Archive | February, 2018

Franz Ferdinand ‘Always Ascending’ – Review

25 Feb

15 years ago(!) four sharply dressed men with sharper cheek bones and even sharper hooks graced the cover of NME with the headline ‘We want to make music that girls can dance to’. That might seem like a quant proclamation in our current climate but back in 2004 it seemed vitally and necessarily unpretentious. It followed a string of heady declarations from groups wanting to be ‘your new favourite band’ (The Hives), ‘the biggest band in the world’ (Coldplay) or ‘change your life forever!’ (The Strokes). Actually, a similar headline to the latter also graced another, later cover of NME also featuring Franz Ferdinand, by which point such a statement felt less like hyperbole and more like a statement of fact. Franz Ferdinand delivered on all their promises. Their debut was a dance record made with guitars that became one of the biggest selling albums of 2004. As well as the floor beats, slinky bass lines and deep grooves, the album lingered for its abundance of witticisms and the memorable choruses to songs like ‘Matinee’, ‘Michael’ and most famously ‘Take Me Out’ – possibly three of the most literary songs to reach the top ten of the singles chart.

Franz followed that album up quickly with the emphatic ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’, a record that inflated the hooks, ramped up the tempos (whilst occasionally pausing to catch breath with some folky ballads) and straightened out the rhythms a little. ‘Tonight’, which followed a couple of years later, reinstated the dance beats and added more synthetic instrumentation. Both of these albums expanded the Franz Ferdinand sound whilst keeping a recognisable aesthetic. The gap between ‘Tonight’ and eventual follow up ‘Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action’ was a long one. Too long. The momentum felt broken, interest waned and although that record contained a handful of fan favourites, the band were clearly revisiting the original formula with diminishing returns. Compared to the ambitious trajectory that 90s indie bands such as Blur, Manic Street Preachers and Suede took it couldn’t help but feel like Franz Ferdinand had peaked too soon and were happy to fade as a popular and respected cult band. ‘Right Thoughts…’ was a good album but it was a safe one – and they sold it as such.

New album ‘Always Ascending’ on the other hand, is a safe album masquerading as something new. It’s been five years since ‘Right Thoughts…’ (a couple of years ago they also put out a disappointing collaboration with Sparks as FFS) and in that time they lost founding member and lead guitarist Nick, and recruited two new members with an electronic music background. Over ten songs on ‘Always Ascending’, Franz play around with pedals, dusty synths, drum machines and time signatures to disorientate the listener in to a state of unfamiliarity. But once you get your bearings you realise that though the wallpaper may be different, the structure is exactly the same. For all it’s pretensions as an ambitious, inventive new direction, ‘Always Ascending’ actually feels disappointingly like what we’ve heard before – only far less energised and engaging. Less sparkly. Less fun. It is what it is; the sound of a middle aged band writing middle aged songs.

Befitting a middle aged band, Always Ascending’ is relentlessly capable; it knows what it likes and it gets it done. It may be dour, dreary and world weary (as many of us perhaps feel at such an age) but there is a level of proficiency in these licks and grooves that not many bands would be capable of. Once you get used to the somber mood, and it does take a few listens, some songs even become quite enjoyable. ‘Let the Love Go’ is the biggest dance number on here and whilst it’s no ‘Do You Want to’ you can imagine it going over quite well in an indie disco. ‘Paper Cages’ and ‘Huck and Jim’ sounds more rough and ragged than the dance lite numbers either side of them in the tracklisting, and they benefit as a result. More of this energy, wide eyed wonder and righteous anger would have been welcome elsewhere on the album, where the tone is generally apathetic.

