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Harry Styles ‘Harry Styles’ – Review

16 May

Harry Styles is easy to root for. Whether he’s dating his way through Hollywood, buying pizzas for the homeless, modelling for fashion mags or staring in a big budget war movie – everything he does, he does with effortless cool. He’s one of the more loveable heart-throbs of his or any other generation, as countless teenage fans will attest to. But all that is rendered insignificant if the music doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This debut, self titled album will be the true test of whether Styles has a shot at longevity and serious artistic integrity.

In the same way that One Direction diverted from the boy band cliches of matching outfits, lip synching and dance routines, they have also dispensed with break up tropes as well. When going solo, artists have typically trod one of two paths; the one pioneered by Robbie Williams, of the disgruntled bad boy wishing to unleash their inner rock star via unkempt power ballads; or the one created by Justin Timberlake, that of the formally angelic frontman wishing to unleash their inner sex God via slinky r&b. Not 1D though. For a start nobody, except the rather tiresome Zayn (who released a brooding and hook-averse album last year), seems bitter or unhappy with the One Direction brand. Secondly, each member seems intent on following their own path, not some stereotypical idea of what a pop star should do. Niall has hooked up with indier-than-thou singer songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr for a couple of smooth, acoustic jams that are pitched more for the mums than directioners themselves. Louis seems to be going in an EDM direction whilst, in the most unlikely turn of events, Liam Is readying a migos inspired trap album. Whatever the others get up to, there is unlikely to be any crossover with ‘Harry Styles’.

On his debut album, Styles primarily utilises simple, unfussy arrangements to highlight and compliment his soulful vocals. It’s remarkable how thoroughly he has progressed since enthusiastically but unconvincingly belting out ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ on an X Factor audition seven years ago. His range is impressive, whether tackling the falsetto chorus of ‘Sign of the Time’, the Jagger-isms of ‘Kiwi’ or the breathy croon of ‘From the Dining Table’. This voice is undoubtedly the star here but that effortless, timeless cool I described earlier is also important. Harry, who was in an Arctic Monkeys influenced school band when he auditioned for X Factor, grew up in an era of British music when the guitar, black skinny jeans, Chelsea boots and thoughtful, observational lyrics were in vogue. These are traits that he’s admirably stayed true to, even as they have fallen dramatically out of fashion. Because of this, ‘Harry Styles’ has the benefit of being so out of step with the times that it may actually sound new and unfamiliar to a young audience.

Considering that lead single ‘Sign of the Times’ had all the subtlety of Be Here Now era Oasis, it’s surprising how understated the other songs on ‘Harry Styles’ are. The album opens softly, with an acoustic balled called ‘Meet me in he Hallway’, which features only vaguely proggy background noises as accompaniment to Harry and a guitar. The album ends on a similarly sparse note, with ‘From the Dining Table’, a laid back moment of unguarded vulnerability where Harry pines ‘maybe one day you’ll call me, and tell me you’re sorry too…but you never do.’ ‘From the Dining Table’ is one highlight, as is ‘Two Ghosts’, which coyly references Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ in both its lyrics and gorgeously heartbreaking vocals. The gentle percussion, and Harry’s fondness for warm, memorable melodies, suggests that he has less in common with a young David Bowie (as the pre-release hype hinted) and more in common with vintage Cat Stevens. No bad thing.

But before we get ahead of ourselves (and Cameron Crowe’s frequent references to the likes of Bowie, Queen, Beatles and Rod Stewart, in his recent Rolling Stone cover feature, was definitely that) we do need to remember that Harry Styles is still a young man of 23, and the sessions for ‘Harry Styles’ marked his first sustained stab at songwriting (helped, it should be noted, by seasoned pros like Kid Harpoon and Jeff Bhasker). That inexperience reveals itself in the flimsy choruses at the centre of ‘Only Angel’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Carolina’, not to mention the juvenile lyrics that will cause sensitive eyebrows to raise. It’s a miracle that in these hyper-aware times, nobody at Columbia warned Harry that opening one song by telling the female subject to ‘open your eyes and shut your mouth’ before telling her he couldn’t take her home to his mother ‘in a dress that short’ might not be the best idea. This is only one example of too many lyrical mis-fires to excuse.

