Archive | April, 2019

Pup ‘Morbid Thoughts’ – Review

27 Apr

Pup’s brilliant 2015 breakthrough album was ironically titled ‘The Dream is Over’ and it was imbued with the sense that this band actually believed their own hyperbole. The opening track was called ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You I Will’ and Stefan Babcock sang with the internalised, irrational rage of somebody who had lived through many months of petty bickering and was realistically on the verge of following though with that very threat (one can only imagine the slow torture of sharing a small tour bus for months on end with three other blokes). After the death of ‘the dream’ comes the waking nightmare. ‘Morbid stuff’ picks up at this very point.

It near enough starts with an existential crisis. ‘I’ve been navigating my way through the mind numbing reality of a Godless existanace, which at this point in my hollow and vapid life has erased what little ambition I’ve got left.’ If you sense a degree of gallows humour in Babcock’s deadpan delivery then cherish it, ‘Morbid Stuff’ runs on the fumes of dread, fatigue and self loathing. It rarely lets up. But the track from which this piercing self examination is taken, ‘Kids’, is also their brightest and most memorable song to date – the type of lead single that could legitimately crossover. Babcock even considers it his first love song.

This is punk music that drives straight past every tired cliche we’ve come to associate with the genre. It gets to the heart of what’s most vital and life affirming about loud and fast guitar music, contradicting every negative thing Babcock growls in to the microphone. There is life in these riffs, even as Babcock contemplates damnation. The album is called ‘Morbid Thoughts’ and the band make good on that statement of gloom. Babcock pictures the destruction of the world at least three times within the first five songs. By the third occasion, on ‘Scorpian Hill’, he’s fully inhabited the persona of someone on the edge; a man in debt, drinking too much, recently made redundant and with a young kid. ‘Down and out, I’ve been having some pretty dark thoughts’. The song ends with his wife finding a gun under a pile of clothes in their son’s room.

If he’s playing a character on ‘Scorpion Hill’ – and I’ll generously assume he is – then it isn’t many points removed from the more literal expressions of anger and disillusionment he makes elsewhere. Whether he’s pondering whether anyone he’s slept with is dead, playing satanic games that name check Mary Kate and Ashley, or contemplating taking up vegan food and meditation ‘to feel alive again’, you feel like Babcock is either on the brink of laughing or crying his eyes out. Maybe both. This is emo for the teenagers that grew up, had a family and are now staring down an eternity of paying off that mortgage. Unlike those teenage emos’, Babcock is nothing if not self aware. ‘Make no mistake, I know exactly what I’m doing / I’m just surprised the world isn’t sick of grown men whining like children.’ At another point, quoting his partner, he says ‘All your songs are getting way too literal. How about some goddam subtlety for a change?!’

If any of this makes the album sound like the heaviest release of a pretty heavy going Year then let me clarify – ‘Morbid Thoughts’ is a blast from start to finish. ‘The Dream is over’ had a couple of pop-punk nuggets that you could listen to over and over again. ‘Morbid Thoughts’ has seven or eight of them. Not only are the hooks sharper, the choruses bigger and the melodies more memorable, there is an overall ambition and sophistication to the album that further elevates it above its predecessor. It’s in the details as well as the broader strokes – the harmonic, metal guitar licks that pepper ‘Free at Last’, the folky passages that prelude the heavier songs such as ‘Scorpion Hill’, the frequency scraping screams of ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ that make it sound like Babcock really is performing on the brink. This is a step up in a respect that makes a mockery of the humourless, pompous, self satisfied punk albums that have been hyped to death recently.

