Archive | June, 2018

Review Roundup

30 Jun

Cardi B ‘Invasian of Privacy’

Cardi B sealed her position as Hip Hop’s latest superstar with ‘Bodak Yellow’ the best break out track since Azelea Banks ‘212’ half a decade ago and the first song by a female rapper to hit the top spot since the days of Missy Elliot. The long awaited debut album ‘Invasion of Privacy’ takes everything that made that song so addictive and elaborates on it. Rather than take the easy route of stringing eighteen ‘Bodack Yellow’ imitations in a row, Cardi B has instead chosen to pitch a watertight, forty minute, cohesive album that bends and pulls away from that monster single whilst magnifying the gigantic personality that made it so memorable. Invasion of Privacy’ is an incisive, funny, daring pop record as much as a clarion call rap manifesto. Crude to the point of credulity but unpretentious and unflinchingly direct, you can’t help but develop a soft spot for Cardi, a rare rapper with few pretences. She wants hits and she doesn’t mind how she gets them (‘Like It Like That’ already sounds like the song of the summer). She uses co-writers and she couldn’t care less what you think. She says exactly what she wants, regardless of public opinion and even condemnation. ‘Invasion of Privacy’ is accessible and enjoyable in ways that few hip hop albums have been in 2018.


Snow Patrol ‘Wildness’

Snow Patrol return from their long stretch in obscurity with ‘Wildness’, a safe album that dials back on the mild experimentation of their last two records. They make a few concessions to contemporary tastes – ‘a-woah-a-ways’ pepper ‘Empress’ and the reverb drenched backing vocals of ‘Don’t Give In’ can also be heard on everyone from Pink to Imagine Dragons, plus the general topic of overcoming anxiety feels very on point. But they don’t have to strain very hard in this direction anyway; Gary Lightbody has written with Taylor Swift and Jonny Mcdaid is Ed Sheeran’s chief songwriting partner. Snow Patrol still know how to belt out big, broad-shouldered ballads that are relatable enough to move you, your mum or nan. Here, the likes of ‘Life on Earth’, ‘Empress’ and ‘Don’t Give In’ just about tick the boxes. And they’re still capable of much more restrained, specific, and distinctive ballads in miniature. ‘What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get’, easily the best song on here, strips things back to piano, voice and fragile sentiments. Sometimes you don’t need to shout when just a whisper will do the trick.


Courtney Barnet ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’

‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, Courtney Barnett’s long anticipated follow up to ‘Sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit’ lacks the clarity and energy of its brilliant predecessor. It moves away from that album’s brilliantly observed character sketches towards a far more personal and revealing self examination. But too often it sounds as exhausted as the feelings it describes. It’s dreary and pompous where ‘Sometimes…’ was bright and funny; saturated by grungy, inarticulate riffs instead of the air tight, crystalline grooves found on its predecessor. In its tightest tracks – without a doubt the stretch from ‘Charity’ to ‘Nameless, Faceless’ – it makes an argument that the lack of focus is a symbolic embodiment of a very modern social anxiety. These songs are melodic and enjoyable. But then Barnett loses the thread. The album’s second side, particularly the dreadful ‘Im Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’ slouches in to a sloppy and meandering mess. Barnett focuses too much on the stresses and personal consequences of a hectic touring schedule – a topic that is nowhere near as interesting as songwriters seem to think, and expresses herself in careless ways. The touring malaise being described is personified by slacker tempos, blunted hooks and unusually bland melodies. Not to beat a dead horse, but ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think…’ made the mundane feel deadly important, here the mundane feels, well, very mundane.

Barnett makes the point, time and time again, of pinning this decline on a ‘crippling self doubt and a general lack of confidence’, as she titles one song. At the album’s start she warns us ‘you know it’s okay to have a bad day’ which seems almost like a damage limitation tactic. The lack of dazzling word play and clever rhymes from one of the sharpest lyricists of the past decade feels disappointing, even though you would never want to pigeon hole a songwriter as talented as Barnett to one style. But this transition in to a looser, uglier sound accompanied by weary lyrics feels deliberate and may be part of a larger game plan. I’m reminded of the chorus to Barnett’s ‘Pedestrian at Best’ – ‘Put me on a pedestal, I’ll only disappoint you’. It would be too presumptuous and patronising to call this album a blip, perhaps it’s a statement of intent: don’t even try to pin Courtney Barnett down.


