Archive | May, 2018

Pusha T ‘Daytona’ – Review

28 May

Recently, Kanye West hasn’t made life particularly easy for himself (or his defenders) so it’s nice to hear him back doing what he does best – producing great Hip Hop. Not to take anything away from Pusha T (a distinctive rapper who is delivering some of his sharpest couplets here) but this is Kanye’s party. Observe the dusty soul samples. The powerful pauses and moments of empty space that proceed a gut punch lyric. The daring concept, unexpected running length and controversial cover art (a photo of the late Whitney Houston’s bathroom) – all Kanye tropes. On ‘Daytona’ Kanye takes of his MAGA hat to put his producer one back on, and it’s a much better fit.

Other than his work in Clipse, Pusha T is probably best known for his guest spots and collaborations – his tight verses and easy on the ear vocal tone lend themselves to this format. His solo albums have been more a source of adventure and he has developed a reputation as being the connoisseur’s gangsta rapper; putting sharp observations about the culture over artful, often experimental, productions. With ‘Daytona’ he has produced something far more accessible but just as impressive. The audacity lies in the simplicity. Seven short, well executed tracks that take cues from 2003 more than 2018. The opening brace of ‘If You Know You Know’ and ‘The Games We Play’ are real old school world beaters; snappy rhymes over razor sharp beats and soulful samples. The album continues in this vein, and there isn’t a week song on here, or any opportunity that feels wasted or unnecessary. The guest verses – Rock Ross and Kanye himself – are short and well curated, though this is very much 2018, Make America Great Again, political firebrand Kanye in action. It feels somewhat jarring to hear him ‘poop skoop’ in the middle of ‘What Would Meek’ do. ‘You got to watch who you’re calling crazy’. Okayyyyyy.

At twenty minutes, the album is too slight to build up a real head of steam, and the occasionally vacuous lyrics don’t help cement a feeling of substance. Largely this is a braggadocios account of how great it feels to be a millionaire drug dealer – which won’t come as a surprise to anyone whose heard Pusha T before. Still, as innovative as Pusha can be in other areas, it’s disappointing to hear some of his tired, cliched themes re-emerge, not to mention the misogynistic and racist put downs toxically seep out of his mouth with noticeable regularity. As progressive as he is in certain areas, Pusha T, like his friend Kanye, is regressive in others. But ‘Daytona’ is superficially flawless and stylistically impressive enough to warrant repeated listens.

7.5/10

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Kacey Musgroves ‘Golden Hour’ – Review

21 May

‘Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight/happy and sad at the same time?’ If there is then Kacey Musgroves should know it, she is after all, the master of observing the space between feelings, the nuances and subtleties that most country songwriters steamroll over. ‘Golden Hour’ is the most glorious of genre records; one that sounds like everything you love and nothing you’ve ever heard before. It takes tropes of country pop – pedal steel, slide, weepy melodies and big gesture strings – but presents them in new contexts. Disco beats anchor the glitzy ‘High Horse’, reverb drenches ‘Slow Burn’ (until it sounds like a mid 90s Radiohead song), and psychedelic perspectives skewer the orthodoxy of ‘Mother’ and ‘Oh What a World’. Even the songs that on the tracklisting suggest a certain predictability – ‘High Horse’, ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘Velvet Elvis’ – find interesting ways to surprise you.

This is not necessarily an unexpected development. Musgroves made a name for herself with her effervescent debut ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’ which was memorable for the way it questioned conventions and long held Nashville traditions. Her lyrical style (it should be noted that she works with a host of talented songwriters) emphasised clever puns, dark humour and playful rhymes to create songs that were as catchy as they were thoughtful. Second album ‘Pageant Material’ was a quintessential sequal – It expanded her sound in interesting ways but ultimately contained less to recommend it.

‘Golden Hour’ is, in some respect, a more conventional country pop record. I’m far from an expert when it comes to this genre but it’s easy to hear echoes of other crossover acts – Shania Twain, Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift being the three examples that spring most readily to mind. The tempos here are more universally mid paced, the melodies perhaps marginally less adventurous, the arrangements, certainly, less playful. But in place is a sophistication and stateliness that only comes when you try your hardest to straighten out and broaden your appeal. At no point does Musgrove’s sound feel watered down; if anything it feels enlarged and more expansive.