It’s also exemplified in the way he liberally borrows from classic songwriting. The best tracks here are the ones where you can sense an influence, without being bashed over the head by it. The Beatles inspired riff and backing vocals on ‘Carolina’ are cute but the Blackbird inspired ‘Sweet Creature’ is a little too knowing for its own good. The Coldplay-esque melody of ‘Ever Since New York’ is moving but that central guitar figure is photoshopped directly from Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’. Then there’s the ‘Beenie and the Jets’ piano chords of ‘Woman’ and, perhaps most blatantly of all, the mimicking of ‘Amy’ by Ryan Adams – here repurposed as ‘From the Dining Table’, in which chords, melody, mood and even the prominent double tracked vocal technique are lifted wholesale (in spite of, or perhaps because of this, it’s my favourite track on the record).

‘Harry Styles’ is a flawed album, but show me a debut that isn’t. All these faults betray an undiluted enthusiasm and wonderment for the possibilities of Rock n Roll, glimpsed by a young man obviously unencumbered by any post-modern cynicism or hunger for a contemporary notion of trendiness (take note Zayn, Justin Beiber and Drake). We’ve all heard that the guitar is dead, well nobody told that to Harry Styles. (Without wishing to fall victim to Rolling Stone level overstatement) He may be an unlikely saviour but I think Styles has just beamed a smart and vibrant pop-rock album into millions of homes around the world. Who knows who’s listening, ready to pick up the baton. So yes, Harry has certainly passed the musical part of the test – and of course, he remains effortlessly cool and easy to root for.

7/10

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Gorillaz ‘Humanz’ – Review

30 Apr

Over the past two decades and five albums, Gorillaz have created their own demonic, melancholic, star-studded world. If you’re already a signed up member, you’ll find a lot to love on ‘Humanz’, a typically madcap entry in to their discography. The tempos are faster, the grooves are slinkier and the sonic palette is more modern but it’s surprising how distinctively recognisable Gorillaz albums continue to be. ‘Humanz’ really does sound at one with ‘Plastic Beach’, ‘Gorillaz’, ‘The Fall’ and particularly ‘Demon Days’. There isn’t anything else out there that sounds quite like this. That’s even more commendable when you consider the vast quantity of guests Damon Albarn collaborated with – this time he hooked up with the likes of De La Soul, Danny Brown, Grace Jones, D.R.A.M and Benjamin Clementine.

Of course, as with past efforts, some collaborations bare juicer fruits than others (for my money ‘Strobelite’ ft. Peven Everett and ‘Submission’ ft. Kelela are the highlights, whilst ‘We Got the Power’ ft. Noel Gallagher and Jenny Beth feels like the biggest missed opportunity). The record well and truly runs out of steam after ‘Busted and Blue’, when the tempos slow down and the overcast mood becomes slightly too oppressive. It’s no shock to learn that when pitching the album to potential collaborators Damon called the album a ‘soundtrack for a party at the end of the world’. All Gorillaz records have been similarly apocalyptic, not to mention too long, too scatterbrained and too bleak – that’s part of their appeal to many fans, who will no doubt lap ‘Humanz’ up.

If this Is an imagined soundtrack for an end of the world party, then Damon himself plays the nagging parent, putting a downer on the vibe. Almost every time he opens his mouth he brings the mood down. It’s particularly noticeable on ‘Let Me Out’, where Mavis Staples and Pusha T’s synergy is interrupted by one of his typically lethargic melodies. This is similarly true of ‘Saturnz Bars’, where a usually irrepressible Popcaan gets dragged down by one of the sleepiest choruses Damon’s ever concocted. This disconnect between Damon and his collaborators is jarring, and the better songs songs on here are the ones where his presence is minimised.