More often than not, ‘Always Ascending’ says nothing. How much have the stakes been lowered? The hook on comeback single ‘Always Ascending’ goes ‘wake me up, come on wake me up.’ If the message wasn’t clear enough, second single ‘Lazy Boy’ opens with ‘I’m a lazy boy, I’m a lazy boy, never getting up in time’. Franz Ferdinand use to write poetry rich in allusion and metaphor, now they simply can’t be bothered. When they try, as on ‘The Academy Award’ , their allusions are cliched and metaphors thin (‘the academy award for good times goes to you!’). Perhaps the most telling moment comes on ‘Lois Lane’: ‘It’s bleak, it’s bleak, it’s bleak’ Alex barks. The album is indeed bleak. A downcast mod, set in minor key, prevails from start to finish with extraordinarily little of the pop instinct that made the band a feature of the top 10 back in the mid 00s.

Franz Ferdinand recently appeared on late night TV to perform the title track, an electronically charged dance number that builds and builds but ultimately doesn’t explode. Both Alex and Paul grew their hair out long in unflattering styles, Alex going so far as to dye it a kind of grey blond. He was wearing a loose bowling shirt that wasn’t tucked in, and had all the joy in his expression of someone having their teeth pulled. This is in stark contrast to their breakthrough appearance on Jools Holland back in 2003, where, dressed in near matching skinny suits and brightly coloured ties, they danced and grinned their way through ‘Take Me Out’, every bit the gang. That song was masterly constructed and artfully knowing. It might be unkind to compare ‘Always Ascending’ to something as inspired as ‘Take Me Out’ but the band invite such comparisons by the artificial similarities built in to the new song – the patient build, the Niles Rodgers riffing, the call and response chant. Similar but far, far less accomplished.

There is an equally uncanny quality to much of ‘Always Ascending’, as it’s so superficially similar to what has come before, yet on close inspection so peculiarly off point. Take for example the front cover; it’s black – Same as all their other albums – with the album’s title centred in a colourful font – again, very similar to their other albums. Yet look a little closer and you will see that the Domino logo isn’t in the bottom corner, as it’s always been in the past. The title’s futurist font also clashes with the band’s older, modernist European sensibilities. Put it on a shelf with their other records and you may not notice but it’s one of the many the slight missteps that make this such a clumsy, unsuccessful record. You have to still believe in Franz Ferdinand; they have done so much for guitar music, and there are hints of their old magic here. But generally, ‘Always’ Ascending is a depressingly deflated release from a band who once told us ‘you can have it so much better’.

5.5/10

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Justin Timberlake ‘Man of the Woods’ – Review

9 Feb

The knives are out for Justin Timberlake, and have been for a while. 2015’s inescapable ‘Can’t stop the feeling ‘ was generally treated with scorn by mean spirited critics, despite being statistically the year’s most popular song. And even before a note of ‘Man of the Woods’ was heard, The Outline published a scathing takedown of the album’s concept, based largely on the presumption that Timberlake was ditching Hip Hop and r&b sounds in favour of more traditionally white ones. Such a simplification, and misreading, of the artistic thought process patronises Timberlake, his collaborators and his achievements. Yet such criticism makes headlines and appeals all too easily to a right on readership ready to shoot down easy targets. It’s not Timberlake’s fault that in the years following the mostly well received ’20/20 Experience’ he’s walked in to a world where concepts like white privilege, ‘me too’ and cultural appropriation can straight jacket someone of his standing before he even opens his mouth to sing. To many, Timberlake’s sin is merely existing and thriving.

But Timberlake isn’t interested in joining in a political conversation. ‘Man of the Woods’ is an insular, personal record about family and nature and contentment that shuns politics and the wider world in general. And as much as I’d like to offer this review as a defence of his right to make exactly the kind of art he feels justified (excuse the pun) in making, I’m afraid this is where I have to change tact. You see i actually agree that ‘Man of the Woods’ is a pretty bad album – just not for the presumptuous reasons outlined above.

