Archive | April, 2018

The Weeknd ‘My Dear Melancholy’ – Review

30 Apr

The Weeknd has been running away from ‘House of Balloons’ longer than he basked in the glow of its success. Its pervasive influence, initially on the underground but recently on mainstream pop, puts it alongside ‘The XX’, ‘808s and Heartbreaks’ and ‘Untrue’ as one of the most culturally important debut albums of the past ten years. Perhaps understandably, after several years of exploring more colourful sounds, ‘My Dear Melancholy’ safely returns Abel Tesfaye to the sonic signature of that record. It’s where he found his voice and it still sounds like a natural home. But this was far from inevitable – in the wake of the gigantic ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’, ‘I Feel It Coming’ and ‘Starboy’, returning to this gloomy flavour of r&b feels like more of a risk than he’s being credited for.

Over six relatively streamlined and uncomplicated tracks, ‘My Dear Meloncholy’ comes back to the themes and lyrical motifs that made The Weeknd famous. It can partly be read as a break up album (and gossip mags have already latched on to several lyrics that drop hints about his relationship with Selena Gomez) but the title serves as a directive: this is not about any one person, rather, it’s a love letter to the state of mind that often (but not always) comes as a consequence of a break up. Here Abel takes perverse glee in the sadness that saturates every lyric, every wailing note and every weeping baseline. Compared to the blockbuster production of ‘Starboy’, songs like brilliant ‘Wasted Time’ and ‘Call Out My Name’ feel revelatory.

An impressive array of collaborators – Skrillex and Daft Punk among them – do their best to inch Tesfaye towards a more uplifting space. There are hints (only hints mind you) of dub, garage and trap that saturate an otherwise bleak landscape of moody r&b and druggy electro. But compared to the unexpected samples contained on ‘House of Balloons’ and those other earlier mixtapes, the sounds of ‘My Dear Meloncholy’ feel just a little too predictable. On a six track e.p there is no room for filler, so the ‘Worth It’ re-run ‘I Was Never there’ looks even more unnecessary than it might on a longer record.

The Weeknd has gone to some lengths to position ‘My Dear Meloncholy’ as an album, and not an e.p, and therefore it must be treated as such. However obvious it may be, six songs is an odd number for a feature length collection of songs. Too long to be dismissed and too short to build up any head of steam, the record occupies an unusual space. It feels slight and insubstantial, and despite, or perhaps because of, it’s not insignificant strengths, ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. You wonder what could have been achieved over an album with slightly more depth and detail. Even so, It’s is a quietly impressive reminder of The Weeknd’s strengths. compared to the ridiculously overlong and inconsistent ‘Starboy’, it feels like much needed course correction.

6.5/10

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Manic Street Preachers ‘Resistance is Futile’ – Review

26 Apr

Manic Street Preachers are one of those bands who effortlessly go through different guises whilst retaining the individual qualities that makes them so recognisable. Through the disappearance of lyricist and icon Ricky Edwards, and varied forays in to bombastic pop, krautrock, gloomy post punk and acoustic balladry, Manic Street Preachers have never sounded like anyone other than Manic Street Preachers. And it may be scarcely believable to young listeners, but the Manics were rarely out of the charts or newspapers at the turn of the millennium. Number one singles, Brit awards, stadium gigs and platinum albums – when one of their singles failed to make the top 40 in 2010 (the first to do so in nearly two decades), it was deemed noteworthy enough to make headlines.

Their first number one, 1999’s ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ was a political manifesto set to fiery punk rock. The video featured the band meeting Fidel Castro. In other words, Nicky, James and Sean were never the types to undersell their beliefs or ‘sell out’ at a time when such a thing was still deemed a serious offence by the Indie Rock police. New album, ‘Resistance is Futule’, presents a similar vision of agitated communities uprising against the disheartening incompetency of the ruling elite. The context may be very different but it’s no less appropriate. This time the individual narratives are more compact and precise than that outline suggests (We hear about Dylan Thomas, the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, forgotten histories and fake news) but the broad stroke lyricism means you won’t require a degree in social history to unpick the lyrics.

They underwrite their venom with arguably the most polished and rounded music of their career. In some respects ‘Resistance…’ recalls the orchestral britpop of ‘Everything Must Go’ but it lacks that album’s ambition and sense of something to prove. In 2018 they have nothing to prove to anyone and that is reflected in small ways. Song lengths are shorter, production is sleeker, arrangements are more dynamic, and tempos are largely polite and interchangeable. Nothing feels risky or surprising but in the place of that we get total assurance and practiced confidence. Something important might be lost in the mix – that sense of danger and unpredictability perhaps – but there is no denying both the proficiency and efficiency of a legendary band playing to their strengths.