Or indeed, brought to the forefront. The highlight of ‘Plastic Beach’ (still Gorillaz most well rounded effort) was the gorgeous ‘Melonholy Hill’ – essentially a Damon Albarn solo track. Here the equivalent number is ‘Busted and Blue’, a minimalistic number with a beautifully sad melody given an understated performance. The song highlights the album’s theme of disconnection (from political leaders and the world at large) and undercuts the cartoon group’s association with technology by emphasising real love over computer love. ‘Where do they come from, the wires that connect us…I can’t get back without you, be my love.’ It’s a message also reiterated in the album’s dying seconds when Damon reunites with his one time enemy Noel Gallagher’ to proclaim ‘we got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens, we got the power for that’. It’s an encouraging message that overrides the album’s prevalent cynicism, made more powerful because of Noel and Damon’s shared history. If those two rivals can build such a positive bridge then there truly is hope for all Humanz.

7/10

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Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’ – Review

24 Apr

Kendrick’s Lamar’s new mantra is ‘What happens on Earth stays on Earth.’ We hear it again and again on his impressive new album ‘Damn’ and it signals the clear intent behind the record. This is a knotted, spiritual album that acts like a clearing out of the junk of the soul prior to entry to a higher realm. The God frequently referenced on the album is the Old Testament God and Kendrick’s beliefs are not fashionable, evangelical or simplistic. He references curses, punishments and exile, and makes his sins (and their consequences) abundantly clear. Even more so than on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, he’s talking from the depths of despair to a stained society. But ‘Damn’ was released on Good Friday for a reason, and thus Kendrick also gives glimpses of redemption.

In contrast to the opulent ‘TPAB’, on ‘Damn’ Kendrick goes direct – as if extravagant jazz arrangements and expansive funk samples are an indulgence we can’t afford in the Trump era. The truths delivered are sharper, clearer and pointed – the backdrops hit just as hard. Lamar is talking to a mainstream audience in language they will understand. The beats are thicker, harder and heavier. The samples draw more from soul and r&b. There are DJ scratches and drops that hark back to the late 80s, courtesy of the legendary Kid Capri. Nothing is unprecedented but that feels inclusive rather than disappointing; it may lack the musical flair of ‘Untitled Unmastered’ and ‘TPAB’, or the dark, distinctive atmosphere of ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, but it turns out Kendrick does old skool hip hop just as well as anybody.

To Pimp a Butterfly’ was structured around a poem that was revealed line by line in between the tracks. There is no such framing device here, although repetition is once again used to tie thoughts together. Samples of a Fox News debate about the social influence of Hip Hop are deployed throughout the record. One inflammatory extract comes courtesy of political commentator Geraldo Rivera who says ‘hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years’. Kendrick Lamar imagined this album as the most appropriate response. It froths with an anger and vulgarity that already has Rivera doubling down on his position. But equally there is unparalleled intelligence, imagination and integrity that you’d like to think would surprise the Fox News talking heads. The songs are sequenced to create a dialogue; they sing to each other. So ‘Humble’ follows ‘Pride’, ‘Love’ follows ‘Lust’ and ‘Duckworth’ follows ‘God’. All roads lead to ‘Fear’, the longest, most ambitious song on the record and the culmination of all the questioning and internal wrestling.

When Kendrick Lamar is at his best (and he’s at his absolute, fiery best on at least half these cuts) there is nobody in Hip Hop, Pop, Poetry or culture at large who can currently match him. Everyone else in the game should be exhausted just trying to keep up. Unfortunately, at times, Kendrick is slowing down and mimicking their moves – perhaps trying to let the crowds get a better look. On the (thankfully not included) stand alone single ‘The Heart IV’, Kendrick sounded out a siren call to the opposition. He’s clearly keeping tabs. And If he doesn’t call them out directly on ‘DAMN’ they he certainly tips them his hat. ‘Love’ is the worst offender; a diminished ode to such a grand topic that almost seems to say ‘anything Drake can do I can do better’. ‘Loyalty’ is another frustratingly slight and insubstantial song that features a guest appearance from Rihanna, who can’t muster a hook worth savouring. On ‘God’ (another title deserving of more than it receives) his casual drawl falls at the exact halfway point between Future’s and Young Thug’s. And I’m not the only person who hasn’t been sold on ‘Humble’ (alhough it is currently number one in the States). The song’s demanding, patronising tone has upset some feminists while his repeated use of the word ‘bitch’ in the refrain feels below someone of his intelligence.

