Archive | May, 2019

The National ‘I am Easy to Find’ – Review

30 May

What do you expect from one of your favourite bands on their eighth album? At best, a couple of new songs to add to the set list? Something a little different? Or something more warm and familiar, like an old dressing gown? something, at the very least, interesting, perhaps? Maybe you just don’t want them to taint your memories or diminish their own legacy?

With that in mind “I am easy to find” is a success. ‘Quiet Places’ and ‘Light Years’ are up there with the very, very best National songs. They’re sad and moving in tangible ways. The title track isn’t far behind (‘there’s a million little battles that I’m never going to win anyway. I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape’ is the quintessential National lyric, in its evocation of small suffering and eventual commitment). The concept is certainly interesting; the band wrote and recorded the album in tandem with director Mike Mills who was creating a visual short film to compliment the music. That’s different. It also features a longtime fan favourite in the form of ‘Rylan’, here presented in a kind of deconstructed way, featuring prominent female vocals, as many of the songs do. That’s familiar. The album has a vitality and not just in an abstract, academic sense (although that to) but in the sense that it finds a raw nerve and pokes at it. It connects. 

Of course it’s long but then every National album feels long anyway, and at least this one is upfront about it. It’s almost unbearably moody and serious but, again, every National album has been, and, again, this one wears its moody seriousness very much on its sleeve. There isn’t a cathartic outburst, a euphoric release, like ‘Mr November’ or ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ to tide us over until the next swell of sadness. If you’re in this, you’re in it for the long haul. Settle down and ready the anti-depressants. ‘I am Easy to Find’ is far from their best work (‘High Violet’ for my money, followed very closely by ‘Aligator’) but it is The National at their most National and their most experimental; you either dig it or you don’t.

7.5/10

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Biffy Clyro ‘Balance Not Symmetry’ – Review

27 May

‘Balance Not Symmetry’ is the soundtrack to a film that re-tells the Romeo and Juliet narrative from Juliet’s perspective. At least that’s what the press release says. We will have to wait a couple of months to see the move itself as, unusually, Biffy Clyro want you to familiarise yourself with the soundtrack in advance. In a similar fashion to The National’s recent ‘I Am Easy to Find’, the album and film fed and influenced each other in a kind of dialogue. Biffy Clyro were heavily involved in the film’s making, and they would play the actors relevant songs before shooting key scenes. ‘Balance Not Symmetry’ is, fittingly, the band’s most cinematic collection to date and also their most stylistically diverse. 

Despite this, it rarely sounds like a soundtrack. The odd forays (mainly in the form of brief interludes) in to Muzak and ambience are ham-fisted diversions that play against just about every strength Biffy Clyro have and disrupt the record’s flow whenever they appear. Only a couple of the ‘song’ songs wander in the same ‘art house film score’ territory. The dreary synth rock of ‘Fever Dream’ sounds like a stale take on the retro Blade Runner/Drive style that was popular a few years ago. It’s followed by ‘Navy Blue’ which to my ears is a transparent homage to Radiohead’s work on Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet. A number of these uncharicatristically faceless genre experiments pile up in the album’s middle and clash alongside each other. It doesn’t help that they arrive after an incautiously overblown opening twenty minutes which features some of Biffy Clyro’s most epic and indulgent songwriting and production work to date. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess.

Taken individually however, many of the songs have a lot going for them. In some sense, ‘Balance Not Symmetry’ serves as a Biffy Clyro primer for newcomers. The title track starts in proper Jaggy Snake territory before exploding in to a Revolutions style chorus. The likes of ‘Adored’ and ‘Colour Wheel’ tap back in to ‘Blackened Sky’s emo vein and In a more general sense the album’s madcap final third – from ‘Touch’s frazzled euphoria to ‘Jasabiab’ clever prog pop – replicates Biffy’s impressive, wide range in miniature. One of several late highlights, ‘Following Master’, has more twists and turns in its 3 and a half minutes than Imagine Dragons or Catfish and the Bottlemen manage across entire albums. There are enough songs of this ambition, and this high quality, to justify the album’s existence, it’s just a shame they’ve been presented in such a ramshackle way.

