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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.



Vampire Weekend ‘Father of the Bride’ – Review

11 May

On the cover of ‘Father of the Bride’, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years, the earth is represented as a cartoonish symbol, offset by the striking whiteness of the background and a corporation logo for ‘Sony Music’. There is a song, ‘Unbearably White’, that elaborates on this tussle between nature and the bright, white hum of the digital environment we’ve created. ‘Presented with darkness, we turn to the light’ argues Ezra Koenig. But it’s the blinding light of computer screens, mobile phones and televisions that he’s referring to. In Ezra’s vision, nature will fight back. ‘There’s an avalanche coming…’ The album itself is populated by digital noise, electronic gargles and processing but these sounds are superseded by crickets chirping, frogs ribbeting and birds singing. In the liner notes, Father of the Bride is dedicated to planet earth, and in interviews Ezra has described being nostalgic for a Nineties brand of environmentalism and the Sega Mega Drive game ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. If their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ exuded an anxiety very specific to being in your late 20’s and living in NYC, then ‘Father of the Bride’ is about reengaging with nature, in a way that approximates hope. There is a freedom and relief to this. It’s like the soft exhalation after holding your breath. The smell of wet pavements after a storm.

Both the opening and closing tracks open with Ezra singing ‘I know’, but his wisdom isn’t borne from a knowledge of what is certain; rather an acceptance that some things aren’t, and will never be certain. ‘Father of the Bride’ has a certain calm stoicism that marks it out from its predecessor in a way that is unexpected considering how tightly wound and preoccupied with the passing of time, that album sounded.

It doesn’t start off this way. The record opens with wedding day drama – a bride uncertain of whether to stay or go – and this sense of quandary carries through to ‘Harmony Hall’, which establishes a theme of individuality vs group think. In this vision, the more that people harmonise the less articulate the message becomes. Individuals become lost in the crowd. ‘Wicked snakes’ are revealed. The song’s most memorable line is perhaps the most universal catch-22 of all – ‘I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.’ It’s a call for the freedom and peace that the rest of the album responds to.

This idea is returned to on the album’s pretty closer ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, where Koenig meditates on another heady concept – heritage. In particular, his heritage as a Jew, raised in New York, living in the shadow of both Berlin and Jerusalem. Like Harmony Hall, It’s loosely about lending your voice to that of the crowd until you eventually lose your sense of individual identity. Sometimes you can surrender yourself to a bigger idea that ultimately can’t save you, whether it’s religion (as represented by Jerusalem), culture (New York) or politics (Berlin): ‘You’ve given me the big dream but you can’t make it real’. It’s a song that acknowledges both dream and disaster and holds them along side each other as colours on the same spectrum. It asks the questions and provides no answers, with an acceptance that maybe there is no answer, just an ‘endless conversation’. On the boyunt ‘Stranger’ he puts it another way – ‘I used to look for an answer, I used to knock on every door / but you’ve got the wave on, music playing, don’t need to look anymore.’

‘Stranger’ is a self-assured riff on maturity. In every sense it exudes a confidence that only comes with experience. If before Vampire Weekend sounded like a band constantly searching for an itch to scratch, then the opposite is true on ‘Father of the Bride’ and its ‘tasteful palette’ of sounds. Warm horns and lush sprinkles of piano tickle the edges of the track and – of everything on the album – ‘Stranger’ in particular lifts the band to a higher level of serenity. The song details a cozy night at home, with Ezra listening to his wife and sister in law having a conversation downstairs. ‘I’ve left those wilding days of old, your house is warmer, the wilderness is cold.’ Some fans might miss the frenzied energy of Vampire Weekend’s early work or the rattling anxiety of ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ but few could argue with the largely content place they’ve now settled in. 

It’s definitely the baggiest they’ve ever sounded. The freshly pressed slacks are splattered with pricks of mud. The crisp, button down Oxford shirt has wrinkled and come untucked. The fringe has fallen below the eyebrows. It’s the sound of a band who are assured enough to allow their rigorous standards to slip ever so slightly but have the confidence to pull it off.

