The Magic Gang ‘The Magic Gang’- Review

7 Apr

It may be rife in other areas of society and culture, but when it comes to excitable new guitar bands, the days of hyperbole are over. NME, the chief mischief maker, recently closed doors on its publication, and Magic Gang were one of the last bands to benefit from its notoriously enthusiastic hype machine. It’s easy to see why the NME got excited – Magic Gang conform to a classic idea of what a great band should sound and look like. They have a consistent nerdy aesthetic – tucked in, button up shirts, Buddy Holly specks, boat shoes – that makes you wonder if they’re ironic hipsters or sincere goofs. They carry that ambiguity through to their music as well, where the influences are so obvious, Yet so coolly referenced, that it’s charming instead of cloying. At any moment they are an amalgamation of all you favourite groups – a little bit Weezer, a little bit Arctic Monkeys. A little bit Beach Boys, a little bit Beatles. Nothing here is surprising or unexpected. Every guitar solo, harmony, melody and lyric has some kind of precedent – some of them so obvious it takes the fun out of it.

But mostly ‘The Magic Gang’ is fun. Really fun. And anyway, to some extent their predictability might be the point. The Magic Gang present a brief history of rock n roll in one easily digestible package, aimed squarely at a young audience who aren’t as familiar with Velvet Underground deep cuts as you. They carry themselves with an air of excitement and enthusiasm that is infectious. At their live shows they’ve become renowned – not for wild stage antics – but for smiling. And it would be difficult to hear their music on a sunny, carefree summer afternoon and not smile. The album’s central stretch, in particular, sparkles and shimmers, with sticky sweet melodies, twanging guitar riffs and lyrics that require no hard work. ‘Caroline’, ‘Jasmine’, ‘Take Care’, ‘Slippin’ – songs built around the bluntest emotions and layered very minimal and precisely. ‘Caroline, you’ll be fine’ the singer croons as if that positive reassurance can fix all the world’s problems. The other tracks follow in a similar style; only ‘Take Care’ substantially diverts from the formula to allow for some soulful harmonies, a fuzzy guitar effect and bass player Gus on lead vocals. Piano ballad ‘I’ll Show You’ – which sounds a lot like The Feeling – also offers something marginally more subtle.

It may not be particularly expansive or ambitious but Magic Gang demonstrate a certain intuition for classic pop songwriting, while managing to avoid many of the obvious pitfalls that young bands fall in to. The album is structured and crafted immaculately, with knowing hooks and anthemic choruses galore and not a single piece of deadwood among the twelve decidedly moorish tunes. Yet you sometimes wish that Magic Gang used a bit more of their imagination here and there, especially when they showed a wider range on their run of e.ps.

Four of the e.p songs have been repurposed for inclusion here -largely sounding similar but sharper, faster and substantially more assured. On the downside, the choice of songs poached from those earlier records does feel a little obvious. The guitar heavy anthems have all been selected at the expense of more interesting moments – the reggae lilt of ‘She Doesn’t See’, the chamber pop of ‘Life Without You’ or the hard wired indie of ‘Hotel Apathy’ for example. Instead ‘All This Way’, ‘Jasmine’, ‘How Can I Compete’ and ‘Alright’ press similarly big, d.u.m.b buttons. What this album is crying out for is something more restrained, delicate or left of centre. That might elevate it from a great debut to a classic one.

They name songs after girls like ‘Suki’ and ‘Jasmine’ and ‘Caroline’. They rhyme blue with you and true. The most used chords here are A, G and C. For better or worse The Magic Gang know what they like and they return to it time and time again; and understandably, you need to have a certain tolerance for this type of thing. But ‘The Magic Gang’ is one of the more confident and exciting debuts in this mound that I can remember for a long time. You can guarantee that ten years ago NME would have slapped them on the cover with some kind of exaggerated declaration about them being the future of rock n roll. And yes it would be ridiculous, but a small part of you would have to agree or at least hope that it might really be true.

8/10

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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.

7/10

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.

8.5/10

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.

7/10

 

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.