If these concessions to mainstream tastes and lesser rappers are disappointing then they shouldn’t distract from what is largely a singular release from a true individual. Part of Kendrick’s talent is his vocal versatility – he’s always enjoyed trying on masks and subtly shifting tones, moods and his cadence. But he’s always best when he plays himself. On a physical level, nobody else could come close to matching the ferocity of Kendrick’s delivery on ‘DNA’, his sheer verbal dexterity on ‘XXX’ or the way constant rhymes and half rhymes trip of his tongue with such apparent ease (often flaunting natural onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration in the process).

Back to that central masterpiece, ‘Fear’; what exactly is Kendrick scared of? Well, what have you got. He lists his fears in all caps on the track listing – ‘LOVE’, ‘PRIDE’, ‘LUST’, ‘DNA’, ‘DUCKWORTH’ (himself), and ‘GOD’. Mainly God. ‘Damn’, used as a verb, is something that God does. Damned, is how Kendrick feels. But closer to home, we live in a world where we damn each other as well. Constantly. Maybe one explains the other and vice versa. Kendrick is trapped in one such cycle. It’s a complex idea that Kendrick spends an hour unpacking. He contemplates salvation whilst staring down the gun of temptation; speaks of his sins in crude terms over explosive beats; preaches forgiveness whilst chastising enemies; Acknowledges his flaws even while flaunting them. He states it most clearly on ‘DNA’; ‘I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.’ As I say, this album is Kendrick’s decluttering of the soul and an acknowledgement of his inherent (human) contradictions. It’s his attempt to come to terms with the ballers, Fox News, critics, gangs, God – but perhaps most importantly, himself.

8.5/10

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Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ – Review

2 Apr

Phil Elverum’s career has in many ways been defined by clear consistency. He has recorded music as Mount Eerie since 2003, the same year he married Genevieve Gosselin. Like waves that calmly lap on the shore, Mount Eerie records wash up every eighteen months or so, each one sounding roughly the same, and roughly as good, as the one before it. But any sense of consistency was surely disrupted in 2015 when Genevieve was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Within twelve months, Genevieve lost her battle.

This is the difficult subject matter of ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, a record that chronicles the months before and after Genevieve’s passing in uncomfortable degrees of detail. It opens with the line ‘death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not’ and gets no less direct as it progresses. This album is an open wound slowly being healed by the air. Padding the autobiographical lyrics and simple melodies are unfussy musical arrangements – usually a guitar and tepid beat to just about hold things together. Most of the instruments used belonged to Genevieve. The album was recorded in the room where she passed away.

Over the last two years we have been gifted with some of the most moving albums about grief – ‘Carrie and Lowell’, ‘Skelleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ to name just three. But even in this context, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ feels unprecedented. Its insights about coping with loss feel poetically specific and universal at the same time. With what sounds like the most delicate ease, Elverum has crafted perhaps the definitive musical examination of mourning.

The passage of time – and its ability to simultaneously heal and exasperate pain – is a key aspect of this record’s framework. The narrative is roughly chronological; Elverum often counts how many months have passed since the death, as if crossing out days on the calendar. It creates a sense of momentum, only there’s never a clear sense of what we’re moving towards. Time is creeping on, the gap between the past and present is growing, but days, and thoughts, blur into each other. He never strays far from a handful of familiar chords and melodies, whilst he often repeats the same lyrics, scratching for some kind of revelation that will make things easier. The quietly tick tocking drum beat mirrors the seconds passing in half time, the barely there vocals strain for closure. This is the dull, thick fuzz of grief.

