Archive | April, 2020

The Strokes ‘The New Abnormal’ – Review

16 Apr

It’s hard to fathom now, but in 1992 Johnny Cash was washed up. Past it. Ignored by the Nashville community, dismissed by critics, and forgotten by the wider public; he was feuding with his record label and recovering from numerous surgeries and addictions. Then he met Rick Rubin, backstage at one of his concerts. The rest, as they say, is history. Rubin recorded Cash with two mics, a guitar and an emphasis on his truth. Their ‘American Recordings’ set a precedent. Over the next couple of decades, Rubin would take established but beleaguered superstars and whittle down their sound to the raw essentials whilst amplifying everything that made them superstars In the first place. In the time since, he has performed this same trick on everyone from Neil Diamond to Metallica. It was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to The Strokes.

The successful results are not that surprising. ‘The New Abnormal’ is easily the band’s most focused and cohesive record since ‘First Impressions of Earth’, their messy but generally majestic third album. Rubin’s bright mix emphasises the core essentials; elastic bass lines, interlocking guitar hooks and colour crayoned melodies, while smoothing out the band’s zanier tendencies. On a technical level, It has an identity – something The Strokes have been haphazardly scrambling around for since since the muted reception to 2003’s (now clearly acknowledged) masterpiece ‘Room on Fire’.

The two albums that the band put out in the last decade had the whiff of low risk, low reward. ‘Angles’, a bouncy update of the band’s signature pop-rock sound, was the better of the two. It contained a handful of genuinely great throwbacks alongside some more adventurous curios. As good as it was, it sounded like the fragmented product of five individuals playing different songs on different continents. And there was some truth to that. Even more so, ‘Comedown Machine’ sounded laboured and lacking in focus. It half heartedly cast an eye down several new roads but seemed too lazy to set down them with any enthusiasm or urgency. They didn’t particularly promote either album, save for a smattering of festivals here and there, along with some bad-tempered press interviews that focused more on drug habits, fall outs and family dramas. It gave the impression of a band past the point of caring.

‘The New Abnormal’ then is initially notable for how much the band seem to care. They’ve spent the best part of three months promoting and performing. Press interviews are still a little awkward (in the LA Times this week, Casablancas generously labelled this his fourth favourite project that he’s been involved in) but at least they’re giving them a go. On the album itself are strong signs that they are once more a group of brothers on the same page. The band recorded together in the same studio. The songs are credited to all band members, rather than the individual writer. The gaps between those songs are filled with studio banter, laughs and musical asides. In an affected kind of way, it goes some distance to recapturing the spontaneous, casual cool of a band so desirable that even Alex Turner, one of the coolest men alive, ‘just wanted to be one of the strokes…’

Of course, they are never going to be that band again. No-one is. The disheveled hair has flecks of grey. The vintage t-shirts no longer fit. The disintegrating converse have finally kicked it. ‘Is This It’ was a once in a lifetime masterpiece. To spend any longer asking – was that it? – would do everyone a disservice.

And so I’ll try to focus on the things they do now that they couldn’t have done then. Julian has finally found his range on the wonky, weird synth numbers like ‘At the Door’ and he no longer sounds out of his depth when using his falsetto. Reviewing ‘Comedown Machine’ I complained that his grizzled voice was ill-suited to the taut, clean synth pop he seemed so taken with. On ‘Selfless’ and ‘Endless Summer’ he proves me wrong. He’s a more curious vocalist, taking melodies in unexpected directions. On ‘The Adults are Talking’ he is surprisingly subtle, giving off a sultry r&b vibe as the band click and pop around him. On ‘Endless Summer’ he skews from angelic choirboy on the verses to demonic garage rocker on the chorus. It’s easily his most adventurous turn as a Stroke, and unlike in the past where his experiments sounded stilted or strange, he is largely successful. In the background his band mates are more restrained, doing what they do, as well as they’ve always done it, but more inwardly.

It doesn’t always work though. Occasionally the songs crunch awkwardly, like car gears getting jammed on a long drive. Tracks meander aimlessly past four, five, six minutes as if the band haven’t quite figured out how to end them. Important structural decisions like this feel botched; Fab is audibly, and half heartedly, invited to join in on ‘Ode to the Mets’. Elsewhere verses splutter in to choruses and choruses jut grind to a halt. Perhaps these faults feel more jarring because of The Strokes being who they are – ‘Is This It’ being one of the tightest, most meticulously constructed albums we have. When ‘Hard to Explain’ stopped on a dime after the first chorus, it felt like essential respite rather than there being a lack of a better transition. When Julian shouted ‘stop’ in New York City Cops, it was an imperative, not a request.