When it works, it works. ‘International Blue’ sounds every bit the hit single, and in all likelihood would have been had it come out twenty or even ten years ago. The glittering synth and wailing guitar were allegedly inspired by Ryan Adams and the War on Drugs (the latter’ influence is clear throughout the album) but in feeling, the song strongly recalls ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, the Manics own early classic. The formula is diluted through repetition though and mid album examples such as ‘Distant Colours’ and ‘Vivian’ are too predictable. They shake things up a little occasionally, as on the shuffling ‘song for the sadness’ and acerbic ‘Sequals of Forgotton Wars’ two tracks largely without precedent. Largely though this is a sonically consistent and comfortable collection of pop rock. It peaks with ‘Liverpool Revisited’, a tribute to Hilsborough’s 96. This is one of the most moving songs the band have ever produced, capped with a gloriously bright guitar solo that says more than the slightly heavy handed lyrics ever could.

Since 2007’s critically adored ‘Send Away the Tigers’, The Manics have been producing some of the most inventive and interesting records of their career. There isn’t much on ‘Resistance is Futile’ that could be described in such terms but on this evidence few would read much in to the album’s opening line ‘people get tired, people get old’. Not many bands of their generation, or any other, are able to translate deeply felt unease and dissatisfaction into music that sounds this euphoric and life affirming. Of course the layers of orchestration, synthesisers and stacked harmonies help the cause but lots of acts use those ingredients without producing anything nearly as successful. There is something more deeply rooted in Manic Street Preachers that makes them distinct. ‘Resistance is Futile’ reminds you of that.

6.5/10

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Jack White ‘Boarding House Reach’ – Review

11 Apr

Boarding House Reach: or the album where for better or worse Jack White learned to stop worrying and embrace pro-tools. Jack White has spoken frequently and eloquently about the need for artistic restrictions and self imposed limitations but on ‘Boarding House Reach’ it sounds like nothing was off limits. It indulges many of the most bizarre, foolish, Ill advised, bonkers, wonderful ideas White has ever had. But rather than build any head of steam, the album instantly and then repeatedly skids and twists from piano balladry to fuzzy blues to robo-funk to spoken word to hip hop to riff rock. It results in a divisive, and exhausting, album that has already split White’s fan base down the middle. Some are hailing it as a masterpiece; an example of an established artist doing what critics always say they want, taking risks and being brave. Other people have interpreted that risk as indulgence. They view this as an album that at best doesn’t play to White’s natural strengths and at worst amounts to a hijacking of forms White has no business in going near. Other, more level headed critics have admired the ambition whilst bemoaning the botched execution.

The truth is that I’m not entirely sure where I stand at the moment. On one hand such creative ambition is admirable, and there’s a certain part of me that respects White for making such a wild record (it’s not quite unprecedented; ‘Lazarettos’ hinted at this direction). It’s also defiantly single minded and difficult to ignore (in the same way a car crash might be perhaps…) That doesn’t make it any easier to listen to though. It doesn’t help that the experimental production usually seems to come at the expense of thought out songwriting. Only a handful of these ‘songs’ could be considered actual songs in the traditional sense; many are instrumental or spoken word (and loosely structured, eclectic ones at that). It creates a feeling that ‘Border House Reach’ lacks substance and true depth, and the impression that White is more interested in surface thrills than serious insight.

What is impressive though is how recognisable White’s central vision is, even as he’s producing such a wildly erratic and unpredictable record. As weird and left of centre as it gets, White’s personality is all over it. The eccentric phrasing, the spontaneous jams, the reverence for form. That said, its not until track 7, ‘Over and Over and Over’, where we get something that doesn’t just feel like old school Jack White but sounds like it – a sticky guitar lick, anthemic hook and pure energy – but then that’s because it sounds exactly like what it turns out it is, a White Stripes reject from a decade ago. He places greatest emphasis on the opening track, ‘Connected by Love’, a moody, awkward piano ballad that apparently came to White in a Dream. The lyricism is convoluted – a theme of even the best White Stripes records – and most everything about the arrangement also feels badly judged. The closing pair of ballads ‘What’s done is done’ and ‘Humoresque’ are much better but still pale in comparison to similar efforts on the likes of ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ or ‘Blunderbuss’. So when the more traditional methods are resulting in work like this, it’s no wonder White put so much energy in to finding new ones.

It’s just a shame that too often the experimentation feels academic instead of natural. Stilted. Erratic. Occasionally brilliant but too exploritorary to develop any serious groove for longer than a few seconds, as on the potentially funky ‘Corporation’ or ‘Respect Commander’. There’s an abundance of creative ideas – just a shortage of ones with real substance. Nothing here is truly, brutally emotive and so much is fumbled.

