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The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’ – Review

17 Sep

I feel like every review of a new National album starts from the assumption that it is going to be boring. When I return to them, I think I start from that assumption as well. I suppose their sad, slow songs are so good that we collectively forget there are both shaggier and sharper sides and edges to this band. Songs that shout, scratch and shriek. Songs that pop like balloons. All sides of the band are represented on their seventh (seventh!) album, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, whose biggest achievement is how it manages to readjust the temperature controls ever so slightly whilst essentially keeping the listener feeling comfortable and relaxed. This is still a National album, and it sounds like it. But things are just ever so slightly grouchier, darker and more agitated.

The big picture is that this is Matt Beringer’s divorce album – the twist being that the writing process actually saved the marriage. It encompasses all the rage, contemplativeness, grief, depression, optimism and renewal that that process implies. Nice idea, but, well, both Beyoncé and Jaz Z stamped their names on that idea on their most recent albums, and besides, every National album has covered themes of grown up, marital disharmony before. So what’s really new?

Mostly it’s the music. At times the sounds are more fragmented than they’ve ever been before, which makes it feel like the band members are working against an ideal of unity; rubbing up and pulling at the edges of each other. On lead single ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’, a Woody Woodpecker guitar squeals and splutters in fits and spurts while brooding percussion builds tension and drama. On ‘Empire Line’, a tightly wound beat rattles against thudding synths. Peculiar vocal snatches, and a flickering high hat, disrupt Beringer’s bassey croon on ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The songs themselves aren’t anything particularly groundbreaking for the band, and a couple are completely forgettable, but it’s consistently fascinating on a sonic level. Throughout there are guitars shredding against crystallised beats or bass lines circling in spite of chaos and noise. This creates for a tension that makes ‘Sleep Well Beast’ decidedly not an easy listening record, in spite of the grand pianos and stately melodies that ground almost every song.

You sense it wouldn’t be quite like this if it were left to Matt Berigner. By quite some distance this is his sleepiest contribution to a National record. His singing is lazy – even on the frantic, oddly positioned rocker, ‘Turtleneck’, he sounds like he’s on downers, fighting against a head cold. Thankfully then, his lyrical contribution is as singular as ever. He shines a light on the dusty corners of a marriage; with a novelist’s eye for odd detail and a Soap writer’s awareness of pure emotive power. As I said before, marital disharmony is hardly new ground for The National – arguably nothing here hits as hard as ‘Slipping Husband’, a frantic song on the subject from the band’s second album – but they’ve never gone in at the angle quite so doggedly before. In the past middle age was a scary prospect, creeping around the corner, here it’s a living and breathing reality.

To compensate for the necessary dullness of what is being described – essentially a slow, mundane collapse of a relationship – Beringer’s language becomes typically colourful and unusual. His style is to mix stone cold realism with ambiguous surrealism, to leave the reader swimming in the contrasts. And so, for example, we get intriguing head scratchers like ‘for years I used to put my head in the speakers in the hallway’ and ‘no other faith is light enough for this place’, splashed in with the brutal, simple honesty of ‘I don’t need you, besides I barely even see you anymore.’ The overall effect is both disorientating and captivating – it’s what makes Matt Beringer such a unique lyricist.

He knows when and how to dial it back as well. The National have always been capable of delivering gut punchingly simple sentiments (‘About Today’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Slow Show’, ‘I Need My Girl’), and here they do it with the album’s best song ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, a pretty tune with a refrain of ‘I’m going to keep you in love with me’. It’s a song about how quickly time passes – one minute you’re struggling to talk to the girl you like, the next minute you’re on the brink of separation. The ultimate message though is about perseverance and commitment, and The National remain the greatest embodiment of, and ambassadors for this idea. The small miracle is that after all these years, The National Still sound like The National. Altered a little perhaps but recognisable as the same band. Like the longest lasting marriages, they’re complicated, slightly unstable and built on a foundation of deep lasting love.

