Archive | October, 2017

Yusuf/Cat Stevens ‘The Laughing Apple’ – Review

31 Oct

Cat Stevens has always been on the road to find out, as he once memorably put it. Whether going by that name, Steven Georgio, Yusuf Islam or, simply, Yusuf, he’s been on that same trip since the very beginning. He’s gone through many different guises, but whether ballideering as a crooner in the mould of Engelbert Humperdink, a singer songwriter in the image of James Taylor or a spiritual singer and educator of Muslims, he’s always stayed true to that enlightening quest.

‘The Laughing Apple’ finds the singer songwriter reconciling his past in a couple of ways. He’s sort of re-adopting the Cat Stevens moniker, after years of going solely under his adopted name Yusuf (rather awkwardly, the album is actually credited to Yusuf/Cat Stevens). Also, he’s revisited his earliest material; some of these songs originally appeared on his 1967 album ‘New Masters’, others are from slightly after that but have remained unreleased. Largely the re-recorded songs are superficially similar to the original recordings, but they’ve been stripped of their lavish string arrangements and Cat’s ambitious vocal performances have been scaled down. Due to this the tunes are afforded a new intimacy and immediacy. None of these songs rank alongside the classics in his back catalogue but the likes of ‘Blackness of the Night’ and ‘Mary and the Little Lamb’ are fan favourites, given loving and usually rewarding new treatments here.

These songs were written in the infancy of Yusuf’s career as Cat Stevens and the best adaptations reflect on that innocence/naivety from the perspective of experience. ‘Grandsons’ for example was initially a somewhat humorous rumination on the ageing process from the perspective of a teenager. Here it becomes a sad and sincere take on the alienation and regret of the elderly. Elsewhere though, songs fail to transcend their original incarnation. When the production becomes a little heady, as it does from time to time, the stylistic choices feel dated and un-nuanced. ‘Blackness of the Night’, for example, bursts out with with synth arpeggios that could have been dusted off from an early version of pro tools. Worst of all, the title track’s gaudy arrangement makes the song a strange pantomime when compared to the giddy drama of the original.

Essentially this is an album cut from the same cloth as Johnny Cash’s initial ‘American Recordings’ album, where the legendary Man in Black took on his past life as a hell raiser and wild man of Country music by reshaping old songs and covers from a position of experience and wisdom. Yusuf though doesn’t particularly need to reframe the picture; what these songs highlight, after all, is how little his perspective has actually changed. Anyway, his last album was the back to basic, Rick Rubin produced covers album. What would be more welcome now is a record of brand new material – the sole new songs prove that he still has the gift for warm melodies and sharp observation. As pleasant as ‘The Laughing Apple’ is, you can’t help feeling it is little more than a redundant postscript to one of the most fascinating careers in British pop.



Alvvays ‘Antisocialites’ – Review

22 Oct

Antisocialites’, the new album from Canadian indie rock band Alvvays, is exactly the kind of second album it’s difficult to get right: one that continues down the debut’s main road but finds interesting little diversions, without ever venturing too far off the beaten track. History is littered with failed sophomore records that have either been too similar to the debut, not similar enough, too rushed, too laboured over etc. The balance is so tricky to get right, especially when you have a lifetime to write the first album and a year to write the sequel. But on ‘Antisocialites’ Alvvays have achieved success in style.

The band’s self titled debut was a heady, intoxicating summer mix of folky melodies and crunchy riffs with indie pop sensibilities scattered throughout. It positioned Alvvays as an old school c86 type band come to life in the age of Spotify and Instagram. They sang melodramatically about living life to the emotional limit, burning out and blowing up. Their vintage aesthetic and melodramatic outlook are just as prominent on ‘Antisocialities’ but everything feels less amateurish and more accomplished. It lacks a water cooler classic like ‘Archie Marry Me’ but from start to finish this is a more consistently interesting record.

Rankin comes from a traditional folk background (as the daughter of the acclaimed songwriter John Rankin) and tellingly she is brilliant at shaping melodies that feel uncannily familiar, yet somehow fresh at the same time. The tunes are sticky sweet and She has has grown in to a confident singer, willing to hit high notes and bend melodies to her will. If you find cuteness cloying then a few of these songs may grate, but there’s an acidic element to her lyricism that undercuts the sweetness. Take for example a line from highlight ‘Plimsol Punks’; ‘When I chip through your candy coating you’re stuffed with insulation/Just strawberry ice cream floating with a hint of indignation’. Clever, funny, sweet but a little bit deadly.