Of course ‘Man of the Woods’ is as polished as you’d expect from anything involving Pharel Williams and Timbaland but it sounds more amateurish than any project they’ve been involved in before. Who knows the factors at play behind that – perhaps, and this may be a patronising ‘perhaps’ – they ceded more responsibility to Timberlake himself. Or perhaps after years at the forefront of innovation, they have simply lost the magic touch. It happens to the best of us. Regardless, the consensus is in and very few people are happy. Aside from the divisive themes and cliched production choices, it disappoints for more traditional reasons: Melodies that strain rather than glide. Lyrics that scan as pretentious rather than empathetic. Hooks that don’t hook. Busy arrangements that do all the heavy lifting. Songs that feel, and often sound, disjointed and badly fused. Songs have been missing the mark for these reasons since the beginning of time.

‘MOTW’ is thematically cohesive but backtracks on the daring ambition of ‘The 20/20 Experience’, arguably the most inventive pop record of the last decade. The 20 songs on that mammoth album stretched out to encompass many moods, tempos and styles with extended running times that allowed for both playful frolicking and serious reflection. He still tries to cram all that in to ‘Man of the Woods’ but everything feels shrunken in comparison. ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, easily the grooviest song on her, feels restricted just as it’s getting in to the swing of things. Likewise, mid album momentum is crippled by a handful of snoozy half-ballads. Ironically, it is a case of too much and not enough.

Sometimes in pop music, the sharpest hooks can dig out the biggest holes. That’s what happened on Timberlake’s ‘Justified’ where the insane brilliance of the four singles showed up the album tracks in comparison (a lesson he learnt on the hook extravaganzas ‘Future Sex/Love Sound’ and ’20/20 experience’ where there was very little driftwood). ‘Man of the Woods’ in comparison is full of holes, but these ones weren’t carved out by hooks. In fact the album is oddly short of them. First single ‘Filthy’ was forgettable, and best understood as an experimental palette cleanser. But then came ‘Supplies’, the most embarrassingly inept major pop single I can remember this side of the last Katy Perry album. The song’s cringeworthy extended metaphor highlights all of Timberlake’s most notorious shortcomings as a lyricist, and unlike, say, ‘Sexy Back’ or ‘Pusher Love Girl’, he doesn’t use humour or cheekiness to get away with it. The album’s lyrics are often trite, banal, silly, corny and even creepy. His pretentious performances determine the listener’s response, and these lyrics are treated too seriously by Timberlake to be dismissed as careless pop cheese.

You certainly can’t accuse him of burying the lede. Song titles are as ‘duh’ obvious as ‘Flannel Shirt’, ‘Montana’, ‘Livin off the Land’, ‘Breeze on the Pond’ ‘Man of the Woods’ etc but sadly this isn’t a particularly rootsy or raw album. Highlights from past records indicate that Timberlake could benefit from a more natural, instinctual approach; but with one or two exceptions the songs on ‘MOTW’ feel stilted by over-production. Stacked harmonies, glitchy effects, convulsing beats, layered synth-lines – they’ve always been a part of Timberlake’s sound but here they feel like the safe retreat of a heavy hand. The simple, soulful approach of ‘Higher, Higher’, the country tinged ‘Say Something’ and the funky ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ suggest a more natural, less manipulated sound would work well for the more mature pop star.

And despite all its flaws, there is the strong sense that there is a fine album in here desperate to be released. His concept, as badly realised as it is, isn’t necessarily a bad one. A through line between country, funk and r&b certainly exists, with an under appreciated history, and Timberlake has the talent to draw eyes and ears to it. But ‘country with 808s’, as he described it, is too reductive a rendering of that genre melding concept. In the end, despite intentions, ‘MOTW’ is sonically indistinguishable from what he’s put out before. And that’s the disappointment. He’s coasting. Making bold statements and claims but without doing the hard work to back them up. He lacks the style, subtlety and sophistication of his old guise but the back to nature aesthetic is equally unconvincing. The end result is a disappointing mess.