And after six long years away, it’s only fitting that Vampire Weekend return with an ambitious set of eighteen songs. Springsteen’s ‘The River’ has been cited as the model; a double album with a sense of thematic unity and cohesion rather than the sprawling, say yes to every idea approach of ‘The White Album’. Amidst this comfortable confidence is the sense that Vampire Weekend have never tried this hard before. Despite its length and strong sense of adventure, the mix is crisp bright and poppy; Ariel Reichsted is behind the boards, sharpening the hooks and generally making sure every diverse sound is blended in a nuanced way. As a consequence, the production is decidedly less idiosyncratic than Rostam’s used to be but also more accessible. In fact, the album is accessible on every other front as well. Ezra has largely dispensed with the expensive adjectives and exotic proper nouns that rippled through his older work. He still dances around the point, and his songs continue to be rich in allusion and metaphor, but usually there is a discernible message that might once have been cloaked or concealed.

The aspirational sophistication of the band’s early days lingers in the finer details – such as the baroque piano breakdown in ‘Harmony Hall’ and the combination of formal strings and Palm Wine guitar on ‘Rich Man’. But generally the references are more 20th century American. Several of the songs closely resemble the middling pop-rock of AM radio in the mid 70’s – Fleetwood Mac , Paul Simon, Carole King etc while a jammy middle stretch of the album has reminded a lot of people of Phish and Grateful Dead (references which admittedly go over my head I’m afraid). It’s the most collaborative album the band have made, featuring guest appearances both subtle (DJ Dahi, BloodPop®, Rostam) and immediately obvious (guitarist Steve Lacy of The Internet, and Danielle Haim). All of them pay off and compliment the generous, indulgent tone that the record strikes.

As a double album, ‘Father of the Bride’ is understandably imperfect. Three (three!) country duets with Danielle Haim is probably overkill (I myself could do without the slightly disingenuous ‘We Belong Together’ which is little more than a genre exercise without the necessary sincerity). The back half of the record feels a little lumpy at points, lagging with the inoffensive ‘Rich Man’ and ‘My Mistake’, both of which are more mood boards than songs. But you’re more forgiving of low points on a double album and in some ways it adds to the record’s baggy, indulgent charm.

In a recent interview Ezra said “After you make the black-and-white album cover with the songs about death, you can’t go deeper. This is the life-goes-on record.” Like the sunflower that grows in the morning, the Flower Moon that shines out of the darkness, or the protagonist in ‘Big Blue’ who finds solace in the beauty of the ocean during a particularly difficult time – Vampire weekend have survived and adapted after great uncertainty. This recurring theme becomes most clear on the penultimate track ‘Spring Snow’ where the sun melts the snow and ‘bells start to ring.’ The song’s reference to seasons passing and ‘the end’ suggests that the ticking doubts haven’t completed cleared from Ezra’s mind – after all, snow will fall again next winter – but for the moment that bed is cozy and the view outside is beautiful. Once again on ‘Father of the Bride’ man surrenders to the glorious, inevitable will of nature. And it sounds delightful.



The Drums ‘Brutalism’ – Review

17 Apr

Back in 2009 ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ carried The Drums on a wave of hype that anticipated greatness. Both NME and Pitchfork, rarely united on anything at the time, crowned them ‘Best new band’ at the end of the year. In retrospect the song presented The Drums at their most accessible and least likely. Its wide screen romance is emblematic of their early output but the airy light-heartedness would not be easily replicated. In contrast to the reputation they’ve built since, as dour miserabilists, the track stands apart. Indeed, few songs smack of 2009 Obama-optimism as much this exhalation of ocean breeze. ‘There’s a new kid in the town, he’s gonna make it all better’ Peirce convincingly crooned. Ten years on, the folly in blind belief in an incumbent president is clear to see. But even now, listening to the carefree whistles and twanging bassline, it’s easy to get swept back up in that feeling for three and half minutes. Emotional escapism – whatever the emotion – has always been The Drums calling card. Which makes their latest trick all the more impressive; to maintain that glorious, escapist feeling while wading in to the territory of brutal self examination, hyper specific lyricism in the context of America, 2019. ‘Brutalism’ is therefore, in every conceivable sense, The Drums most daring album to date.

That sense of optimism captured on ‘Let’s Go Surfing’ certainly isn’t replicated but neither is the crushing pessimism of ‘Portamento’, ‘Encyclopaedia’ or ‘Abysmal Thoughts’. Instead, there is now a stoicism, borne from experience and increasing understanding of how the world works. On ‘Pretty Cloud’ Pierce glories in the unpredictability of love for another, equally impulsive individual, whether that brings sun or sorrow. ‘I am blisful in whatever you give me. I lean on the mystery…’ whereas a decade ago he was fretting about how he was ‘going to make you mine’ he now seems certain that ‘good luck and a good fuck, a glass of wine and some quality wine is going to make you mine.’