8.5/10

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Car Seat Headrest ‘Twin Fantasy’ – Review

11 Mar

‘Twin Fantasy’ is Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest’s ode to longing and remembering: it encapsulates the reality of young, unrequited love and the fantasy of breathing life to those memories. This is Car Seat Headrest’s eleventh release (third proper studio album put out by Matador) and its a full band remake of his/their sixth record, first put out in 2011 through bandcamp. Still following? Both versions are presented here on a double disc set, which asks you to draw wobbly lines between the past and present. Toledo writes about his first real love, an older man who didn’t fully return his feelings. Here recreated and reanimated from the safe vantage point of time, Toledo makes a temple out of both that initial mystery man, and also the teenage boy who fell for him. It’s a temple at which he devoutly worships. ‘Twin Fantasy’ is both about, and embodies, the teenage attributes of precociousness, forthrightness, personal inadequacy, spontaneity, desperate want and a crushing inability to see past the end of your own nose. But there is now an added sense of retrospective perspective that gives a compelling layer of intrigue.

It’s the embodiment of these traits that makes ‘Twin Fantasy’ so tantalising and, at times, frustrating. Songs (apparently inspired by the narrative ambition of Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ and Pink Floyd’s expansive opus ‘Dark Side of the Moon’) think nothing of stretching out in to multi-part, mood flipping, tempo switching epics – often to the detriment of logic, melody and the listener’s tolerance. The 12 minute Beach Life in Death is glorious for most of its running time but collapses in to repetition and noise in its final couple of minutes (he does amazingly well to keep you hooked for even ten minutes, let’s be fair). The sixteen minute ‘Famous Prophets’ becomes tedious sooner, probably about 2/3rds of the way through, which reduces some of its impact. ‘High to Death’ and ‘Bodys’ also become indulgent rambles – too neurotic to be called jams and too thoughtful to be freak outs, these extended instrumentals occupy a tiresome space. All of these above are better in their slightly shorter, and certainly more intense, original incarnations. But this all serves a larger purpose and may even add to the appeal; after all this is an album about being a teenager, it would be a sham if everything was smooth, tolerable and refined. Also, Toledo wants ‘Twin Fantasy’ to be so much more than indie music, he’s said as much. He sees ‘Teen Fantasy’ taking up a similar position to Frank Ocean’s Blonde or Kanye’s ‘Life as Pablo’. And that means being indulgent, erratic and ambitious to a fault. Very few artists generally, let alone in the codified jungle of rock music, are making music as daring as as this. If he goes too far from time to time it’s only as a result of pushing at the boundaries.

Above all else, Toledo’s personality makes this a unique album (I genuinely can’t think of another young artist with a similar perspective and style). It seeps in to an album that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. The brilliantly paranoid ‘Beach Life in Death’ finds the narrator driving from mundane place to mundane place, trying to forget someone, but seeing reminders of his plight in every symbolic stop sign, train, rain cloud and sharp left turn in the road. The song becomes a personal list of flaws and anxieties that culminates with ‘I don’t want to go insane, I don’t want to have schizophrenia!’ A line which is indicative of Toledo’s dark humour. The hook to ‘Sober to Death’, the album’s catchiest number, goes ‘you can call me when punching mattresses gets old’. These bleakly comic asides punctuate a narrative that could have easily turned in to one long, narcissistic diary entry if left to a less incisive writer.

The songs are layered with symbols and motifs, many of which hark back to past lyrics, song titles and artworks. It’s like Car Seat Headrest have created their own universe, which can perhaps explain why they’ve collected a rabid (and by all accounts somewhat unsavoury) online following, who love to draw lines and make connections. A couple of tracks feature spoken word interludes, samples of conversations, and in one case a recording of an artist talking about his portfolio (prints of that particular artist’s paintings are featured in he booklet). These interludes are interesting, and integral to the album’s structure but become a bit boring after a while. The album hits hardest when it punches more directly. ‘Body’s’ acknowledges as much when Toledo sings ‘That’s not what I meant to say at all, I mean, I’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you’. The immediacy of that song recalls ‘Teens of Denial’, this album’s more straight-lined and satisfying (but perhaps less significant) predecessor.