7.5/10

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The War on Drugs ‘A Deeper Understanding’ – Review

10 Sep

2014’s ‘Lost in the Dream’ was a nuanced, successful evocation of what Adam Granduciel had been hearing in his head, and trying less successfully to articulate with music, for nearly a decade. It’s predecessors ‘Wagon wheel Blues’ and ‘Slave Ambient’ were best described as promising, and ‘Lost in the Dream’ realised that promise in the most unexpected ways. That makes a follow up a tricky proposition, particularly when Granduciel clearly has such a precise idea of what he wants to achieve. He has no desire to divert from the formula that made that record such a success – moody melodies, crunching guitar solos, hypnotic synth drones under steady beats and extensive running lengths. So on ‘A Deeper Understanding’ he gains exactly that; a deeper understanding of what interests him musically and emotionally.

Or to put it another way, he’s still painting the same picture only this time the canvas is bigger, the brush strokes are broader and bolder and the colours, while largely the same, are brighter shades. This results in an album that is similar to ‘Lost in the Dream’ but equally successful.

Essentially, Granduciel is concerned with the intersections of feelings. The space where the past meets the present or love becomes loss. Or, as he puts it on ‘Strangest Thing’, ‘the space between beauty and pain and the real thing.’ Therefore this music is necessarily mysterious and unsettling. You never quite know where you stand or what exactly you’re being asked to feel. All that you know is that the feelings are strong nonetheless. Extended guitar solos convey exactly that mystery; they aren’t, like most solos, flashy exercises in technical wizardry, they’re direct and powerful personifications of uncertainty that nudge, dive, halt and grind in unexpected ways. In contrast, the reliability of the krautrock rhythms gives Granduciel something to kick against. The wash of synth arpeggios and reverb soaked backing vocals aren’t nostalgic indulgences, they’re ghosts – signifiers of a past trying to make itself heard and reconciled.

It remains difficult to express what is so moving about War on Drugs music. It consciously builds like fog rolling across a river and in its own way is just as hard to describe. One thing for certain is that it requires a degree of patience. You have to wait for the moments you love. The tension builds and builds across wide open spaces until it becomes almost uncomfortable. The release is astonishing. ‘In Chains’ is perhaps the best distillation of this. At nearly eight minutes long the song is certainly epic, but for large periods little actually progresses. This is what makes the moments of magic so compelling; the bright burst of synths three minutes in, the synthetic chimes at four minutes, The introduction of harmonies at five minutes, then the sudden ‘Be My Baby’ drum break at the ultimate climax before a harmonica wails at us from the distance. As the song fades it sounds like a Cure song, at other points it bounces off Tom Petty, The Boss, and Roy Orbison. But it never really feels like anyone but The War on Drugs.

Of course, they remain a divisive band to a large extent and if you don’t get it by now, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ isn’t going to change your mind. Their songs are still somewhat indulgent (the longest track is eleven minutes) and broadly sound quite similar. And if you were to participate in a drinking game where you took a shot every time they sang about darkness, rivers, trains, the road, lights, the sea, dreams or memories, then you would get very drunk very quickly (there’s one line in the final song where he mentions four of these things in a single line!). But even cynics are surely able to get on board with the shimmering pop of ‘Holding on’, the dramatic swells of ‘Strangest Thing’ and the sheer, jaw dropping, emotive ambition of ‘Thinking of a Place’? At some level, even in its darkest moments, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ is their most accessible record to date. It confirms to a wide audience what fans already knew – The War on Drugs are the biggest sounding, and one day hopefully the biggest, rock band on the planet.

9/10

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LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’ – Review

7 Sep

It’s fair to say that James Murphy gets a mixed reception in Lizzie Goldman’s recent tome on New York’s indie rock revival of the early oughties, ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’. At different points he’s described as aggressive, naive, an underdog, a genius, a sociopath and a dictator. It’s probably nothing he hasn’t heard, or tossed around in his head, a million times before. Self awareness is the weight around his neck. But where he’s used it as a tool in the past (most brilliantly on the still relevant ‘Loosing my Edge’), it now drags him down to the floor. ‘American Dream’, his first album since 2011’s ‘This is Happening’, is a weighty, anxious, self conscious record that drags so much more than anything he’s released in the past but hits hardest when it trades in the irony for sincerity.