9/10

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Fontaines D.C ‘Dogrel’ – Review

21 Apr

The members of Fontaines D.C met as young scallywags and bonded in Dublin pubs over a love of James Joyce and local beat poetry. They scrawled their own drunken sentiments on notepads and swapped them between pints of Guinness. There’s no doubt that the band skew almost comically close to a certain stereotype of the young Irish Artist but what’s particularly interesting is just how charmingly archaic the stereotype of choice is. Indeed, Fontaine D.C’s debut album, ‘Dogrel’ would have sounded more convincingly at home at almost any other point in the 21st or late 20th Century. A punning reference to ‘no connection available’ aside (plus a sense of existential dread that could also be applicable to any other era in human history) there is nothing to suggest that Fontaines D.C are producing art in 2019.

In an odd way, that works to the band’s advantage. When I first heard their song ‘Boys in a Better Land’ on the radio, it immediately stood out – not just from the bland commercial pop that fills playlists but equally from the other indie songs currently in vogue. In contrast to the popular stoner sounds and slacker vibes, Fontaines D.C are guided by a strong sense of purpose and forward momentum. Grain Chatten’s clear cut voice, full of intent, is placed high in the mix, and he barks down over a thunderous clash of instruments rioting below him. His regional accent alone would be enough to catch your ear but he is singing (though I’m not sure we can really call it singing) passionately about things he clearly believes in.

The band move subtly between variations of punk, post-punk and indie. On a Bernard Sumner scale they sometimes sound a bit like Joy Division, occasionally get close to ‘Low Life’ era New Order but never get as far out there as Electronic. It’s derivative but usually effective; whether sticking to an infectious but reasonably unadventurous thrash, as with ‘Chequeless Reckless’ and ‘Liberty Belle, or going more experiential with the likes of ‘Hurricane Laughter’ and ‘Roy’s Tune’.

Chatten never sounds angry or desperate; he keeps a steely, romantic cool that positions him closer to an indie troubadour than a punk rocker. Essentially he combines the literary, polemic style of Parquet Court’s Austin Brown with a bit of mythic romanticism borrowed from a young Peter Doherty. Throw in a bit of Shane Magow’s bleary eyed wonder and Liam Gallagher’s cocksure swag and you get the idea. Of course he isn’t the finished article yet. He’s a little too quick with an overripe adjective, a little too taken by his own sense of import. Take ‘Too Real’ as an example – ‘the bruised and beat up open sky, six o’clock, the city in its final dress. And now a gusty shower wraps the grimy scraps of withered leaves…’ Rarely do these descriptions amount to anything substantive and for all his poetic intent Chatten’s Impulsive, freeewheelin’ lyricism is about as shallow as an Irish puddle. Too often choruses spiral in to repetitions of vague declarations and hanging questions – ‘is it too real for ya?’, ‘whats really going on?, ‘Hurricane Laughter, tearing down the plaster’ ‘sha sha sha’ etc. It’s banal but usually evocative enough to create an interesting atmosphere at the very least.

So Chatten is not a great lyricist yet but he’s trying very, very hard to be great and that ambition is endearing enough to overcome the occasional lapses in meaning and style. This is, after all, a debut album – and a confident, purposeful one at that. The songs, particularly the early string of singles (which have been brightened and intensified here) are short, catchy and distinctive. In the album’s opening minute Chatten declares ‘my childhood was small but I’m gonna be big.’ On this evidence, you wouldn’t bet against him.

7.5/10

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The Drums ‘Brutalism’ – Review

17 Apr

Back in 2009 ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ carried The Drums on a wave of hype that anticipated greatness. Both NME and Pitchfork, rarely united on anything at the time, crowned them ‘Best new band’ at the end of the year. In retrospect the song presented The Drums at their most accessible and least likely. Its wide screen romance is emblematic of their early output but the airy light-heartedness would not be easily replicated. In contrast to the reputation they’ve built since, as dour miserabilists, the track stands apart. Indeed, few songs smack of 2009 Obama-optimism as much this exhalation of ocean breeze. ‘There’s a new kid in the town, he’s gonna make it all better’ Peirce convincingly crooned. Ten years on, the folly in blind belief in an incumbent president is clear to see. But even now, listening to the carefree whistles and twanging bassline, it’s easy to get swept back up in that feeling for three and half minutes. Emotional escapism – whatever the emotion – has always been The Drums calling card. Which makes their latest trick all the more impressive; to maintain that glorious, escapist feeling while wading in to the territory of brutal self examination, hyper specific lyricism in the context of America, 2019. ‘Brutalism’ is therefore, in every conceivable sense, The Drums most daring album to date.

