Archive | September, 2019

Blink 182 ‘Nine’ – Review

28 Sep

‘Nine’ is Blink 182’s ninth album (the title gets no points for originality) though it’s so far removed in almost every conceivable sense from their early run of peerless pop punk that you might not recognise it as the work of the same band. This is a numbingly repetitive modern emo-pop record that doubles down on its predecessor’s concessions to modern tastes. It sounds calculated and airbrushed to the extreme. Track after track uses a similar formula; the quiet/loud bait and switch, the liberal use of ‘woahs’ and ‘yahs’ that echo endlessly in the background, the countless lyrics that mirror Adam’s Song’s juvinella twenty years down the line. As opening track ‘The First Time’ draws to a close, you will know everything you need to about ‘Nine’.

Blink 182 have been a massively influential and criminally misjudged band who deserve a thorough critical reappraisal. Their fine run lasted from 1997’s classic Dude Ranch to 2011’s underrated comeback ‘Neighborhoods’. But In 2019 even they seem unsure of what their strengths are and how exactly to utilise then. To wit, their early classics go down like acid spiked candy drops; they’re bright, tangy and subversive. A bright mix only highlights their strengths, which is why the poppy ‘Enema of the State’ serves as both their best and best selling record. But this time Blink bend their back too far to blend in. The mix is frazzled, the auto-tuning and excessive EQ’ing absolutely stifling. More fundamentally, the hooks and choruses are as generic and faceless as the stuff served up by Imagine Dragons, Fall Out Boy and Twenty One Pilots.

On ‘Nine’ Blink 182 bring their hang ups and neuroses well and truly in to middle age. This is an album of pot belly bass lines, receding licks and Botoxed melodies. Worse than that, it has the facade of miserable, adult seriousness. It’s a moody and pretentious regression rather than the serious reinvention it’s being presented at. A stream of melancholy pours from beginning to end, never letting up enough to allow for the gags and innuendos that helped make ‘Enema of the State’ and ‘Take off your Jacket and Pants’ so enjoyable. It lacks the real, hard earned thoughtfulness of their untitled project from 2003 as well, which reckoned with similar themes in far deeper and more interesting ways. On that album they tackled New Wave balladry, experimental instrumentals, spoken word and Space Rock jams. This record’s touchstones are phoned in angst, EDM and Soundcloud Rap. The tempo and mood rarely shifts to accommodate anything original.

At one point Mark sings ‘I Remember your voice but it’s only an echo’ which is exactly how you will be feeling at that point. New member Matt Skiba, has all the chops but none of the personality of the departed Tom DeLonge. His overly processed vocals and predictable riffs serve to make each contribution interchangeable with the one before and after. He’s at his best on ‘No Heart to Speak of’ which is also the song that sounds most like a product of his day job Alkaline Trio. Here his vocal style (he always sounds like he’s shouting to his girlfriend from the other side of a busy supermarket) is complimented by a wall of fierce, buzzing guitars. Travis Barker also uses the song as an opportunity to flex his still impressive beat making. It’s Barker who continues to drive and challenge his Blink bandmates but even he can’t save this mess.

The album never truly descends in to the absolute pits – and this is a band familiar with the pits, as anyone who has heard ‘The Mark, Tom and Travis Show’ will attest to. In fact I’m sure any number of these songs would sound decent in isolation. ‘Darkside’, ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Blame It on My Youth’ are all reasonably catchy. The problem comes when you collect fifteen of them together, blitz them to hell in the mix, and then try to call it an album. ‘Nine’ ends with a song called ‘remember to forget me’ – it’s probably sage advice.

3/10

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Sam Fender ‘Hypersonic Missiles’- Review

26 Sep

Sam fender is a young, socially conscious writer with talent and tenacity. He also has genuine charisma, a jawline carved out of rock and piercing blue eyes (these things surely matter when you’re being anointed the heir to Springsteen’s crown?). His debut, ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ is a ragtag collection of well meaning, emotive rock music that finds the middle ground between The War On Dugs and Lewis Capaldi.

It begins with the most unapologetic homages to The Boss you’re likely to hear this side of The Gaslight Anthem – ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ and ‘The Borders’ – and these are also the record’s most successful moments, marrying underdog ambition with borrowed bombast. The sax solo that appears towards the end of the former feels earned and necessary to release all the built up tension. 