‘Golden Hour’, in fact, is both skyscraping and intimate. Cinematic with the feel of an old home movie. It is, yes, both happy and sad at the same time. The songs that speak of new love (‘Butteflies’, ‘Oh What a World’) are good but the ballads that present more conflicted feelings are even better. ‘Space Cowboy’ in particular positions Musgroves as a genuinely moving country singer in the mould of someone like Kathleen Edwards. It’s not a perfect album – the mood is consistent but that could be interpreted as a lack of range, and it certainly begins to feel a little too mellow in the final third. The AOR stylistic choices and vacuum sealed production also rob the songs of some of their personality. But Kacey Musgroves is a young artist with a distinctive style, and ‘Golden Hour’ is her best work to date. This is an album to appeal to the Nashville diehards as much as Capital FM listeners, which, as Taylor Swift proved, can be a very lucrative junction to be standing at.

8/10

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Arctic Monkeys ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ – Review

14 May

‘I just wanted to be one of the strokes, now look what you made me do.’ As opening lines go, that one’s a dozy and worth the admission price alone. More importantly though, the sentiment re-grounds Arctic Monkeys in a rock n roll lineage, and reminds the listener just where the band started and therefore how far they’ve travelled. From mop-top teens with guitars to the sleekest and biggest rock band in the country. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is an album, essentially, all about distances – between the past and present, reality and fantasy, the earth and moon, our finger tips and touchscreens. What about the distance from ‘Whatever People Say I am, that’s what I’m not’ to this, very complex, very odd, very ambitious new album? Arctic Monkeys are quite comfortably the band of my generation; the only ones who truly transcended a classic debut album and have carved out a career that matches artistic daring with commercial success. Few young rock bands sell out stadiums and headline pop festivals, but even the handful that do (Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, The Killers, Kasabian) have struggled to keep their credibility fully in tact in the process. Arctic Monkeys achievements therefore cannot be understated.

Nor can the bravery it takes to deliberately undermine that success in the name of artistic endeavour. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is as singular and uncompromising as that title suggests it might be. It’s a world away from the jagged indie of 2006 and the cocksure pop-rock of 2013. It’s also a world away in the sense that the album imagines a future society, living and loving in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Hotel resort on the moon. Alex Turner’s impulsive, scatterbrained style prevents this from being a proper concept album but in its thematic and aesthetic cohesion it certainly feels like one. Moving away from the romantic lyricism of ‘Suck It and See’ and ‘AM’ towards a piercing type of social commentary, it’s almost a return to the bluntness and dark humour that defined their early material.

The album starts with the somewhat jazzy ‘Star Treatment’. It reads like a dissection of the slightly vulgar persona Turner adopted for the Last Shadow Puppets most recent tour. ‘Karate bandana. Warp speed chic. Hair down to there.’ In a recent interview with Annie Mac he blushed when reminded of the Karate moves he pulled on stage at Radio 1’s big weekend (later on during ‘She Looks Like Fun’ he notes to self ‘I need to spend less time in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts’). ‘Star Treatment’ is too delightedly giddy when describing this ‘golden boy’ to be considered a complete rejection but when Alex sings ‘back down to earth with a lounge singer shimmer’, we can perhaps accept this as a slight admission of regret and a deceleration of a more down to earth perspective.

It holds for much of the album’s running time but occasionally Turner seems to delight in toxic role play. Politics comes in to the conversation from time to time, mainly as a bedrock of disparagement and disbelief. The louche, lounge singer type personified and then popped on ‘Star Treatment’ returns at the start of ‘One Point Perspective’ to announce: ‘dancing in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government. I’m gonna form a covers band.’ Of course politics has become so debased that the situation doesn’t sound that far fetched. Perhaps Turner was thinking of the same character who later on is ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.’ It’s no wonder the ‘shining city is on the fritz’ if these are the people in charge.

Once the modern fantasy is revealed as a sham, a futuristic alternative is imagined – on the moon. In this post apocalyptic vision, vacuous pop culture figures mix with ‘Jesus in the day spa’, prophets lose their train of thought, protesters get their hair done before ‘popping out to sing a protest song’, technological advances get you in the mood, and God can be contacted on video call. Its a surreal vision of a technologically obsessed future that is not dissimilar from our own. It’s no wonder he asks, at the start of ‘American Sports’, ‘when you gaze at planet earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid smile off your face?’ This is often a bleak, and bleakly hilarious, vision of a future society that feels a little too close to home.