Of course it’s the album fans had no reason to expect. When Murphey called time on LCD Soundsystem after their triumphant Madison Square Garden shows six years ago, he’d done more than most musicians can dream of: and why not kill your band when its young, and leave a beautiful corpse? The trilogy of albums he’d put out at that point were an almost untouchable, impossible collection of dance rock hybrids that made good on two decades worth of singles, remixes, engineering, production work and general rock geek fandom promise. You could understand why he wanted to stick rather than twist.

But Murphey is nothing if not a rock Historian, and as such he will have known that very few farewell tours are ever actually that. Just as The Band eventually returned after ‘The Last Waltz’ and The Eagles reappeared with their ‘hell freezes over’ tour, so too, he must have anticipated, the day would come when he’d want to get his own band back together. If that leaves a general bad taste in some fans mouths (particularly after revelations that those Madison Square Garden ‘farewell’ shows were partly labelled as such for financial reasons) then that’s nothing that another classic album wouldn’t remedy.

In some respects it feels like no time has passed at all. ‘American Dream’ sounds like a logical extension of ‘This is Happening’s’ post punk and art pop leanings. Fans will recognise the skinny beats and stodgy run times, the array of vintage synthesisers and the cowbells. But there is a darkness that has crept in to the picture as well, belied by the tacky sunshine and blue skies artwork that adorns the front cover. It’s a darkness that isn’t particularly pleasant. On ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’, songs with similarly heavy themes, you felt like you were dancing in to oblivion but on ‘American Dream’ there is no such imperative. Instead, you feel like you’re sinking slowly, or drowning, in to the depths. A change in tone and style was likely, necessary even, but the execution is too often cumbersome and laboured.

And yet Murphy remains a singular visionary. When he dares to venture down new avenues, the results are as enticing as ever. Opening track ‘Oh Baby’ is old and new at the same time. It begins with a trickling snare, before familiar synth arpeggios burst in, with James Murphey giving us his best croon to date. The song drips with a sweet sentiment that was previously only inferred from subtext. At first glance, LCD Soundsystem have aged into pretty romantics – an interesting twist. The subtle innovations continue on track two, the limber ‘Other Voices’, which feels like everything you loved about LCD Soundsystem with infinitely more mature funk.

In fact, much of the first half of ‘American Dream’ is impressive. ‘I Used to’ is slow to wake up, with a beat that drags itself out of bed, but eventually settles in to a groovy pop song. There are Post punk guitars thrashing about on the dense ‘Change Yr Mind’, that sound like absolutely delicious approximations of Robert Fripp’s work on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album. Amidst the dawdling rhythms and patient swells of ‘How Do You Sleep’ Murphey hits upon the albums most transcendent moments. The song is a none too subtle dig at former DFA co-owner, and best friend, Tim Goldsworthy, that looks back on a lost friendship with a mixture of sadness, resentment, jealousy, anger and repressed fondness. The rising drama is reason enough to justify the ten minute running time.

The tone sours considerably after ‘How Do You Sleep’ and the ideas feel less original and exploratory. ‘Tonite’ is a cheap rehash of any given New Order song that theories about getting old and becoming out of touch. Yep, you may have heard Murphy on that subject before – and actually he sells it most convincingly here, because he’s never sounded this old and out of touch before. He’s still tugging at the same anxieties: losing track of reality, and you friends. He’s still name checking obscure bands and still subtly shooting side glances to his knowing audience. He’s still struggling to get out of bed (literally). He’s still contemplating what comes next. If he sounded anxious and defeated before then that was never borne out by the music or melodies. On American Dream’s second half, he sounds positively defeated.

The most tiresome song on the record is also the one on which you feel Murphy stakes the most. The pretentious ‘Black Screen’ is a missed opportunity. It nabs the strong melody from Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Sometimes, Always’ and reflects on the passing of friend and mentor David Bowie. The song cuts through the irony and winks with clear headed reflection and undiluted sensitivity. Ultimately though it meanders in to nothingness – a repeated motif of ‘you could be anywhere on the black screen’, dirge synths going absolutely nowhere for about five minutes longer than necessary, and ultimately a pulsating bass note, repeating into the distance. It’s a good summary of the album. It’s full of good ideas that are snuffed out by pomposity, pretension and repetition. ‘American Dream’ is not an abject failure by any stretch but it’s certainly not an equal of what came before.