The band burst through these songs at a Ramonic pace, pausing only here and there for a couple of show stopping, minimalistic ballads that demonstrate a more tender and heartbreaking side. ‘Dreams Tonite’ is probably the best example of this; a hazy synth ballad that finds the middle ground between Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star. Sharp synths are used ingeniously through the album, giving the album a slightly more polished sheen than ‘Alvvays’. And although occasionally the enthusiastic use of the instrument blurs the lines between the other instruments, giving songs an unnuanced fuzz that is a little unsettling, generally it adds a new flavour to Alvvays sound.

Rankin’ an astute lyricist, both superficially (rhyming unexpected phrases like ‘you and me’ with ‘rhetorically’ and ‘metaphorically’) and on a deeper level as well. She writes about well worn subjects such as love and loss in engaging and original ways. The water is a source of constant inspiration and symbolism for her – ‘You find a wave and try to hold it as long as you can’ – she sings at one point, which could be a metaphor for how Alvvays have navigated the perilous waters of the rock world. Elsewhere though water is less a guide and more a source of nostalgia, danger or romanticism. On ‘Already Gone’ the draining of a pool represents the end of summer, and more tragically, the loss of youth. On ‘Forget About Life’ drowning in the lake is a tempting last resort for a worn out soul. ‘You’re the seashell in my sandal that’s slicing up my heel’ she sings on ‘Plimsal Punks’ as she describes a walk along the beach with a frustrating lover. Even here, a seemingly innocent, pleasurable activity has an undercurrent of pain and danger. It’s another good metaphor for a band who are so much more than the cutesy, indie pin ups they might initially appear to be. ‘Antisocialites’ sounds great in any trivial circumstance but if you have greater cares or troubles, it will hold you, share with you and indulge you.



Childhood ‘Universal High’ / Superfood ‘Bambino’ – Review

16 Oct

In 2013/14 Superfood and Childhood were a part of a loose Britpop revival, largely centred around Birmingham. Whilst they didn’t receive the acclaim of the more prominent Peace and Swim Deep, they were arguably the most talented bands on the scene. Live, Childhood were particularly impressive; they bathed themselves in dizzying light shows and casually immersed the audience in murky, modern psychedelia. Superfood had a more traditional rock set up but released an almost endless stream of potential hits – ‘TV’, ‘Superfood’, ‘Mood Bomb’, ‘Melting’ etc. Producer, songwriter and frontman Dominic Ganderton clearly knew how to write ear candy. The first time I saw them, Wolf Alice were the support act, and of the two it was Superfood who seemed the more likely to become megastars.

But what do I know. Superfood stalled whilst Wolf Alice scored a number one album and NME covers. Childhood fared no better, and ultimately their live charisma and stage presence didn’t translate In to a particularly brilliant debut album. Tellingly, both bands have ripped up the rule book for their sophomore records, embracing Soul, r&b and disco in valiant rebranding efforts.

Of the two, not that it’s a competition, Childhood’s ‘Universal High’ assuredly stands out. Their shimmering new sound is a natural fit with Ben Roman’s breezy vocals and the band’s laid back rhythm section. Acclaimed producer Ben Allen manages to make the transition from psychedelic rock to psychedelic soul easy on the ears; the mix is rich and deep with generous layers of backing vocals, warped synthesisers and jazzy bass lines floating in and out of focus underneath gorgeous melodies and guitar hooks. They hit their stride quickly with ‘AMD’ and ‘Californian Light’, two songs about nostalgia that also sound nostalgic for an inexperienced past. Later on, when the melodies float too far in to the ether and the hooks become diluted, the band’s consistently interesting sound still makes every song enjoyable if not always memorable.

On their second record Superfood, broadly speaking, trade in the lead guitar for a sampler, and the result is an airy, experimental album that feels brave in some respects but also a little faceless. From the bland, muted tones of the album cover inwards, ‘Bambino’ is an oddly sterile, bloodless pop record that feels far removed from the colourful maximalism of debut ‘Don’t Say That’. On that record Superfood proved they knew their way around a recording studio whilst keeping the focus on songwriting. But the production heavy style used on ‘Bambino’ impedes their natural enthusiasm and energy. They sound one step detached from their ideas – particularly on the undercooked singles ‘Double Dutch’ and ‘I Can’t See’. The pretty backing vocals, full bodied baseline and breakbeat of ‘Witness’ is more like what I remember from the first album. It has a deft melody that even Damon Albarn would be proud of. ‘Need a little Spider’ is another catchy throwback to the baggy decade that feels more fully realised than much of the album.