This critique is soundtracked by music that is itself a kind of odd, futuristic fever dream of past influences, rendered in vivid new colours. It’s where the dark psych-rock of Humbug, the silky strut of ‘AM’ and the sleazy chamber pop of ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect’ melt in to something totally unrecognisable to all but the few paying extra close attention. It’s a sound that is almost without precedent but at points recalls the abstract absurdity of ‘Smile’ mixed with the luscious musical flourishes of ‘Pet Sounds or the sleazy glamour of ‘Historie de Nelson’ with the dark detailing of ‘Tender Prey’. The last time a stadium sized band took a risk on this scale was Radiohead with ‘Kid A’ nearly twenty years ago, and even then the stakes weren’t this high. Arctic Monkeys are currently the biggest band in the country at a time when Rock stars are an endangered species. When Turner sings ‘I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before’, it’s funny because he really hasn’t. But ‘Tranquility Base’ feels exactly the type of music suited to the quiet rooms.

If you blur your eyes, and ears, accordingly, for the first 30 seconds of ‘Four Out of Five’ (a lead single that didn’t actually lead the album) it would be easy to mistake the song for something from ‘AM’; the tight bass line interlocking perfectly with a popping snare. But in the chorus it blossoms in to something far richer than anything on that album. This time the backing vocals don’t just mirror the lead melody, they dance around it, enhancing and (at points) mocking the message of the narrator. Guitars squiggle in the margins, the orchestras glitters on top, Alex croons and moans and sneers. The song is a clever satire but more importantly it’s endlessly enjoyable. Asked by Ryan Domball if there was any particular reason for naming a taqueria on the roof the ‘information action ratio’, Turner replied ‘I don’t think so. It just sounded interesting. Something to look at.’ Perhaps he was being coy or perhaps not. Either way, it rolls off his tongue with style.

Turner, never a songwriter with the longest attention span, now flips from observation to observation without much consideration for coherence or narrative. Before, on the likes of ‘Pretty Visiters’ or ‘Library Pictures’ this was done largely for effect – to show off his Olympian verbal dexterity or to simply to delight in the auditory thrill of the sibilance, half rhymes and ridiculous similes. Here though it reflects the shortened attention span of the characters he’s describing, ‘sucked into a hole through a handheld device’. One song is named after a YouTube meme (‘The Workd’s First Monster Truck Flip’), another, ‘She Looks Like Fun’, races from image to image like someone scrolling down their Instagram feed. ‘Bukowski. Dog sitting. Screw balling.’ That song in particular is a murky, heavy, deeply weird slog with an air of wonder and hallucinogenic glee – the type of song that might be played on an especially demonic merry go round ride. In both sound and content, it’s the perfect rendering of how it feels to be sucked down a YouTube black hole.

It’s a dicey game, writing about technology, one that easily boils over in to didacticism or worse, threatens to make you sound like a fuddy-daddy. At times Turner is one small step away from becoming Father John Misty. Luckily he reins it in at the right moments. He’s aware of his own complicity in a game we are all playing to varying degrees and is only too happy to mock or undermine his sense of authority and wisdom. Only on ‘Batphone’ do the observations feel a little too ponderous and oblique, the tone a little too detached. He recovers on the gorgeous album closer ‘The Ultracheese’, a ballad that ranks alongside ‘Cornerstone’ and ‘Love Is a Laserquest’ in the band’s catalogue of sweet and sober meditations on nostalgia and ageing. ‘Oh the dawn won’t stop weighing a tonne/I’ve done somethings I shouldn’t have done but I haven’t stopped loving you once.’ The song ends abruptly, at the conclusion of that sentence, with no big send off or dramatic crescendo, and the melody is left somewhat unresolved. The music stops and Alex coos sentimentally, before the lights fade and the curtain drops. It’s a morsel of romance in a world that otherwise seems remarkably short of the stuff. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ presents a generally grim vision of the future but in its final moments Alex Turner makes assurances that there will always be room for human connection and commitment. It’s a touching finale to what could (could) be the band’s most accomplished album to date.

