Circa Waves ‘Different Creatures’ – Review

28 Mar

Circa Waves adhered so closely to the tropes of mid 00s indie rock on their debut that it’s no surprise they trip in to many of the same pitfalls as their heroes this time around. Second album syndrome stunted the careers of bands like The Kooks, The View and Pigeon Detectives to name just three. ‘Different Creatures’ may well do the same to Circa Waves. It’s superficially deeper and darker but has all the real depth of a puddle. They expand their musical interests but don’t cast the net wide enough to find anything truly interesting. In the process they neglect the very things that made them so likeable in the first place – bright hooks, catchy melodies and youthful optimism – qualities that when returned to remind you why Circa Waves once made us so excited.

‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ was a likely blueprint; an album that was successful for Arctic Monkeys by adding new colours to the palette and darkening the shades all ready there. Like the Arctics, you get the impression that Circa Waves have been listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age. Unfortunately they end up sounding like Stereophonics at their least melodic. The riffs on ‘Different Creatures’ are generally beefier than last time around but feel almost claustrophobically stodgy and overwhelming. The mix is packed and the sound is brutally compressed for modern listeners. To my (admittedly novice) ears, It’s actually one of the most poorly mastered albums I’ve heard in a long time.

If you’re willing to work past the aesthetic of the album, you’re left to ponder on the songs – it’s a mixed bag. ‘Wake Up’ is a prickly album opener, where somersaulting drum rolls and a tempo change for the chorus can’t disguise an utter lack of good ideas. It sets the sour mood that trickles down through many of the other songs. ‘Where do you get off’ the singer scolds on ‘Goodbye’. ‘Take, all you do is take’ he moans in an attempt to undo some of the empathy he earned on ‘Young Chasers’. Everything he says seems to be loaded with a deep seated resentment somewhat unbecoming of a man in the flush of young adulthood and on the brink of great success. ‘I’m starting to realise I’m out on my own’ he moans before deciding ‘I’ll fake a crooked smile’. The album is littered with these bitter barbs.

Circa Waves sprint through these moments with so much haphazard energy that it’s rather jolting with they finally have to slow it down. The album’s second side is generally calmer and a whole lot more enjoyable. ‘Crying Shame’ lives up to its title, as it starts so strongly with a gently strummed guitar and nostalgic narrative that recalls the warmer moments on their debut. It only takes 20 seconds though for it to gallop away from this sweet spot at the same breakneck speed as almost every other song on here. It’s still a strong guitar pop song though, and the only one here to elicit any kind of heartfelt emotion. ‘Love’s Run Out’ is nearly there; it’s the only true ballad on ‘Different Creatures’, and reminds me of The Libertines acoustic numbers. It’s sweet and romantic and not at all characteristic of the album as a whole.

‘Old Friends’ is a strangely chill end to such a manic album, but then it’s one song with a more generous, spacious mix. It’s lovely to be able to hear all the different elements – the laid back harmonies, the guitar interplay and a bass that really pops. ‘I want to get drunk with my old friends’ is the lovelorn plea at the heart of the song and it harks back to the central theme of their debut – nostalgia for the mid-00s. ‘Young Chasers’ highlighted sone of the overlooked strengths of the indie rock boom years of 2002-2007. On ‘Different Creatures’ CIrca Waves unwittingly remind everyone of that genre’s downfall, and that it’s not called ‘landfill indie for nothing.

5/10

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The Shins ‘Heartworms’ – Review

22 Mar

Back in 2004, Natalie Portman’s character in the film ‘Garden State’ told us to listen to The Shins ‘New Slang’. “It’ll change your life, I swear.” There was a time when The Shins couldn’t escape their association with that scene and yet very little of the coverage around ‘Heartworms’ has even mentioned it. Perhaps that’s because in 2017 the idea of such a quaint indie rock song changing anyone’s life seems as antiquated as Portman’s massive headphones or Walkman. But this was the world we lived in; a world of dreamers and dreams where indie rock signalled imagination and emotional intelligence. The Shins went on to score the highest charting Sub Pop release of all time with ‘Wincing the Night Away’, signed to a major label and shed most of the unreliable band members, all in the pursuit of indie superstardom. All things considered they became one of the best bands of the 21st century. Again, this ambition seems somewhat unbelievable only ten years on. Indie rock isn’t in the doldrums exactly but those qualities that made people believe a song like ‘New Slang’ could change your life, or send a band to the top of the charts, have been cynically superseded by ironic detachment, hip posturing and a crippling lack of aspiration.