Tracyanne and Danny ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ – Review

26 Jun

In 2015 Camera Obscura’s keyboardist and founding member Carey Lander passed away following a battle with osteosarcoma. The band understandably folded in on itself, and their future is currently uncertain. In the mean time, lead singer and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell has teamed up with Danny Coughlan, otherwise known by his stage name Crybaby, to work on an album of country inflected pop tunes.

‘Tracyanne and Danny’ is a grown up version of a Camera Obscura album, one where the heartbreak runs deeper below the surface, where the hurt is less hysterical and more ingrained. It comes in different forms – the grief of losing a friend to a vicious disease, the strain placed on a marriage by the arrival of little, pattering feet, the memories of a romance that burned brighter than any you’re likely to have again. The pin-sharp sting of love, of heartbreak, is less devastating from the distance of years but no less real; these are blurry repercussions of feels from the past making the present moment difficult. On ‘2006’ Tracyanne finds it difficult to relate to the melodrama of her old material – ‘I can’t believe this life was me/Now my passion is gone/I put my life in a song’ – but her voice, fragile and bruised, betrays the sentiment.

Musically, the passion is tempered, the arrangements more polite, the tempos calmed. The twee streak that shot through classics like ‘Suspended from Class’ and ‘French Navy’ has also gone, as have the easy comparisons to Belle and Sebastian that the band were oddly saddled with. But the finely tuned balance between giddy joy and melancholia is still alive. You can hear it in the playful opener ‘Home and Dry’ and the bittersweet ‘It’s Only Love When It Hurts’ (the number that bares the strongest resemblance to Camera Obsucra’s work). Their particular beauty comes in the way the sunlight pokes through the clouds. Darkness tinged with optimism; the sense that any emotion is worth feeling so long as it’s real and intense.

The musical qualities Carey brought to Camera Obscura were obvious for all to see – just listen to her stunning work on ‘Tears for Affairs for example. But equally important, perhaps, were her personal attributes. The sense of companionship she provided. The shoulder to lean on. The advice when needed. Her influence is exemplified neatly on first single ‘Alabama’, a touching tribute to Carey. ‘I liked travelling with you and you liked it best with me.’ It’s not the lyrics, nostalgic and unabashed, that break your heart, it’s the melody and the music. It’s hearing Tracyanne sing around the gaping hole provided by Carey’s absence, the strain in her voice as she sings a typically gorgeous melody without her best friend there underlining it. It would have been far easier perhaps write a dreary ballad that highlighted her sadness in fluorescent streaks but ‘Alabama’ is a far more fitting tribute, the type of song Carey would have loved (which just adds to the sense of longing). It’s essentially a sunny, uptempo Camera Obscura song given a loftiness and a real life weight that was not present in their more idealistic material.

In Carey’s absence, Danny Coughlin plays the foil. His contributions are major – he takes lead on roughly half the tracks – but like Carey, he seems to be more useful as something of a grounding presence for Tracey Ann: the confidant, the shoulder, the ear. He has an agile voice, with a confident, pitch perfect tone that sits in contrasts to Tracyanne’s more vulnerable, fragile phrasing. His lyrics are vague and simplistic and his singing, whilst sweet, doesn’t compensate by doing any emotional heavy lifting. His best role is as accomplice – his sweet harmonies enhance ‘Its only Love When It Hurts’, for example. Of his obvious contributions ‘Jaqueline’, a moon lit torch song, is the most memorable, with a vague sense of tragedy looming over the melancholic descriptions of a mystery lady. It’s a cinematic vision of sadness.