If only they’d been this outwardly ambitious with the lyrics. In the end, this is loosely an album about overcoming loss but compared to their breakthrough ‘Puzzle, which touched on similar themes far more successfully, it feels cliched. The anaemic sentiments that clog ‘Balance Not Symmetry’ – ‘you stole my heart’ ‘why am I tearing my heart out?’ ‘without you I’d rather be dead’ etc – are comparatively banal. Otherwise these songs carry all the traits that make the band beloved. They’re melodically catchy, structurally inventive and meticulously produced. Unfortunately the lyrics just lack the unpredictability Biffy Clyro have become known for.

Perhaps that has something to do with its form. ‘Balance Not Symmetry’ is a soundtrack to a film we haven’t even seen yet. The broad strokes lyrics no doubt tug at the edges of scenes with their own emotional heavy lifting to do. Perhaps the lighter touch will amplify what we see on screen without overpowering it. At the moment, it’s difficult to know. Certainly, to judge the album without seeming the film feels somewhat unfair. As an album ‘Balance Not Symmetry’ is a lumpy if ambitious collection of songs that never really coalesce in to anything particularly memorable. It’s a frequently enjoyable if messy record. As a soundtrack to a film, it might work more intuitively. Time will tell.

6.5/10

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Peter Doherty ‘Peter Doherty and the Puta Madres’ – review

20 May

Pete Doherty’s solo albums have typically been dull, folky affairs blighted by indulgence. Doherty seems to need a close collaborator (be it Carl Barat, Mick Jones, Stephen Street, Drew Mcconell etc) to rein in his more pretentious tendencies. Maybe that’s why ‘Peter Doherty and the Puta Madres’ is his best album outside of Babyshambles and The Libertines. Here Doherty has worked closely with a young band of collaborators, from diverse backgrounds, and the result is largely a success. Combining the smoky atmosphere of early Babyshambles with the smart song craft of The Libertines self titled album; he hasn’t sounded this invested since those halcyon days. Doherty’s sinewy guitar licks and mumbled vocals are given space and the band do an admirable job of hovering in the background, stepping in when necessary but usually letting Doherty hog the limelight, which is of course something he thrives on.

Opener ‘All At Sea’ is an old song – the version presented here is virtually the same as the one recorded as the B-Side for ‘Can’t Stand Me Now in 2004. It is, unsurprisingly, the best thing on ‘Peter Doherty and the Puta Madres’ by a country mile. Nonetheless, it’s very presence here indicates the album’s real draw back; the song was written when Pete was in his early 20’s, finding his feet and looking to break away from the stifling atmosphere of his mundane environment. Nearly two decades on, he finds himself largely unmoved. The fact its used as the opener suggests its themes still hold massive resonance for Doherty and In that sense there is a sadness that lurks beneath ‘All At Sea’ and the album is general. More particularly, there is the fog of faded glory and missed opportunity that, even with his new band in tow, he can never quite shake.

Still, there is something less voyeuristic about his writing these days – yes he can barely see past the end of his own nose, but he genuinely seems interested in the world around him for the first time in ages. The skiffling ‘Punk Buck Bonafide’ vaguely tackles the American firearms tragedy that seems to be playing out more and more frequently while at another point he sarcastically says ‘I’ll have an all English Brexit please…’ a nuanced portrait of patriotism a’la ‘Time For Heroes’ or ‘The Good Old Days’ this decidedly is not – but it’s…something…that suggests a tiny widening of his  narrow world view.

