Archive | July, 2017

Arcade Fire ‘Everything Now’ – Review

31 Jul

‘Everything Now’ begins with its one, shining, glorious moment of transcendence. The title track, ‘Everything Now’, is a pristinely designed piece of social commentary that manages to duvtail it’s articulate message with a killer four to the floor beat. In four minutes of blissful pop, Win Butler dissects one intrinsic problem with contemporary culture – namely the sense of entitlement and desire to have what you want, when you want it – and makes you want to dance it out. He is empathetic, particularly during the moving third verse, without being condescending. He calls himself out on his complicity during the chorus where he yells ‘I want it! I need it! I can’t live without everything now!’ Meanwhile the music, a post-modern fusion of slick pop, disco and orchestral pomp overseen by Daft Punk’s Tomas Bangalter, Invites the rabid consumption that Butler sings about whilst also embodying its own lyric; ‘every song I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.’ It sounds like your favourite Abba, Daft Punk and Arcade fire songs rolled in to one.

If the album was as flawless as its lead track, it would be a modern masterpiece. Realistically though, it couldn’t possibly live up and it doesn’t. In fact that song’s success simply serves to highlight the other songs inadequacies. Which to some may beg the question; how did a band who managed to get ‘Everything Now’ so right on a micro level manage to drop the ball on a macro level? It has everything to do with tone, repetition and overkill; labouring on targets that have already been effectively shot. Where ‘Everything Now’ (the song) is insightful and enlightened, at later points the album is preachy and out of touch. On the single Win Butler sounds emotionally invested and empathetic but elsewhere he is coldly detached and rap-sings in an often patronising tone. The central point being made on the single is an original one but its strung out past breaking point throughout the album, to the extent that it ultimately feels hamfisted and misjudged.

Most of what else Arcade Fire get right arrives immediately after ‘Everything Now’. ‘Signs of Life’ is another laser cut disco number that draws you to the floor with minimal fuss. Then comes the problematic but addictive ‘Creature Comfort’, which has already come in for a critical beating, with one triggered critic calling it callous and malignant. Whilst no reasonable listener would go that far, Butler’s disconnected, ambiguous tone and heavy handed lyrics do rather sour what is actually a glorious carcophony of New Wave nods and New Order-esque flourishes. The song is ostensibly about a young fan’s fight with depression. In the end, despite his unwelcome sanctimoniousness, Butler’s point is a probably valid one – some young people are feeling inadequate, entitled and levels of teen suicide and depression are going up. But this is a big, multifaceted topic, one that surely warrants more careful thought and consideration than Butler seems willing or able to provide in these four minutes. It gives off the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Butler is tactlessly using a story of a young fan’s depression to the band’s advantage; sliding it nonchalantly into a song as a kind of structural device being used to sell a larger argument about society’s ills. The fact he delivers in the lyrics in a retro rap certainly doesn’t help sell his conviction. Perhaps that’s unfair – the song does end with a heart tugging couplet; ‘it’s not painless, she was a friend of mine, we’re not nameless’. He is also involving himself when he sings ‘on and on, we don’t know what we want’ – so he’s not above caring, as some people seem to be reading into it. And while the lyrics may be clumsy, Arcade Fire have never sounded as dynamic or energised.

After ‘Creature Comfort’ things get a lot more patchy. There are some decent songs (‘Peter Pan’ is engaging, ‘Electric Blue’ has a catchy hook, ‘Put your Money on Me’ is a nice low key moment) and a couple of real duds (I think it’s universally agreed the reggae tinged ‘Chemistry’ is awful and ‘Good God Damn’ is as sleepy as Arcade Fire have ever sounded). But even the bad songs have been Immaculately produced so that nothing really feels like a chore. Despite having the same number of tracks as ‘Reflektor’, the album is half an hour shorter which speaks to just how absurdly bloated the songs on ‘Reflektor’ were but also how streamlined ‘Everything Now’ is. An effort has clearly been made to make these songs as accessible as possible.

The album peaks for one last time during ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, which sounds brilliant and harks back to the more sentimental songs in the band’s back catalogue. Once again though, the song is rather let down by faux-insightful lyrics that vaguely discuss faith, social disconnect and a pervasive numbness. Butler again uses depression and religious imagery as tokenistic, throw away devices – like he’s Bono in a pulpit. If he’d just take a step back he’d see that he doesn’t need the sanctimoniousness to engage his already willing audience. He has the melody, the drama and a great band behind him. He just requires a lighter touch.