It’s telling then that The Shins first album in five years is a much more modest release than their previous trilogy, and has no illusions of grandeur. The expansive, polished soundscapes of ‘Wincing the Night Away’ are completely discarded. The pristine pop punch of ‘Port of Morrow’ has been dulled somewhat. The album dials back on the far reaching ambition of those records, scaling down to a more manageable level in keeping with their earlier records ‘Oh Inverted World’ and ‘Chutes to Narrow.’ This feels realistic and in its own way somehow more romantic. Valuable lessons have been learnt in the process – they’ve managed to keep the arrangements dizzying, and the production imaginative but the homemade feel certainly works for The Shins in 2017. They’ve spent five years away but ‘Heartworms’ is a remarkably assured and enjoyable comeback.

So you can give a sigh of relief. This is a Shins record that sounds like a Shins record. It’s a legitimate worry these days that bands will change to fit in to the current climate – just listen to the recent Dirty Projectors album to hear how that often pans out. It’s might be damming ‘Heartworms’ with faint praise to say the best songs are the ones that play on traditional Shins strengths, with their usual palate of colours, but it’s true. ‘Dead Alive’ is pitched as a kind of sequal to ‘One by One All Day’, borrowing elements of it’s spooky melody and array of samples and it’s a gloriously catchy standout. ‘Name For You’ brings back the happy harmonies that seemed to get polished under the mix on the last album whilst providing an affirmative message for Mercer’s young daughters. ‘The Fear’ in particular would sit perfectly at home with ‘Chutes Too Narrow’s more lush moments (the song does actually date back ten years). Even after all this time there are few people in the industry who know their way around a pop melody like James Mercer.

The weakest songs are the ones that divert from the tried and tested formula. ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ hint at an admiration for Grimes auteur pop but James Mercer is no young computer wiz kid and his inexperience awkwardly shows. At points on the album, and on these songs especially, the production feels overwhelmingly laboured, presenting Mercer as someone with far too much time, and money, on his hands, playing around with presets and effects to no obvious end. Perhaps this explains why the album took five years to get completed – that’s more than enough time to overthink and overproduce songs that would benefit from a far lighter touch.

It’s a distracting obstacle that these unsuccessful production experiments are front loaded on to the album. Album opener ‘Name For You’ definitely has too many elements competing for our attention. The bloated ‘Painting a Hole’, is track 2. ‘Cherry Hearts’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ are number 3 and 4. None of these are bad songs but they are badly mishandled and it damages their impact. It takes the gentle ‘Mildenhall’ to steer the ship back to familiar waters. That song establishes an autobiographical theme that runs through many of ‘Heartworms’ songs. It depicts Mercer’s childhood in Sulfolk where he sulked on rainy afternoons and listened to Jesus and Mary Chain mix tapes. On the gorgeously wistful title track he skips the story forward a few years, zooming in on an episode of unrequited love that seems to have left its mark on our lovelorn protagonist. He brings the story up to date on ‘So Now What’, a typically catchy synth-pop number, which succinctly describes the struggles of maintaining a happy relationship in the face of middle age and all its burdens. The message here, as throughout, is that some things in life come and go – including its challenges – but other things are consistent. Like love. Like The Shins.

8/10

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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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Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’ – Review

23 Feb

Ryan Adams is one of the few musicians talented, prolific AND mysterious enough to propagate any kind of traditional rock mythology in 2017. He has a lot in common with Dylan, Springstein and Petty but for my money is the natural successor to Neil Young’s crown. Both artists started as frontmen of charged young bands whose potential far exceeded their output and whose influence greatly out matches their contemporary success. Both had promising early solo triumphs with folky, singer-songwriter fare before heading in to the ditch (as Young once memorably put it) by exploring weirder, darker and heavier themes and soundscapes. 20 years in to his career, Neil Young was seemingly on a hiding to nowhere, making divisive genre albums for his own pleasure. This is where the two depart. Adams has spent the past five years presenting a more refined, professional version of himself and his songwriting, reframing our perceptions of his art in the process.