If Pete Doherty is a tragic hero then it’s surely nobody’s fault but his own – a fact he concedes on the aptly named ‘A Fool There Was’. He does actually seem to be waking up to the fact that the world’s spun and left him somewhat behind, or as he puts it on another stand out track, ‘Who’s Been Having You Over’ – ‘The world once was flat, the world’s gone round.’ Rather than take this as an opportunity to drag has trousers up and reassess, for the most part he instead mopes in his romanticised pit of misery, content to be an archaic bard from distant days. I suppose it’s the role he’s been feeling out since the beginning but you can’t help remembering just how much was initially promised. Sadly, years of putting a spike through his arm have stilted his once prodigious talent for poetry. Starved of the wit, cleverness and (most importantly) clarity of thought we once took for granted, ‘Peter Doherty and the Puta Madres’ is bereft of fresh inspiration. There is a real place for new analysis of what it is to be young and British. There is a place for someone who can prod at the intersections between the past, present and future, the real and the fantastical, the romantic and the tragic – someone who can write a ‘Up the Bracket’ or ‘Down in Albion’ in 2019. But Pete Doherty just isn’t that man anymore. He isn’t capable of it.

He now inspires devotion and detestation in equal measures. Listening to the likes of ‘Traveling Tinker’ and ‘Ride Into The Sun’, you can either hear a genius exposing his vulnerability in a way he’s rarely done before or a Junkie unraveling before your very eyes. Honestly, there is some evidence to support either interpretation. Usually though, ‘Peter Doherty and the Puta Madres’ sounds like what it is – the middling side project of a songwriter entering his third decade. This is easily Doherty’s strongest non-Libertines record since ‘Shotter’s Nation’ in 2007 and for long-time fans there is a lot to enjoy (even if that enjoyment is largely nostalgic in flavour). For everyone else, there isn’t an awful lot to see here.

6.5/10

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Vampire Weekend ‘Father of the Bride’ – Review

11 May

On the cover of ‘Father of the Bride’, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, the earth is represented as a cartoonish symbol, offset by the striking whiteness of the background and a corporation logo for ‘Sony Music’. There is a song, ‘Unbearably White’, that elaborates on this tussle between nature and the bright, white hum of the digital environment we’ve created. ‘Presented with darkness, we turn to the light’ argues Ezra Koenig. But it’s the blinding light of computer screens, mobile phones and televisions that he’s referring to. In Ezra’s vision, nature will fight back. ‘There’s an avalanche coming…’ The album itself is populated by digital noise, electronic gargles and processing but these sounds are superseded by crickets chirping, frogs ribbeting and birds singing. In the liner notes, Father of the Bride is dedicated to planet earth, and in interviews Ezra has described being nostalgic for a Nineties brand of environmentalism and the Sega Mega Drive game ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. If their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ exuded an anxiety very specific to being in your late 20’s and living in NYC, then ‘Father of the Bride’ is about reengaging with nature, in a way that approximates hope. There is a freedom and relief to this. It’s like the soft exhalation after holding your breath. The smell of wet pavements after a storm.

Both the opening and closing tracks open with Ezra singing ‘I know’, but his wisdom isn’t borne from a knowledge of what is certain; rather an acceptance that some things aren’t, and will never be certain. ‘Father of the Bride’ has a certain calm stoicism that marks it out from its predecessor in a way that is unexpected considering how tightly wound and preoccupied with the passing of time, that album sounded.

It doesn’t start off this way. The record opens with wedding day drama – a bride uncertain of whether to stay or go – and this sense of quandary carries through to ‘Harmony Hall’, which establishes a theme of individuality vs group think. In this vision, the more that people harmonise the less articulate the message becomes. Individuals become lost in the crowd. ‘Wicked snakes’ are revealed. The song’s most memorable line is perhaps the most universal catch-22 of all – ‘I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.’ It’s a call for the freedom and peace that the rest of the album responds to.