The Drums mythic romanticism and cinematic despair has been usurped by an almost zen-like ‘que sarà confidence. Jonny is at peace with his happiness and his sadness. He embraces his sexuality and desire. The mean spirited bitterness that soured some of his past writing has matured in to something like acceptance. The contentedness that exudes from the lyrics is perfectly complimented by the musical forthrightness. Sampled drums no longer get drowned in reverb. Instead, crisply programmed beats trickle loudly in the mix. The bass lines also get projected. Real chords consistently flow from the guitars for the first time on a Drums album and every sound coalesces together very neatly in to a polished pop whole. Compared to the lo-fi production and simplistic musicality of the group’s early work, ‘Brutalism’ sounds modern and glorious. None of the band’s personality is lost in the process either, if anything it’s an elevation of everything that marked them out as unique.

Pierce is still a romantic at heart, the type of sap who ‘bet my life on one kiss’, as he puts it in the title track. But this time around there is an understanding that the highs and lows of life approximate two sides of the same coin tossed by the hand of fate. On ‘Brutalism’ and ‘262 Bedford Avenue’ desire might lead to heartbreak, but it’s pursued anyway as an end within itself. The happiness described on the album finale ‘Blip of Joy’ may be temporary but it’s there to be cherished for the time it lasts. Jonny’s voice is as gooey as ever. He’s still coo-Ing and harmonising with himself, still reaching for notes ever so slightly out of reach, still sounding giddy at the possibilities of love and melody. In the heartbreakingly stark ‘Nervous’ he presents his most sophisticated and honest vocal performance to date, honing in on the particulars of a post-break up reunion with total clarity. ‘I Wanna Go Back’ is similarly moving, conjuring memories of the classic ‘Book of Stories’. The hooks may not as be as sharp, and the chorus doesn’t linger in the memory quite as potently, but the nostalgic sentiment is utterly moving.

Essentially ‘Brutalism’ is a colourful explosion of everything The Drums have always prided themselves on: sticky melodies, simple arrangements and vivid emotion. It’s firmly rooted in the tradition of indie pop but sounds less tethered to the sometimes cloying conventions of the genre. It’s also less tethered to the set of conventions The Drums created for themselves a decade ago. But the experimentation feels playful and sincere. Crucially, these still sound like Drums songs. Compared to the lumpy and awkward diversions of the band’s other left-field experiment, ‘Encyclopaedia’, ‘Brutalism’ feels like a more natural progression. It confirms once again, if it needed confirming, that The Drums are a group to treasure and one of the most inexplicably underrated bands of the decade.



Busted ‘Half Way There’ – Review

16 Mar

Busted released their debut album on to a world that was between guitar trends. Nu Metal was fading out of popularity, while the garage rock revolution spearheaded by The Strokes hadn’t yet made its way in to the mainstream. Culture at large was saturated by a slick, commercialised pop that veered between the bad and the beautiful. Busted arrived to bridge the gap; a trio of enthusiastic teenagers who took the energy and silliness of Pop Punk and imbued it with a youthful poptimism that would appeal to the masses. Initially there was a lot to find distatestful; they appeared on top of the pops to perform ‘What I Go to School For’ with school uniforms hanging out and their instruments not even plugged in. But by the time they released their second album, 2003’s ‘A Present For Everyone’, it was clear that the band deserved to be taken seriously. They could really play their instruments, they did write their own material, and (dodgy American accents aside) they had forged an identity of their own; bratty, brash and excitable. Unfortunately, the whiff of teen girl fandom excluded the more serious music press and Busted developed an undeserved reputation as a throwaway boy band. It was enough to convince even Busted’s own, young and impressionable guitarist, Charlie Simpson, that he needed to leave the band in order to forge a more serious career as an alternative musician.

By the time Busted reunited in 2015, these boundaries between genres, and that snarky disregard for pop music, had disappeared. Young pop acts today don’t experience the same condescending dismissals that Busted had to endure. And looking back it’s easy to see how important the group may have actually been. Their string of catchy top 5 singles attuned ears to the sound of guitars, and made real instruments palatable for a big audience once again. You can draw a direct line between Busted’s popularity and the rise of acts like Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and Arctic Monkeys a couple of years later.

