Archive | March, 2018

Review roundup

30 Mar

The Wombats – ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life

Of all the bands fairly or unfairly labelled ‘indie landfill’ a decade ago, who would have put money on The Wombats still charting highly in 2018 (higher than Franz Ferdinand and MGMT’s recent albums) getting near top billing at Reading festival and being playlisted on Radio 1? They’ve weathered the storm by subtly modernising their sound to fit in to the more synthetic pop landscape whilst retaining a knack for infectious melodies, quirky lyrics and razor sharp guitar hooks. The formulae is still working on ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’, which as the title suggest, gives us a slightly skewered and humorous take on #firstworldproblems. Though Matthew Murphey’s ‘s dulled tone, snarky style and enthusiasm for a certain type of chorus eventually makes songs sound interchangeable, the album hits surprisingly hard early on with a handful of catchy synth pop songs such as ‘Cheetah Tongue’ and ‘Turn’, both of which sound like hits from another age. For a band who were often dismissed as being trite and insignificant, The Wombats have done remarkably well to sound this relevant, and this good, ten years into their career.

7/10

Mount Eerie – ‘Now Only’

Mount eerie covered the topic of grief so incisively, so authoritatively on their last album, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, that you’d think they would want to leave the subject be. After all, this is not a topic we turn to easily. And yet grief doesn’t have a neat ending – It’s prolonged and uncomfortable. And so a year after ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ we get the equally necessary, if unexpected, follow up, ‘Now Only’; an album that explores mourning in equally blunt terms. It picks up pretty much where ‘A Crow…’ Left off, finding out what happens months down the line, once the well wishers have moved on and the world is slowly readjusting. It describes everything from the obvious – the empty chair at the dinner table – to the totally singular – a finger bone found in the garden. The songs are less uniformly bare bones and stark, incorporating unexpected arrangements and experimental structures, which paired with the confessional stream of consciousness poetry, makes ‘Now Only’ a genuinely upsetting, but totally arresting, record – less surprising than ‘A Crow Looked at Me’ but no less compelling.

8.5/10

Superorganism – ‘Superorganism’

‘Superorganism’ recalls early 00’s classics by The Avalanches, The Go Team and Milo – acts with enormous record collectIons and even bigger grins. This album seems like the perfect update for the spotify ¬†generation. The samples are sourced from soundboards and YouTube instead of vinyl but they are still utilised in frantically enthusiastic ways. Songs like ‘Everybody Wants to be Famous’ and ‘Reflections on Screen’ also touch on prescient themes, making the album feel thematically relevant as well (sometimes cloyingly so). It’s a heady mix but in its finest moments, Superorganism feel like the perfect band for right now. That said, there is only so much of this anyone needs in their life – after all, there is a good reason those aforementioned acts evaporated in to memory almost as quickly as they arrived. This type of ADHD, day-glo, candy stick music is briefly euphoric but ultimately exhausting.

7/10

 

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MGMT ‘Little Dark Age’ – Review

23 Mar

MGMT have become characters in an unfortunate narrative beyond their control; they’re the pretentious, ungrateful pranksters who deliberately turned their noses up at mainstream recognition in a haze of psychedelic drugs. As with most myths there is an inkling of truth – their last, self titled album was in some part a maddeningly indulgent nightmare that sold a tiny fraction of the band’s debut – but this version of the story tends to oversell the group’s initial success and underplay their later albums creative gains. Yes, ‘Kids’, ‘Time to Pretend’ and Electric Feels’ were some of the biggest festival anthems of the 00s but the rest of ‘Oracular Spectacular’ was just as strange and singular as ‘Congratulations’, album number two, which has arguably been just as influential in the years since. ‘Oracular Spectacular’ itself wasn’t an immovable chart object and nor was ‘Congratulations’ a commercial bomb (though ‘Oracular Spectacular’ hung around for longer, ‘Congratulations’ actually charted higher in all the key territories and was a few thousand sales away from being a chart topper in America).

Anyway, in keeping with the tropes of such a narrative, new record ‘Little Dark Age’ is being presented as the requisite ‘comeback’ album; the album that rengages with pop music and the wider world in general. And yes, again, there is an inkling of truth in that. The production is certainly more dynamic and lively, the lyrics are sharper and identifiably about things, and most notably, the choruses soar skyscraper high. But of course, being an MGMT album, it’s still a distinctly unusual pop record, one that shakes itself under your feet, and makes jagged left turns just when you think you’ve figured things out. It sounds like MGMT have misremembered songs from the 1980s, and set out to reimagine them through a 2018 lens and with their own particular idiosyncrasies. The latter is particularly important; in a world of factory line 80s pastiches and homages, ‘Little Dark Age’ stands out as being decidedly other and unmistakably MGMT.