2005’s ‘LCD Soundsystem’ started a conversation between the futurist pop of Britney Spears, the underground Bass music of the UK, and classic indie rock. It sounded important, relevant, in of itself and the world it existed in. ‘American Dream’ is far more insular, existing in a James Murphy vacuum. It does not attempt to engage with contemporary pop, dance or indie, instead it feeds off its own past, and the further past of the 1980s. For the length of time it takes you to consider this, ‘American Dream’ is a mammoth disappointment. Then you can kind of take it for what it is; an exquisitely produced, hit and miss, single minded, defiantly middle age statement on one man by one man. American Dream might be a stretch – but it’s certainly a James Murphey dream.

6.5/10

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Arcade Fire ‘Everything Now’ – Review

31 Jul

‘Everything Now’ begins with its one, shining, glorious moment of transcendence. The title track, ‘Everything Now’, is a pristinely designed piece of social commentary that manages to duvtail it’s articulate message with a killer four to the floor beat. In four minutes of blissful pop, Win Butler dissects one intrinsic problem with contemporary culture – namely the sense of entitlement and desire to have what you want, when you want it – and makes you want to dance it out. He is empathetic, particularly during the moving third verse, without being condescending. He calls himself out on his complicity during the chorus where he yells ‘I want it! I need it! I can’t live without everything now!’ Meanwhile the music, a post-modern fusion of slick pop, disco and orchestral pomp overseen by Daft Punk’s Tomas Bangalter, Invites the rabid consumption that Butler sings about whilst also embodying its own lyric; ‘every song I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.’ It sounds like your favourite Abba, Daft Punk and Arcade fire songs rolled in to one.

If the album was as flawless as its lead track, it would be a modern masterpiece. Realistically though, it couldn’t possibly live up and it doesn’t. In fact that song’s success simply serves to highlight the other songs inadequacies. Which to some may beg the question; how did a band who managed to get ‘Everything Now’ so right on a micro level manage to drop the ball on a macro level? It has everything to do with tone, repetition and overkill; labouring on targets that have already been effectively shot. Where ‘Everything Now’ (the song) is insightful and enlightened, at later points the album is preachy and out of touch. On the single Win Butler sounds emotionally invested and empathetic but elsewhere he is coldly detached and rap-sings in an often patronising tone. The central point being made on the single is an original one but its strung out past breaking point throughout the album, to the extent that it ultimately feels hamfisted and misjudged.

Most of what else Arcade Fire get right arrives immediately after ‘Everything Now’. ‘Signs of Life’ is another laser cut disco number that draws you to the floor with minimal fuss. Then comes the problematic but addictive ‘Creature Comfort’, which has already come in for a critical beating, with one triggered critic calling it callous and malignant. Whilst no reasonable listener would go that far, Butler’s disconnected, ambiguous tone and heavy handed lyrics do rather sour what is actually a glorious carcophony of New Wave nods and New Order-esque flourishes. The song is ostensibly about a young fan’s fight with depression. In the end, despite his unwelcome sanctimoniousness, Butler’s point is a probably valid one – some young people are feeling inadequate, entitled and levels of teen suicide and depression are going up. But this is a big, multifaceted topic, one that surely warrants more careful thought and consideration than Butler seems willing or able to provide in these four minutes. It gives off the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Butler is tactlessly using a story of a young fan’s depression to the band’s advantage; sliding it nonchalantly into a song as a kind of structural device being used to sell a larger argument about society’s ills. The fact he delivers in the lyrics in a retro rap certainly doesn’t help sell his conviction. Perhaps that’s unfair – the song does end with a heart tugging couplet; ‘it’s not painless, she was a friend of mine, we’re not nameless’. He is also involving himself when he sings ‘on and on, we don’t know what we want’ – so he’s not above caring, as some people seem to be reading into it. And while the lyrics may be clumsy, Arcade Fire have never sounded as dynamic or energised.