But generally ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ works best when it’s dealing with the real and personal, rather than the imagined. That said, there is a rare foray in to dramatic monologue at the album’s close; ‘O’keeffe’ tells the story of Georgia O’keeffe, a famous American painter who in 1929 ran away from her unfaithful husband. Moving to New Mexico, she took to painting a particular sunburnt mountain up to thirty times – an act of devotion and dedication to something unmovable. It was both a form of letting go and embrace. So it is that love serves as Tracyanne’s mountain, and songs are her paintings. On the surface they often seem indistinguishable, made of similar moving parts and romantic feelings, but each one is an effort to get closer to the source of something real and universal. An act of devotion and dedication to something bigger than her.



The Voidz ‘Virtue’ / Albert Hammond Jr ‘Francis Trouble’ – Review

17 Jun

The name Julian Casablancas hasn’t really been a marker of quality for at least a decade. The last universally adored Strokes album came out in 2003, and his output since then has been hit and miss to say the least. ‘First Impressions of Earth’ and debut solo album ‘Phrazes for the Young’ remain cult fan favourites, whilst I personally loved ‘Angles’. But The Strokes most recent full length, ‘Comedown Machine’ was massively underwhelming and his last solo album was flat out unlistenable for large stretches. ‘Tyranny’ was at least appropriately named; Casablancas is notoriously dictatorial in studio. Made with underlings ‘the Voidz, the album sounded defiantly difficult, shambolic and tuneless. He’s returned to the project for ‘Virtue’, a sequel with a similarly abstract title that makes little more effort to be an enjoyable listening experience. However, it ends up (by happy accident you suspect) being much more fun.

It starts strongly with one of the best out and out songs Casablancas has composed in years. ‘Leave It In My Dreams’ has the rough aesthetic of the best Strokes songs but the arrangement, in typical Voidz fashion, is demented and busy. Little else on the album is this straightforwardly tuneful but there are odd moments of joy sprinkled throughout. Musically it’s all over the shop; elements of hair metal, world music, electronica, trap and bubblegum pop get thrown in to an industrial grade blender and the results are wildly varied in both consistency and quality. At its best (‘we’re where we were’, QYUURYUS’, ‘Pyramid of Bones’) Casablancas sounds more alert and dynamic than at any point in the past 7 years. At its worst It sounds stomach churningly awful. Overall It evens out in to an exciting, unpredictable mess that even in its most terrible moments is enlivened by a sense of adventure and risk. Like his friend and fellow innovator Jack White (whose most recent solo album was equally uneven and divisive) Casablncas is a restless auteur, still splitting opinion well in to his second decade of releasing music.

Fans have known for a while that the safest place to turn for your Strokes related kicks has been Albert Hammond Jr. Nobody could really blame Hammond if he was content to be remembered as arguably the coolest, and perhaps the greatest, rhythm guitarist in a 21st century rock band. But rather than rest on his laurel’s, Hammond Jr has quietly and assuredly been carving out a solo career of some note. ‘Francis Trouble’ is his fifth album, which puts his tally at the same number as The Strokes.

Lacking the expansive warmth and ambition of his still memorable 2006 debut ‘Yours to Keep’, or the knife edge tension of 2015’s ‘Momentary Masters’, ‘Francis Trouble’ initially sounds like a rather anticlimactic addition to the discography. But it’s laid back cool and understated professionalism is exactly what makes it such a likeable, if unspectacular, record. Comparisons to a transatlantic Ellis Costello come easily but the restrained guitar riffs and clipped melodies are unmistakably his own. Highlights include the limber ballad ‘Strangers’ and the album’s giddy lead track ‘Dvsl’.

Compared to the wild ups and downs of ‘Virtue’, ‘Francis Trouble’ sounds pretty steady and unspectacular. But there is something commendable in being reliable. To marry the ambition of ‘Virtue’ with the steady hand of ‘Francis Trouble’ might result in something truly worthy of The Strokes legacy.

