Archive | July, 2019

Ed Sheeran ‘No.6 Collaboration Project’ – Review

30 Jul

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ed Sheeran, an unbelievably popular songwriter who may be too white, too nice, too ginger and too middle class to benefit from poptimism’s warm glow. But songs like ‘Shape of You’, ‘Perfect’, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and deeper cuts like ‘Drunk’, ‘Tenerife Sea’ and ‘Give Me Love’ are hard to deny and even harder to ignore. These songs are soft, spongey things with very few hard edges but plenty of hooks. Even without the insistent radio play these songs would be hard to forget.

At his best Sheeran satisfies a craving for undiluted emotion with songs that make broad connections via cute melodies and unfussy arrangements. His lyrics – which more often than not are silly and even embarrassing – occasionally strike the perfect blend of relatable sincerity and millennial originality. Arguably, the most successful demonstrations of this are two songs he wrote for other artists – ‘Little Things’ by One Direction and ‘Love Yourself’ by Justin Bieber.

But those qualities are hard to find on the awkwardly titled ‘No.6 Collaborations Project’. Indeed another Bieber collaboration, ‘I Don’t Care’, serves as a good example of how things have gone badly wrong. The track’s rote melody, which feels derivative of ‘Love Yourself’, and oddly sterile production sound unusually cold and ungenerous, while the message of indulgent isolation is equally dislikeable. ‘I Don’t Care’ is the album’s lead single and still the catchiest song on here.

‘No.6 Collaboration Project’ is little more than a calculated playlist of bland, sparkess pop music made with absolute competence and almost no heart whatsoever. It’s music made by a content millionaire struggling to tap in to the vein of hurt and frustration that made him his millions. These songs are generic exercises designed by the same committee responsible for 90% of top 40 radio. Countless other writers and producers worked with Sheeran on these songs, which feel contrived and faceless as a consequence. ‘No6…’ is an album blighted by insincerity, from an artist who’s calling card has been unfiltered sincerity. 

Musically, only ‘Best Part of Me’ serves the soft, muted shades we’ve come to associate with Sheeran. Elsewhere he’s straining to sound relevant by appropriating the sounds and motifs of other genres in to his sexless chart mush. Having steered out of his own distinctive lane, he’s veered sharply and somewhat chaotically in to pedestrian pop. Casualties include Camils Cabello on ‘South of the Border’ which features the kind of unfortunate euphemisms and trite observations that are typical of Sheeran at his unedited worst. The song’s vague calypso rhythm, clipped percussion and Spanish flourishes are calling cards of top 40 radio from, what, 2017? It’s out of date and out of touch.

But the pop songs are significantly better than the rap ones. The original ‘No 5’ collaboration e.p, on which this is loosely modelled, featured well meaning attempts to blend Ed’s sound with grime and Hip Hop. Alongside British underdogs, Sheeran didn’t sound massively under-pace. What he lacked in technical ability and credibility he made up for with ambition and enthusiasm. This time his choice of collaborators feels more calculated. The likes of Travis Scott, Stormzy, Chance the Rapper, Meek Mills, Young Thug… it’s a PR dream team. The problem is, Sheeran is outshone so often it becomes difficult to see what is gained by these ‘collaborations’. Of course It’s no shame to be out-rapped by Eminem, who even on an off day is more proficient than just about any rapper on the planet. But some of Ed’s rhymes, particularly on the lamentable ‘Take Me Back to London’ are empty, braggadocios and occasionally mortifying. You can’t accuse him of playing it safe – but at what price?

Ed Sheeran can rap – listen to his verses on U.N.I’ or ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ for evidence – but the best place to hear him rap is on an Ed Sheeran album, where his only competition is himself. Here, surrounded by some of the biggest and best rappers on the planet, he is exposed time and time again. 

The album’s failures are not so surprising. Ed Sheeran has been spreading himself thin for a while, and his signature style has never been so diluted. By sharing the writing process he’s given far less of himself than we would expect. By conceding this much to other producers he’s lost sight of what made him popular in the first place.



Lewis Capaldi ‘Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent’ – Review

15 Jul

There is no doubt that Lewis Calpido is a one trick pony – a fact the self-deprecating star makes light of in any interview he gives. When he pulls that trick off, as on the massive hit ‘Someone You Love’, the results are undeniably moving. That song’s seismic pull – a giant voice belting over gentle piano arpeggios – lessens on the album, as song after song makes similar, if not identical, moves with diminishing effect. Stormy opener ‘Grace’ is probably the next best thing on here but then it’s also the first song you hear, and perhaps that’s not a coincidence. Certainly, by the time of the opening notes of ‘Fade’ and ‘Headspace’, emotional fatigue has well and truly kicked in.  Your skin can thicken to even the most potent emotions over time. 