It was therefore surprising that when the band reformed, they initially appeared to have no interest in returning to their signature sound. ‘Night Driver’ was an unexpectedly steely, synth pop project that, ironically considering why the band dissolved in the first place, emphasised the pop elements whilst downplaying guitars and live drums. It was a good album but it slotted a little too neatly in to the 80’s inspired, retro landscape alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Chrvches and Carly Rae Jepson. Busted, once great disrupters, politely blended in to the background. Perhaps they were weary about setting foot in the past again after the disappointing failure of ‘Mcbusted’, the supergroup featuring members of Busted and Mcfly, that unsuccessfully sought to update Busted’s original pop punk sound.

Loud noises have been made about ‘Half Way There’ being a return to The original template – and it is – though sonically and musically it’s far more ambitious. In fact, it is the best out and out, big tent Rock album I’ve heard for a long, long time. It helps having legendary producer Gil Norton behind the boards and the ferociously talented Cobus Potenger on the drum kit. It sounds incredible – beefy drum fills, layered harmonies, heavy guitars and bright bass lines. If you’re only memories of Busted are of a slick, manufactured pop group the. You’re going to be very surprised.

Nostalgia dictates the musical flow, and also serves as the album’s chief subject. Opener and lead single ‘Nineties’ sets the tone, with a chunky throwback riff, power pop chords and lyrics that reference Mackauly Culkin, MJ and the Goonies. These are the same type of pop culture references that could be found on their 2002 debut, and also littered the juvenile ‘Mcbusted’ record in 2014. It works here where ‘Mcbusted’ didn’t mainly because of the context. These are songs about being hopelessly reminiscent, and at points they question that reverence for the past. The record has a thoughtful tone that bypasses nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, offering something more contemplative and interesting instead. At one point they spell it out as a question – ‘am I still in love, or is it just nostalgia?’ This theme permeates several songs – explicitly on ‘Reunion’, ‘M.I.A’, ‘All My Friends’, ‘It Happens’ and, of course, ‘Nostalgia’ – and implicitly on ‘Shipwrecked in Atlantis’ which tips its hat to their own ‘Air Hostess’ and Blink 182’s ‘The Rock Show’.

Over ten songs Busted rarely lapse in to indulgence or repetition. In fact it’s such a joy to listen to that you could happily hear ‘Half Way There’ two or three times in a row without getting bored. But ultimately the album is a temporary solution to the question of how Busted can continue to develop and mature. This is not the kind of album you could easily make twice; to do so would undo a lot of the progressive gains ‘Half Way There’ makes. They’ve addressed their past conclusively, and next time they will no doubt want to explore what the future has in store.



The 1975 ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ – Review

8 Dec

On the fabled ‘Antichrist’, from The 1975’s debut e.p ‘Facedown’, Matty Healy imagined hands and tongues ‘all covered in blood’ as he drowned in reverb amidst organ swells and cavernous drums. This was an unexpected diversion from the e.p’s lead track, ‘The City’ which was a heavily compressed and maddeningly catchy indie rock song. Even at the time people didn’t quite know what to think. In the Pitchfork review, Ian Cohen felt like the singles had ‘gone missing’ from the e.p, with an ‘unwise’ 3:1 torch song to burner ratio. From day one critics thought they knew what The 1975 should be about, and were somewhat incredulous when that wasn’t delivered to them. But for this band ‘Sex’ and ‘The City’ weren’t the point anymore than the ambient interludes, or post-rock instrumentals were. Dismissive critics be damned, The 1975 followed their noses, delivering numerous and two expansive albums of wild and experimental pop music. The threads have all been tied together on ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ their most accomplished album to date. And surprisingly, critics seem to be on board, the culture having finally caught up to the band’s ravenous, insatiable taste for anything and everything.

Like the previous two albums ‘ABIIOR’ has a wide remit whilst also self referentially honouring the band’s impressive mythology. It opens with ‘The 1975’, a distorted callback to ‘The 1975’, the atmospheric introduction to ‘The 1975’, which was of course the debut album by The 1975. The same song opened their sophomore album, ‘I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It’ and has already been confirmed to appear on their next album ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’. If any of this reads as pretentious or ridiculous then you’d be half right. Crucially, the band’s endearing enthusiasm – not to mention incredible ability to pull this stuff off – overrides any cynicism you enter with.