This idea is returned to on the album’s pretty closer ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, where Koenig meditates on another heady concept – heritage. In particular, his heritage as a Jew, raised in New York, living in the shadow of both Berlin and Jerusalem. Like Harmony Hall, It’s loosely about lending your voice to that of the crowd until you eventually lose your sense of individual identity. Sometimes you can surrender yourself to a bigger idea that ultimately can’t save you, whether it’s religion (as represented by Jerusalem), culture (New York) or politics (Berlin): ‘You’ve given me the big dream but you can’t make it real’. It’s a song that acknowledges both dream and disaster and holds them along side each other as colours on the same spectrum. It asks the questions and provides no answers, with an acceptance that maybe there is no answer, just an ‘endless conversation’. On the boyunt ‘Stranger’ he puts it another way – ‘I used to look for an answer, I used to knock on every door / but you’ve got the wave on, music playing, don’t need to look anymore.’

‘Stranger’ is a self-assured riff on maturity. In every sense it exudes a confidence that only comes with experience. If before Vampire Weekend sounded like a band constantly searching for an itch to scratch, then the opposite is true on ‘Father of the Bride’ and its ‘tasteful palette’ of sounds. Warm horns and lush sprinkles of piano tickle the edges of the track and – of everything on the album – ‘Stranger’ in particular lifts the band to a higher level of serenity. The song details a cozy night at home, with Ezra listening to his wife and sister in law having a conversation downstairs. ‘I’ve left those wilding days of old, your house is warmer, the wilderness is cold.’ Some fans might miss the frenzied energy of Vampire Weekend’s early work or the rattling anxiety of ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ but few could argue with the largely content place they’ve now settled in. 

It’s definitely the baggiest they’ve ever sounded. The freshly pressed slacks are splattered with pricks of mud. The crisp, button down Oxford shirt has wrinkled and come untucked. The fringe has fallen below the eyebrows. It’s the sound of a band who are assured enough to allow their rigorous standards to slip ever so slightly but have the confidence to pull it off.

And after six long years away, it’s only fitting that Vampire Weekend return with an ambitious set of eighteen songs. Springsteen’s ‘The River’ has been cited as the model; a double album with a sense of thematic unity and cohesion rather than the sprawling, say yes to every idea approach of ‘The White Album’. Amidst this comfortable confidence is the sense that Vampire Weekend have never tried this hard before. Despite its length and strong sense of adventure, the mix is crisp bright and poppy; Ariel Reichsted is behind the boards, sharpening the hooks and generally making sure every diverse sound is blended in a nuanced way. As a consequence, the production is decidedly less idiosyncratic than Rostam’s used to be but also more accessible. In fact, the album is accessible on every other front as well. Ezra has largely dispensed with the expensive adjectives and exotic proper nouns that rippled through his older work. He still dances around the point, and his songs continue to be rich in allusion and metaphor, but usually there is a discernible message that might once have been cloaked or concealed.

The aspirational sophistication of the band’s early days lingers in the finer details – such as the baroque piano breakdown in ‘Harmony Hall’ and the combination of formal strings and Palm Wine guitar on ‘Rich Man’. But generally the references are more 20th century American. Several of the songs closely resemble the middling pop-rock of AM radio in the mid 70’s – Fleetwood Mac , Paul Simon, Carole King etc while a jammy middle stretch of the album has reminded a lot of people of Phish and Grateful Dead (references which admittedly go over my head I’m afraid). It’s the most collaborative album the band have made, featuring guest appearances both subtle (DJ Dahi, BloodPop®, Rostam) and immediately obvious (guitarist Steve Lacy of The Internet, and Danielle Haim). All of them pay off and compliment the generous, indulgent tone that the record strikes.

As a double album, ‘Father of the Bride’ is understandably imperfect. Three (three!) country duets with Danielle Haim is probably overkill (I myself could do without the slightly disingenuous ‘We Belong Together’ which is little more than a genre exercise without the necessary sincerity). The back half of the record feels a little lumpy at points, lagging with the inoffensive ‘Rich Man’ and ‘My Mistake’, both of which are more mood boards than songs. But you’re more forgiving of low points on a double album and in some ways it adds to the record’s baggy, indulgent charm.