Adams first pitched the material that wound up on ‘Prisoner’ to the public at the tail end of 2015, in an interview with Zane Lowe. He referred to the work as a ‘double album’ that ranked alongside ‘Love is Hell’ as the most devastating music of his career. That was quite an audacious claim, and somewhere along the way he clearly decided to curb that ambition. He gave the tunes some breathing space, asked famed pop producer Don Was to whittle them down, and then redressed them in slightly more colourful outfits. It has ended up being a streamlined and upbeat (watered down?) version of that initial proposition. The record is therefore a rare thing in Ryan Adams discography; an album about heartbreak that doesn’t actually sound all that heartbreaking. Rather than adopt the bruised and aching positioning of ‘Heartbreaker’ (universally regarded as one of the best sad-sack albums ever made), he matches his sadness pound for pound with confidence to create a largely upbeat record. It’s an interesting choice for material that so carefully dissects the end of his marriage. The melodies are bright, the guitars shimmer and the grooves are mixed prominently. It doesn’t sound quite as mopey as you might expect if you’ve only read the press build up for it, which has largely overstated its morbidity.

To full enjoy ‘Prisoner’ it’s best to have some understanding of how it fits in to Adams’ deep and varied discography. We can loosely group his albums in to types, noting that ultimately every one of his records sounds like Ryan Adams, just filtered through a different lens. There’s the alt-country material (‘Jacksonville City Nights’, ‘Strangers Alminac’), the roots rock material (‘Cold Roses’, ‘Cardinology’) the acoustic material (‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Ashes and Fire’) the punk and metal material (‘Rock n Roll’, ‘Orion’), the commercial material (‘Gold’, ‘Easy Tiger’) and 80s influenced arena rock material (‘Ryan Adams’, ‘1989’). ‘Prisoner’ picks up nicely where those latter two albums left off, to form, as critic Steve Hyden put it, a ‘divorce trilogy’. So after the successful self titled record and song for song Taylor Swift covers album, ‘Prisoner’ competes that trilogy of albums that convey clear continuity and consistency for the first time in his career. While a lot is gained from that consistency (it is going to chart in the top 5 in most of the key markets) it inevitably loses some of the things that made the Ryan Adams of the 00’s so thrilling. That unpredictability, that chaos, and that unadulterated sadness. Instead we get some of the most soundly constructed and proficient pop-rock songs you will hear all year. He has transformed in to a master craftsmen of the genre and by all accounts a funny and humble gentlemen – a complete 180 from the bratty-wonder kid who rubbed audiences and critics up the wrong way with his his drug fuelled antics and a seemingly never ending stream of music that was sporadically breathtaking/sporadically dreadful. Whether this is our loss or gain is ultimately up to you.

Ryan Adams is an artist in his third decade and it’s fitting then that the sound of this record mirrors the 80s soft rock that some of his key influences (Dylan, Springsteen, Clapton) were making during their third decade. In some ways ‘Prisoner’ feels like the destination Adams has been searching for since his early days. As far back as ‘Pneumonia’ he has been after that Johnny Marr guitar sound, and sought it most notably on ‘Love Is Hell’. Here though, for the first time really, the sound on record convincingly matches the sound he adores. The guitar tone is exactingly matched to the jingle jangle heard on ‘Meat Is Murder’ but writ large – perhaps demonstrating what The Smiths could have sounded like if they’d used some of that Warner Bros cash to make a blockbuster arena rock record. A less generous reading is that Ryan is slowly morphing in to his near name same, Bryan Adams. The abundance of reverb and a love for the gated drum sound certainly emphasises that point.

If musically ‘Prisoner’ feels like culmination of years of hard work and perseverance, then it does thematically as well. ‘Prisoner’ ups the stakes on past Ryan Adams albums; it’s not just a break up album, it’s a ‘divorce’ album. I guess 20 years in to your career you need some kind of gimmick or selling point, and Adam’s well publicised divorce to actress Mandy Moore has certainly grabbed the headlines and serves as a useful influence. Ryan Adams is to break up music what Brian Eno is to ambient; the question was never if he would address the split on ‘Prisoner’, it was a question of how. As I discussed earlier, he approaches the topic with clarity of thought and an ultimately positive outlook. If it’s true that he wrote the most devastating songs of his career after the split then they don’t appear to have found a home on ‘Prisoner’. Only the weepy ‘Shiver and Shake’ made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, with the tragic line ‘I close my eyes, I see you with some guy, laughing like you never even knew I was alive.’ Generally though the tone is even handed and fair.

