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John Hopkins ‘Singularity’ – Review

5 Jul

On John Hopkins first album in five years, ‘Singularity’, You almost seem to glide from the big beats of the more recognisably techno numbers like ‘Emerald Rush’ to ethereal and quiet piano meditations like ‘Recovery’. On its best song, that voyage happens in the space of a single track; the twelve minute ‘Luminous Beings’, which pulsates and spins, fades in and out of itself, and seems to be in a near constant state of growth and dissolve. Songs like this dare you to dance and then stop you in your tracks. The vulnerability that comes then is even more stark because of what proceeds these moments.

At its weakest points (which are nonetheless few and far between) ‘Singulairty’ sounds like the sonic equivalent of an enthusiastic and well meaning gap year student ‘finding themselves’ in foreign terrain. But more often, Hopkins experimentation feels authentic, genuinely thoughtful and exploratory in revelatory ways. Pre-album talk about meditation and psychedelics made me cringe a little but actually the album feels enriched by the sense of adventure. There is a fluidity in the way instruments merge, melt and spring to life. And there is Interesting tension between the loud and quiet, fast and gentle, moments which feels like a step away from the repetition implicit in contemporary dance music.

Without a doubt ‘Singularity’ is one of the most sonically daring and textually complex albums of 2018. But it’s the gorgeous piano melodies and sparkling arpeggios that give this album heart. The simple ambient piano notes of ‘Echo Disolve’ gently rise and fall above what sounds like the distant hum of traffic and everyday life. Here Hopkins reclaims the calm in a loud and busy environment. Final track ‘Recovery’ is even more sparse, and even more beautiful, but it’s essentially take on the same idea. The reverb and the background noise disappear to leave just the piano. Here Hopkins classical training, and his experience, comes in to play – he’s never risked being this unguarded before. There is daring and honesty in this degree of simplicity. And as the album closes with the same note that opened it, there is a sense of the world spinning on its axis. It’s here you understand Hopkins interest in connectivity; the way in which sounds play off each other, the ‘drones’ and ‘bridges’ that connect notes, songs, worlds. Of course this idea is best encapsulated on track four ‘Everything connected’, which is a seamless juxtaposition of sounds and feelings. It’s perhaps too cliched to describe music as taking you on a journey but with John Hopkins ‘Singularity’, no other metaphor feels quite as appropriate.




Tracyanne and Danny ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ – Review

26 Jun

In 2015 Camera Obscura’s keyboardist and founding member Carey Lander passed away following a battle with osteosarcoma. The band understandably folded in on itself, and their future is currently uncertain. In the mean time, lead singer and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell has teamed up with Danny Coughlan, otherwise known by his stage name Crybaby, to work on an album of country inflected pop tunes.

‘Tracyanne and Danny’ is a grown up version of a Camera Obscura album, one where the heartbreak runs deeper below the surface, where the hurt is less hysterical and more ingrained. It comes in different forms – the grief of losing a friend to a vicious disease, the strain placed on a marriage by the arrival of little, pattering feet, the memories of a romance that burned brighter than any you’re likely to have again. The pin-sharp sting of love, of heartbreak, is less devastating from the distance of years but no less real; these are blurry repercussions of feels from the past making the present moment difficult. On ‘2006’ Tracyanne finds it difficult to relate to the melodrama of her old material – ‘I can’t believe this life was me/Now my passion is gone/I put my life in a song’ – but her voice, fragile and bruised, betrays the sentiment.

Musically, the passion is tempered, the arrangements more polite, the tempos calmed. The twee streak that shot through classics like ‘Suspended from Class’ and ‘French Navy’ has also gone, as have the easy comparisons to Belle and Sebastian that the band were oddly saddled with. But the finely tuned balance between giddy joy and melancholia is still alive. You can hear it in the playful opener ‘Home and Dry’ and the bittersweet ‘It’s Only Love When It Hurts’ (the number that bares the strongest resemblance to Camera Obsucra’s work). Their particular beauty comes in the way the sunlight pokes through the clouds. Darkness tinged with optimism; the sense that any emotion is worth feeling so long as it’s real and intense.