The duo sound reenergised and reinvigorated from the off. Skewered opening track ‘She Works Out Too Much’ bends a multitude of analogue synths, squeezes in a saxophone solo, and features bizarre spoken word instructions on how best to work out. Quietly buzzing below all this is Andrew Vanwyngarden mourning a relationship that never got off the ground. ‘The only reason it never worked out was I didn’t work out enough’ he deadpans. Mgmt never exactly lost their sense of humour but here they position it front and centre once again. The song is brilliantly addictive and totally off the wall. It’s a nod to the listener that you have permission to smile, even as the world potentially collapses around you.

And MGMT don’t hide away from that collapse either. In fact, they have never sounded more engaged by, or alive to, the anxieties and possibilities of the modern age. The title track is a kaleidoscopic, ironic nightmare in which Love seeps out of policemen’s guns, feelings rot, and people grieve in stereo. MGMT are defending your right to be strange in an even stranger world. It’s a smile in the grip of tyranny. It’s a declaration about getting out on stage and smiling, despite all of the above. ‘Know that if you hide it doesn’t go away’ they declare in a world weary monotone that eventually becomes part of the winking humour. If the world is burning all around you, then you may as well go out singing and dancing.

They keep their tongues firmly in cheek for most of the first side. ‘When We Die’ and ‘Me and Michael’ are two of the catchiest and silliest songs the band have put out in years. Even the vaguely creepy ballad ‘James’ features an ear candy melody at the centre of all its deep voiced strangeness. ‘Time Spent Looking at My Phone’, a song which, as its title suggests, takes pointed aim at the iPhone generation, is daft enough to be enjoyable despite the borderline preachiness of the tone and the mandarin solo in the final third.

As the album plays out, it looses a touch of the humour and becomes more self serious and somber. Instrumental ‘Days that Got Away’, starts the slide in to melancholy and like the other instrumentals in the band’s back catalogue, it’s an interesting diversion but also totally forgettable. ‘When You’re Small’ and ‘Hand It Over’ slow the pace down further and reintroduce some of the lush acoustics and pastoral-psychedelic pomp of the ‘Congratulations’ era. ‘Hand It Over’ in particular is a kind of update on that album’s title track, with its themes of dodgy deals being done and careers being jeopardised in the name of A.R.T. ‘If we lose our touch, it won’t mean much/which door will we open?’ The song’s Rundgren-esque harmonies and reverb drenched atmospherics ensure the album closes with a haunting but optimistic tone. Even if this album fails, they’re saying, the possibilities remain endless.

Mgmt have an important legacy. Ok, their skittish and indulgent style of electro indie may have been responsible for allowing Foster the People and Iglu and Hartley to gain a footing with major labels eager to cash in on the trend, but it’s also difficult to imagine the likes of Passion Pit, Purity Ring, Chairlift and even Animal Collective, getting such a receptive welcome by the mainstream if MGMT hadn’t opened a few doors for them first. And very few of those bands albums stand up as well as ‘Oracular Spectacular’ or ‘Congratulations’, which have both aged remarkably. ‘Little Dark Age’ won’t create the same buzz or have the same influence, but it’s a giddy and life affirming return from a band who many assumed had lost their inner sparkle and ambition.

8.5/10

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Car Seat Headrest ‘Twin Fantasy’ – Review

11 Mar

‘Twin Fantasy’ is Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest’s ode to longing and remembering: it encapsulates the reality of young, unrequited love and the fantasy of breathing life to those memories. This is Car Seat Headrest’s eleventh release (third proper studio album put out by Matador) and its a full band remake of his/their sixth record, first put out in 2011 through bandcamp. Still following? Both versions are presented here on a double disc set, which asks you to draw wobbly lines between the past and present. Toledo writes about his first real love, an older man who didn’t fully return his feelings. Here recreated and reanimated from the safe vantage point of time, Toledo makes a temple out of both that initial mystery man, and also the teenage boy who fell for him. It’s a temple at which he devoutly worships. ‘Twin Fantasy’ is both about, and embodies, the teenage attributes of precociousness, forthrightness, personal inadequacy, spontaneity, desperate want and a crushing inability to see past the end of your own nose. But there is now an added sense of retrospective perspective that gives a compelling layer of intrigue.