Things draw to a close on ‘High to Death’ and the epic ‘Famous Prophets’ where the protagonist gets drunk to forget, contemplates death and watches bruises on his shins (caused in an act of spontaneous passion) fade along with his lover’s interest. ‘These teenage hands will never touch yours again’. He wonders if this is a temporary set back or the start ‘of the great silence. Is this the start of every day?’ It sounds very sentimental when worded like this but the album never really strikes a particularly emotive tone; the closest Toledo really comes to romantic outpouring is when he sings ‘you know I love your art’. Toledo is too self aware and knowing to let his truest, most inner feelings have unrestricted voice. That could be perceived as a slight but it’s this same self-awareness and restraint that makes Car Seat Headrest stand out from the crowd of young, emo songwriters. It’s the final song ‘Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)’ written in distant third person, which strikes the most touching note. Toledo eulogises the couple whilst enthusing that, thanks to the music, they have found a place where they will be remembered. From reality, to the realm of fantasy – this is the fate of most adolescent relationships. On ‘Twin Fantasy’ Toledo takes ownership of this fact and finds a safe distance, and vantage point, at which to romanticise and remember his young, doomed love. ‘When I come back you’ll still be here.’ Twin Fantasy is a eulogy we can all return to.

9/10

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Franz Ferdinand ‘Always Ascending’ – Review

25 Feb

15 years ago(!) four sharply dressed men with sharper cheek bones and even sharper hooks graced the cover of NME with the headline ‘We want to make music that girls can dance to’. That might seem like a quant proclamation in our current climate but back in 2004 it seemed vitally and necessarily unpretentious. It followed a string of heady declarations from groups wanting to be ‘your new favourite band’ (The Hives), ‘the biggest band in the world’ (Coldplay) or ‘change your life forever!’ (The Strokes). Actually, a similar headline to the latter also graced another, later cover of NME also featuring Franz Ferdinand, by which point such a statement felt less like hyperbole and more like a statement of fact. Franz Ferdinand delivered on all their promises. Their debut was a dance record made with guitars that became one of the biggest selling albums of 2004. As well as the floor beats, slinky bass lines and deep grooves, the album lingered for its abundance of witticisms and the memorable choruses to songs like ‘Matinee’, ‘Michael’ and most famously ‘Take Me Out’ – possibly three of the most literary songs to reach the top ten of the singles chart.

Franz followed that album up quickly with the emphatic ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’, a record that inflated the hooks, ramped up the tempos (whilst occasionally pausing to catch breath with some folky ballads) and straightened out the rhythms a little. ‘Tonight’, which followed a couple of years later, reinstated the dance beats and added more synthetic instrumentation. Both of these albums expanded the Franz Ferdinand sound whilst keeping a recognisable aesthetic. The gap between ‘Tonight’ and eventual follow up ‘Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action’ was a long one. Too long. The momentum felt broken, interest waned and although that record contained a handful of fan favourites, the band were clearly revisiting the original formula with diminishing returns. Compared to the ambitious trajectory that 90s indie bands such as Blur, Manic Street Preachers and Suede took it couldn’t help but feel like Franz Ferdinand had peaked too soon and were happy to fade as a popular and respected cult band. ‘Right Thoughts…’ was a good album but it was a safe one – and they sold it as such.

New album ‘Always Ascending’ on the other hand, is a safe album masquerading as something new. It’s been five years since ‘Right Thoughts…’ (a couple of years ago they also put out a disappointing collaboration with Sparks as FFS) and in that time they lost founding member and lead guitarist Nick, and recruited two new members with an electronic music background. Over ten songs on ‘Always Ascending’, Franz play around with pedals, dusty synths, drum machines and time signatures to disorientate the listener in to a state of unfamiliarity. But once you get your bearings you realise that though the wallpaper may be different, the structure is exactly the same. For all it’s pretensions as an ambitious, inventive new direction, ‘Always Ascending’ actually feels disappointingly like what we’ve heard before – only far less energised and engaging. Less sparkly. Less fun. It is what it is; the sound of a middle aged band writing middle aged songs.