Arcade fire have always been a high stakes band and they at least wear ‘Everything Now’s didacticism and moralising more lightly than they did on ‘Suburbs’ and ‘Reflektor’. This time it’s their commitment to concept that is ultimately their biggest undoing – partly because three quarters of the album is made redundant by the perfection of the opening five minutes. They nail it totally on the title track, they should move on. Instead they spend the next 40 minutes repeating, reiterating and labouring the point in increasingly less interesting ways. They also give too much credence to ideas that are far better in theory than in practice – starting and closing the album with two halves of the same song for example, or putting two versions of another song, one punk and one easy listening, at the centre of the record simply to play on the pun ‘infinite content/infinitely content’. The phrase ‘too clever for your own good’ comes to mind.

These concerns are nothing new. In fact Arcade Fire have been mining this same ground and exploring the same themes since the very beginning. The first track on their first album was about escaping from the pressurising demands of society. Track two on that album was about a guy who isolated himself by walking out in to the woods. Arcade Fire have always sought answers to the big questions and risked pomposity in doing so, but perhaps it was easier to root for them on ‘Tunnels’ or ‘Laika’ when they were all about heart on sleeve sincerity, earnest chorus chants and quiet in the library aesthetics. Perhaps on ‘Everything Now’ they’re simply trying to hard to apply new contexts to old ideas; no longer the underdogs but the major label funded kingpins, it simply doesn’t pay off.

Then, frustratingly, there’s serious concerns about the irony that has been creeping in to their shtick for a while now, since the ‘Neon Bible’ days if we’re honest. Mostly it played out here on their exhausting and distracting media rollout for ‘Everything Now’ – a campaign so meta and cynical it made Father John Misty drool in envy. I won’t reflect on that PR disaster here, I think I’ve dragged this out for long enough, but doesn’t it make you long for the days when Arcade Fire had their feet on the ground and eyes to the sky, instead of having their heads up there? You’d probably have to go back to their often overlooked debut e.p to find the last time the band were truly unencumbered by ideas of grandiosity. That record is a wonderful tonic to ‘Everything Now’, as its refreshingly simple, open hearted and optimistic. They were still asking big questions then – and just about every song referenced running away or finding solitude – but they didn’t claim to have the answers. ‘Everything Now’s biggest sin is asking those same questions and answering them for their audience.



Haim ‘Something to Tell You’ – Review

27 Jul

Five years ago Haim sounded like a dreamy revelation. Their seamless blend of pop, rock and r&b was nothing new but the way they presented it, with contemporary production and bags of personality, certainly was. Their sound referenced and borrowed from the 1980s without being overly reverential, and they took as much from Kanye West as they did Fleetwood Mac. Their innovation was both a blessing and a curse in the long run as in ‘Days Are Gone’s’ aftermath plenty of other artists borrowed its template quite exactingly, from the relatively obscure (Bleachers, Carley Rae Jenson) to the inescapable (Taylor Swift, Brandon Flowers). So where to go from there? The stick or twist dilemma is nothing new for bands on their second album but it’s certainly a bit of a problem (albeit a good one) when your established sound is so recognisable and has been so influential.

For the most part Haim don’t do anything too drastic. Essentially they retain the soft rock, candy coated riffs and bubbling harmonies that were at the heart of ‘Days Are Gone’ whilst zooming in closer on the stylistic choices that were only hinted at last time around. This is not unusual sophomore album territory, and the album’s successes and failures are typical of any number of sequels. Individual influences are inflated and expanded upon – for example ‘Walking Away’ is an out and out r&b song and ‘Little of Your Love’ goes full on pop. On the whole these choices are logical and pay off; they convincingly demonstrate a range and ambition that was previously only implicit. Pleasingly, these moments of unadulterated adventure are actually the strongest on the record.

Ariel Rechtshaid is back behind the boards, and as one of the most impressive producers of the past decade, his distinctive style largely contributed to the success of Haim’s debut. Here though we may have reached saturation point. There is barely a snare sound, vocal, riff or synth line that hasn’t been pitch distorted, bent, warped or manipulated in some way. The collage of digital sounds is simply too overwhelming and too often distracts from the central melody or idea. ‘Days Are Gone’ sounded like a breath of fresh air but too often ‘Something To Tell You’ blows you away with a gust of noise. If the production hadn’t been so fussy and overpowering it might be easier to fall in love with the album but truth be told there are other concerns as well.