It’s the embodiment of these traits that makes ‘Twin Fantasy’ so tantalising and, at times, frustrating. Songs (apparently inspired by the narrative ambition of Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ and Pink Floyd’s expansive opus ‘Dark Side of the Moon’) think nothing of stretching out in to multi-part, mood flipping, tempo switching epics – often to the detriment of logic, melody and the listener’s tolerance. The 12 minute Beach Life in Death is glorious for most of its running time but collapses in to repetition and noise in its final couple of minutes (he does amazingly well to keep you hooked for even ten minutes, let’s be fair). The sixteen minute ‘Famous Prophets’ becomes tedious sooner, probably about 2/3rds of the way through, which reduces some of its impact. ‘High to Death’ and ‘Bodys’ also become indulgent rambles – too neurotic to be called jams and too thoughtful to be freak outs, these extended instrumentals occupy a tiresome space. All of these above are better in their slightly shorter, and certainly more intense, original incarnations. But this all serves a larger purpose and may even add to the appeal; after all this is an album about being a teenager, it would be a sham if everything was smooth, tolerable and refined. Also, Toledo wants ‘Twin Fantasy’ to be so much more than indie music, he’s said as much. He sees ‘Teen Fantasy’ taking up a similar position to Frank Ocean’s Blonde or Kanye’s ‘Life as Pablo’. And that means being indulgent, erratic and ambitious to a fault. Very few artists generally, let alone in the codified jungle of rock music, are making music as daring as as this. If he goes too far from time to time it’s only as a result of pushing at the boundaries.

Above all else, Toledo’s personality makes this a unique album (I genuinely can’t think of another young artist with a similar perspective and style). It seeps in to an album that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. The brilliantly paranoid ‘Beach Life in Death’ finds the narrator driving from mundane place to mundane place, trying to forget someone, but seeing reminders of his plight in every symbolic stop sign, train, rain cloud and sharp left turn in the road. The song becomes a personal list of flaws and anxieties that culminates with ‘I don’t want to go insane, I don’t want to have schizophrenia!’ A line which is indicative of Toledo’s dark humour. The hook to ‘Sober to Death’, the album’s catchiest number, goes ‘you can call me when punching mattresses gets old’. These bleakly comic asides punctuate a narrative that could have easily turned in to one long, narcissistic diary entry if left to a less incisive writer.

The songs are layered with symbols and motifs, many of which hark back to past lyrics, song titles and artworks. It’s like Car Seat Headrest have created their own universe, which can perhaps explain why they’ve collected a rabid (and by all accounts somewhat unsavoury) online following, who love to draw lines and make connections. A couple of tracks feature spoken word interludes, samples of conversations, and in one case a recording of an artist talking about his portfolio (prints of that particular artist’s paintings are featured in he booklet). These interludes are interesting, and integral to the album’s structure but become a bit boring after a while. The album hits hardest when it punches more directly. ‘Body’s’ acknowledges as much when Toledo sings ‘That’s not what I meant to say at all, I mean, I’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you’. The immediacy of that song recalls ‘Teens of Denial’, this album’s more straight-lined and satisfying (but perhaps less significant) predecessor.

Things draw to a close on ‘High to Death’ and the epic ‘Famous Prophets’ where the protagonist gets drunk to forget, contemplates death and watches bruises on his shins (caused in an act of spontaneous passion) fade along with his lover’s interest. ‘These teenage hands will never touch yours again’. He wonders if this is a temporary set back or the start ‘of the great silence. Is this the start of every day?’ It sounds very sentimental when worded like this but the album never really strikes a particularly emotive tone; the closest Toledo really comes to romantic outpouring is when he sings ‘you know I love your art’. Toledo is too self aware and knowing to let his truest, most inner feelings have unrestricted voice. That could be perceived as a slight but it’s this same self-awareness and restraint that makes Car Seat Headrest stand out from the crowd of young, emo songwriters. It’s the final song ‘Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)’ written in distant third person, which strikes the most touching note. Toledo eulogises the couple whilst enthusing that, thanks to the music, they have found a place where they will be remembered. From reality, to the realm of fantasy – this is the fate of most adolescent relationships. On ‘Twin Fantasy’ Toledo takes ownership of this fact and finds a safe distance, and vantage point, at which to romanticise and remember his young, doomed love. ‘When I come back you’ll still be here.’ Twin Fantasy is a eulogy we can all return to.

9/10

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