The musical qualities Carey brought to Camera Obscura were obvious for all to see – just listen to her stunning work on ‘Tears for Affairs for example. But equally important, perhaps, were her personal attributes. The sense of companionship she provided. The shoulder to lean on. The advice when needed. Her influence is exemplified neatly on first single ‘Alabama’, a touching tribute to Carey. ‘I liked travelling with you and you liked it best with me.’ It’s not the lyrics, nostalgic and unabashed, that break your heart, it’s the melody and the music. It’s hearing Tracyanne sing around the gaping hole provided by Carey’s absence, the strain in her voice as she sings a typically gorgeous melody without her best friend there underlining it. It would have been far easier perhaps write a dreary ballad that highlighted her sadness in fluorescent streaks but ‘Alabama’ is a far more fitting tribute, the type of song Carey would have loved (which just adds to the sense of longing). It’s essentially a sunny, uptempo Camera Obscura song given a loftiness and a real life weight that was not present in their more idealistic material.

In Carey’s absence, Danny Coughlin plays the foil. His contributions are major – he takes lead on roughly half the tracks – but like Carey, he seems to be more useful as something of a grounding presence for Tracey Ann: the confidant, the shoulder, the ear. He has an agile voice, with a confident, pitch perfect tone that sits in contrasts to Tracyanne’s more vulnerable, fragile phrasing. His lyrics are vague and simplistic and his singing, whilst sweet, doesn’t compensate by doing any emotional heavy lifting. His best role is as accomplice – his sweet harmonies enhance ‘Its only Love When It Hurts’, for example. Of his obvious contributions ‘Jaqueline’, a moon lit torch song, is the most memorable, with a vague sense of tragedy looming over the melancholic descriptions of a mystery lady. It’s a cinematic vision of sadness.

But generally ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ works best when it’s dealing with the real and personal, rather than the imagined. That said, there is a rare foray in to dramatic monologue at the album’s close; ‘O’keeffe’ tells the story of Georgia O’keeffe, a famous American painter who in 1929 ran away from her unfaithful husband. Moving to New Mexico, she took to painting a particular sunburnt mountain up to thirty times – an act of devotion and dedication to something unmovable. It was both a form of letting go and embrace. So it is that love serves as Tracyanne’s mountain, and songs are her paintings. On the surface they often seem indistinguishable, made of similar moving parts and romantic feelings, but each one is an effort to get closer to the source of something real and universal. An act of devotion and dedication to something bigger than her.



Kanye West ‘Ye’ – Review

3 Jun

In the background of one of Kanye West’s recent twitter videos, a tv was playing a clip of the wildly popular and somewhat controversial Canadian academic Jorden Peterson, lecturing on the importance of art. Peterson is best known for his instructive guidance videos and books, aimed primarily at young men, but he’s also something of an expert on narcasism and man’s capacity for evil. In one of his many lectures on the subject, Peterson theorises that everyone has great capacity for malevolence, and it’s only when we come to terms with that, admit it, reckon with it and understand it, that we can evolve in to truly good, and successful, human beings. Otherwise we’re doomed to a life of naivety and manipulation.

It sounds like an instruction that Kanye West may have taken to heart. ‘Ye’ (“I believe Ye is the most commonly used word in the bible, and in the bible it means YOU. So I’m you, I’m us, it’s us. The album is a reflection of who we are.”) opens with Kanye admitting ‘The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. Today I seriously thought about killing you…and I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you so…just say it out loud to see how it feels…sometimes I think bad things, really, really bad things…’ The song continues on like this, as auto-tuned, harmonic mumblings swirl underneath – intense distillations of ideas Kanye has been nibbling at the edges of for years. On this album Kanye is laying his insecurities, anxieties and darkest desires bare for everyone to see. It’s a massive risk. He’s showing us his worst side, as well as him most vulnerable (no easy thing for him one suspects) and asking that we love him as much as he loves himself.

It’s an album largely about mental illness that declares on its cover ‘I hate being bi-polar. It’s awesome’. To my mind at least, ‘Ye’ inhabits some of the contradictions of being bi-polar: it’s at once impulsive, fanatic, impassioned, drained, sad and kind of haunting. It’s an album that sounds incredibly warm yet speaks so coldly. It feels monumental despite being such a slight thing. It’s generous with guest features (most of which are by talented, emotionally grounded young women) despite being such a self centred thesis. If the question is ‘who’s the real Kanye?’ then there are no clear answers on ‘Ye’, except, possibly, they’re all the real Kanye.