9.5/10

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Janelle Monae ‘Dirty Computer’ – Review

10 May

Political uncertainty has motivated some of the most forceful and important albums of all time. It was the driving force behind riot-grrl, hip hop, punk and post-punk. It has also inspired some of the great soul and quiet-storm albums, most notably of course Marvin Gaye’s seminal ‘What’s Going On’. Considering the tumultuous and turbulent times in which we live, there is a reasonable expectation that the best artists will continue to critique politics in a way that is motivational and necessary. But there has been a surprising lack of political impetus from the artists we might expect to stand up. There have been some terrific punk rock records over the past eighteen months but few that directly challenge the status quo. Beyoncé and Kanye promised commentary with their early ’16 singles ‘Formation’ and ‘No More Parties in L.A’ but the former ended up putting out an album of scorned ballads, while the latter has made no secret of his admiration for Donald Trump.

It’s been critics rather than artists who have filled the gap, imagining political motivations behind songs and elevating any artist with a humanistic outlook. Worryingly for those who value art for its own sake, in 2016/17 many end of year lists ignored musical and lyrical sophistication, emotional connection and experimentation in favour of pushing records with a particular political agenda. One of the biggest benefactors in all this was Solange’s ‘A Seat at the Table’, a bloodless record that nonetheless said all the right things to appeal to critics with confirmation bias. Never mind the fact that ‘A Seat at the Table’ was (to my ears at least) musically stilted, emotionally desolate and sonically regressive.

In a case of deja-vu, Janelle Monae, another soulful feminist with a fine voice and no shortage of right-on ideas, is now being elevated to a similarly lofty height on the back of an equally average album. Monae explores identity, anxiety, empowerment and politicised anger with admirable confidence but she doesn’t deal with these weighty themes in ways that are either Particularly nuanced or engaging for a wide audience. She makes it clear that the world is in a dark place but I don’t feel that she offers enough elaboration or provides any real answers. The general public aren’t buying it either; critics may be heaping praise on Monae but ‘Dirty Computer’ has languished in the lower depths of the chart. There is nothing here to suggest it should be otherwise.

Monae is a recognisable talent and enthusiastic presence but as an artist I can’t help feeling she is all bluster. ‘Dirty Computer’ is her third album, and her third to feel like a missed opportunity. Unlike its predecessors ‘Dirty Computor’ is not a concept album, rather it is a thematically coherent collection of right-on anthems, many of which use recurring symbols and motifs that make it feel like a concept album. It sometimes impresses but more often than not frustrates in its pretentious and strenuous efforts to say something important. As before, her brightest melodies and sharpest arrangements (here ‘Crazy Classic Life’ and ‘Make Me Feel) are little more than nice but pale takes on Prince, Beyoncé and Janet Jackson. There are well chosen guests (Brian Wilson on the pretty title track, Grimes on ‘Pynk’ and Pharell on ‘I Got the Juice’) but Janelle is exposed as the Sub-rate artist she is when paired with these true visionaries.

Despite Monae’s claims to the contrary, little on ‘Dirty Computer’ is truly emotive – so much seems calculated – and the real Janelle Monae still feels elusive, which wasn’t necessarily an issue on the more abstract ‘Electric Lady’ but this album is being billed as something more personal and intimate. Every fashionable cause is woven in to a tapestry so loaded it feels exhausting. The listener is left to unpack all the vague political buzz words and trendy concepts in search of real connection and lasting meaning. Monae’s intentions and politics may be commendable but tell me honestly, will you be humming any of these melodies in to 2019? Will you remember a single guitar lick, beat or flourish of strings? Does Monae’s voice touch you where it matters? Do her lyrics transcend, offer insight or do they simply brush the surface? The world is already full of well intentioned political manifestos and most of them aren’t set to music – we need something more.

Some of her philosophies are problematic; ‘Screwed’ for example exposes a devious and dangerous philosophy where ‘everything is sex, except sex which is power’. There seems to me to be obvious and dangerous consequences of seeing sex in ‘everything’, and implying sex must include the conquerer and the conquered, but Monae seems to embrace rather than critique the concept. The refrain of the song is ‘let’s get screwed…you fucked the world up now, let’s fuck it all back down.’ The album’s strongest track, ‘Crazy Classic Life’, is an ode to nihilism – sex, swimming pools, weed, limousines – but its imagery is cliched and it’s ideas are tired (‘I just wanna break the rules’, ‘I’m the American Dream’). The sensual ‘Take a Byte’ is much better lyrically, riffing on some interesting dualities and breaking down old myths to understand very modern intimacy.