That sense of optimism captured on ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ certainly isn’t replicated but neither is the crushing pessimism of ‘Portamento’, ‘Encyclopaedia’ or ‘Abysmal Thoughts’. Instead, there is now a stoicism, borne from experience and increasing understanding of how the world works. On ‘Pretty Cloud’ Pierce glories in the unpredictability of love for another, equally impulsive individual, whether that brings sun or sorrow. ‘I am blisful in whatever you give me. I lean on the mystery…’ whereas a decade ago he was fretting about how he was ‘going to make you mine’ he now seems certain that ‘good luck and a good fuck, a glass of wine and some quality wine is going to make you mine.’

The Drums mythic romanticism and cinematic despair has been usurped by an almost zen-like ‘que sarà confidence. Jonny is at peace with his happiness and his sadness. He embraces his sexuality and desire. The mean spirited bitterness that soured some of his past writing has matured in to something like acceptance. The contentedness that exudes from the lyrics is perfectly complimented by the musical forthrightness. Sampled drums no longer get drowned in reverb. Instead, crisply programmed beats trickle loudly in the mix. The bass lines also get projected. Real chords consistently flow from the guitars for the first time on a Drums album and every sound coalesces together very neatly in to a polished pop whole. Compared to the lo-fi production and simplistic musicality of the group’s early work, ‘Brutalism’ sounds modern and glorious. None of the band’s personality is lost in the process either, if anything it’s an elevation of everything that marked them out as unique.

Pierce is still a romantic at heart, the type of sap who ‘bet my life on one kiss’, as he puts it in the title track. But this time around there is an understanding that the highs and lows of life approximate two sides of the same coin tossed by the hand of fate. On ‘Brutalism’ and ‘262 Bedford Avenue’ desire might lead to heartbreak, but it’s pursued anyway as an end within itself. The happiness described on the album finale ‘Blip of Joy’ may be temporary but it’s there to be cherished for the time it lasts. Jonny’s voice is as gooey as ever. He’s still coo-Ing and harmonising with himself, still reaching for notes ever so slightly out of reach, still sounding giddy at the possibilities of love and melody. In the heartbreakingly stark ‘Nervous’ he presents his most sophisticated and honest vocal performance to date, honing in on the particulars of a post-break up reunion with total clarity. ‘I Wanna Go Back’ is similarly moving, conjuring memories of the classic ‘Book of Stories’. The hooks may not as be as sharp, and the chorus doesn’t linger in the memory quite as potently, but the nostalgic sentiment is utterly moving.

Essentially ‘Brutalism’ is a colourful explosion of everything The Drums have always prided themselves on: sticky melodies, simple arrangements and vivid emotion. It’s firmly rooted in the tradition of indie pop but sounds less tethered to the sometimes cloying conventions of the genre. It’s also less tethered to the set of conventions The Drums created for themselves a decade ago. But the experimentation feels playful and sincere. Crucially, these still sound like Drums songs. Compared to the lumpy and awkward diversions of the band’s other left-field experiment, ‘Encyclopaedia’, ‘Brutalism’ feels like a more natural progression. It confirms once again, if it needed confirming, that The Drums are a group to treasure and one of the most inexplicably underrated bands of the decade.