The song titles on Side A of ‘Something to Tell You’, don’t so much hint at the album’s subject as knock you around the head with it. ‘Want YOU back’, ‘Ready For YOU’, ‘Something to tell YOU’, ‘YOU Never Knew’, ‘Little of YOUR Love.’ The repetitive use of second person pronoun conveys the single mindedness, and perhaps lack of originality, that define’s the record’s lyrical concerns. Each and every song focuses on an aspect of love, usually from the perspective of a jilted lover and usually directed at the guilty party. Whilst Haim’s lyrics (all aspects of songwriting, including lyrics, are a group effort) are somewhat free of imagination they serve a typical purpose. They ask the listener to think about dynamics of a relationship that they perhaps hadn’t considered before. But they do so vaguely. Perhaps it would be more effective if the group weren’t so quick to rely on cliches to convey their messages. Looking back on a relationship they observe ‘we were one endless road’. As they eyeball the demise of said relationship they say ‘it’s slipping away’. Almost every line in every chorus feels expected which rather undoes the impact. The lack of originality doesn’t necessarily get in the way of these songs connecting with the listener but you’d expect more from three sisters who stand out from the crowd in so many other respects.

Perhaps that’s the great shame of ‘Something to Tell You’ – Haim play to very familiar archetypes, without doing much to imprint their own riotous personality. Instead they leave it to Ariel Rechtshaid (who has been helped extensively by Rostam Batmanglij) to pick up the pieces with a frazzling production that overwhelms the songs. This is an enjoyable album but at its core is a great one that has been undervalued and overcooked.



Coldplay ‘Kaleidoscope’ – Review

18 Jul

Despite essentially being a companion release to last year’s middling ‘A Head Full of Dreams’, ‘Kaleidoscope’, Coldplay’s new five track e.p, serves a more wide reaching purpose. In some ways it works as a suitable primer for Coldplay’s nearly two decades deep discography.

‘All I Can Think About You’ is a glorious throwback to the ‘Clocks’ era incarnation of the band, where sky scraping melodies are bedded in with moody piano riffs with minimal fuss. The less successful ‘Aliens’ reunites the band with Brian Eno for a re-run of their ‘Viva La Vida’ experimentation. Gratifyingly, the song’s political theme raises the stakes on the shallow sentiment of the band’s last album. Big Sean duet ‘Miricles’ reminds us that modern day Coldplay love to recruit celebrity names (see also, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Chainsmokers) for cheesy collaborations. This one isn’t too bad though. The, well, hypnotic, ‘Hypnotised’ emerges and disappears from memory without making any kind of mark. And then we’re left with the awful ‘Something Just Like This’, here presented as an elongated live version, presumably because everyone who has heard the original either already has it downloaded or never wants to hear it again. The live version does the hit some favours in that it diminishes the headache inducing EDM thud thud production and uses the audience as an enthusiastic endorsement of the song – but they surely can’t persuade me it’s anything other than banality of the most mind numbing variety.

‘Kaleidoscope’ is about the least surprising release of the year in a couple of senses. It’s a Coldplay e.p and it sounds exactly like a Coldplay e.p. Nothing more, nothing less. If you like Coldplay you will like ‘Kaleidoscope’. If you don’t like Coldplay then you won’t like Kaleidoscope. Secondly, it is after all only an e.p and is as slight and insubstantial as that title would suggest. Even Coldplay’s most passionate fans won’t be claiming it to be anything revelatory. By my reckoning, of the five songs only one is a real winner (‘All I can Think About Is You’) and only one is dreadful (‘Something Just Like This’). The rest are nice, inoffensive, unexceptional post-pop Coldplay songs that will float by nicely in the background next time you have some housework to do.



Calvin Harris ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’ – Review

17 Jul

Calvin Harris’ recent run of fine form has been surprising to say the least. Earlier this year he put out the EDM regurgitation ‘My Way’, then a couple of months later, seemingly out of nowhere, came ‘Slide’, the Frank Ocean collaboration that bested anything contained on Ocean’s own ‘Blonde’. It was logical to look past Harris and credit Ocean with this song’s success – after all, this type of graceful melody and effortless vocals were already familiar to fans of ‘Chanel Orange’. Of course, appreciation was shown to Harris for coaxing Ocean out of his indulgent and pretentious phase and into making his purest pop expression in ages, but the plaudits went to Frank.