From a production standpoint ‘Ye’ is fairly similar to the Kanye produced ‘Daytona’, Pusha T’s recent comeback album. Both are seven tracks, and clock in at just over twenty minutes. Both feature well sourced and creatively manipulated soul samples, carefully articulated beats and minimal bars over spacious backdrops. It’s definitely a refined sound compared to the expansive and diverse ‘Life of Pablo’, and feels more restrained than even ‘Yeezus’ or ‘808s and heartbreaks’. It’s light on hooks (‘Yikes’ might sound like a single if the topics it discusses weren’t so alienating’) but rich in melody and gospel tinged choruses. In these senses it conveys a spirit of love and generosity, even as Kanye pulls away from the listener and doubles down on some of his divisive arguments without really elaborating on them.

Of course It’s impossible to hear ‘Ye’ divorced from the context of his recent behaviour. And he doesn’t want you to. In fact, he refers to his recent controversies frequently, if in no real depth. Those hoping that ‘Ye’ would provide insight or explanation will surely be disappointed, as will those who hoped he might brush over them all together. The most infamous of his recent comments was ‘slavery is a choice’. That provocative comment, here once again brought up on ‘Yikes’, was rightly criticised for being misinformed and unhelpful (despite being ripped from context, with Kanye’s more detailed justification, all but ignored). But this isn’t the first time Kanye has poked and prodded at the subject. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from 2013’s Yeezus, a song hailed at the time as being a Black Lives Matter anthem, was equally reductive and insensitive for different reasons. It strikes me as odd that some people are only just realising now that Kanye West is a troll. That Kanye says, and does, stupid things. That Kanye can be insensitive. When his vitriol was directed at George Bush (‘George Bush hates black people’) or Taylor Swift (‘I made that bitch famous’) it was brushed off. Now it’s all anyone can talk about.

If this is the first time you’ve found Kanye’s comments problematic, you really haven’t been listening hard enough. Both ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Life of Pablo’ were explicitly misogynistic and racist at points. There were elements of that before as well, but the genius of 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, for example, was in how Kanye wrestled with his ego; painting awful pictures and then stripping and analysing them. It was genuinely mature, conflicted stuff. There was none of that self aware drama on ‘Yeezus’ or ‘Life of Pablo’ and there’s little more of it on ‘Ye’. He just doesn’t seem interested in doing the hard yards necessary to layout nuanced, thoughtful arguments. There is a reason Kanye works so well on Twitter – it’s because he writes the most brilliant sound bites known to man. But that’s all they are, sound bites. Sound bites that don’t stand up to even the most simple scrutiny. And by the time he’s delivered one stinger (‘You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?’) it’s too late, he’s on to the next (‘if you get the ass with it that’s a 50 pop’). when his choice of topic was more trivial (‘Life of Pablo’ was totally apolitical) such an approach was tremendous fun. Here though it’s exhausting and divisive.

‘All Mine’ is the latest in a long line of Hip Hop tracks that demean and objectify women, simply for being women. The track seems to be a defence of infedelity; essentially a boy’s will be boys apology that is never even remotely convincing. It starts crudely with a verse by Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Fuck it up, pussy good, I’m ‘a pipe her up, make her mine’, and hits new levels of depravity when Kanye himself throws down: ‘Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome / ayy none of us would be here without cum’. This is Kanye at his insufferable worst. ‘All Mine’s vulgarity is brought in to starker contrast by its proximity to ‘Wouldn’t Leave’, where Kanye recounts the aftermath of the ‘slavery is a choice’ comment. There are odd moments of vulnerability here (‘told her she could leave me now but she didn’t leave’ is a really interesting line – has Kanye been deliberately self sabotaging his success and happiness because he feels unworthy?) but the interesting revelation is that Kim’s initial angry reaction to the comment seems to have been ‘you’ gon’ fuck the money up’. Yes, the song is short on genuine understanding and doesn’t present any of its protagonists in a flattering light.