The songs often end with a simple, direct thought that expresses grief in the rawest terms possible. ‘I Love You’, ‘Death is real’, ‘how could I live?’ Art aims to convey real or imagined experience in the hope that it elicits some kind of vivid reaction and understanding. This is what mount Eerie achieve. Art that is as brave and brutally honest as this Is in some ways the most necessary, even if it happens to be the most difficult to consume. Of course, confessional art should not get a free pass simply by the nature of its candour (I am one of many who feel Sun Kil Moon’s haphazardly autobiographical lyricism is greatly overrated). There has to be a degree of craft and contemplation, otherwise what separates art from the glut of misery memoirs and tragic life stories that clutter shelves in book stores? But not to worry, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ is the product of not just aching sincerity but also subtle craft and instinctive innovation.

There are many details of mourning that Mount Eerie manage to write about with real understanding. For example; Elverum spends much of the album seeking out and questioning signs and symbols. Contemplating if there’s any significance in the sound of a closing door, air coming through open windows, a fly buzzing around the room. Wondering if hundreds of Canadian geese on the beach, and later two Ravens flying towards the sunset, could contain any symbolism. In the final song he might finally have found what he is looking for. Hiking with his daughter, he hears the sound of a crow as they weave ‘through the cedar grove’. His daughter starts muttering ‘crow’ to herself. ‘And there you are’ Elverum sings cryptically. The record’s final line. The mysterious symbolism of the crow recalls the central metaphor in Max Porter’s recent novella, ‘Grief is a Thing With Feathers’, another piece about the grieving process written from the perspective of a young father. At points Elverum’s lucid poetry also reminds me of Sharon Olds, C.S Lewis, Mark Kozelak and John Darnielle. Yet perfectly, it’s also a distinctly unique album with no precident. ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ confronts tragedy head on and that bravery is rewarded. This is an album for the ages.

9/10

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Ed Sheeran ‘Divide’ – Review

19 Mar

Ed Sheehan must be good. There is no other logical reason a scruffy, chubby, ginger, middle class songwriter would currently occupy nine of the top ten spots in the single chart. Right? Is Ed a slippery, sophisticated, Trumpian snake oil salesman or is he the real deal? Most major publications haven’t bothered to find out (though both NME and Rolling Stone have backtracked on early disdain by featuring cover interviews with the singer) because they see no reason to. Ed is a privileged, white male who appeals to middle England – nothing interesting happening there, they conclude.

But we must do better than that. Something in the music of Ed Sheeran taps in to a universal desire. His hooks are clingy enough to lodge in intelligent minds for months on end. His melodies have soundtracked countless wedding dances. Politicians are always talking about the man on the street, well the man on the street listens to Ed Sheeran. People enjoy his music because it sounds familiar yet modern. They’re songs you can imagine appearing in films or soundtracks. There’s a nice mixture of styles, tempos and themes – you can imagine different songs soundtracking different, everyday routines. And even the stranger songs on the album are held together by some absolutely huge sounding pop songs. Mainly, ‘Divide’ will be popular because it’s distinctly pleasant. And pleasant is something most people can get on board with.

In fact ‘Divide’ is an ironic title for an Ed Sheeran album. Few albums are less likely to divide an audience; this is nice, middle of the road pop that is, by design, almost impossible to hate. And whilst it may be hard for some critics to believe, it also appears fairly easy to love. Just ask the fans who have streamed the singles from it literally billions of times. That said, it is fitting that he has chosen mathematical symbols as album titles; few albums this year are likely to be more calculated. Ed is a self confessed music industry nerd who is just as interested in the business side of things as he is the music. He has engineered this album to tick as many boxes, and appeal to as many market areas and target audiences, as possible. Sheeran used to wear his heart on his sleeve, now he’s wearing his ambition there instead.