It goes without saying that there is something quite fitting about The Strokes releasing an album called ‘The New Abnormal’ at the time of Covid-19. They have form of course; this quintessential NYC band released ‘Is this It’ the week that the towers fell. The Strokes symbolised the end of one era, as well as the start of something new. They drew so much from the past, from an old Manhattan that was being both destroyed and gentrified literally all around them, and set the tone for a new decade of rebels and artists that followed in their wake. This dissonance between yesterday and tomorrow is encapsulated in their sound – something Julian Casablancas once observed when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he wanted their songs to have the quality of cassette tapes buried decades before being discovered and played in the future. ‘The New Abnormal’ once again summons that quality. There’s a lot here to get nostalgic about; the metallic guitar tones – reminiscent of Thin Lizzy but EQ’d to the point of sounding like Tron synths. The sluggish downstrokes meshing with Julian’s anguished drawl on the ironically titled ‘Its Not the Same Anymore’. Even the terrible, faux-philosophical lyrics (‘you’d make a better window than the door’). But there is the sense of something risked as well. ‘The New Abnormal’ is adventurous and creative. It’s a reassuring dose of familiarity – with just enough that is new – when so much else is unknown.

7.5/10

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Waxahatchee ‘Saint Cloud’ – Review

12 Apr

Waxahatchee (formally self-recorded solo project of songwriter Katie Crutchfield, now a fleshed out band) have quietly been putting out some of the most moving indie rock records of the past decade. Fifth album, ‘Saint Cloud’, continues this trend whilst elevating the group’s ambition. In contrast to ‘American Weekend’s bruised, lo-fi ballads and ‘Out in the Storm’s scruffy Alt-rock vibes, ‘Saint Cloud’ is surprisingly bright. Here Waxahatchee have captured a sound akin to soft sunlight illuminating an old, country road.  The pretty melodies and colourful chord changes resonate sweetly but because of the material’s inherent melancholy, the exterior sunniness renders the album bitter sweet.

A lot of the song’s themes were solidified on journeys between Crutchfield’s childhood home of Birmingham, Alabama and Kansas City, where she currently resides. Recently sober, and in a settled relationship, Crutchfield felt well placed to diagnose and dissect years of self-neglect, substance abuse and romantic trauma. There is clearly a heaviness to these themes – one song, ‘Ruby Falls’, is about a friend who died from a heroin overdose – but the bad weather never overwhelms the optimism inherent in the performances.

The golden haze that reverberates from these songs forms a barrier between Waxahatchee’s gloomier records and this one. Inspired by the country and Alt-country fixtures of her youth, Crutchfield finds a way to derive beauty from the hardness of reality. Tears falling become ‘rain’, bones become ‘delicate sugar’, silence is spun in to ‘gold’. In the midst of despair, Crutchfield and her band find the sweetness, and encourage braveness. ‘You might mourn all that you wasted, that’s just part of the haul / tangling up all of your good fortune, bearing the heart of the fall / you won’t break it after all.’

But that valuable quality doesn’t necessarily get at what makes ‘Saint Cloud’ so good. I could draw a parallel between this and Arctic Monkeys 2011 album ‘Suck It and See’ – two unexpectedly bright and articulate records released after particularly dark an introverted periods. Like ‘Suck It and See’, ‘Saint Cloud’ is a relatively straightforward album. You’ll find the choruses exactly where you expect. The chords are simple enough. The arrangements are light and undecorative. ‘Saint Cloud’ isn’t particularly profound and it’s certainly not innovative but in its clarity Waxahatchee have created an incredibly accomplished record. Take highlight  ‘Can’t Do Much’ (maybe my favourite track of 2020 so far). Obstinately a tender, upbeat love song but one full of odd imagery (‘my eyes roll around like dice on the felt’), uneasiness (‘in my loneliness I’m locked in a room’) and humour (I love that much anyhow – can’t do much about it now’). Both the song, and the album, are about accepting the good alongside the bad and coming to peace, and finding the joy, within that. 

8/10

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Caribou ‘Suddenly’ – Review

6 Apr

Caribou, one of several monikers used by Mathematician and  musician Dan Snaith, is responsible for some of the most emotionally resonant dance music of the past decade. As his career has progressed, Snaith’s productions have slowly morphed from the kind of hard boiled Electronica that sounded so revolutionary at the turn of the century, into a more whimsical blend of intimate psychedelia and beat driven dream pop. ‘Suddenly’, the follow up to 2014’s masterful ‘Our Love’, continues the slow retreat from the dancefloor to the bedroom. The album art depicts a ripple in an otherwise calm bit of water. The album also tries to contend with the aftershocks and consequences of disrupting forces – loss, trauma, anxiety- and does it in a similarly peaceful and mesmerising way.

Snaith is singing more than ever. His voice is coiled and cagey – distinctive in its own way but unlikely to be the sole reason anyone arrives at a Caribou record. His lyrics are also more fleshed out than before. On ‘Our Love’ he frequently spiralled around catches of conversation or simple declarations. Here he breathes flesh to similar sentiments, expanding and dissecting his them to prise clarity and wisdom. Although he uses vocal samples as much as ever, his voice, and his words, are now entirely central to his music. 