Another song that’s troubling is album closer ‘Violent Crimes’, which explores how Kanye’s understanding of women has changed since he became a father (changed in the ten minutes between this and ‘All Mine’ you mean?), or at least, how he thinks it’s changed. Addressing his daughter, he says ‘now I see women as something to nurture not something to conquer’ before making a tasteless pun about a ménage et trios. Once again, the proximity between the saintly and the sexualised, in a song about his baby daughter, feels creepy, as later when he starts talking about ‘the curves under you dress’, and a boyfriend ‘whooping her ass’ (of course Kanye isn’t the first man to see man to see women as one of two extremes – the Madonna/whore complex is well documented). It’s a pretty weird song, one where I’m sure he means well, but the fact he thinks this is appropriate is as clear a sign as any that his self awareness is currently at an all time low. And once again, his inability to see beyond women’s bodies – extended even to his own daughter, even in a song where he is making big claims about being a changed man – is astonishing.

But before we address the myriad of problems in the music of Kanye West, how about we zoom out a bit and examine the wider cultural problems within Hip Hop. Singling out Kanye in the same week that Pusha T’s equally problematic ‘Daytona’, and AS$P Rocky’s ‘Testing’, received critical acclaim feels unfair. Jay Z has said worse. So have Drake and Eminem. Cardi B and Azelia Banks are no more nuanced or insightful. Even the relatively enlightened Kendrick Lamar’s first number one used ‘bitch’ as the main hook. And they’re just the big hitters; things get a whole lot darker the further you go further down the chain. I’m not excusing Kanye West, simply suggesting that the issues are far deeper than many would care it admit. And anyway, that may be a part of what ‘Ye’ is but that’s not all it is.

In all the noise and chatter, something that has been lost (but is reaffirmed on this album) is that first and foremost in his tweets Kanye has been calling for love and tolerance. ‘Ye’s working title was ‘Love Everyone’. The front cover was supposed to be a photo of the doctor held responsible for the death of Donda West, Kanye’s mother. Forgiveness. Love. Connection. These ideas may not always be explicit in the lyrics but they are present in other ways. I hear it in the way Kanye’s production synthesises his past styles in to one and brings different genres and historical sounds together. I hear it in the diverse collection of guest vocalists who contribute so much for a cause much bigger than themselves individually. I hear it in Kanye’s bruised, hurt vocal tones as he tries, once again, to hit notes always out of his reach, and doesn’t stop trying. ‘Sometimes I take all the shine, talk like I drank all the wine’. He’s still reaching for truth, for love and for freedom of expression. He’s still knocking at doors and breaking down barriers. Still talking about things we don’t want to talk about. When you invest so much in an artist it can be hard to see their work objectively but I would argue that the Kanye of 2018 is no different to the Kanye of 2013, perhaps even the Kanye of 2003. He’s brash, insensitive, funny, daring, inquisitive, emotional, controversial, narcissistic, capable of great genius and capable of the opposite. To slightly misquote the handwritten message on the front cover of Ye: I hate Kanye West. He’s awesome.



Kacey Musgroves ‘Golden Hour’ – Review

21 May

‘Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight/happy and sad at the same time?’ If there is then Kacey Musgroves should know it, she is after all, the master of observing the space between feelings, the nuances and subtleties that most country songwriters steamroll over. ‘Golden Hour’ is the most glorious of genre records; one that sounds like everything you love and nothing you’ve ever heard before. It takes tropes of country pop – pedal steel, slide, weepy melodies and big gesture strings – but presents them in new contexts. Disco beats anchor the glitzy ‘High Horse’, reverb drenches ‘Slow Burn’ (until it sounds like a mid 90s Radiohead song), and psychedelic perspectives skewer the orthodoxy of ‘Mother’ and ‘Oh What a World’. Even the songs that on the tracklisting suggest a certain predictability – ‘High Horse’, ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘Velvet Elvis’ – find interesting ways to surprise you.

This is not necessarily an unexpected development. Musgroves made a name for herself with her effervescent debut ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’ which was memorable for the way it questioned conventions and long held Nashville traditions. Her lyrical style (it should be noted that she works with a host of talented songwriters) emphasised clever puns, dark humour and playful rhymes to create songs that were as catchy as they were thoughtful. Second album ‘Pageant Material’ was a quintessential sequal – It expanded her sound in interesting ways but ultimately contained less to recommend it.