The Voidz ‘Virtue’ – 6.5/10

Albert Hammond Jr ‘Francis Trouble’ – 6/10

Parquet Courts ‘Wide Awake’ – Reveiw

7 Jun

On the title track of Parquet Courts best album, 2014’s ‘Sunbathing animal’, Andrew Savage told us that ‘most freedom is deceiving, if such a thing exists’. More broadly speaking, that album expanded on the theme of captivity/freedom; what it means exactly to be free in 21st century America, whether it’s attainable and if it’s even desirable. Its a topic that Parquet Courts return to on new album centrepiece ‘Freebird II’, a song about Andrew’s relationship with his substance dependent mother. It’s about finding ways to break free from old habits and bad influences, finding healthy distance from your past, and the consequences of such freedom. ‘Free, I feel free like you promised I’d be’. Once again the theme seeps across multiple tracks and on ‘Wide Awake’ more generally Parquet Courts personify this idea by creating their most daring and ambitious album to date, the one least tied to expectation and convention. It finds joy in freedom, and more specifically, joy in groove.

‘Wide Awake’ is an album that comments upon, and occasionally critiques, what it means to be politically engaged, and active, in 2018. Savage’s almost stream of consciousness poetry, muddled up with ironic sloganeering, is both captivating and exhausting. ‘Swapping parts and roles is not acting but emancipation from expectation. Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exhaustive’ is a typical lyric. But behind the stylistic intensity there is precise analysis. Take their take on the National anthem controversy that has swept through the NFL: ‘it is dishonest, nay a sin, to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression’. This is not the vague unhappiness we’ve come to expect from pop political commentary (see the recent Janaele Monae album) – this is specific, diagnostic and raging. It also presents an idealistic solution, namely, we are stronger when we work together. This is essentially punk music – disgusted, individualistic, disenchanted with the mainstream – that in the moment is emboldened by the idea of the collective. Of communities rising together. As furious as they sound, ironically, they sound even more excited by possibilities.

For a band that is more than ever concerned with injustice and bloodshed, it feels appropriate that they are incorporating the influence of more and more diverse, and somewhat marginalised, genres in to their sound. Still punk in attitude but not necessarily style. ‘Violence’ has a baseline worthy of Funkadelic, ‘Normalisation’ features a breakbeat, ‘Tenderness’ has a piano vamp, ‘Wide Awake’ is out and out funk pop. It’s Parquet Courts most diverse collection of songs to date, and easily their most euphoric.

The ambition can be occasionally cloying. In ‘Violence’ the metaphors become so thick and tangled that it’s difficult to determine exactly what clarity Savage has on this particular topic. Perhaps, and it’s probable, that was the point. It’s easy enough to call out white privilege and examine your own complicity, it’s far harder to unpack the level of black on black violence that is currently tearing some American cities apart. Mixed metaphor after mixed metaphor leads to confusion, a confusion occasionally pricked by some of Savage’s brilliant one liners, e.g ‘Savage is my name because savage is how I feel when the radio wakes me up with the words suspected gunman’. The theme is boiled down to something far simpler in the chorus ‘violence is daily life. Violence happens every day’. The song embodies the confusion and frustration of this emotional overload.

This isn’t the only song that deals with that topic. ‘Almost Had to Start a Fight’ queries the intersection between patience and aggression, and the difficulty of keeping a cool head when the world is overheating. It’s about meltdown but also the salvation that is offered through music. And that’s a key point. ‘Wide Awake’ rarely sounds as fearful or agitated as the lyrics read. There is a shorthand between these four musicians that results in some of the most natural grooves and adventurous progressions we’ve yet heard from them. And though this is definitely Max Savage’s show, Austin Brown also contributes three songs – ‘Mardi Gras Beads’ ‘Back to Earth’ and ‘Death Will Bring Change’, the latter of which were written about his sister’s death in a car accident at the age of 17. Brown’s contributions generally feel more philosophical and optimistic, despite sounding more gloomy (Danger Mouse’ influence is felt most strongly on these songs) but they are still informed by the inevitable tragedy of life. If Brown is singing about wide reaching world issues, Brown uses his space to zoom in on the more intimate tragedies that knock you for six. Whatever issues you have, no matter the scope or intensity, Parquet Courts might just have it covered. And ‘Wide Awake’ provides a gloriously entertaining avenue for your righteous anger and sadness.