In a recent interview Ezra said “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.” Like the sunflower that grows in the morning, the Flower Moon that shines out of the darkness, or the protagonist in ‘Big Blue’ who finds solace in the beauty of the ocean during a particularly difficult time – Vampire weekend have survived and adapted after great uncertainty. This recurring theme becomes most clear on the penultimate track ‘Spring Snow’ where the sun melts the snow and ‘bells start to ring.’ The song’s reference to seasons passing and ‘the end’ suggests that the ticking doubts haven’t completed cleared from Ezra’s mind – after all, snow will fall again next winter – but for the moment that bed is cozy and the view outside is beautiful. Once again on ‘Father of the Bride’ man surrenders to the glorious, inevitable will of nature. And it sounds delightful.

9/10

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Foxygen ‘Seeing Other People’ – Review

4 May

‘Seeing Other People’ is Foxgen’s fifth album, and their latest to mine a different era of classic rock for inspiration. This time Foxygen cite legendary artists of the 60s as influences – but their 80’s material rather than classic output. The faded, strained echo of genius that resonated from Dylan, Young and Bowie in the Regan era is what resonated most clearly with Sam France and Jonathan Rado this time around. Thus Foxygen treat us to an assortment of uncanny sounds – the slippery synths and broken beats of the decade taste forgot – and this is admittedly an engaging concept.

The difference is that those artists were great writers working hard to sound relevant and inventive in an era when technology was evolving and the ground constantly moving under their feet. Foxygen are decidedly not in the same league, and they’re pilfering from the past (not the present) in increasingly snarky, detached ways. There’s something just a bit too on the nose and cynical about ‘Seeing Other People’ and the way it treats its influences. Of course this has been the criticism about Foxygen since day one; the difference now is that this album has precious little style – let alone substance – to mount a defence of that criticism. The arrangements sound clunky, disjointed and generally combustible. Foxygen’s take on the 80s – which usually lands somewhere between sleazy New Romantic glam and strutting synth rock – is cold and manufactured.

The album falls apart even further once you penetrate the slippery but smooth exterior. It’s easy to forget that Foxygen’s acclaimed ‘We are the 21st Century Ambassadors…’  offset its retro asthetic with very contemporary social commentary, biting satire and a healthy dose of magical mysticism. Outwardly, ‘Seeing Other People’ is little more than self examination for a band who have always appeared to be falling apart at the seems. It’s as indulgent and petty as that set up would suggest. Rarely does it explore the legitimate anxieties of a friendship straining under the pressure of success and fandom. It’s never allowed to become that sentimental. Instead the tone is bitter and sarcastic; a blunt weapon to beat around the listener’s head. The diagnostic ‘The Thing Is’ comes closest to touching a nerve but even here the sarcastic verse – I’m a winner, five piece chicken dinner!’ – comes across as a more genuine reflection of the duo’s attitude than the confessional chorus. ‘The thing is, it’s never easy being lonely’. Further exploration of that rather obvious truism is never entertained and the song spirals in to mundane repetition.

The album is (for the most part) enjoyable in spite of itself. Sam France can’t help but be an enegmatic presence even in his least likeable poses. He manages to squeeze drama out of even the most pedestrian lyrics, particularly on ‘Face the Facts’ where his melodramatic performance redeams some simply dreadful lyrics.  France is matched hook for hook by the musical maestro Jonathan Rado who knows his way around a studio better than almost any other young musician in the industry. His talent as a producer (exemplified most recently on brilliant recordings by Wyes Blood, Lemon Twigs, Whitney and Father John Misty) particularly shines on the inventive opener ‘Work’ where wonky synth sounds and unusual percussion enliven what is otherwise an obvious Bowie pastiche. But sparkling production and charisma alone are not enough to save an album (or band for that matter) as broken as this. Not when the heart has gone. If, as rumours suggest, it is the end, then ‘Seeing Other People’ is a disappointing conclusion to a once promising story.

5.5/10

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