8.5/10

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Review round-up

7 Apr

Foals ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’

At this point Foals are one of the biggest rock bands in the U.K by virtue of being one of the last surviving. ‘Everything Not Saved Will be Lost’ bares little resemblance to the quirky, infectious Math-Rock the band perfected with early hits like ‘Cassius’ and ‘Balloons’ or the slick pop of ‘My Number’ and ‘Miami’. Instead it continues in the ponderous Headliner Rock direction laid out by previous albums ‘Holy Fire’ and ‘What Went Down’. In 2019, with so much water under the bridge between their best work and now, it’s hard to imagine what a great Foals album would sound like anyway but ‘Everything Not Saves Will be Lost’ is certainly not it. It’s a margenly weirder, more esoteric variation on the same sort of popular, muddy rock music they have competently been churning out for most of this decade. Occasionally proggy (‘Sunday’) occasionally slinky (‘In Degrees’) occasionally atmospheric (‘Cafe D’Athens’) but rarely ambitious, experimental or vulnerable in any meaningful sense, the album snaps under its own weight. Foals have settled in to a dour, serious mood years ago and they never break character, even for a second. As such ‘Everything Not Saved…’ is undone by a pretentious tone that the passé lyrics never really justify. Fittingly, ‘Part 2’ is coming out in a few months and I wouldn’t expect anything more (or less).

5/10

Billie Eilish – ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go’

Billie Eilish is enough to make you feel old. Or maybe it’s just me. I mean, I knew she was popular but not ‘3 songs in the top 10’, ‘most pre-added album in Apple Music history’ popular. Maybe Dave Grohl was on to something when he compared the teenager’s meteoric rise to that of Nirvana’s. What’s heartening is that Billie Eilish built her massive following largely off her own steam and without bowing to industry pressure to look or sound like anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, she nabs from some of the most influential Big Tent albums of the past decade – the production closely mirrors Lorde’s innovative work on ‘Melodrama’ while Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ and ‘Run the Jewels’ self titled albums clearly loom large as influences. There is also the barely concealed influence of sound cloud rap in her half mumbled, breathy melodies and use of pitch distorted samples.

She is however, without any doubt, an assured artist in her own right, with a strange, singular identity and haunting vision. ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go’ is, at points, funny, eerie, mournful, ironic, distasteful and heartbreaking. Just when you think you have a handle on its sadness, Eilish disarms you with a sample from ‘The Office’ or a recording of her slurping her own saliva. She also subverts the stereotypes of genre and age; ‘Xanny’ is surprisingly a self assured dismissal of the sedative of choice for generation Z. ‘Bury a Friend’, the album’s lead single, is a nightmarish unravelling of fame written from the perspective of a monster under the bed. Thematically complex, if occasionally derivative and overwrought, ‘When We Fall Asleep’s bold ambition justifies the hype. As Eilish develops her songwriting and vocal capabilities to match that ambition we could see a rare talent unfold.

7/10

Sharon Van-Etten ‘Remind Me Tomorrow

‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ is difficult to pin down. It’s an experimental pop album that often doesn’t sound particularly experimental or particularly poppy. Instead, Sharon Van Etten seems to be finding comfort in the familiarity of beloved genres and soft melodies whilst delicately unpicking them and pushing at the boundaries of what we expect. At times she triggers memories of quiet storm balladry, drivetime Rock, ambient, grunge, indie, chamber pop… the relics of less tumultuous times. But this isn’t a copy and paste by any means. Murky production effects deliberately distort and interrupt our enjoyment. Essentially Sharon Van Etten is an avant-garde artist, not interested in upholding the orthodoxy but rather in breaking it down and subverting our expectations. ’17’ is the best example; a dreamy ode to New York and youth, which could so easily melt into easy nostalgia, particularly with the Springsteen-esqe driving melody, but instead takes more ambitious turns. ‘I used to feel free – or was it just a dream?’
The album may not be as cutting as the most extreme examples of the experimental form, or as touching as Van-Etten’s more sentimental, straightforward ballads (2014’s ‘Are We There’ remains the standout in her catalogue), but on ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ she finds a niche somewhere in between.

8/10