Befitting a middle aged band, Always Ascending’ is relentlessly capable; it knows what it likes and it gets it done. It may be dour, dreary and world weary (as many of us perhaps feel at such an age) but there is a level of proficiency in these licks and grooves that not many bands would be capable of. Once you get used to the somber mood, and it does take a few listens, some songs even become quite enjoyable. ‘Let the Love Go’ is the biggest dance number on here and whilst it’s no ‘Do You Want to’ you can imagine it going over quite well in an indie disco. ‘Paper Cages’ and ‘Huck and Jim’ sounds more rough and ragged than the dance lite numbers either side of them in the tracklisting, and they benefit as a result. More of this energy, wide eyed wonder and righteous anger would have been welcome elsewhere on the album, where the tone is generally apathetic.

More often than not, ‘Always Ascending’ says nothing. How much have the stakes been lowered? The hook on comeback single ‘Always Ascending’ goes ‘wake me up, come on wake me up.’ If the message wasn’t clear enough, second single ‘Lazy Boy’ opens with ‘I’m a lazy boy, I’m a lazy boy, never getting up in time’. Franz Ferdinand use to write poetry rich in allusion and metaphor, now they simply can’t be bothered. When they try, as on ‘The Academy Award’ , their allusions are cliched and metaphors thin (‘the academy award for good times goes to you!’). Perhaps the most telling moment comes on ‘Lois Lane’: ‘It’s bleak, it’s bleak, it’s bleak’ Alex barks. The album is indeed bleak. A downcast mod, set in minor key, prevails from start to finish with extraordinarily little of the pop instinct that made the band a feature of the top 10 back in the mid 00s.

Franz Ferdinand recently appeared on late night TV to perform the title track, an electronically charged dance number that builds and builds but ultimately doesn’t explode. Both Alex and Paul grew their hair out long in unflattering styles, Alex going so far as to dye it a kind of grey blond. He was wearing a loose bowling shirt that wasn’t tucked in, and had all the joy in his expression of someone having their teeth pulled. This is in stark contrast to their breakthrough appearance on Jools Holland back in 2003, where, dressed in near matching skinny suits and brightly coloured ties, they danced and grinned their way through ‘Take Me Out’, every bit the gang. That song was masterly constructed and artfully knowing. It might be unkind to compare ‘Always Ascending’ to something as inspired as ‘Take Me Out’ but the band invite such comparisons by the artificial similarities built in to the new song – the patient build, the Niles Rodgers riffing, the call and response chant. Similar but far, far less accomplished.

There is an equally uncanny quality to much of ‘Always Ascending’, as it’s so superficially similar to what has come before, yet on close inspection so peculiarly off point. Take for example the front cover; it’s black – Same as all their other albums – with the album’s title centred in a colourful font – again, very similar to their other albums. Yet look a little closer and you will see that the Domino logo isn’t in the bottom corner, as it’s always been in the past. The title’s futurist font also clashes with the band’s older, modernist European sensibilities. Put it on a shelf with their other records and you may not notice but it’s one of the many the slight missteps that make this such a clumsy, unsuccessful record. You have to still believe in Franz Ferdinand; they have done so much for guitar music, and there are hints of their old magic here. But generally, ‘Always’ Ascending is a depressingly deflated release from a band who once told us ‘you can have it so much better’.

5.5/10

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Justin Timberlake ‘Man of the Woods’ – Review

9 Feb

The knives are out for Justin Timberlake, and have been for a while. 2015’s inescapable ‘Can’t stop the feeling ‘ was generally treated with scorn by mean spirited critics, despite being statistically the year’s most popular song. And even before a note of ‘Man of the Woods’ was heard, The Outline published a scathing takedown of the album’s concept, based largely on the presumption that Timberlake was ditching Hip Hop and r&b sounds in favour of more traditionally white ones. Such a simplification, and misreading, of the artistic thought process patronises Timberlake, his collaborators and his achievements. Yet such criticism makes headlines and appeals all too easily to a right on readership ready to shoot down easy targets. It’s not Timberlake’s fault that in the years following the mostly well received ’20/20 Experience’ he’s walked in to a world where concepts like white privilege, ‘me too’ and cultural appropriation can straight jacket someone of his standing before he even opens his mouth to sing. To many, Timberlake’s sin is merely existing and thriving.