A month later came the Pharrel/Ariana Grande/Young Thug collaboration ‘Heatwave’ and it was suddenly harder to look past Calvin Harris’s own contribution. Of course Ariana sounded as beautiful as ever, Young Thug turned in his most memorable verses to date and Pharell’s Stevie Wonder impression was on point, but more than that, it sounded like a personal achievement in substance over style for Calvin Harris. Third single, and Future collaboration, ‘Rollin’, with its remarkably lucid (for Future at least) verses and catchy chorus, confirmed that the first singles weren’t flukes and Harris was indeed on to a winning formula. This is borne out by the album as a whole: ten largely glorious, lightly touched pop nuggets that sparkle in the summer sun. He described ‘Funk Wav Bounces’ as ‘feel INCREDIBLE’ music and it’s hard go argue.

The drops have been, err dropped, and the arrangements sound sleeker and more nuanced. Bluntly speaking, Harris seems less interested in dragging you to the dance floor and more interested in seducing the listener. The beats are less obnoxious and more slinky, the synths are less siren-like and more shimmery. True to the title, there’s a G-Funk lilt to the record that makes it the natural soundtrack for a summer barbecue. It’s not dissimilar to what Daft Punk achieved on ‘Random Access Memories’, if that album has ten ‘Get Lucky’s’ and less of the proggy detours. Every song is expertly designed to put a smile on your face.

Calvin Harris has given us glimpses of his true capability before: his often overlooked debut ‘Acceptable In the 80s’ was a fairly insubstantial but enjoyable blend of electro and indie influences, not dissimilar to what LCD soundsystem or Hot Chip were doing at the time. Second album ‘Ready For the Weekend’ was more forgettable; a 90’s house revival record short on nuance and big on beats. After that he transformed in to a full on chart monster, where shades and subtleties became increasingly difficult to find. Undeniable bangers like ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Dance Wiv Me’ lost impact when lined up alongside each other on the albums or a DJ’s playlist. For every ‘We Found Love’ there was a ‘What You Came For’, for every ‘Dance Wive Me’, a ‘Holiday’. As other producers became unfathomably infatuated with noxious elements he was largely responsible for popularising – the drop, for example – he started being blamed for the inescapable rise of EDM.

Maybe it’s this pressure to perform to a standard he set for others that has made him reassess his music’s purpose, but more likely it’s the realisation that big beat EDM ran its course a while ago. His last album ‘Motion’ was fittingly called because Harris really was going through the motions – and with diminishing returns (two songs failed to reach the top 10 – unheard of for him). Call him what you like but he’s always been an astute trend spotter and on ‘Funk Wav Bounces’ he wisely sidesteps the one he started in the first place.

Perhaps he feels that as he’s taken responsibility for his music’s failures in the past, he now deserves credit for its success. Therefore he rightfully makes a big deal about his exact role on ‘Funk Wav Bounce’. In the extensive liner notes he credits each and every instrument he personally played on the record – and there’s a lot of them. He’s also uploaded videos to YouTube, meticulously demonstrating how each song was constructed. One of the negative side effects of this promotion strategy is that it reveals the conceit and naked ambition behind each song. In its weaker moments you suspect that Harris has merely swapped one successful but tired formula for a more credible, but equally popular, one.  ‘Feels’, with a phoned in Pharrel verse and Katy Perry chorus, is too on the nose for its own good; Harris’ calculating intent suddenly feeling uncomfortably transparent. Similarly the Mark Ronson-aping ‘Cash Out’, with none too subtle appearances from Schoolboy Q and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and the vacuous ‘Skirt On Me’ with Nicki Minaj, try far too hard to attain Song of the Summer status.

But of course this is the bed Calvin Harris has made for himself – he’s ultimately only as good as the people he collaborates with. This must be grating. In pitchfork’s review of ‘Slide’ they barely mentioned Harris and dished all the praise out to Frank Ocean, yet if the song had failed you can guarantee where the blame would have lay. To most listeners, Calvin Harris is an irrelevance; a faceless musical manipulator who you wouldn’t be able to identify in a police lineup. But considering the amount of work that he personally put into ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’, you have to conclude that in future he will want more than that. He won’t want to rely on collaborators who will ultimately either steal the glory or ruin his instrumentals. He co-wrote, and was the sole player and producer, of every song here and has managed to make dozens of diverse talents sound like natural bedfellows whilst maintaining a singular aesthetic style. If you think that’s easy then listen to DJ Khaled’s sprawling and tasteless new album to see how badly it can go wrong. Make no mistakes, Calvin Harris deserves credit for ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’ and if he doesn’t get it then on Vol.2 he may decide on giving himself a more prominent role.