But if there’s one thing ‘Divide’ proves, its that sometimes artifice and calculation can be nearly as affecting as pure sincerity. I know that the syrupy ‘perfect’ is pure shmultz; It has a prom night, ‘Lady in Red’ quality to it that should be repellant – but isn’t. Nothing about its chord progression, string arrangement or heartfelt sentiment is original – in fact the song is massively cliched and contrived – but packs an emotional wallop that is pretty undeniable. Sheeran himself thinks it will end up being the song, that in generations, he is remembered for. At this stage that might be hard to argue with. There are other warm hearted moments like this as well. ‘Dive’ is a gorgeous doo-wop-esque ballad that highlights Sheeran’s increasingly robust vocals. ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is a moving eulogy for his grandmother that reveals the immediate aftermath of her death in a way that wouldn’t sound completely out of place on the new Mount Eerie record.

Elsewhere he’s moving ever further away from his initial heartbroken sweet spot. In a recent interview, Zane Lowe assumed Sheeran had been influenced by U2 on the ‘Joshua Tree’ kissed ‘Castle on the Hill.’ But he insisted he’d never heard the album, or any other U2 album for that matter. In fact he’d nabbed all the ideas from Snow Patrol’s ‘Fallen Angels’ record. This anecdote sums up Ed Sheeran. In his down to earth way, he has no qualms or hang ups about his perceived uncoolness (which is actually what makes him pretty cool). The fact that he references Snow Patrol (and not just any SP album, but ‘Fallen Angels’, their commercial flop and critical nadir), or in the same interview professes his love for Figtstar, Nizlopi, Damion Rice and The Corrs tells you everything you need to know (EXACTLY say his fans. EXACTLY say the haters).

For such a massive seller, his last record ‘Multiply’ had a significantly disproportionate amount of duds. As well remembered as ‘Sing’ and ‘Thinking Out Loud’ are, does anyone remember ‘Nina’ or ‘Afire Love’? Like ‘Multiply’, ‘Divide’ is a patchy album that features as many throwaways as potential classics. The folky ‘Galway Girl’ (a cynical attempt to appeal to the large Irish fan base) has a fun ‘so bad it’s good’ quality, whilst the likes of ‘What Do I Know’ and ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ are forgettable in less interesting ways – they’re bland, generic and verging on kitsch. But at least these songs are politely bad. Ed took a year off before recording ‘Divide’ to go travelling, and in its weakest moments the album plays like a kind of Gap Year Travelogue where he bruises the surface of one culture before sailing on to the next destination. ‘Barcelona’ features Spanish guitar and a vaguely Mediterranean vocal chant whilst ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’ is called, well, ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’, and here Ed borrow’s Paul Simon’s exact intonation and some vaguely African guitar licks to riff on some ‘deep’ themes about throwing up on car seats and making mistakes. Yep, It’s pretty bad.

But there’s more imagination here than he may be given credit for. Imagination In the sense that he could be churning out the same generic hooks and production tricks as every other huckster with one eye on Spotify. Sheeran’s references are at least pretty unique for someone in his influential position. At the end of the day, barring some kind of surprise Adele release, ‘Divide’ will be the biggest selling album of this, and possibly next, year. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best album of the year, or even the best Ed Sheeran album, but there are worse albums than one that conveys love and positivity with no filter through classic songwriting, and a heartening mix of tradition and subtle invention.

6/10

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Surfer Blood ‘Snowdonia’ – Review

10 Mar

Surfer Blood were once gloriously unencumbered by complication. Their music first gained kudos in the beautiful summer of 2010 when their lo-fi pop-rock singled them out as a young Weezer for the chill-wave generation. For a hot minute it looked like they might actually fulfill that ambition as well. Debut album, ‘Astro Coast’ owned the hyped and its follow up e.p ‘Tarot Classics’ upped the stakes and polished the grimy surface. Nobody was surprised when they then signed to a major label and were earmarked to work with Gil Norton – this was wish fulfilment aligning with common sense.