After ‘Creature Comfort’ things get a lot more patchy. There are some decent songs (‘Peter Pan’ is engaging, ‘Electric Blue’ has a catchy hook, ‘Put your Money on Me’ is a nice low key moment) and a couple of real duds (I think it’s universally agreed the reggae tinged ‘Chemistry’ is awful and ‘Good God Damn’ is as sleepy as Arcade Fire have ever sounded). But even the bad songs have been Immaculately produced so that nothing really feels like a chore. Despite having the same number of tracks as ‘Reflektor’, the album is half an hour shorter which speaks to just how absurdly bloated the songs on ‘Reflektor’ were but also how streamlined ‘Everything Now’ is. An effort has clearly been made to make these songs as accessible as possible.

The album peaks for one last time during ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, which sounds brilliant and harks back to the more sentimental songs in the band’s back catalogue. Once again though, the song is rather let down by faux-insightful lyrics that vaguely discuss faith, social disconnect and a pervasive numbness. Butler again uses depression and religious imagery as tokenistic, throw away devices – like he’s Bono in a pulpit. If he’d just take a step back he’d see that he doesn’t need the sanctimoniousness to engage his already willing audience. He has the melody, the drama and a great band behind him. He just requires a lighter touch.

Arcade fire have always been a high stakes band and they at least wear ‘Everything Now’s didacticism and moralising more lightly than they did on ‘Suburbs’ and ‘Reflektor’. This time it’s their commitment to concept that is ultimately their biggest undoing – partly because three quarters of the album is made redundant by the perfection of the opening five minutes. They nail it totally on the title track, they should move on. Instead they spend the next 40 minutes repeating, reiterating and labouring the point in increasingly less interesting ways. They also give too much credence to ideas that are far better in theory than in practice – starting and closing the album with two halves of the same song for example, or putting two versions of another song, one punk and one easy listening, at the centre of the record simply to play on the pun ‘infinite content/infinitely content’. The phrase ‘too clever for your own good’ comes to mind.

These concerns are nothing new. In fact Arcade Fire have been mining this same ground and exploring the same themes since the very beginning. The first track on their first album was about escaping from the pressurising demands of society. Track two on that album was about a guy who isolated himself by walking out in to the woods. Arcade Fire have always sought answers to the big questions and risked pomposity in doing so, but perhaps it was easier to root for them on ‘Tunnels’ or ‘Laika’ when they were all about heart on sleeve sincerity, earnest chorus chants and quiet in the library aesthetics. Perhaps on ‘Everything Now’ they’re simply trying to hard to apply new contexts to old ideas; no longer the underdogs but the major label funded kingpins, it simply doesn’t pay off.

Then, frustratingly, there’s serious concerns about the irony that has been creeping in to their shtick for a while now, since the ‘Neon Bible’ days if we’re honest. Mostly it played out here on their exhausting and distracting media rollout for ‘Everything Now’ – a campaign so meta and cynical it made Father John Misty drool in envy. I won’t reflect on that PR disaster here, I think I’ve dragged this out for long enough, but doesn’t it make you long for the days when Arcade Fire had their feet on the ground and eyes to the sky, instead of having their heads up there? You’d probably have to go back to their often overlooked debut e.p to find the last time the band were truly unencumbered by ideas of grandiosity. That record is a wonderful tonic to ‘Everything Now’, as its refreshingly simple, open hearted and optimistic. They were still asking big questions then – and just about every song referenced running away or finding solitude – but they didn’t claim to have the answers. ‘Everything Now’s biggest sin is asking those same questions and answering them for their audience.

6.5/10

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Calvin Harris ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’ – Review

17 Jul

Calvin Harris’ recent run of fine form has been surprising to say the least. Earlier this year he put out the EDM regurgitation ‘My Way’, then a couple of months later, seemingly out of nowhere, came ‘Slide’, the Frank Ocean collaboration that bested anything contained on Ocean’s own ‘Blonde’. It was logical to look past Harris and credit Ocean with this song’s success – after all, this type of graceful melody and effortless vocals were already familiar to fans of ‘Chanel Orange’. Of course, appreciation was shown to Harris for coaxing Ocean out of his indulgent and pretentious phase and into making his purest pop expression in ages, but the plaudits went to Frank.