‘Golden Hour’ is, in some respect, a more conventional country pop record. I’m far from an expert when it comes to this genre but it’s easy to hear echoes of other crossover acts – Shania Twain, Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift being the three examples that spring most readily to mind. The tempos here are more universally mid paced, the melodies perhaps marginally less adventurous, the arrangements, certainly, less playful. But in place is a sophistication and stateliness that only comes when you try your hardest to straighten out and broaden your appeal. At no point does Musgrove’s sound feel watered down; if anything it feels enlarged and more expansive.

‘Golden Hour’, in fact, is both skyscraping and intimate. Cinematic with the feel of an old home movie. It is, yes, both happy and sad at the same time. The songs that speak of new love (‘Butteflies’, ‘Oh What a World’) are good but the ballads that present more conflicted feelings are even better. ‘Space Cowboy’ in particular positions Musgroves as a genuinely moving country singer in the mould of someone like Kathleen Edwards. It’s not a perfect album – the mood is consistent but that could be interpreted as a lack of range, and it certainly begins to feel a little too mellow in the final third. The AOR stylistic choices and vacuum sealed production also rob the songs of some of their personality. But Kacey Musgroves is a young artist with a distinctive style, and ‘Golden Hour’ is her best work to date. This is an album to appeal to the Nashville diehards as much as Capital FM listeners, which, as Taylor Swift proved, can be a very lucrative junction to be standing at.



Arctic Monkeys ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ – Review

14 May

‘I just wanted to be one of the strokes, now look what you made me do.’ As opening lines go, that one’s a dozy and worth the admission price alone. More importantly though, the sentiment re-grounds Arctic Monkeys in a rock n roll lineage, and reminds the listener just where the band started and therefore how far they’ve travelled. From mop-top teens with guitars to the sleekest and biggest rock band in the country. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is an album, essentially, all about distances – between the past and present, reality and fantasy, the earth and moon, our finger tips and touchscreens. What about the distance from ‘Whatever People Say I am, that’s what I’m not’ to this, very complex, very odd, very ambitious new album? Arctic Monkeys are quite comfortably the band of my generation; the only ones who truly transcended a classic debut album and have carved out a career that matches artistic daring with commercial success. Few young rock bands sell out stadiums and headline pop festivals, but even the handful that do (Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, The Killers, Kasabian) have struggled to keep their credibility fully in tact in the process. Arctic Monkeys achievements therefore cannot be understated.

Nor can the bravery it takes to deliberately undermine that success in the name of artistic endeavour. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is as singular and uncompromising as that title suggests it might be. It’s a world away from the jagged indie of 2006 and the cocksure pop-rock of 2013. It’s also a world away in the sense that the album imagines a future society, living and loving in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Hotel resort on the moon. Alex Turner’s impulsive, scatterbrained style prevents this from being a proper concept album but in its thematic and aesthetic cohesion it certainly feels like one. Moving away from the romantic lyricism of ‘Suck It and See’ and ‘AM’ towards a piercing type of social commentary, it’s almost a return to the bluntness and dark humour that defined their early material.

The album starts with the somewhat jazzy ‘Star Treatment’. It reads like a dissection of the slightly vulgar persona Turner adopted for the Last Shadow Puppets most recent tour. ‘Karate bandana. Warp speed chic. Hair down to there.’ In a recent interview with Annie Mac he blushed when reminded of the Karate moves he pulled on stage at Radio 1’s big weekend (later on during ‘She Looks Like Fun’ he notes to self ‘I need to spend less time in bars waffling on to strangers all about martial arts’). ‘Star Treatment’ is too delightedly giddy when describing this ‘golden boy’ to be considered a complete rejection but when Alex sings ‘back down to earth with a lounge singer shimmer’, we can perhaps accept this as a slight admission of regret and a deceleration of a more down to earth perspective.

It holds for much of the album’s running time but occasionally Turner seems to delight in toxic role play. Politics comes in to the conversation from time to time, mainly as a bedrock of disparagement and disbelief. The louche, lounge singer type personified and then popped on ‘Star Treatment’ returns at the start of ‘One Point Perspective’ to announce: ‘dancing in my underpants, I’m gonna run for government. I’m gonna form a covers band.’ Of course politics has become so debased that the situation doesn’t sound that far fetched. Perhaps Turner was thinking of the same character who later on is ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.’ It’s no wonder the ‘shining city is on the fritz’ if these are the people in charge.