Then the proverbial hit the fan. Big time. In a series of events that still aren’t entirely clear, lead singer John Paul Pitts was accused of domestic battery. The charges were contested and later dropped but that kind of fog doesn’t clear easily. The controversy was increased by songwriting and posturing that seemed tone deaf to potentially ackward implications – a boy flexing his muscles on the album cover, lyrical references to being ‘true blue’ and ‘squeezing blood’ etc. Things went from bad to much worse last year when guitarist Thomas Fekete tragically lost his battle with Cancer. It’s understandable that with all this STUFF, their music gets somewhat ignored.

If all this feels like a whole tonne of context then that’s because new album ‘Snowdonia’ is pretty much all context. You can’t escape your preconceptions of what Surfer Blood have done or what they’ve become. But if you’re expecting new album ‘Snowdonia’ to be one long apologia then you’re going to be pleasantly surprised/disappointed. This music tries so hard to return to the band’s unfussy roots that any background details feel somehow lose significance. ‘Snowdonia’ is a breezy listen, clocking in at just over half an hour, it contains the warmest melodies and stickiest hooks Surfer Blood have recorded since their post debut e.p.

On ‘Frozen’ Pitts seems to burn the type of major label execs they must have encountered at Warner Bros. ‘Roll your sleeves to show off your tattoos/ He’s great friends with Seymour Stein, I never knew’. That whole experience didn’t end well for the group and they address that disappointment as well: ‘And in an instant everything was lost, Seems like somebody got their wires crossed.’ But the song ends positively: ‘Your free trial is ending soon, either way it won’t stop the birds from singing.’ The song’s breezy tone and laid back melody match this positive outlook that is consistent through the album. Even on the elegiac ‘Burning flags in F and G’, Pitt’s processes his grief through euphoric remembering of past glories.

The album does lack some of the qualities that their debut had in spades – urgency and an emphatic sense of purpose. But then those qualities can so often boil over into aggression – something no doubt Pitts Is doing his best to steer clear of these days. And so ‘Snowdonia’ has all the temper of warm bath. It’s gentle, sixties inspired guitar licks and sunny day harmonies hint at renewed calmness in the face of understandable anxiety and grief. The lyrics are somewhat less ambiguous in laying out Pitts aims. Album opener states “In a world so full of murky intentions, we’ll make ourselves a home.” He’s largely true to that promise and carves out a quietly interesting space in a field of homage indie rock acts.

It’s therefore ironic, or perhaps fitting, that a band who have made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years should make such a modest and unfussy record. ‘Snowdonia’ may not live up to what we once hoped for from this band but it’s a whole lot better than we might have anticipated just a couple of years ago. In 2017 it sits quite nicely on its own terms, freed from the shackles of the band’s past and uninterested in making ambitious promises for the future. In that sense it’s the first Surfer Blood album not to make forward glances or backward stares. It simply is what it is – A laid back and enjoyable rock record at a time when those are increasingly scarce.

7/10

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Japandroids ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ / Cloud Nothing’s ‘Life Without Sound’ – Review

18 Feb

Japandroids and Cloud Nothing’s have always mined similar territory, so it’s somewhat fitting that they are releasing new albums on the same day. it’s also been interesting to witness their reception, and thus observe how far guitar music’s stock has fallen with the very sites that worshipped these bands only half a decade ago. That was capital R Rock music’s last gasp in some respects – at least as far as being a commercially viable and critically appreciated form of artistic expression. Now, unless you’re a heritage act or a new one with an overtly (and right on) political message, or some kind of subversive element, you are unlikely to be given the time of day by trend setters in 2017.

In this climate Japndroids and Cloud Nothing’s feel strangely like dinosaurs of a long past era – even though they are still in their mid to late 20s. Coverage of Rock music that is this unabashed, ambitious and enthusiastic is currently hard to find in mainstream publications. Many bands have ditched guitars all together (I mean just LISTEN to the new Linkin Park single – it could legitimately be an XX song), and you probably wouldn’t blame Japandroids and Cloud Nothing’s if they did the same; but instead they double down on those traits that bought them acclaim in the first place, whilst artfully expanding their horizons. The results are a little mixed but generally positive, showing what can happen when you stick to your guns.