Kanye West ‘Ye’ – Review

3 Jun

In the background of one of Kanye West’s recent twitter videos, a tv was playing a clip of the wildly popular and somewhat controversial Canadian academic Jorden Peterson, lecturing on the importance of art. Peterson is best known for his instructive guidance videos and books, aimed primarily at young men, but he’s also something of an expert on narcasism and man’s capacity for evil. In one of his many lectures on the subject, Peterson theorises that everyone has great capacity for malevolence, and it’s only when we come to terms with that, admit it, reckon with it and understand it, that we can evolve in to truly good, and successful, human beings. Otherwise we’re doomed to a life of naivety and manipulation.

It sounds like an instruction that Kanye West may have taken to heart. ‘Ye’ (“I believe Ye is the most commonly used word in the bible, and in the bible it means YOU. So I’m you, I’m us, it’s us. The album is a reflection of who we are.”) opens with Kanye admitting ‘The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. Today I seriously thought about killing you…and I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you so…just say it out loud to see how it feels…sometimes I think bad things, really, really bad things…’ The song continues on like this, as auto-tuned, harmonic mumblings swirl underneath – intense distillations of ideas Kanye has been nibbling at the edges of for years. On this album Kanye is laying his insecurities, anxieties and darkest desires bare for everyone to see. It’s a massive risk. He’s showing us his worst side, as well as him most vulnerable (no easy thing for him one suspects) and asking that we love him as much as he loves himself.

It’s an album largely about mental illness that declares on its cover ‘I hate being bi-polar. It’s awesome’. To my mind at least, ‘Ye’ inhabits some of the contradictions of being bi-polar: it’s at once impulsive, fanatic, impassioned, drained, sad and kind of haunting. It’s an album that sounds incredibly warm yet speaks so coldly. It feels monumental despite being such a slight thing. It’s generous with guest features (most of which are by talented, emotionally grounded young women) despite being such a self centred thesis. If the question is ‘who’s the real Kanye?’ then there are no clear answers on ‘Ye’, except, possibly, they’re all the real Kanye.

From a production standpoint ‘Ye’ is fairly similar to the Kanye produced ‘Daytona’, Pusha T’s recent comeback album. Both are seven tracks, and clock in at just over twenty minutes. Both feature well sourced and creatively manipulated soul samples, carefully articulated beats and minimal bars over spacious backdrops. It’s definitely a refined sound compared to the expansive and diverse ‘Life of Pablo’, and feels more restrained than even ‘Yeezus’ or ‘808s and heartbreaks’. It’s light on hooks (‘Yikes’ might sound like a single if the topics it discusses weren’t so alienating’) but rich in melody and gospel tinged choruses. In these senses it conveys a spirit of love and generosity, even as Kanye pulls away from the listener and doubles down on some of his divisive arguments without really elaborating on them.

Of course It’s impossible to hear ‘Ye’ divorced from the context of his recent behaviour. And he doesn’t want you to. In fact, he refers to his recent controversies frequently, if in no real depth. Those hoping that ‘Ye’ would provide insight or explanation will surely be disappointed, as will those who hoped he might brush over them all together. The most infamous of his recent comments was ‘slavery is a choice’. That provocative comment, here once again brought up on ‘Yikes’, was rightly criticised for being misinformed and unhelpful (despite being ripped from context, with Kanye’s more detailed justification, all but ignored). But this isn’t the first time Kanye has poked and prodded at the subject. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from 2013’s Yeezus, a song hailed at the time as being a Black Lives Matter anthem, was equally reductive and insensitive for different reasons. It strikes me as odd that some people are only just realising now that Kanye West is a troll. That Kanye says, and does, stupid things. That Kanye can be insensitive. When his vitriol was directed at George Bush (‘George Bush hates black people’) or Taylor Swift (‘I made that bitch famous’) it was brushed off. Now it’s all anyone can talk about.