Once the modern fantasy is revealed as a sham, a futuristic alternative is imagined – on the moon. In this post apocalyptic vision, vacuous pop culture figures mix with ‘Jesus in the day spa’, prophets lose their train of thought, protesters get their hair done before ‘popping out to sing a protest song’, technological advances get you in the mood, and God can be contacted on video call. Its a surreal vision of a technologically obsessed future that is not dissimilar from our own. It’s no wonder he asks, at the start of ‘American Sports’, ‘when you gaze at planet earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid smile off your face?’ This is often a bleak, and bleakly hilarious, vision of a future society that feels a little too close to home.

This critique is soundtracked by music that is itself a kind of odd, futuristic fever dream of past influences, rendered in vivid new colours. It’s where the dark psych-rock of Humbug, the silky strut of ‘AM’ and the sleazy chamber pop of ‘Everything You’ve Come to Expect’ melt in to something totally unrecognisable to all but the few paying extra close attention. It’s a sound that is almost without precedent but at points recalls the abstract absurdity of ‘Smile’ mixed with the luscious musical flourishes of ‘Pet Sounds or the sleazy glamour of ‘Historie de Nelson’ with the dark detailing of ‘Tender Prey’. The last time a stadium sized band took a risk on this scale was Radiohead with ‘Kid A’ nearly twenty years ago, and even then the stakes weren’t this high. Arctic Monkeys are currently the biggest band in the country at a time when Rock stars are an endangered species. When Turner sings ‘I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before’, it’s funny because he really hasn’t. But ‘Tranquility Base’ feels exactly the type of music suited to the quiet rooms.

If you blur your eyes, and ears, accordingly, for the first 30 seconds of ‘Four Out of Five’ (a lead single that didn’t actually lead the album) it would be easy to mistake the song for something from ‘AM’; the tight bass line interlocking perfectly with a popping snare. But in the chorus it blossoms in to something far richer than anything on that album. This time the backing vocals don’t just mirror the lead melody, they dance around it, enhancing and (at points) mocking the message of the narrator. Guitars squiggle in the margins, the orchestras glitters on top, Alex croons and moans and sneers. The song is a clever satire but more importantly it’s endlessly enjoyable. Asked by Ryan Domball if there was any particular reason for naming a taqueria on the roof the ‘information action ratio’, Turner replied ‘I don’t think so. It just sounded interesting. Something to look at.’ Perhaps he was being coy or perhaps not. Either way, it rolls off his tongue with style.

Turner, never a songwriter with the longest attention span, now flips from observation to observation without much consideration for coherence or narrative. Before, on the likes of ‘Pretty Visiters’ or ‘Library Pictures’ this was done largely for effect – to show off his Olympian verbal dexterity or to simply to delight in the auditory thrill of the sibilance, half rhymes and ridiculous similes. Here though it reflects the shortened attention span of the characters he’s describing, ‘sucked into a hole through a handheld device’. One song is named after a YouTube meme (‘The Workd’s First Monster Truck Flip’), another, ‘She Looks Like Fun’, races from image to image like someone scrolling down their Instagram feed. ‘Bukowski. Dog sitting. Screw balling.’ That song in particular is a murky, heavy, deeply weird slog with an air of wonder and hallucinogenic glee – the type of song that might be played on an especially demonic merry go round ride. In both sound and content, it’s the perfect rendering of how it feels to be sucked down a YouTube black hole.

It’s a dicey game, writing about technology, one that easily boils over in to didacticism or worse, threatens to make you sound like a fuddy-daddy. At times Turner is one small step away from becoming Father John Misty. Luckily he reins it in at the right moments. He’s aware of his own complicity in a game we are all playing to varying degrees and is only too happy to mock or undermine his sense of authority and wisdom. Only on ‘Batphone’ do the observations feel a little too ponderous and oblique, the tone a little too detached. He recovers on the gorgeous album closer ‘The Ultracheese’, a ballad that ranks alongside ‘Cornerstone’ and ‘Love Is a Laserquest’ in the band’s catalogue of sweet and sober meditations on nostalgia and ageing. ‘Oh the dawn won’t stop weighing a tonne/I’ve done somethings I shouldn’t have done but I haven’t stopped loving you once.’ The song ends abruptly, at the conclusion of that sentence, with no big send off or dramatic crescendo, and the melody is left somewhat unresolved. The music stops and Alex coos sentimentally, before the lights fade and the curtain drops. It’s a morsel of romance in a world that otherwise seems remarkably short of the stuff. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ presents a generally grim vision of the future but in its final moments Alex Turner makes assurances that there will always be room for human connection and commitment. It’s a touching finale to what could (could) be the band’s most accomplished album to date.