A month later came the Pharrel/Ariana Grande/Young Thug collaboration ‘Heatwave’ and it was suddenly harder to look past Calvin Harris’s own contribution. Of course Ariana sounded as beautiful as ever, Young Thug turned in his most memorable verses to date and Pharell’s Stevie Wonder impression was on point, but more than that, it sounded like a personal achievement in substance over style for Calvin Harris. Third single, and Future collaboration, ‘Rollin’, with its remarkably lucid (for Future at least) verses and catchy chorus, confirmed that the first singles weren’t flukes and Harris was indeed on to a winning formula. This is borne out by the album as a whole: ten largely glorious, lightly touched pop nuggets that sparkle in the summer sun. He described ‘Funk Wav Bounces’ as ‘feel INCREDIBLE’ music and it’s hard go argue.

The drops have been, err dropped, and the arrangements sound sleeker and more nuanced. Bluntly speaking, Harris seems less interested in dragging you to the dance floor and more interested in seducing the listener. The beats are less obnoxious and more slinky, the synths are less siren-like and more shimmery. True to the title, there’s a G-Funk lilt to the record that makes it the natural soundtrack for a summer barbecue. It’s not dissimilar to what Daft Punk achieved on ‘Random Access Memories’, if that album has ten ‘Get Lucky’s’ and less of the proggy detours. Every song is expertly designed to put a smile on your face.

Calvin Harris has given us glimpses of his true capability before: his often overlooked debut ‘Acceptable In the 80s’ was a fairly insubstantial but enjoyable blend of electro and indie influences, not dissimilar to what LCD soundsystem or Hot Chip were doing at the time. Second album ‘Ready For the Weekend’ was more forgettable; a 90’s house revival record short on nuance and big on beats. After that he transformed in to a full on chart monster, where shades and subtleties became increasingly difficult to find. Undeniable bangers like ‘We Found Love’ and ‘Dance Wiv Me’ lost impact when lined up alongside each other on the albums or a DJ’s playlist. For every ‘We Found Love’ there was a ‘What You Came For’, for every ‘Dance Wive Me’, a ‘Holiday’. As other producers became unfathomably infatuated with noxious elements he was largely responsible for popularising – the drop, for example – he started being blamed for the inescapable rise of EDM.

Maybe it’s this pressure to perform to a standard he set for others that has made him reassess his music’s purpose, but more likely it’s the realisation that big beat EDM ran its course a while ago. His last album ‘Motion’ was fittingly called because Harris really was going through the motions – and with diminishing returns (two songs failed to reach the top 10 – unheard of for him). Call him what you like but he’s always been an astute trend spotter and on ‘Funk Wav Bounces’ he wisely sidesteps the one he started in the first place.

Perhaps he feels that as he’s taken responsibility for his music’s failures in the past, he now deserves credit for its success. Therefore he rightfully makes a big deal about his exact role on ‘Funk Wav Bounce’. In the extensive liner notes he credits each and every instrument he personally played on the record – and there’s a lot of them. He’s also uploaded videos to YouTube, meticulously demonstrating how each song was constructed. One of the negative side effects of this promotion strategy is that it reveals the conceit and naked ambition behind each song. In its weaker moments you suspect that Harris has merely swapped one successful but tired formula for a more credible, but equally popular, one.  ‘Feels’, with a phoned in Pharrel verse and Katy Perry chorus, is too on the nose for its own good; Harris’ calculating intent suddenly feeling uncomfortably transparent. Similarly the Mark Ronson-aping ‘Cash Out’, with none too subtle appearances from Schoolboy Q and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and the vacuous ‘Skirt On Me’ with Nicki Minaj, try far too hard to attain Song of the Summer status.