Calpaldi is a gifted singer (who will eventually learn to rein it in a bit) with an engaging personality; the shame is that very little of that personality gets displayed on ‘Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent’ whose title manages to be the most interesting thing about it. His quirky sense of humour, distinctive Scottish twang and personable manner are largely absent from his lyricism which trades more in stock imagery and the usual heartbreak cliches. At times, as on the ill judged ‘One’, he actually comes across as a little petulant and self-absorbed. There is a fine line when you’re sharing as much as Lewis is and he occasionally trips over it. Perhaps this would be less problematic if you thoroughly believed every single word he was singing but some of the less memorable songs feel like contrived exercises with different heartbreak tropes. The rhymes are a little too neat, the sentiments a little too rehearsed. 

He largely pulls it off through through sheer, breathtaking vocal power. What he lacks in subtlety and refinement he makes up for with reach. Thick, bold emotional lines transmitted bluntly from the heart, through the voice, to your ears. It’s direct and it’s emotive. Whether he’s seeking solace in sunny climes (‘Hollywood’) grieving over unreciprocated feelings (‘Hold Me While You Wait’) or coming to terms with being a single man (‘Bruises’) he generally sells the emotion with the conviction radiating from his voice rather than the words.

Capaldi makes rivals Adele and Sam Smith seem veritably experimental in comparison. Those singers – who Capaldi will inevitably be compared to – had a handful of classics on their sad-sack breakthrough albums; Capaldi has one, maybe two at a push. That said, he’s certainly a league above other recent Adele rip offs like James Arthur, Rag and Bone Man, James Bay and Tom Walker. I find myself returning to ‘Divinely Inspired to a Hellish Extent’ and so do millions of others. There is a disarming quality to these ballads that simply breaks through my critical instincts and better judgment. It’s generic and cliched but I can’t deny Lewis Capaldi. 



Big Thief ‘U.F.O.F’ – Review

9 Jul

It’s difficult to pin down what is so striking about Big Thief’s third album ‘U.F.O.F’. Everything that is distinctive about it is, ironically, vague and unknowable; like a fine mist hanging in the atmosphere. On the surface, lyrics appear almost trite and simplistic but Adrianne Lenker gives life to them with her strange and unnerving melodies and that traumatised voice. The arrangements are simple and unrefined but again have a reach and impact far beyond their limitations. Taken as a whole there is a magical quality to many of these tracks that makes ‘U.F.O.F’ stand out from a crowded field of folky alt-rock.

At their most distant, on the likes of ‘Contact’ and ‘U.F.O.F’ – both of which loosely describe encounters of the third kind – Big Thief remind me of classic alt-rock bands like Radiohead and, particularly, Mazzy Star. On the intimate ballads they hark back to Warpiant and Frankie Rose – barely remembered acts from the early part of this decade. But even at their closest they remain somehow unrecognisable. This is reflected in the lyricism which describes experiences at once familiar and other. ‘The best kiss I ever had was the flickering kiss of the ocean’ is one such evocation of a strange uncanniness. Lenker’s voice breathes flesh to these skeletal sentences. It is a versatile instrument that can mutate from something soft and powdery to a menacing growl in the space of a second.

‘Fragile is that I mourn her death as our limbs are twisting in her bedroom’. One minute Lenker is lost in the vague mystery of love, the next she is succumbing to the reminder that it inevitably leads to loss. Light leads to darkness in a world where pigeons drop from the night sky, bugs die on your windshield and we lie to one another as a matter of habit. The musical accompaniments to these truisms are ornamental and fragile. Rarely do these songs rely on anything more than guitar, bass, drums and a complex but subtle range of effects and distortion. It’s a thick sound built carefully around a handful of instruments.  Stand out ‘Open Desert’ sounds like a breeze whistling along freshly cut crass; a gently repeating guitar figure combined with layered harmonies and the soft tapping of a xylophone or chime that illuminate lyrics about light and space. Only the unnerving opener ‘Contact’ beefs up the sound in a way that might appease fans of the band’s debut ‘Masterpiece.’

Around the edges of the heavy themes we’ve come to expect from Big Thief – death, loss, abuse, trauma, alienation- the album concerns itself with Fruit bats and moths and flies worms and pigeons. Animals and insects on the edge of our periphery; inconsequential, barely noticed even, yet alive. Who knows what affinity the band feel for these creatures or for the unidentified flying object ‘friend’ Lenker sings about so warmly. The abstract images evoke something almost otherworldly, something beyond understanding but also a feeling of, first, separation (from ourselves, from our neighbours, from reality) and then longing. It’s a longing for something beyond what we can see and comprehend that Big Thief somehow articulate so beautifully.