Review roundup

30 Mar

The Wombats – ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life

Of all the bands fairly or unfairly labelled ‘indie landfill’ a decade ago, who would have put money on The Wombats still charting highly in 2018 (higher than Franz Ferdinand and MGMT’s recent albums) getting near top billing at Reading festival and being playlisted on Radio 1? They’ve weathered the storm by subtly modernising their sound to fit in to the more synthetic pop landscape whilst retaining a knack for infectious melodies, quirky lyrics and razor sharp guitar hooks. The formulae is still working on ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’, which as the title suggest, gives us a slightly skewered and humorous take on #firstworldproblems. Though Matthew Murphey’s ‘s dulled tone, snarky style and enthusiasm for a certain type of chorus eventually makes songs sound interchangeable, the album hits surprisingly hard early on with a handful of catchy synth pop songs such as ‘Cheetah Tongue’ and ‘Turn’, both of which sound like hits from another age. For a band who were often dismissed as being trite and insignificant, The Wombats have done remarkably well to sound this relevant, and this good, ten years into their career.


Mount Eerie – ‘Now Only’

Mount eerie covered the topic of grief so incisively, so authoritatively on their last album, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, that you’d think they would want to leave the subject be. After all, this is not a topic we turn to easily. And yet grief doesn’t have a neat ending – It’s prolonged and uncomfortable. And so a year after ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ we get the equally necessary, if unexpected, follow up, ‘Now Only’; an album that explores mourning in equally blunt terms. It picks up pretty much where ‘A Crow…’ Left off, finding out what happens months down the line, once the well wishers have moved on and the world is slowly readjusting. It describes everything from the obvious – the empty chair at the dinner table – to the totally singular – a finger bone found in the garden. The songs are less uniformly bare bones and stark, incorporating unexpected arrangements and experimental structures, which paired with the confessional stream of consciousness poetry, makes ‘Now Only’ a genuinely upsetting, but totally arresting, record – less surprising than ‘A Crow Looked at Me’ but no less compelling.


Superorganism – ‘Superorganism’

‘Superorganism’ recalls early 00’s classics by The Avalanches, The Go Team and Milo – acts with enormous record collectIons and even bigger grins. This album seems like the perfect update for the spotify  generation. The samples are sourced from soundboards and YouTube instead of vinyl but they are still utilised in frantically enthusiastic ways. Songs like ‘Everybody Wants to be Famous’ and ‘Reflections on Screen’ also touch on prescient themes, making the album feel thematically relevant as well (sometimes cloyingly so). It’s a heady mix but in its finest moments, Superorganism feel like the perfect band for right now. That said, there is only so much of this anyone needs in their life – after all, there is a good reason those aforementioned acts evaporated in to memory almost as quickly as they arrived. This type of ADHD, day-glo, candy stick music is briefly euphoric but ultimately exhausting.



MGMT ‘Little Dark Age’ – Review

23 Mar

MGMT have become characters in an unfortunate narrative beyond their control; they’re the pretentious, ungrateful pranksters who deliberately turned their noses up at mainstream recognition in a haze of psychedelic drugs. As with most myths there is an inkling of truth – their last, self titled album was in some part a maddeningly indulgent nightmare that sold a tiny fraction of the band’s debut – but this version of the story tends to oversell the group’s initial success and underplay their later albums creative gains. Yes, ‘Kids’, ‘Time to Pretend’ and Electric Feels’ were some of the biggest festival anthems of the 00s but the rest of ‘Oracular Spectacular’ was just as strange and singular as ‘Congratulations’, album number two, which has arguably been just as influential in the years since. ‘Oracular Spectacular’ itself wasn’t an immovable chart object and nor was ‘Congratulations’ a commercial bomb (though ‘Oracular Spectacular’ hung around for longer, ‘Congratulations’ actually charted higher in all the key territories and was a few thousand sales away from being a chart topper in America).

