summer highway, you feel like Phoenix could try just a little harder than this.

6.5/10

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Paramore ‘After Laughter’ – Review

15 Jun

Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter’, is on some levels the band’s most exuberant record yet. But its sparkly, shiney exterior is also a red herring; Paramore ask an interesting question – what happens when the laughter stops and could it be masking something? Despite first impressions, the album is challenging and deeply introspective. You can take the girl out of Emo but you can’t take Emo out of the girl. Contained in these pop nuggets are tear stained lyrics about a rising anxiety. The album opens with a typically forthright deceleration. ‘All I want is to wake up fine/tell me that I’m alright – I don’t want to die.’ The song’s Emo sentiments are delivered with a fizz, and the sweet/sour balance ensures the song scans as an upbeat summer anthem and not a morbid indulgence in depression. But make no mistake – this is heartfelt stuff.

From top to tail, ‘After Laughter’ is the most surprising album of 2017. I’ve long regarded Paramore as something of a joke. I dismissed them early on as a second rate, third wave Emo act. I tried again to get on board with the more tasteful ‘Paramore’ record but didn’t find anything worth sticking around for. Not that Paramore had any reason to be bothered by my lack of persistence; they have a large, loyal fan base who have stuck by the band through lineup crises, changes of sound and various controversies.

‘After Laughter’ is the consequence of all of the above. Gone is Jeremy Davis on bass whilst drummer Zac Farro returns to the fold after sitting out on the last album cycle. Upon quitting the band last time, Farro and his brother (guitarist Josh) posted a lengthy online statement that implied Hayley Williams had become a puppet of major label playmakers, who put pop goals in place of serious artistic progress. As if to shrug a ‘yeah so what’ at that point, ‘After Laughter’ is pretty much the pure pop album the Farro brothers had accused Williams of long wanting to make. It incorporates elastic grooves, twangy guitars and coca cola melodies that worm in to your ears. The clear pop punk influences of the past have evaporated almost entirely, leaving nothing but Williams’ twangy, southern accent as a reminder of past petulance.

Lyrically though, little has changed. Williams is a pessimist, to say the least – a justifiable position to hold but one that is exhausting to listen to over and over again. Here are just a handful of excerpts: ‘For all I know the best is over and the worst is yet to come’, ‘I cried till I couldn’t cry – another heart attack’, ‘I can’t think of getting old, it just makes me want to die’, ‘I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me.’ Yes, Williams truly is down in the dumps. Too often the lyrics indicate that she’s content to dwell in misery rather than confront it with any clarity or conviction. This can be frustrating. You end up agreeing with an ironic lyric on ’26’ where she says ‘man you really know how to get someone down’. Emo has always been self indulgent and whiney, that’s kind of the point, but you’re going to need a high tolerance for that stuff if you’re going to play ‘After Laughter’ on repeat.

One exception is the sophisticated ‘Idle Worship’; Williams’ tone is more reflective and her diagnosis more measured as she unpacks the fan/idol dynamic. ‘It’s such a lonely fall down from the pedestal you put me on’ she observes. ‘Grudges’ also feels more thoughtful. With a deft touch, the song tackles Williams’ relationship with Josh Farro and the bridges they built to restore a broken friendship. The song’s central epiphany is that problems are better when tackled in close company, with a healthy dose of humour. ‘We’ll laugh till we cry, like we did when we were kids, cos we can’t keep holding on to grudges.’ The laughter implied in the title doesn’t always have to be a mask – it can also be a remedy. That’s an argument also made by the music, which soars, fizzes and sparkles in a way that doesn’t allow you to dwell on life’s hardships. Who could possibly be sad when you’re having this much fun?

8/10

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Review roundup

10 Jun

Jens Leckman – ‘Life Will See You Now’

As deeply entertaining as it is entertainingly deep, little else released this year matches the pretty poetry of ‘Life Will See You Now.’ After the heartbroken ballads of his last record, Leckman’s latest collection returns to the detailed storytelling of his best work. He ingeniously narrates a young couple’s first fight, allows us to eavesdrop on the thoughts of a man secretly in love with his best friend, and recalls a conversation with a petrified bride at the wedding he was booked to perform at. The musical arrangements are typically luxurious, with generous helpings of horns, strings, accordions and even some samples. Possibly his finest achievement to date.

8/10

Slowdive – ‘Slowdive’

For their first album in nearly two decades, Slowdive have expanded their signature sound to incorporate modern textures and mature themes alongside unashamed shoegazing. It’s as good as anything they made in their heyday. Mesmerising, melodic and self assured from start to finish; it may be a cliche but it really is as though Slowdive have never been away.

8/10

Alexandra Savior – ‘Belladona of Sadness’

This is the debut album by Alexandra Savior, the young protege of James Ford and Alex Turner, and, Columbia record’s latest prospect. Savior is an undeniable talent with a silky voice and charismatic charm but she never quite shrugs off the impression that she is merely a Lana Del Rey wannabe and this merely an album of half baked Alex Turner cast-offs (Turner ‘co-wrote’ the album). The songs are good but after a while become repetitive. Moody melodies, minor chords and horror movie moves are initially intriguing but overused. Eventually even the second rate, but still brilliant, Turner-isms (‘she gets in corners where water cant’, ‘strawberry split personality’, ‘she’s scorching hot enough to hit save’) begin to grate – interesting, strung together couplets that frustratingly don’t add up to anything substantial or even coherent. Perhaps tellingly, the best song, ‘Cupid’, is the one that feels least encumbered by the Alex Turner/Lana Del Rey comparisons. It just flows so easily, with a languid melody and sweet, simple chord progression. It feels so much lighter and more natural than the rest of her material. This is the right direction. Despite my misgivings, If Savior is given the chance to now grow in to her own skin, she could be an artist to keep tabs on.

6.5/10