Imagine the audacity it takes to create a song like ‘The Man Who Married a Robot’, a blatant update of Radiohead’s ‘Fitter, Happier’ that actually improves upon the original. Imagine out-Radioheading Radiohead. And then doing the same thing to Bon Iver (‘I Like America and America Likes Me’), Coldplay (‘Surrounded by Heads and Bodies’) and Drake (‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’). Like those stunt drivers who slide in to tight parallel parking spots, they only pull it off because any other outcome would be disastrous and unthinkable. The margins between genius and hilarious are so ridiculously tight when you’re getting Siri to narrate a monologue about a man addicted to the Internet whilst Disney strings swirl and sway in the background. It’s not hard to see how it could all go terribly wrong. This is an all-in, everything or nothing move, and they nail it.

It’s a difficult game, trying to establish your own identity whilst playfully pinching from the biggest artists in the world. It’s one they’re now masters at. All at once ‘ABIIOR’ will remind you of your favourite bands, whilst reminding you of no one so much as The 1975 themselves. Lead single ‘Give Yourself a Try’, which hurtles forward on the strength of a tinny drum loop and loudly compressed guitar squawks, has been compared to Joy Division but in truth the song is too soaked in irony and self awareness to sound like anyone else but The 1975. It’s a koi pond with a shimmering surface, reflecting whatever the listener projects – the millennial anxieties of infantilised adults, the post-modern sense that truth is evasive or the nagging, existential fears you can’t theorise away. It’s funny because revelation often is and emphatic because we live in urgent times. ‘What would you say to your younger self? Growing a beard’s quite hard and whisky never starts to taste nice’ is one of many quotables that tumble out with stunning regularity.

In a similar vein, ‘Love It If We Made It’ is an impassioned anthem for doomed youth and a fitting approximation of the intermingled dread and humour you feel whilst randomly scrolling down your timeline. Like a modern day ‘It’s the End of the World and We Know It’, the song is imperious and frantic in the face of possible annihilation. Cascading synthesisers and beats carved out of metal sound like aggressive approximations of the nostalgic 80s sounds the band utilised on their debut album. Just as ‘Give Yourself a Try’ slightly recalls a demented Joy Division, ‘Love It If We Made It’ may well remind you of a sinister ‘Downtown Lights’, that mid 80s melancholic masterpiece by The Blue Nile. It’s already been called a defining statement of 2018 malaise, and for good reason; it does after-all quote the leader of the free world (‘I moved on it like a bitch’) and will be censored for radio as a result.

Generally though the album steers away from the political, choosing instead to focus on the personal. As the title explicitly states, the band are particularly interested in the role that the internet plays in creating, sustaining and destroying modern relationships. Last year Arcade Fire were met with ridicule when they attempted to dissect online culture on ‘Everything Now’. It wasn’t the first time that a band of a certain age seemed sneering and out of touch when tackling the prickly topic. The 1975 succeed where Arcade Fire don’t by virtue of being totally submerged in online culture. They aren’t simply spectators, or commentators, they are absolutely immersive on a day to day level. Because of this they are able to comment on the sense of dislocation and alienation that is often a consequence of social media, in a tone that is empathetic rather than judgmental. They are able to prod without shooting targets down in to flaming wrecks. As Matty put it in an interview, he is ‘just asking questions’, not necessarily stepping up to answer them. Even the most moralistic moment, ‘I Married a Robot/Love Theme’ is narrated by Siri, and has an appropriately neutral, even handed tone. No approval, no condemnation, no judgment. Just observation.

Besides, the key word in the title is ‘relationships’ not ‘online’, and in 2018 It would be impossible to write about the former without some understanding of the latter. The internet is just another outlet for our self loathing and a vessel for our terrible excuses. When on ‘Tootime’ Matty’s girlfriend scolds him for not liking her Instagram post, and Matty replies ‘I only use it sometimes’, you get the point that is being made – and it actually has very little to do with social media. The narrator of ‘Sincerity is Scary’ (Matty himself?) has been using Social media in a vain attempt to control how people perceive him, ‘putting off conceiving’, putting off adulthood, content in his own self-satisfaction. The internet is a terrible escape, as all consuming as the pills referenced on ‘Surrounded by Heads and Bodies’ or the Heroin alluded to on ‘Its Not a living if it’s not with you’. Whether it’s drugs, fame, music or the internet, these characters are crippled by the crutches they rely on and desperately seeking real human affection.