Anyway, in keeping with the tropes of such a narrative, new record ‘Little Dark Age’ is being presented as the requisite ‘comeback’ album; the album that rengages with pop music and the wider world in general. And yes, again, there is an inkling of truth in that. The production is certainly more dynamic and lively, the lyrics are sharper and identifiably about things, and most notably, the choruses soar skyscraper high. But of course, being an MGMT album, it’s still a distinctly unusual pop record, one that shakes itself under your feet, and makes jagged left turns just when you think you’ve figured things out. It sounds like MGMT have misremembered songs from the 1980s, and set out to reimagine them through a 2018 lens and with their own particular idiosyncrasies. The latter is particularly important; in a world of factory line 80s pastiches and homages, ‘Little Dark Age’ stands out as being decidedly other and unmistakably MGMT.

The duo sound reenergised and reinvigorated from the off. Skewered opening track ‘She Works Out Too Much’ bends a multitude of analogue synths, squeezes in a saxophone solo, and features bizarre spoken word instructions on how best to work out. Quietly buzzing below all this is Andrew Vanwyngarden mourning a relationship that never got off the ground. ‘The only reason it never worked out was I didn’t work out enough’ he deadpans. Mgmt never exactly lost their sense of humour but here they position it front and centre once again. The song is brilliantly addictive and totally off the wall. It’s a nod to the listener that you have permission to smile, even as the world potentially collapses around you.

And MGMT don’t hide away from that collapse either. In fact, they have never sounded more engaged by, or alive to, the anxieties and possibilities of the modern age. The title track is a kaleidoscopic, ironic nightmare in which Love seeps out of policemen’s guns, feelings rot, and people grieve in stereo. MGMT are defending your right to be strange in an even stranger world. It’s a smile in the grip of tyranny. It’s a declaration about getting out on stage and smiling, despite all of the above. ‘Know that if you hide it doesn’t go away’ they declare in a world weary monotone that eventually becomes part of the winking humour. If the world is burning all around you, then you may as well go out singing and dancing.

They keep their tongues firmly in cheek for most of the first side. ‘When We Die’ and ‘Me and Michael’ are two of the catchiest and silliest songs the band have put out in years. Even the vaguely creepy ballad ‘James’ features an ear candy melody at the centre of all its deep voiced strangeness. ‘Time Spent Looking at My Phone’, a song which, as its title suggests, takes pointed aim at the iPhone generation, is daft enough to be enjoyable despite the borderline preachiness of the tone and the mandarin solo in the final third.

As the album plays out, it looses a touch of the humour and becomes more self serious and somber. Instrumental ‘Days that Got Away’, starts the slide in to melancholy and like the other instrumentals in the band’s back catalogue, it’s an interesting diversion but also totally forgettable. ‘When You’re Small’ and ‘Hand It Over’ slow the pace down further and reintroduce some of the lush acoustics and pastoral-psychedelic pomp of the ‘Congratulations’ era. ‘Hand It Over’ in particular is a kind of update on that album’s title track, with its themes of dodgy deals being done and careers being jeopardised in the name of A.R.T. ‘If we lose our touch, it won’t mean much/which door will we open?’ The song’s Rundgren-esque harmonies and reverb drenched atmospherics ensure the album closes with a haunting but optimistic tone. Even if this album fails, they’re saying, the possibilities remain endless.

Mgmt have an important legacy. Ok, their skittish and indulgent style of electro indie may have been responsible for allowing Foster the People and Iglu and Hartley to gain a footing with major labels eager to cash in on the trend, but it’s also difficult to imagine the likes of Passion Pit, Purity Ring, Chairlift and even Animal Collective, getting such a receptive welcome by the mainstream if MGMT hadn’t opened a few doors for them first. And very few of those bands albums stand up as well as ‘Oracular Spectacular’ or ‘Congratulations’, which have both aged remarkably. ‘Little Dark Age’ won’t create the same buzz or have the same influence, but it’s a giddy and life affirming return from a band who many assumed had lost their inner sparkle and ambition.