But too many songs sink in to a predictable spiral. If you had a pound for every sax solo that emerges through the feedback then you would have enough change to buy another copy of the album. What is invigorating and rewarding on the opening track is diminished by overuse. The record’s second half in particular is weighed down by a formulaic repetitiveness that undoes so many of the early gains. But the songs are catchy. Early singles ‘Dead Boys’ ‘ Will We Talk’ and ‘That Sound’ are all anthemic and punchy, even if it’s hard to differentiate much between them. There is a little more sonic variety in the second half, where Fender experiments with soulful balladry and introspective yearning, never really in a convincing way.

Fender has an observational lyrical style that pitches him somewhere between Alex Turner and his idol, Bruce Springsteen. Frustratingly, if somewhat endearingly, Fender has none of their clarity of thought. He frequently lets his more impulsive ideas carry him away (‘I eat myself to death, feed the corporate machine, I watch the movies, recite every scene, God Bless America and all its allies…’). On worst offender, ‘White Privillage’, he shifts narrative perspectives without care and fluctuates between sincerity and irony so haphazardly that it becomes impossible to sieve between the two. ‘The Borders’ with its depictions of bullying, domestic violence, and brotherly binds sends a similarly confusing message. Hopefully he will learn to tone it down and rein it in because there are moments of real thoughtfulness that flower from the compost.

‘Hypersonic Missiles’ is a confident debut that continually implores the listener to question our assumptions and pre-made characterisations about ‘the big issues’ – masculinity, respect, sovereignty, friendship. Fender approaches these topics from a position of empathy and – I mean this in the best possible way – ignorance. He never sound pretentious or preachy, which is easier said than done when you’re discussing loaded topic such as white privilege. It’s an uneven and sketchy album at points (as debuts are want to be) but there is enough promise here to suggest a bright future for Sam Fender.

6/10

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Lana Del Rey ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ – Review

21 Sep

Last July as England were throwing away a World Cup semi-final against Croatia, Lana Del Rey quietly released the eight minute ‘Venice bitch’, a woozy meditation on fading summer, fading love, fading youth. It was her finest single in half a decade. She’s been gradually putting out songs ever since; the more accessible ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, the tragic ‘Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman to Have’ and a throwaway cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin Time’. Somewhere in between she told us that the album would be called ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’, which is perhaps the most perfect Lana Del Rey album title you could imagine.

On the front cover, Del Rey is sailing off in to the sunset wearing a bright green windbreaker. An American flag is draped over the yacht, while California literally burns in the background. Lana’s arm is outstretched, inviting the listener towards her and her handsome accomplice (Jack Nicholson’s grandson no less). It’s an evocative, dreamlike imagine, rendered in a painterly hue, complimented by pop-art font. Classic Americana with a twist. It’s also a diversion from her usual imagery; the first cover where the singer isn’t dressed in white, or standing in front of a car. It’s brighter and more adventurous than that. Both literally and metaphorically it depicts a departure, which the music follows through on.

On ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ there is a careful turn towards balanced perspective, one that dials down the myth making just enough to let the light in. The result is no less grandiose or indulgent – in fact quite the opposite – but it does feel like a more sophisticated evocation of her ambitions. Del Rey is one of the the most written about, discussed and dissected pop star of all time. Here she turns the focus away from herself, using her talents to unknot the mythologies of American pop culture, even as she continues to swoon over its perversions. This love affair has clearly become more complicated over the past couple of years, and her writing has kept pace.

Del Rey has been capable of clever statements from the very beginning of course – ‘Video Games’ is one of the most distinctive debut singles in pop history – but her writing has sometimes lacked nuance. By the time of third album ‘Honeymoon’, the constant dirge of metaphors and similes, mostly used to describe the cloying, destructive aspects of dependent love, became tiresome. On ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ everything comes in to focus. Her observations are sharper, funnier, the scope is wider and more knowing, the characters are more developed. While she retains a tendency to draw from archetypes, her characters feel less like cliched sketches and more like constructive critiques. Her depiction of a complicated ‘man child’ on the opening track sets the tone and song after song finds her wrestling with notions of conflict and complicity in a thoughtful way. Her descriptions are complicated and three dimensional while her conclusions are ambiguous. This is a songwriter who will not be boxed in.

’Norman F****** Rockwell’s songs catch Del Rey in the act of escaping herself and her complacency. She has always been a slippery persona, inhabiting a character but bristling at the idea of being deconstructed or analysed. Where exactly Lizzy Grant ends and Lana Del Rey begins has been a central question of the criticism surrounding her though it’s never been something she has been interested in untangling. For now at least, she’s restless, hunting down a feeling that is always just beyond arm’s reach. On ‘Bartender’ she flees from the housewives of Laurel Canyon to hook up with a bartender 60 miles away. ‘I bought me a truck in the middle of the night, it will last me a year if I play my cards right.’ On ‘The Next Best American Record’ she’s shooting down the 405 to attend a happening party. A couple of other songs find her making similar moves down long, dusty roads. It’s as if she is in a permanent state of fluctuation, which in turn lends the album a long, unrolling vibrancy.