Lorde ‘Melodrama’ – Review

10 Jul

The classic disco acts of the 1970s had two aims, that often played out simultaneously: to make you dance and make you cry. This is a duality that Lorde understands explicitly. Her sophomore album ‘Melodrama’ references the act of dancing seven times, in a variety of contexts: literally ‘…on the light up floor’), metaphorically(‘…with the truth’), cryptically (‘…with all the heartache’) and as a unifying act ‘…with us’). Meanwhile the beats provided by a range of producers (including Lorde herself) are slinky and seductive, drawing you to either an imagined or real dance floor. It’s no surprise that this week she described the album as her thesis on the subject. Crying is mentioned just a couple of times, but the record physically moves you to tears at several crucial points. The dramatic coda of ‘Hard Feelings’ teases out unanticipated emotion from the line ‘I still remember how we’d drift buying groceries, how you’d dance for me/I’ll start letting go of little things till I’m so far away from you’. Her description of dancing with an imaginary companion on ‘Liability’ is equally evocative.

Dancing and crying are two things teenagers spend a lot of time doing, and this is an album that can be precisely called a coming of age record. Written during the dreg end of her teenage years, ‘Melodrama’ draws upon a house party and a break up as chief sources of inspiration. Her debut ‘Pure Heroine’ was a hook heavy, addictive record that inevitably saw the precocious 16 year old over reaching at a range of weighty subjects that were sometimes beyond her years. The best moments were the ones that drew from the most personal and universal emotions – the small town angst that informed ‘Team’, the growing pains of ‘Ribs’. On ‘Melodrama’ she draws exclusively from this personal experience, using a narrower palette to much greater effect.

‘Melodrama’ bests ‘Pure Heroine’ in almost every sense. Fundamentally Lorde’s writing is more ambitious, assured and confident, both in what she says and how she chooses to say it. Her style of singing is multifaceted – she sounds vulnerable one minute and on the warpath the next. Crucially, she is now living the subject matter rather than just commenting on or observing. The pain is localised and she is able to convey her emotion with clear control of mood and tone, which reflects in the music as well as the lyrics..

The production on ‘Pure Heroine’ was distinctively minimalist, which rendered key tracks like ‘Royals’ and ‘Tennis Court’ as sharp and unnerving, but made the less memorable final third a bit lacking. The tone shifts far more frequently on ‘Melodrama’, meaning that it keeps your attention from start to finish. Piano ballads like ‘Liability’ and ‘Writer in the Dark’ are placed carefully between four to the floor anthems and psychedelic pop nuggets. Occasionally Lorde flies a little too close to the sun; for example the blatant Kate Bush-isms in the chorus of the aforementioned ‘Writer in the Dark’ spoil what is otherwise a nuanced and daring song. For the most part though Lorde has produced an irresistible pop record that sounds like nobody else out there. Consider Max Martin’s response to lead single ‘Green Light’, which he described as ‘incorrect pop’. He meant it as a sort of back handed compliment.

The original French definition of melodrama was of ‘a romantic and sensational dramatic piece with a happy ending’. Lorde is certainly embracing romance and sensationalism in the final song ‘Perfect Places’ (‘if they keep telling me where to go, I’ll blow my brains out to the radio’) but it’s not really a happy ending – more a final epiphany. Life is a futile quest for perfect places that we are promised but will never arrive at. The album’s title ‘Melodrama’ hints at this realisation and also her perfectly timed self awareness that doubles as a defence mechanism. She calls out herself, and her complexities, before anyone else can. She does it throughout the album(most brilliantly on ‘Liability’). Teenage girls are frequently labelled as melodramatic because it’s the easiest and most efficient put-down at hand. Here Lorde goes some way to reclaim the tag for her own generation – not in a self defeating way but as an acceptance that an embrace of heightened emotion is a necessity for surviving your teenage years. It’s amazing that Lorde has the emotional intelligence to realise this at such a young age, and document that realisation on such a vibrant and dynamic record.