But of course this is the bed Calvin Harris has made for himself – he’s ultimately only as good as the people he collaborates with. This must be grating. In pitchfork’s review of ‘Slide’ they barely mentioned Harris and dished all the praise out to Frank Ocean, yet if the song had failed you can guarantee where the blame would have lay. To most listeners, Calvin Harris is an irrelevance; a faceless musical manipulator who you wouldn’t be able to identify in a police lineup. But considering the amount of work that he personally put into ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’, you have to conclude that in future he will want more than that. He won’t want to rely on collaborators who will ultimately either steal the glory or ruin his instrumentals. He co-wrote, and was the sole player and producer, of every song here and has managed to make dozens of diverse talents sound like natural bedfellows whilst maintaining a singular aesthetic style. If you think that’s easy then listen to DJ Khaled’s sprawling and tasteless new album to see how badly it can go wrong. Make no mistakes, Calvin Harris deserves credit for ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1’ and if he doesn’t get it then on Vol.2 he may decide on giving himself a more prominent role.

7.5/10

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Lorde ‘Melodrama’ – Review

10 Jul

The classic disco acts of the 1970s had two aims, that often played out simultaneously: to make you dance and make you cry. This is a duality that Lorde understands explicitly. Her sophomore album ‘Melodrama’ references the act of dancing seven times, in a variety of contexts: literally ‘…on the light up floor’), metaphorically(‘…with the truth’), cryptically (‘…with all the heartache’) and as a unifying act ‘…with us’). Meanwhile the beats provided by a range of producers (including Lorde herself) are slinky and seductive, drawing you to either an imagined or real dance floor. It’s no surprise that this week she described the album as her thesis on the subject. Crying is mentioned just a couple of times, but the record physically moves you to tears at several crucial points. The dramatic coda of ‘Hard Feelings’ teases out unanticipated emotion from the line ‘I still remember how we’d drift buying groceries, how you’d dance for me/I’ll start letting go of little things till I’m so far away from you’. Her description of dancing with an imaginary companion on ‘Liability’ is equally evocative.

Dancing and crying are two things teenagers spend a lot of time doing, and this is an album that can be precisely called a coming of age record. Written during the dreg end of her teenage years, ‘Melodrama’ draws upon a house party and a break up as chief sources of inspiration. Her debut ‘Pure Heroine’ was a hook heavy, addictive record that inevitably saw the precocious 16 year old over reaching at a range of weighty subjects that were sometimes beyond her years. The best moments were the ones that drew from the most personal and universal emotions – the small town angst that informed ‘Team’, the growing pains of ‘Ribs’. On ‘Melodrama’ she draws exclusively from this personal experience, using a narrower palette to much greater effect.

‘Melodrama’ bests ‘Pure Heroine’ in almost every sense. Fundamentally Lorde’s writing is more ambitious, assured and confident, both in what she says and how she chooses to say it. Her style of singing is multifaceted – she sounds vulnerable one minute and on the warpath the next. Crucially, she is now living the subject matter rather than just commenting on or observing. The pain is localised and she is able to convey her emotion with clear control of mood and tone, which reflects in the music as well as the lyrics..

The production on ‘Pure Heroine’ was distinctively minimalist, which rendered key tracks like ‘Royals’ and ‘Tennis Court’ as sharp and unnerving, but made the less memorable final third a bit lacking. The tone shifts far more frequently on ‘Melodrama’, meaning that it keeps your attention from start to finish. Piano ballads like ‘Liability’ and ‘Writer in the Dark’ are placed carefully between four to the floor anthems and psychedelic pop nuggets. Occasionally Lorde flies a little too close to the sun; for example the blatant Kate Bush-isms in the chorus of the aforementioned ‘Writer in the Dark’ spoil what is otherwise a nuanced and daring song. For the most part though Lorde has produced an irresistible pop record that sounds like nobody else out there. Consider Max Martin’s response to lead single ‘Green Light’, which he described as ‘incorrect pop’. He meant it as a sort of back handed compliment.