If the title and cover wasn’t clue enough, ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ rests comfortably in the lineage of classic American art. There are striking echoes of mid 70’s Elvis on the bombastic centrepiece ‘The Greatest’, which also references The Beach Boys, Kanye West and the end of the world. Elsewhere she recalls Marilyn Monroe in her mannerisms and Springsteen in her fascination with outcasts. But she never totally sounds like anyone other than Lana Del Rey. She has perhaps the most unique sound of any contemporary pop star, and her vision has never been so fully realised before. The simplicity of the arrangements and the space given over to allow instruments to breathe, suggests an assured ease with her own style. Notes stretch and linger, strings move so slowly in the background they almost seem to be melting. Everything wanders. The production is of a certain classic vintage; only the strangely placed cover of ‘Doin Time’, and the odd ripple of programmed beats, concede anything to contemporary pop production. And vocally of course it’s a tour de-force. The audacity of her style underlines the links to mid 20th century balladeers like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Her sometimes stormy, sometimes breathy versatility puts her above and beyond more technically gifted but conservatively minded singers like recent collaborators Ariana Grande and Miles Cyrus.

‘Norman F****** is a lot, and the meandering pace makes the album feel even longer than its 80 min run time. It would have benefited from being a couple of tracks shorter and a little snappier in the middle. But by this point you should know what to expect from a Lana Del Rey album and indulgence is sort of the point. Ultimately this is a cohesive, classy pop album that flirts with American nostalgia but is at its best when it explores very contemporary questions. Del Rey has compressed great complexity in to her most stripped back and spacious album to date; an album full of darkness and light, sadness and tentative hope.

8/10

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Whitney ‘Forever Turned Around’ – Review

11 Sep

In 2016 Whitney formed out of the ashes of The Smith Westerns. They seemed to arrive with a sound that was instantly their’s; a loose, sometimes very loose, treatment of classic rock, classic soul, classic indie, classic folk, that smudged the edges between genres. It seemed to come so naturally to them, so easily. Perhaps this has been a detriment in the long run – ‘Forever Turned Around’, their sophomore album, sounds effortless in both the best and worst senses of the word. It’s an album so laid back you could blow it over with an inevitable sigh.

Whitney can turn out the kind of melodies that melt over everything like butter under the sun and If anything ‘Forever Turned Arround’ is even softer than its predecessor. The duo’s observations have been slightly sharpened by a draining touring cycle and the indulgences of the road but their songs are smooth and easy going, very nearly to a fault. In its weakest moments ‘Forever turned Around’ resembles patio music; the sort of low-effort/low-reward indie rock that fills the air at summer barbecues. 

With its muted emotions and undeniably proficient but rather bloodless performances, the album doesn’t pack much of a punch. It starts with a so-so, mid paced burner, ‘Giving Up’, and loosens even further as it progresses. You can imagine the songs being recorded in a haze of marijuana smoke. Jazzy, Instrumental highlight ‘Rhododendron’ practically rolls and lights itself. This is in contrast to ‘Light Upon the Lake’ where longing and nostalgia spilt out of every unpredictable melody and errant guitar line with a real sense of potent clarity and purpose. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is tastefully, confidently arranged but somehow lacks direction.

Nonetheless, the moments of serene beauty are impossible to ignore. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is as pretty as indie gets in 2019. The lush, woolly tones don’t fail to wash over you. You’ll hear gently spiralling guitar lines, the sort of baselines locked in storage since 1973, horns, percussion and falsetto harmonies honed after years on tour. The album has been given a warm, spacious mix that sounds both charmingly lo-fi and masterfully produced. 

There is one lyric from the typically chilled ‘Friend of Mine’ that sums up Whitney at this moment in time: ‘you’ve been sleepwalking and it seems like your further away everytime.’ With their descriptions of clouds hanging over pines, long cold winters and rivers rolling, the band are nonchalantly picking the low hanging fruit. These are exactly the kind of songs you would expect them to knock out in their sleep. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is aesthetically pleasing and almost totally empty in the middle; a disappointing follow up to one of the best debut albums of the decade.

6.5/10

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