More than an inquiry in to online relationships, this is evidence of one, as album standout ‘I Couldn’t Be More In Love’ suggests. The song is a soppy love letter to the band’s fan base; a group, largely but not exclusively, made up of teenage girls, who congregate on Redit, Tumblr and Instagram. A group who feel that they know Matty intimately from 180 character tweets and meet and greets. It’s a genuine relationship, of a sort, and a modern translation of a very old form of hero worship. But perhaps it’s more reciprocal than in the old days. Matty’s generosity towards his fans, and the genuine sense of connection he feels towards them, radiates through the song’s lyrics, which are desperately emotive. ‘What about these feelings I’ve got?!’ He pleads – a throwback to the Emo sentiments of ‘Sex’ and ‘Robbers’. And If that’s not emo enough for you, then the very next song is called ‘I Always Want To Die (Sometimes)’.

Needless to say it can all get a bit heavy at points. ‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’ is as close as the album gets to fun frivolity. Its tropical house bass-line, auto tuned vocals and four to the floor beat will prick the ears of whoever is streaming all those Drake rip-offs saturating Spotify. More of this flavour would have been appreciated, especially in the second half of the album which does get bogged down by a sense of its own soul crushing import. A few of the slower tracks would benefit from some of the intensity and urgency of ‘Give Yourself a Try’ or ‘Love It If We Made It’, not to mention the uncomplicated fizz and froth of ‘TooTimeTooTimeTooTime’.

Maybe this is a good point to say that whilst I admire what the band have achieved here, and appreciate it’s numerous successes, I’m not sure that I like it as much as ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ an album that was somehow, all at once, even more daring, and subtle, while taking itself a whole lot less seriously. ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ was welded together by glam 80’s glue, all gated reverb snares and twinkly synthesisers. It’s harder to find ‘ABIIOR’s sonic through line, which makes the album feel that bit less cohesive and more overwhelming, despite being twenty minutes shorter.

The band have carefully styled ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ as a classic album in the vein of ‘Ok Computer’ and ‘The Queen is Dead’ – albums very obviously about something. Statement albums. Albums designed for eternity, as much as they were for their moment, that nonetheless sounded as natural as breathing air. Make no mistake, ‘A Brief Enquiry In to Online Relationships’ is very much for this moment – and in that sense it’s a purposeful, exemplary record. Whether it survives in the same way as those other classics remains to be seen. On a melodic level the songs lack the sublime grace of, say, ‘karma Police’ or ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, and Matty’s voice is not particularly memorable in and of itself. You also have to question whether an album as transparently ambitious and calculated as this can ever truly transcend its context. It’s expansive, technically nuanced, musically diverse and thematically complex – but it’s doesn’t cohere in quite the same instinctive, effortless way those classic albums did. Maybe that’s the point. This is a post-modern album, not a modernist one. My expectations are perhaps too tied to a canonical vision of Rock music that The 1975 do not pay heed to. It tries very, very hard to be very, very important; The 1975 know it and have acknowledged it. Your move. Too confusing? All over the place? Simply too much? Well, have you been online recently? That’s 2018 in a nutshell and this is the sound of 2018.



Earl Sweatshirt ‘Some Rap Songs’ – Review

2 Dec

We’re a long way from 2010, when Earl Sweatshirt emerged as perhaps the most imaginative, and certainly most divisive, rapper in a generation. His age, parentage and penchant for grizzly, grotesque imagery overshadowed his raw talent until ‘Doris’, his modest debut album, finally saw the light of day three years later. ‘Some Rap Songs’, his third album, is, as the title suggests, even more understated than his debut.

‘Some Rap Songs’ initially sounds like a spluttering cough of an album – something as tossed off as the jokes Earl used to make back in the day. His voice, noticeably deeper and less clipped than it used to be, is mixed low, beneath soul samples that stop, start and jitter. Only two tracks are longer than two minutes and the album is sequenced in a way that emphasises the whole rather than individual moments. There are approximately zero hooks on the album and Earl sounds less interested than ever in appealing to anyone’s expectations of what a rap record should sound like in 2018. And yet, ‘Some Rap Songs’ contains some of the sharpest and most deviously devised rhymes of the year.