If this is the first time you’ve found Kanye’s comments problematic, you really haven’t been listening hard enough. Both ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Life of Pablo’ were explicitly misogynistic and racist at points. There were elements of that before as well, but the genius of 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, for example, was in how Kanye wrestled with his ego; painting awful pictures and then stripping and analysing them. It was genuinely mature, conflicted stuff. There was none of that self aware drama on ‘Yeezus’ or ‘Life of Pablo’ and there’s little more of it on ‘Ye’. He just doesn’t seem interested in doing the hard yards necessary to layout nuanced, thoughtful arguments. There is a reason Kanye works so well on Twitter – it’s because he writes the most brilliant sound bites known to man. But that’s all they are, sound bites. Sound bites that don’t stand up to even the most simple scrutiny. And by the time he’s delivered one stinger (‘You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?’) it’s too late, he’s on to the next (‘if you get the ass with it that’s a 50 pop’). when his choice of topic was more trivial (‘Life of Pablo’ was totally apolitical) such an approach was tremendous fun. Here though it’s exhausting and divisive.

‘All Mine’ is the latest in a long line of Hip Hop tracks that demean and objectify women, simply for being women. The track seems to be a defence of infedelity; essentially a boy’s will be boys apology that is never even remotely convincing. It starts crudely with a verse by Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Fuck it up, pussy good, I’m ‘a pipe her up, make her mine’, and hits new levels of depravity when Kanye himself throws down: ‘Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome / ayy none of us would be here without cum’. This is Kanye at his insufferable worst. ‘All Mine’s vulgarity is brought in to starker contrast by its proximity to ‘Wouldn’t Leave’, where Kanye recounts the aftermath of the ‘slavery is a choice’ comment. There are odd moments of vulnerability here (‘told her she could leave me now but she didn’t leave’ is a really interesting line – has Kanye been deliberately self sabotaging his success and happiness because he feels unworthy?) but the interesting revelation is that Kim’s initial angry reaction to the comment seems to have been ‘you’ gon’ fuck the money up’. Yes, the song is short on genuine understanding and doesn’t present any of its protagonists in a flattering light.

Another song that’s troubling is album closer ‘Violent Crimes’, which explores how Kanye’s understanding of women has changed since he became a father (changed in the ten minutes between this and ‘All Mine’ you mean?), or at least, how he thinks it’s changed. Addressing his daughter, he says ‘now I see women as something to nurture not something to conquer’ before making a tasteless pun about a ménage et trios. Once again, the proximity between the saintly and the sexualised, in a song about his baby daughter, feels creepy, as later when he starts talking about ‘the curves under you dress’, and a boyfriend ‘whooping her ass’ (of course Kanye isn’t the first man to see man to see women as one of two extremes – the Madonna/whore complex is well documented). It’s a pretty weird song, one where I’m sure he means well, but the fact he thinks this is appropriate is as clear a sign as any that his self awareness is currently at an all time low. And once again, his inability to see beyond women’s bodies – extended even to his own daughter, even in a song where he is making big claims about being a changed man – is astonishing.

But before we address the myriad of problems in the music of Kanye West, how about we zoom out a bit and examine the wider cultural problems within Hip Hop. Singling out Kanye in the same week that Pusha T’s equally problematic ‘Daytona’, and AS$P Rocky’s ‘Testing’, received critical acclaim feels unfair. Jay Z has said worse. So have Drake and Eminem. Cardi B and Azelia Banks are no more nuanced or insightful. Even the relatively enlightened Kendrick Lamar’s first number one used ‘bitch’ as the main hook. And they’re just the big hitters; things get a whole lot darker the further you go further down the chain. I’m not excusing Kanye West, simply suggesting that the issues are far deeper than many would care it admit. And anyway, that may be a part of what ‘Ye’ is but that’s not all it is.