‘Bambino’ and ‘Universal High’ are risk taking records that understand the futile position contemporary indie bands are in. The most successful groups of their generation, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Nothing But Thieves and Royal Blood, largely achieved their (actually pretty minimal) success through compromise and diminished expectations. When that is one possible outcome, why not go your own route? ‘Universal High’ and ‘Bambino’ aren’t going to change the world but they set Childhood and Superfood on interesting new career paths that will hopefully lead to new and equally experimental albums.

Childhood ‘Universal High’ – 7.5/10

Superfood ‘Bambino’ – 5.5/10

Michael Jackson ‘Scream’ – Review

9 Oct

It would be easy to be cynical about ‘Scream’, the spooky new Michael Jackson compilation, released just time for Halloween. But in fairness to Sony, they have been remarkably restrained when it comes to cashing in on MJ’s legacy, especially when you compare it to how other icons, such as Elvis and John Lennon, have been treated. This new compilation of songs are loosely grouped together around the theme of horror, and whilst the connection is, in some case, tenuous, it’s nice to see some of Jackson’s less well known songs (it’s all relative of course)  get some exposure.

A few almost seem to rise to the challenge, and radiate in this context. ‘Blood on the Dancefloor’, the tightly wound title track of a remix album from 1997, pops and fizzes between the more familiar (and always classic) ‘Thriller’ and the badly dated ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’. ‘Scream’ might also be something of a revelation for people who never ventured to listen to 1994’s mammoth (and mamothly underrated) ‘History’. Here placed alongside the relatively placid ‘Leave Me Alone’, its ferocity and raw honesty is capable of shattering any preconceptions about Michael Jackson being twee or childlike. The song’s mechanical malfunctions and terrorised soundscape, its industrial tones and heavy arrangements, become more noticeable on an album like this, that seeks to find the horror in the sublime.

Not all songs deserve such a necessary reappraisal. ‘Threatened’ was the weakest track on MJ’s weakest album, and on an album like this that includes several hit singles, it’s inadequacies are brought in to stark contrast. The same can be said for much of the final third; I doubt any fan is going to write impassioned defences of ‘Xscape’, ‘Unbreakable’ or ‘Dangerous.’ As catchy as they are, none of these songs rank in the top tier of Michael Jackson deep cuts. Then there are the classics that don’t quite make sense on the track listing. I can’t understand what ‘Leave Me Alone’ and ‘Dirty Diana’ are doing here when perhaps the most blatantly eerie song in his back catalogue, ‘Is It Scary’, is relegated to a bonus mash up remix. And I’ve always found ‘Off the Wall’ – with the high pitched cackle at the start – kind of creepy; I wonder why it wasn’t added, particularly when nothing else from his late 70’s heyday is included on the album.

I don’t doubt that MJ would have sanctioned the release of ‘Scream’. After all, he always knew a good business opportunity when he saw one and he once seriously entertained the idea of doling a full blown sequel to thriller. But that doesn’t make this an essential listen. A fun one for sure, but not essential. Perhaps by its very nature, the album has the distinct vibe of something that had to be padded out. ‘Torture’, a mildly odd song from the largely cobbled together, post-Thriller Jacksons album ‘Victory’ sounds laboured and contrite compared to the material Jackson was saving for his solo albums at this point. The earlier Jacksons cut, ‘This Place Hotel’, is much better – a song as slinky and sly as it is spooky. And that’s kind of the argument that the best songs on ‘Scream’ make; they aren’t macabre or scary simply for the sake of it – in MJ’s mind fear is just another means of getting you to the dance floor.



The Killers ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ – Review

3 Oct

‘Ive got soul but I’m not a soldier’. There is a fine line between genius and pomposity, and The Killers have never been afraid of dancing down it. ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ was of course one of several top tier indie pop songs The Killers put out in the mid 00s. On ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, they’re looking to add to the collection.

‘Are we human or are we dancer?’ Was another memorable head scratcher The Killers once put their name to, and ‘The Man’ attempts to answer that question with – why not both? In the music video Brandon struts around, gesticulating, grinning, shaking his hips, pursing his lips and pointing his finger to the sky whilst never quite convincingly selling us on the idea of being in on his own joke. What is it to be a man in 2017? Someone who is traditionally masculine but ridiculously flamboyant? Someone who is equal parts Elton John and Bruce Springstien perhaps? Someone who is deeply self-confident, maybe a little arrogant, but not afraid to own up to it? ‘Whose the man? I’m the man!’ The line between sincerity and irony – that’s another fine line in The Killers world.