Everything about ‘Some Rap Songs’ is that bit more nuanced and adventurous than what has come before. We’ve gone from silly similes to extended metaphors that build and advance as the album moves forward. He establishes the template within the record’s very first verse; wicked half rhymes, once used as an act of daring flamboyance, now develop along emotional lines and reveal the heart inside the genius. ‘Why ain’t nobody tell me I was sinkin / ain’t nobody told me I could leave and / yeah we could win again, seethin, wishin’ / seen teeth on the door, leakin’ again.’ To keep this precise momentum up for one track is impressive but to do it across fifteen is astounding.

Although Earl challenges himself to flip from topics and themes at will, this is largely an album largely about grief and family. Final track ‘Riot’ features a fanfare from his uncle, acclaimed Jazz musician Hugh Masekela, who passed away earlier this year, while Earl’s late father, poet Keorapetse Kgositsilealso is also sampled. Earl uses these songs to communicate feelings that are perhaps to raw to explicitly state. On ‘Penut’, he mourns ‘bless my pops, we sent him off and not an hour late / Still in shock and now my heart out somewhere on the range.’ On ‘Playing Possum’ a recording of his father is contrasted with one of his mother, UCLA professor Cheryl Harris giving a warm speech to an enthusiastic crowd. The two, who separated when Earl was very young, are made to battle it out; applause from the original recordings can be heard overlapping and drowning out any trace of Earl himself. There is an unresolved quality to the song, that makes it the perfect conclusion to an album that seeks much but finds little reassurance.

Musically, the album sounds like it’s held together by very little indeed. Simple, scratchy beats almost seem to decay as the songs progress. Samples are stretched across verses, which repeat, loop and slowly reveal hidden depths. This is a murky, muddy album. On ‘Red Water’ the central, howling loop hovers over Earl like a demonic nightmare. The track is over before any resolution is provided. ‘Nowhere2go’ has the record’s crispest beat, but even here it splutters randomly, interrupting Earl’s tired drawl. His oldest, and most familiar verse comes on December 24′ but it’s repurposed here as something even more stripped and edgy than the demo that’s done the rounds online. It’s over in ninety seconds.

In retrospect it’s very easy to see how Earl was something of a trailblazer back in 2010. Hip Hop’s current obsessions with youth, skater iconography and soundcloud reveal the precedent he set nearly a decade ago. More than that, the way in which he blurred the lines between Hip Hop, Soul, Jazz and Indie, whilst wearing that prankster’s grin, has been a clear influence on today’s movement. In some ways, ‘Some Rap Songs’ is an acknowledgment of that influence (its brevity and hazy vibe sounds very au currant) but more so, it sounds defiantly individualistic; the product of a boy wonder, who’s evolved in to a mature artist, still seeking to separate himself from the crowd.



The Lemon Twigs ‘Go to School’ – Review

16 Sep

The Lemon Twigs ‘Do Hollywood’ was one of the most accomplished debut albums of the last decade, rendered more remarkable by the fact that its chief architects weren’t out of school when they recorded the album for the legendary 4AD studios. Now, the band are describing their new, second album as a musical – and this isn’t a half hearted claim either, there are points were it really goes full on Bugsy Malone. To say that this is an unexpected development for a band coming hot on the heals of a cool, acclaimed debut might be an understatement. But then there was always a theatrical edge to the band that split critics down the middle, and a prevalent sense of ‘expect the unexpected’. For fans, ‘Do Hollywood’, demonstrated a range and ability that artists twice their age would struggle to compete with. ‘Go to School’ ups the ante in almost every sense; it’s even more eclectic, even more ambitious and, somehow, likely to prove even more divisive.

The attribute that Lemon Twigs have in spades, that separates them from the crowd, is enthusiasm. They remind us of how fun it feels to be young, celebrated and drunk on rock n roll. This is the band we would want to be in if we were 17 and had a touch of the same confidence, talent and tenacity (just one of the three might do). Every single song lives out a different kind of absurdist rock n roll fantasy with an excitement that belies any sense of giving a damn. Sincerity is just another pose. High kicks are the cost of entry. Eyes wide, eyeliner primed, glitter bombs at the ready.