The electronic gargles that open ’Sister’, track one on the album, gradually harden in to synthetic squeaks and blips as Snaith offers disarming reassurances to his family that he’s changing. It’s an unconventionally muted opening to what is still obstinately a Dance record. It signals the tone and mood of an album that, in contrast to its title, does nothing with much urgency. There is another side to the record though. Scattered among the more ambient pieces are a handful of catchy bangers. Here, more than ever before, the focus is on hooks, whatever the source. ‘You and I’ uses the kind of dusty vocal samples that could only have come from the deepest recesses of a crate digger’s collection . ‘New Jade’ circles around a tiny vocal loop that expands and reverberates in a deliciously psychedelic way. ‘Home’ is all soulful notes, funky licks and handclaps; a House Jam from another planet. The fact it turns up on a Caribou album is more than a little surprising. With its Motorik groove and Calypso piano arpeggios, ‘Lime’ feels more oblique. Even here though, Snaith can’t resist breaking the tranquility, abruptly snapping the song with a surprising spoken word section in the final third. There are more conventional, up-tempo numbers as well such as ‘Never Come Back’ and ‘Ravi’, both of which would sound great in a tropical club under sunny skies.

The six minute finale, ‘Cloud Song’ starts as another plinkity -plonkity synth exploration before evolving in to a kind of percussive, mid-80s Prince Ballad. The last words Snaith helplessly utters are ‘I’m broken, so tired of crying, just hold me close to you.’ It’s conveys a vulnerability so rarely heard in electronic music but the delivery is blustery and blunted. This is a little too true of the album as a whole. Compared to the vivaciousness of ‘Our Love’ or the wildness of ‘Swim’, ‘Suddenly’ feels just a little too restrained. The watery textures and quiet melodies give the record a pretty anonymity that is at odds with the colourful and creative atmospheres he’s created previously.  The trade off is that ‘Suddenly’ feels intimate and honest. It’s not his most musically daring release, not by a long stretch, but it’s certainly his most emotionally daring one.

7.5/10

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Dogleg ‘Melee’ – Review

2 Apr

The way that Dogleg put it, ‘Melee’ has arrived at the worst possible moment. In a recent tweet they wrote “already thought this year was starting off as a huge trainwreck before this mess and now seeing everything we tried to build up go down in huge fiery flames makes me ridiculously depressed.” The album was recorded over a year ago. A lot of time has been spent clearing the way, like a circle pit being prepared during the countdown. They couldn’t have possibly anticipated that Spring 2020 was going to be a write off. That their tour would be cancelled. That promotional opportunities would be flushed down the drain. That they wouldn’t be able to leave the house, much let do a radio session. But the way I see it, there is no better time for this album. ‘Melee’ is the gut punching, kung-fu kicking Rock album you need in your life right now. It’s a cathartic whirlpool of tension bursting because there is no where left for the energy to go. It’s an album about battling anxiety in a time of widespread anxiety. In this context, ‘Melee’ feels essential.

Like many of the best guitar albums of recent years, ‘Melee’ lives at the intersection between a lot of misunderstood and misrepresented sub genres. It has the whiplash intensity of post-hardcore, the heart-rattling sincerity of first wave emo and the melodic ingenuity of pop-punk. The band also cite 00s indie bands like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys as influences, and you can hear it in the bright hooks and tasteful way they structure and arrange the songs.

It’s part of Dogleg-lore that the band will give free merch to any member of the audience that can beat them at Super Smash Bros. Nobody has. The band convert that button bashing proficiency into musical efficiency. The riffs come hard and fast; completed with the practiced intensity of a pro-gamer battling the final boss. The momentum is carried by a drummer Parker Grissom who pounds every snare as if his life depends on him breaking the skin or drawing blood in the effort. The hit that opens ‘Cannonball’, possibly the album’s most vivid performance, sounds like a bullet being smacking the air.

The velocity never lulls – when the relentless onslaught of noise is occasionally paused, the silence is pierced by feedback or shouts that ring like battle cries. There are no slow songs and little sonic, rhythmic or musical variation. The closest they come is on ‘Cannonball’ where an acoustic chug briefly intercedes the noise before a choir of screams reset the status quo. Strings are introduced on ‘Ender’  at the very back of the album as a kind of curtain call but by then the damage to your eardrums has already been done.

The mix is fiery hot. You can almost feel the guitars vibrate. The vocals are mixed sensibly low to the point that you can frequently can’t make out what singer Alex Stoitsiadis is saying. A few choice affirmations do rise above the noise though: ‘will you be the fire or the wind?’, ‘time will let you down’, ‘I know it’s just you and me’, ‘I’ll keep it in my head, every increment.’ Stoitsiadis is no poet. His writing is vague and non-committal at best. But he’s able to summon incredible intensity with the limited tools at his disposal. The sentiments behind his words are carried by his raw and loud vocal performances.

Beyond the throat shredding, guitar thrashing and Nintendo references, lies a collection of burning heart on sleeve confessionals. Cryptic highlight ‘Fox’ finds Stoitsiadis floundering inside his own head, unable to articulate the thoughts that are ‘pressing against’ his skin. As the song rattles towards its end he exposes his deepest concern: ‘Any moment now I will disintegrate.’ On an album that hurtles around musical and emotional corners at a frightening pace, it’s a constant surprise that Dogleg don’t disintegrate. In spite of the odds, ‘Melee’ is a brilliantly triumphant rock record for 2020.

9/10

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