‘The Man’ is an arena for Brandon Flowers to poke fun at himself, or at least the version of himself who emerged in 2003. but it’s obviously a costume he enjoys wearing once again. ‘The Man’ is the most confident he’s sounded in quite some time. It’s fun – but conflicted fun. It doesn’t quite sound as effortless and emphatic as The Killers very best songs. Even so, it’s as close as The Killers come to their peak on ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’, an album that hedges its bets for the best possible reasons, but is inevitably patchy, partially as a result of that.

In some respects the album feels like the missing link between ‘Battle Born’ and Brandon’s excellent solo album ‘The Desired Effect’; combing the bombastic, elongated soundscapes of the former with the mischievous poptimism of the latter. But that doesn’t quite account for brooding weirdness of the title track, the stadium rock reach of ‘Life to Come’ Or the frantic energy of ‘Tyson v Douglass’. ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’ is now the fourth Killers in a row to sound nothing like the one that proceeded it, which is pretty impressive for a band as successful as this. It’s also the only one, other than their true masterpiece – the criminally underrated ‘Day and Age’ – where each song sounds different to the one before and after it. Don’t get me wrong, there is no mistaking these for anything other than Killers songs (don’t expect a ‘Kid A’ makeover anytime soon) but each track on ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’ has its own distinct personality.

Typically, when it comes to The Killers, the metric is ‘the sillier the better’, and that largely holds true here. Of course they’ve always been pretentious but it’s usually been matched with copious amounts of eyeliner and pink tuxedos. That’s why the dusty leather jackets, Dylanisms and tired, homeland rock of ‘Battleborn’ fell flat – it just wasn’t silly enough. The ridiculous symbolism of ‘Tyson v Douglass’, the bizarre narrative of ‘Run for Cover’ and the sheer audacity of ‘Life to Come’s central hook (‘just drop kick the shame!’) signal that the band are part way back to their comfort zone. Just leave your inhibitions and prejudices at the door when you arrive at ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, if you want to truly enjoy yourself.

If there’s a flaw with the album it’s that it still isn’t silly enough. The record’s bloodless closer ‘Have all the Songs Been Written’ is heartfelt but takes itself too seriously. And the chorus and hooks are so pedestrian that you have to wonder how it made the final cut. The same could be said of the flatlining ‘Out of my Mind’ or the somewhat tasteless ‘The Calling.’ Producer Jacknife Lee should have intervened more to add some glitter to these flailing tracks. You get the feeling Ariel Reichsted for one would never have let this do. The hooks don’t pop enough and the arrangements show no imagination. These are decent songs but they hint at far greater, unexplored possibilities. However, even these songs, failures as they are, are ambitious failures. And they fail in different ways – whereas everything that failed on ‘Battle Born’ did so in the same, tired way. There is a recurring sense of enthusiasm and genuine investment in ideas that redeems even the weakest songs on ‘Wonderful Wonderful’.

At its best, the album reveals a soulful, beating heart at the centre of its pop dream. The gorgeous power ballad ‘Rut’ is a dedication to Brandon’s wife, who suffers with PTSD. As the song builds, so does the emotion, until it erupts in to an anthem for all the broken hearts out there. ‘Some Kind of Love’ is another ode to Brandon’s wife that at one point remarks ‘you’ve got the soul of a truck on a long distance haul’. In the Killers world, this passes as a loving compliment.

I’ve read a lot of criticism, mainly from American critics, that The Killers are playing to smaller crowds with diminishing cultural and critical relevancy. This is not only factually untrue, it’s also disingenuous. Show me a band well in to their second decade that hasn’t lost some of their potency and popularity. Why not ask why The Walkman haven’t made a ‘Rat’ in ages or why LCD Soundsystem didn’t have a ‘All My Friends’ on their recent comeback album. Why do The Killers always get cast under the shadow of Mr Brightside? Why are they always held up to ‘Hot Fuss’? There’s a reason this album is the band’s fifth number one whilst most of their contemporaries reside In the where are they now file; it’s because they’re genuinely one of the best bands around. ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ isn’t perfect, nor is it a soldier, but it’s got soul – which is a daft statement, but The Killers will know what I mean.