The original French definition of melodrama was of ‘a romantic and sensational dramatic piece with a happy ending’. Lorde is certainly embracing romance and sensationalism in the final song ‘Perfect Places’ (‘if they keep telling me where to go, I’ll blow my brains out to the radio’) but it’s not really a happy ending – more a final epiphany. Life is a futile quest for perfect places that we are promised but will never arrive at. The album’s title ‘Melodrama’ hints at this realisation and also her perfectly timed self awareness that doubles as a defence mechanism. She calls out herself, and her complexities, before anyone else can. She does it throughout the album(most brilliantly on ‘Liability’). Teenage girls are frequently labelled as melodramatic because it’s the easiest and most efficient put-down at hand. Here Lorde goes some way to reclaim the tag for her own generation – not in a self defeating way but as an acceptance that an embrace of heightened emotion is a necessity for surviving your teenage years. It’s amazing that Lorde has the emotional intelligence to realise this at such a young age, and document that realisation on such a vibrant and dynamic record.

9/10

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Paramore ‘After Laughter’ – Review

15 Jun

Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter’, is on some levels the band’s most exuberant record yet. But its sparkly, shiney exterior is also a red herring; Paramore ask an interesting question – what happens when the laughter stops and could it be masking something? Despite first impressions, the album is challenging and deeply introspective. You can take the girl out of Emo but you can’t take Emo out of the girl. Contained in these pop nuggets are tear stained lyrics about a rising anxiety. The album opens with a typically forthright deceleration. ‘All I want is to wake up fine/tell me that I’m alright – I don’t want to die.’ The song’s Emo sentiments are delivered with a fizz, and the sweet/sour balance ensures the song scans as an upbeat summer anthem and not a morbid indulgence in depression. But make no mistake – this is heartfelt stuff.

From top to tail, ‘After Laughter’ is the most surprising album of 2017. I’ve long regarded Paramore as something of a joke. I dismissed them early on as a second rate, third wave Emo act. I tried again to get on board with the more tasteful ‘Paramore’ record but didn’t find anything worth sticking around for. Not that Paramore had any reason to be bothered by my lack of persistence; they have a large, loyal fan base who have stuck by the band through lineup crises, changes of sound and various controversies.

‘After Laughter’ is the consequence of all of the above. Gone is Jeremy Davis on bass whilst drummer Zac Farro returns to the fold after sitting out on the last album cycle. Upon quitting the band last time, Farro and his brother (guitarist Josh) posted a lengthy online statement that implied Hayley Williams had become a puppet of major label playmakers, who put pop goals in place of serious artistic progress. As if to shrug a ‘yeah so what’ at that point, ‘After Laughter’ is pretty much the pure pop album the Farro brothers had accused Williams of long wanting to make. It incorporates elastic grooves, twangy guitars and coca cola melodies that worm in to your ears. The clear pop punk influences of the past have evaporated almost entirely, leaving nothing but Williams’ twangy, southern accent as a reminder of past petulance.

Lyrically though, little has changed. Williams is a pessimist, to say the least – a justifiable position to hold but one that is exhausting to listen to over and over again. Here are just a handful of excerpts: ‘For all I know the best is over and the worst is yet to come’, ‘I cried till I couldn’t cry – another heart attack’, ‘I can’t think of getting old, it just makes me want to die’, ‘I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me.’ Yes, Williams truly is down in the dumps. Too often the lyrics indicate that she’s content to dwell in misery rather than confront it with any clarity or conviction. This can be frustrating. You end up agreeing with an ironic lyric on ’26’ where she says ‘man you really know how to get someone down’. Emo has always been self indulgent and whiney, that’s kind of the point, but you’re going to need a high tolerance for that stuff if you’re going to play ‘After Laughter’ on repeat.

One exception is the sophisticated ‘Idle Worship’; Williams’ tone is more reflective and her diagnosis more measured as she unpacks the fan/idol dynamic. ‘It’s such a lonely fall down from the pedestal you put me on’ she observes. ‘Grudges’ also feels more thoughtful. With a deft touch, the song tackles Williams’ relationship with Josh Farro and the bridges they built to restore a broken friendship. The song’s central epiphany is that problems are better when tackled in close company, with a healthy dose of humour. ‘We’ll laugh till we cry, like we did when we were kids, cos we can’t keep holding on to grudges.’ The laughter implied in the title doesn’t always have to be a mask – it can also be a remedy. That’s an argument also made by the music, which soars, fizzes and sparkles in a way that doesn’t allow you to dwell on life’s hardships. Who could possibly be sad when you’re having this much fun?

8/10

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