Where once he might have given everything away (‘Heartbreaker reads like an intimate diary where locations, characters and specific details are named and dissected), these days Adams’ has learned to leave a little bit for himself. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the older he gets, the more he seems to rely on cliched imagery. The bespoke narratives and observations that once marked him as a rare lyricist of serious poetic intellect have largely disappeared in the rear view mirror. You get a sense of what I mean from the song titles: ‘Prisoner’, ‘Doomsday’, ‘Breakdown’, ‘Tightrope’ – it wins no prizes for originality. As a consequence some of the personal agony that marked his early classics like ‘Come Pick Me Up’, ‘Avenues’ and ‘La Sienega Just Smiled’ gets reduced. We can see so much of ourselves, and everyone else, in these lyrics that we loose sight of Ryan Adams. At times we could be listening to any Nashville hack with a guitar – if it weren’t for his sublime voice and first class melodies.

But this is my reaction many, many listens down the line. Listen instantly to the pulsating riff-age of ‘Do You Still Love Me’, the harmonica’s wail on ‘Doomsday’ or the moment his voice cracks on ‘Tightrope’ and comparisons to past work become invalid. This is top to bottom engrossing stuff. On ‘We Disappear’, the downbeat, atmospheric album closer, there is a line about the heart that could sum up Adams’ approach to songwriting. ‘Didn’t fit in my chest so I wore it on my sleeve.’ In many ways ‘Prisoner’ is more reserved than we’ve come to expect but it’s still a remarkably emotive and powerful collection of songs about a very real and all too common occurrence – the end of a marriage. Honestly, If classic love-lorn guitar pop is your thing then you’re unlikely to hear anything better this year than ‘Prisoner’. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.

8/10

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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

Foxygen ‘Hang’ – Review

15 Feb

Foxygen’s debut album may have been called ‘Take the Kids off Broadway’, but it’s only now, four albums in, that the band have truly indulged their theatrical inclinations. ‘Hang’ is a sprightly eight song, thematically linked, collection that incorporates honkey tonk piano, an opulent 40 piece orchestra, tap dancing, rag time jives and sleigh bells. You suspect that Foxygen had something like ‘The Soft Bulliten’ in mind when they conceived the project but the truth is it’s far too slight and lightweight to live up to that challenge. It wears it’s 1970s influences so obviously on its sleeve that it has no chance of transcending pastiche – albeit an entertaining one.

Of course Foxygen have always skirted close to this edge. ‘We Are The 21st Century Ambasaders of Peace and Magic’ mined Dylan and Beatles records pretty mercilessly, but did so with wit, humour and hooks galore. This time around the band seem more interested in Todd Rundgren and ‘Hunkey Dory’ era Bowie, not to mention obscure Broadway soundtracks. It’s this latter influence that will dictate your response to this album; I can see it being loved and loathed in equal measure. There is an uncanny quality to Foxygen’s music that is occasionally creepy. Perhaps it’s just personal taste but the vaudeville sound and vocals on ‘Avalon’ are actually quite repellent – so accurately mimicking the sound of early Broadway whilst never attempting to match the key ingredient – sincerity. This is something of a fatal flaw.

He may not wear his heart on his sleeve but lead singer Jonathan Rado Is a great producer (as he demonstrated with his work on last year’s excellent sounding ‘Light Upon The Lake’ by Whitney). ‘Hang’ sounds flawless. You have to conclude that it probably sounds exactly how the band intended – and you can’t really fault them for that. The grandiose string arrangements don’t sound this overblown and ridiculous by accident. At only eight songs long it never really has the opportunity to outstay its welcome and it’s enjoyable more often than not. There are even moment where Foxygen excel in their new setting and remind you of how great they were on tracks like ‘No Destruction’ and ‘San Fransisco’. They never really unlocked that potential but on ‘Follow the Leader’ and ‘America’, if not elsewhere, they make you think that they still might, some day.

6.5/10

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