So ‘Boarding House Reach’ is sort of horribly fascinating (or should that be fascinatingly horrible?), with a thorough lack of anything meaningful to say about either the state of the world or the state of Jack White’s heart. Instead it strikes of an ageing rock star with far too much time on his hands. But it’s a record that stakes so much on exploring new territory and seeking new answers to ancient questions that you’d be loathe to hate it. This is preferable to the half hearted, middle of the road Rock records churned out by most of White’s contemporaries – Foo Fighters or Muse for example. For that reason if nothing else, ‘Boarding House Reach’, as Jack White sings, ‘has all my respect’.

6/10

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The Magic Gang ‘The Magic Gang’- Review

7 Apr

It may be rife in other areas of society and culture, but when it comes to excitable new guitar bands, the days of hyperbole are over. NME, the chief mischief maker, recently closed doors on its publication, and Magic Gang were one of the last bands to benefit from its notoriously enthusiastic hype machine. It’s easy to see why the NME got excited – Magic Gang conform to a classic idea of what a great band should sound and look like. They have a consistent nerdy aesthetic – tucked in, button up shirts, Buddy Holly specks, boat shoes – that makes you wonder if they’re ironic hipsters or sincere goofs. They carry that ambiguity through to their music as well, where the influences are so obvious, Yet so coolly referenced, that it’s charming instead of cloying. At any moment they are an amalgamation of all you favourite groups – a little bit Weezer, a little bit Arctic Monkeys. A little bit Beach Boys, a little bit Beatles. Nothing here is surprising or unexpected. Every guitar solo, harmony, melody and lyric has some kind of precedent – some of them so obvious it takes the fun out of it.

But mostly ‘The Magic Gang’ is fun. Really fun. And anyway, to some extent their predictability might be the point. The Magic Gang present a brief history of rock n roll in one easily digestible package, aimed squarely at a young audience who aren’t as familiar with Velvet Underground deep cuts as you. They carry themselves with an air of excitement and enthusiasm that is infectious. At their live shows they’ve become renowned – not for wild stage antics – but for smiling. And it would be difficult to hear their music on a sunny, carefree summer afternoon and not smile. The album’s central stretch, in particular, sparkles and shimmers, with sticky sweet melodies, twanging guitar riffs and lyrics that require no hard work. ‘Caroline’, ‘Jasmine’, ‘Take Care’, ‘Slippin’ – songs built around the bluntest emotions and layered very minimal and precisely. ‘Caroline, you’ll be fine’ the singer croons as if that positive reassurance can fix all the world’s problems. The other tracks follow in a similar style; only ‘Take Care’ substantially diverts from the formula to allow for some soulful harmonies, a fuzzy guitar effect and bass player Gus on lead vocals. Piano ballad ‘I’ll Show You’ – which sounds a lot like The Feeling – also offers something marginally more subtle.

It may not be particularly expansive or ambitious but Magic Gang demonstrate a certain intuition for classic pop songwriting, while managing to avoid many of the obvious pitfalls that young bands fall in to. The album is structured and crafted immaculately, with knowing hooks and anthemic choruses galore and not a single piece of deadwood among the twelve decidedly moorish tunes. Yet you sometimes wish that Magic Gang used a bit more of their imagination here and there, especially when they showed a wider range on their run of e.ps.

Four of the e.p songs have been repurposed for inclusion here -largely sounding similar but sharper, faster and substantially more assured. On the downside, the choice of songs poached from those earlier records does feel a little obvious. The guitar heavy anthems have all been selected at the expense of more interesting moments – the reggae lilt of ‘She Doesn’t See’, the chamber pop of ‘Life Without You’ or the hard wired indie of ‘Hotel Apathy’ for example. Instead ‘All This Way’, ‘Jasmine’, ‘How Can I Compete’ and ‘Alright’ press similarly big, d.u.m.b buttons. What this album is crying out for is something more restrained, delicate or left of centre. That might elevate it from a great debut to a classic one.

They name songs after girls like ‘Suki’ and ‘Jasmine’ and ‘Caroline’. They rhyme blue with you and true. The most used chords here are A, G and C. For better or worse The Magic Gang know what they like and they return to it time and time again; and understandably, you need to have a certain tolerance for this type of thing. But ‘The Magic Gang’ is one of the more confident and exciting debuts in this mound that I can remember for a long time. You can guarantee that ten years ago NME would have slapped them on the cover with some kind of exaggerated declaration about them being the future of rock n roll. And yes it would be ridiculous, but a small part of you would have to agree or at least hope that it might really be true.

8/10

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