There is a rich lineage of empowered and politicised black, female artists going back to Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone in the 60’s, Grace Jones and Janet in the 80s and Lauren Hill and Beyoncé in the 90’s/00s – to give just a few examples. It seems the world is so desperate for a successor, or spokesperson for this current movement, that they’re willing to greet something as trite and convoluted as ‘Dirty Computer’ with hyperbolic praise. Monae doesn’t have the sophistication, the musicality, the imagination – let alone the genius – of the aforementioned artists. Call this for what it is, an Ok r&b record. Nothing more.

5.5/10

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Review Round-up

6 May

The Vaccines ‘Combat Sports’

On ‘Combat Sports’ The Vaccines abandon the ambitious but largely unsuccessful experimentation of ‘English Grafiti’ and return to the relatively safe form of propulsive, pop-rock that they last explored on 2013’s ‘Come of Age’. This is a deflating concession of sorts but there is no doubt that this style suits the band much more than the delicate, and largely soulless, music they came up with last time around.

Nothing on ‘Combat Sports’ is particularly original or imaginative but I think they realise that it doesn’t always have to be, particularly when it’s fun. The Vaccines are swinging for the bleachers; they know their audience and every inch of this record is designed to appeal to them. Its an energetic guitar record and in its lyrics it has enough charisma and personality to make it stand out from competitors like Blossoms and Catfish and the Bottlemen. They still possess a fine ear for an ear worm as demonstrated by lead singles ‘I Can’t Quit and ‘Nightclub’, whilst ‘Maybe’ demonstrates that they haven’t entirely unlearnt the lessons in production picked up on ‘English Grafitti’. it’s also considerably more slick and polished than their first two albums, suggesting that they still also have one eye on mainstream success. ‘Combat Sports’ Is hardly groundbreaking (and none of these songs stand up to the quality of their debut album) but ‘Combat Sports’ is a return to some kind of form.

6.5/10

Hinds ‘I Don’t Run’

Hinds make music that positively tans and sweats in strong sunlight. It is, therefore, an incomplete experience to hear these sunny songs on dreary April evenings. Nonetheless, the charmingly loose structures, sing-song melodies and ramshackle guitar lines go some way to transporting the listener somewhere more exotic. Hinds perfected this sound on their debut and ‘I Don’t Run’ doesn’t have any intentions of pulling away from that formula. It still works best when the tempos are high and the singing is breathless (they slow the pace down a couple of times, and whilst these moments demonstrate a vulnerability, they aren’t so memorable). Highlights include opening track ‘The Club’ on which the band’s distorted vocals and fuzzy hooks strongly recall The Strokes (not surprisingly, the album was produced by Gordon Raphael), and the overwhelmingly melodic ‘Soberland’. Sounds great now but revisit in July to achieve full affect.

8/10

Novelist ‘Novelist Guy’

You have to applaud Novelist for his ethics; ‘Novelist Guy’ contains no swearing, no derogatory language about women, no guns, bling or anything you might expect from a grime album in 2018. As his name suggests, Novelist is more interested in literary techniques and serious topics. He tackles politics from unexpected perspectives, skewers cliched sound bites and evokes the Devine when earthly answers escapes him. As a member of Boy Better Know he already has credibility but he doesn’t rely on that (the album is noticeably short of guest spots). He is also a quickfire, technically gifted MC when he puts his mind to it.

For large stretches though ‘Novelist Guy’ is repetitive and lacking in refinement – an absence in the usual cliches shouldn’t result in absense of content. ‘Gangster, gangster, gangster, all we know is gangster’, he repeats ad Nauruan on ‘Gangster’, the third song in a row, and not the last, to feature a simplistic, dull refrain that gets drilled in to your brain by sheer, maddening repetition. A similarly unimaginative and basic approach to beat making can be heard on the headache inducing ‘Nov Wait Stop Wait’ and other tracks. But for all it’s irritating flaws, ‘Novelist Guy’s breakthroughs are perhaps more memorable. Novelist remains a young artist with an original voice – this hopefully won’t be his last chance to impress even if ‘Novelist Guy’ is promising and maddening in almost equal measure.

5.5/10