In all the noise and chatter, something that has been lost (but is reaffirmed on this album) is that first and foremost in his tweets Kanye has been calling for love and tolerance. ‘Ye’s working title was ‘Love Everyone’. The front cover was supposed to be a photo of the doctor held responsible for the death of Donda West, Kanye’s mother. Forgiveness. Love. Connection. These ideas may not always be explicit in the lyrics but they are present in other ways. I hear it in the way Kanye’s production synthesises his past styles in to one and brings different genres and historical sounds together. I hear it in the diverse collection of guest vocalists who contribute so much for a cause much bigger than themselves individually. I hear it in Kanye’s bruised, hurt vocal tones as he tries, once again, to hit notes always out of his reach, and doesn’t stop trying. ‘Sometimes I take all the shine, talk like I drank all the wine’. He’s still reaching for truth, for love and for freedom of expression. He’s still knocking at doors and breaking down barriers. Still talking about things we don’t want to talk about. When you invest so much in an artist it can be hard to see their work objectively but I would argue that the Kanye of 2018 is no different to the Kanye of 2013, perhaps even the Kanye of 2003. He’s brash, insensitive, funny, daring, inquisitive, emotional, controversial, narcissistic, capable of great genius and capable of the opposite. To slightly misquote the handwritten message on the front cover of Ye: I hate Kanye West. He’s awesome.



The Magic Numbers ‘Outsiders’ – Review

1 Jun

Taking shots at The Magic Numbers feels unfair in 2018, especially since over their lifetime the band have endured their fair share of criticism, even in the beginning when they were churning out magical, effortless pop along the lines of ‘Forever Lost’, ‘Love Me Like You’ and ‘I See You, You See Me’. But perhaps it’s because their classic debut holds up so well a decade later, that I feel compelled to expect something brilliant every time I put on a new album. The truth is that each subsequent Numbers record has provided diminishing returns, like a set of musical Russian nesting dolls, as they’ve strayed and stumbled further and further from their natural sweet spot of harmonic power pop.

On ‘The Runaway’ and ‘Alias’ the band unsuccessfully flirted with folk, disco, and, most unflatteringly, grungy hard rock. They return to that sound for much of fifth album, ‘Outsiders’, first side. ‘Shotgun Wedding’, ‘Ride the Wind’ and ‘Runaways’ are moody, melancholic rockers with the distortion turned up and the melodies flowing unremarkably underneath the sludge. Lead single ‘Sweet Divide’ follows the same formula but feels more successful, largely I think because it’s carried by a sense of urgency and passion that the other songs lack. The sax riffing in the outro is also a nice, unexpected touch. These rock songs, and ‘Sweet Divide’ in particular, aren’t necessarily bad but they don’t play to the band’s strengths; Magic Numbers still function best as pop group, one who are almost peerless when it comes to concocting graceful melodies and soul stirring harmonies. In that spirit, the best songs here are ‘Wayward’, ‘The Keeper’ and ‘Dreamer’, a central trio of restrained, soulful pop tunes that make pretend it’s 2005, if not 1965.

Magic Numbers have been in dire need of a hard headed producer since day one – all of their albums have been blighted to some extent by indulgent running times, filler and flat out bad stylistic decisions. But on ‘Outsiders’ the band seem to have figured as much out themselves and have made strides to fix it. This is the band’s most consistent record since the debut, both in sound and quality. It flows nicely from beginning to end, with only one song stretching past five minutes, and a couple (for the first time in Magic Numbers career!) clocking in under three. Nothing sticks out awkwardly and although they transition from hard rock to ballads, they wind down gradually so that the progression doesn’t feel jarring.

Towards the end the album unexpectedly melts with a dreamy, hazy trio of stripped back ballads that sit in stark contrast to the agitated numbers that opened the album. It may be difficult to see past the cliches explicit in songs titled ‘Lost Children’ and ‘Rebel Song’, and the spiralling metaphors fog the picture beyond clarity but the effortless melodies are so gorgeous that everything else almost becomes irrelevant. These songs remind you of the power music has to transport the listener to a place beyond reason and understanding. Who could really say what these tracks are about but there is no doubt they take you somewhere you want to return to. Magic Numbers may not be back to their absolute best but five albums in they are still learning new tricks and trying to break bad habits. You couldn’t ask for much more than that.