4/10

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The Shins ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – Review

6 Feb

‘The Worms Heart’ finds The Shins reimagining, reworking and re-releasing last year’s brilliantly life affirming ‘Heartworms’. You don’t need any excuse to listen to that great album again but ‘The Worm’s Heart’ gives you one anyway. It’s being presented as a sort of stripping back, and for all it’s inspired melodies and typically beguiling lyrics, ‘Heartworms’ did feel a little busy and overly complicated at points, as if James Mercer had spent too long at the stove faffing about with seasoning when the basic ingredients were tasty enough to begin with. It’s a point he conceded in a recent interview where he said ‘Me, sitting there tinkering forever and getting too deep into the details of things — I think that ended up with having some of the Heartworms mixes being overwrought. ‘The Heart’s Worm’ then, in theory, works as an antidote, and its highlights succeed for exactly that reason.

‘Cherry Hearts’, the most spazzy and distracting moment on ‘Heartworms’ is here more simply rendered as a straightforward power pop song. The melody, always engaging, now has the space to truly stretch its legs. ‘Fantasy Island’ works for similar reasons. The 80s influenced song has been stripped of its shoulder pads, double denim and wayfarers and given a more laid back indie pop make over.

But as on ‘Heartworms’, Mercer wasn’t able to suppress his overactive imagination or controlling tendencies for long – despite the best of intentions ‘The Worms Heart’ is actually considerably more dizzying and ‘overwrought’ than the original album. It skits uncomfortably from genre to genre, tempo to tempo, mood to mood, so that the effect is akin to being on the most unpredictable rollercoaster in existence (a simile that makes the album sound considerably more exciting than it actually is).

The original album’s track listing has been flipped so that it now opens with a slouchy version of ‘The Fear’, a gorgeous meditation on an ageing relationship that still feels like a closing statement rather than an opening gambit. ‘Name For You’, therefore becomes the big finale, and likewise it doesn’t really suit its new fixture, nor does the funeral march tempo enhance the song’s naturally bouncy melody or sprightly lyrics. ‘Painting a Hole’, already the weakest song on ‘Heartworms’ from a songwriting stand point doesn’t benefit from a bare bones stripping of the psychedelic sound effects and original, effervescent arrangement. These new versions are so misguided it makes you wonder how a songwriter as gifted as James Mercer could have so little understanding of how best to render his own material. Before ‘Heartworms’ the only time he’d self-produced was on the band’s debut, a muddy sounding collection of endearing but hardly demanding indie rock songs. That record was recorded quickly out of necessity whereas Mercer sat in his home studio recording ‘Heartworms’ and ‘The Worm’s Heart’ for literally years. The difference will be obvious to even the most casual listener.

But all things said, those songs were some of the most engaging indie rock tracks of the past twelve months, and even dressed in odd new clothes that still remains true. All in all ‘The Worm’s Heart’ may be a misguided album, but it’s an enjoyable on . At times in fact, it’s an absolute blast. ‘Heartworms’ slinky disco makeover is elastic and ridiculously catchy (but then the song was already pretty fab in the first place). The reggae-lite lilt of ‘Half a Million’ and the garage rock stomp of ‘Mildenhall’ offer fresh flavours even if they don’t best their original incarnations. ‘Dead Alive’ now has a haunting arrangement to support its eerie lyrics though its melody is stretched and slowed like a record being played at the wrong speed.

This kind of track by track breakdown and comparison is kind of pedantic and nerdy, which perhaps tells you all that you need to know about ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – it’s an exercise in production targeted mainly at The Shins hardcore fans. The kind of people who have spun ‘Heartworms’ to death and are interested in something new to dig their teeth in to. I’m here for that – just not massively impressed with most of the new versions. Which makes me wonder what an unencumbered listener would make of it, in the unusual circumstance that they would hear it before ‘Heartworms’. I can’t see anyone picking this up over the original, and nor should they, but if they did what would they make of it? My main question though, is what could James Mercer have achieved if he’d spent the past twelve months writing new songs instead of pouring over old ones?

6/10

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