And why not? When did Rock stars start taking themselves so seriously? In their heyday, bands like Queen and Led Zeppelin were characterised by flamboyant lead singers and a sense that they were in on the joke. Somewhere down the line Rock became the domain of boring Joes, your Royal Bloods and Imagine Dragons. And that really is a striking about The Lemon Twigs – the unabashed silliness of two brothers parading around on stage in tight vintage outfits, singing songs about a monkey who falls in love with a human girl. That they find the humour in their subject without becoming the joke is testament to an insane natural ability and impeccably well honed understanding of their genre.

This all encompassing rock n roll vision is filtered through a homespun lens that gives a charm to material that might easily become cliched in a more refined setting. The brothers produced the album themselves, from a home studio, and as a result it has a close, warm atmosphere that appropriately gives ‘Go to School’ a distinct vintage feel at odds with modern rock music. The Lemon Twigs are a throwback in other respects as well. The gutsy, bold songwriting, particularly in the opening few numbers, will remind you of Big Star, The Beatles Todd Rundgren, Beach Boys and The Who – all bands The Lemon Twigs have covered at gigs in the past year. These aren’t just imitations; theirs are unusual, creative melodies accompanied by expansive, and daring arrangements. In isolation, any one of these songs will inspire distinct admiration. The album’s success as a whole piece is more debatable.

The thing about musicals is that they have a strong visual element and almost always contain dialogue to set out exposition. Without either of those elements, Lemon Twigs rely purely on their lyrics to do the heavy lifting. Invariably the songs that advance the plot drag the album down. The middle third is particularly exposition heavy, and suffers as a result with show tunes that seem to serve no other purpose than to make a plot point. And, as you might expect, the storyline about poor Shane, an unloved and well meaning chimp,, doesnt keep your attention outright. Only when accompanied by blistering music, as on the incredibly powerful ‘The Fire’, or the explosive ‘Rock Dreams’ does the plot truly come to life. The campy piano ballads that clog up the middle stretch (‘The Lesson’, ‘Wonderin Ways’, ‘Born Wrong’) feel too calculated and generic to really excite.

Not all the songs benefit from being so tethered to the plot. The sincere message of ‘Lonely’ a disaffected, pretty ballad in The Carpenters mould, and a song written about personal experience when Michael was still at school, gets lost in between the more contrived showtunes. Likewise, the cute, yet moralising, ‘If You Give Enough’, and even the whip cracking ‘Queen of my School’, so memorable as The Twigs staple set closer, feel reduced in this context, burdened by odd plot details, awkward turns of phrase (‘Shane boy, be my toy / my pussy, you’ll employ’) and overbaked production.

In fact, Michael and Brian overegg the pudding at almost every opportunity. Too many songs descend in to ridiculous musical extravaganzas. The bossanova inflected ‘The Bully’ unexpectedly bursts in the second half with processional horns and marching band drum rolls. ‘Rock Dreams’ comes undone towards the end with a chorus of demented choir vocals that strongly remind me of the voices from The Beatles ‘Flying’. The hyperactive, scattergun arrangements nearly undid their debut but this approach feels more significantly detrimental on a record nearly double the length of ‘Do Hollywood’. The more understated harmonic touches on ‘Always in my Heart, Never in my Arms’ and particularly the coda to ‘The Student Becomes the Teacher’ speak to the Twigs true calling; not as stage school wannabes but as heirs apparent to The Beach Boy and Beatles.

Even so, their faults, if you want to categorise them as such, are endearing and stem from that genuine enthusiasm I gushed about earlier. The same instincts that led them down these roads are the same instincts that inspired the abandon and wonder inherent in their finest moments. They don’t just get by on giddy excitement either; their understanding of craft and there attention to detail is notable, particularly for anyone whose ever paid close attention to ‘Radio City’ or ‘Something / Anything’, classic albums of a similar ilk made by far more experienced artists, with significantly higher bank balances, in posh studios. Without meaning to be condescending, the fact that The Lemon Twigs produced a concept album as daring and accomplished as this, at their age, with their resources, is somewhat remarkable. ‘Go to School’ isn’t the masterpiece musical it desperately wants to be but it is something more precious – an unguarded, kooky snapshot of youth and a love letter to rock n roll dreams.