You couldn’t accuse either band of lacking a consistent aesthetic. Cloud Nothing’s last three albums have each featured greyscale photographs of vague, somewhat blurred, buildings with a whole lot of sky and empty space. Meanwhile, this is the fourth Japandroids album to feature a moody black and white portrait of the duo on the cover. Similarly, the music contained always has been, and continues to be, variations on a well established idea; in Cloud Nothing’s case spazzy pop-punk played with anger and unquestioned conviction, in Japandroids case, Springstein-esque escapist rock recorded on the cheap. They know what they like and they like what they know. ‘Life Without Sound’ and ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ don’t change those formulas much. The hooks are thicker and left to simmer on a lower heat but they are unmistakeably the work of the same bands.

If there is a difference in how the two groups have progressed, it’s that Cloud Nothing’s have the technical ability and lyrical capacity to expand and polish their sound in interesting ways, where Japandroids don’t. It isn’t the duo’s fault – they’re ultimately a rock n roll powerhouse, and when they play to those strengths they are as good as they’ve ever been. Lead single ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ is a tornado of a song that connects broad images of dreams, cold wars, condemnation and God over a furious beat and fuzzy guitar licks – and that’s only the first verse. At their best, there is nothing subtle or understated about this band. ‘No Known Drink or Drugs’ and ‘In A Body Like a Grave’ are equally frantic and hook heavy, ensuring the album begins and ends with its best songs. In between there are some more forgettable moments. ‘True Love and A Free Life of Free Will’ is as hard work as that ponderous title would suggest, while ‘Arc of Bar’ unsuccessfully adds electronic elements to a song that mixes unfortunate metaphors about ‘hustlers and whores’. ‘Midnight to Morning’ is a more interesting variation on theme, mainly thanks to its catchy chorus, with its stacked harmonies and inspirational message.

Cloud Nothing’s are also tuned in to good vibes and positivity. So much so that they’ve described this as their new age album. It certainly has a lot more happy energy than its predecessor, the snarling and cynical ‘Here and Nowhere Else’. The band still manage to temper that positivity with some truly dark moments; listen to that morbid piano that opens the album and instantly dials the clock back to ‘No Future/No Past’, the similarly ambitious opener of ‘Attack on Memory’. ‘I came up to the surface, released the air’ he exhales more clearly than we’ve heard before, his vocals pushed high in the mix. This is never going to be called first class poetry (the vaguely uplifting mantras that pepper the songs boarder on the indestructible and sometimes cliched) but it’s a nice about turn from the emo moodiness of ‘Here and Nowhere Else’.

Baldi retains his almost unparalleled ear for hooks. He stacks and builds melodies like he’s trying to constantly better his last one. If ‘Life Without Sound’ isn’t quite as hook intensive as usual then that’s only because nobody could keep up that frantic pace. Generally the songs here are slow burners that nudge their way into your memory over time. The sound is more polished and the mixing and arrangements incorporate interesting details that make songs like ‘Enter Entirely’ sound fuller than they might have a few years ago.

‘Life Without Sound’ often hints at being a classic indie rock album in the lineage of R.E.M, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr but it never QUITE convinces you that it belongs there. Perhaps it’s something to do with its slimline appearance (nine songs in just over half an hour) and the fact that it tails off after ‘Modern Act’ (the final two songs flirt with shoegaze effects that don’t elevate the songs past being – bluntly – boring). But that’s not to say Cloud Nothing’s will never reach those giddy heights. In fact, ‘Here and Nowhere Else’ is perhaps the finest balls out rock album of the past decade and if their reputation rested on that alone then their place in music history would be assured. ‘Life Without Sound’, like ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’, inches the band in to new territory whilst retaining all of what made them so likeable to begin with. That isn’t easy. Both these albums prove, if proof were needed, that there is a place for gutsy, intelligent rock music in 2017.

Japandroids ‘Near to the Wild Heart…’ 7/10

Cloud Nothing’s ‘Life Without Sound’ – 8/10