But Timberlake isn’t interested in joining in a political conversation. ‘Man of the Woods’ is an insular, personal record about family and nature and contentment that shuns politics and the wider world in general. And as much as I’d like to offer this review as a defence of his right to make exactly the kind of art he feels justified (excuse the pun) in making, I’m afraid this is where I have to change tact. You see i actually agree that ‘Man of the Woods’ is a pretty bad album – just not for the presumptuous reasons outlined above.

Of course ‘Man of the Woods’ is as polished as you’d expect from anything involving Pharel Williams and Timbaland but it sounds more amateurish than any project they’ve been involved in before. Who knows the factors at play behind that – perhaps, and this may be a patronising ‘perhaps’ – they ceded more responsibility to Timberlake himself. Or perhaps after years at the forefront of innovation, they have simply lost the magic touch. It happens to the best of us. Regardless, the consensus is in and very few people are happy. Aside from the divisive themes and cliched production choices, it disappoints for more traditional reasons: Melodies that strain rather than glide. Lyrics that scan as pretentious rather than empathetic. Hooks that don’t hook. Busy arrangements that do all the heavy lifting. Songs that feel, and often sound, disjointed and badly fused. Songs have been missing the mark for these reasons since the beginning of time.

‘MOTW’ is thematically cohesive but backtracks on the daring ambition of ‘The 20/20 Experience’, arguably the most inventive pop record of the last decade. The 20 songs on that mammoth album stretched out to encompass many moods, tempos and styles with extended running times that allowed for both playful frolicking and serious reflection. He still tries to cram all that in to ‘Man of the Woods’ but everything feels shrunken in comparison. ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, easily the grooviest song on her, feels restricted just as it’s getting in to the swing of things. Likewise, mid album momentum is crippled by a handful of snoozy half-ballads. Ironically, it is a case of too much and not enough.

Sometimes in pop music, the sharpest hooks can dig out the biggest holes. That’s what happened on Timberlake’s ‘Justified’ where the insane brilliance of the four singles showed up the album tracks in comparison (a lesson he learnt on the hook extravaganzas ‘Future Sex/Love Sound’ and ’20/20 experience’ where there was very little driftwood). ‘Man of the Woods’ in comparison is full of holes, but these ones weren’t carved out by hooks. In fact the album is oddly short of them. First single ‘Filthy’ was forgettable, and best understood as an experimental palette cleanser. But then came ‘Supplies’, the most embarrassingly inept major pop single I can remember this side of the last Katy Perry album. The song’s cringeworthy extended metaphor highlights all of Timberlake’s most notorious shortcomings as a lyricist, and unlike, say, ‘Sexy Back’ or ‘Pusher Love Girl’, he doesn’t use humour or cheekiness to get away with it. The album’s lyrics are often trite, banal, silly, corny and even creepy. His pretentious performances determine the listener’s response, and these lyrics are treated too seriously by Timberlake to be dismissed as careless pop cheese.

You certainly can’t accuse him of burying the lede. Song titles are as ‘duh’ obvious as ‘Flannel Shirt’, ‘Montana’, ‘Livin off the Land’, ‘Breeze on the Pond’ ‘Man of the Woods’ etc but sadly this isn’t a particularly rootsy or raw album. Highlights from past records indicate that Timberlake could benefit from a more natural, instinctual approach; but with one or two exceptions the songs on ‘MOTW’ feel stilted by over-production. Stacked harmonies, glitchy effects, convulsing beats, layered synth-lines – they’ve always been a part of Timberlake’s sound but here they feel like the safe retreat of a heavy hand. The simple, soulful approach of ‘Higher, Higher’, the country tinged ‘Say Something’ and the funky ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ suggest a more natural, less manipulated sound would work well for the more mature pop star.

And despite all its flaws, there is the strong sense that there is a fine album in here desperate to be released. His concept, as badly realised as it is, isn’t necessarily a bad one. A through line between country, funk and r&b certainly exists, with an under appreciated history, and Timberlake has the talent to draw eyes and ears to it. But ‘country with 808s’, as he described it, is too reductive a rendering of that genre melding concept. In the end, despite intentions, ‘MOTW’ is sonically indistinguishable from what he’s put out before. And that’s the disappointment. He’s coasting. Making bold statements and claims but without doing the hard work to back them up. He lacks the style, subtlety and sophistication of his old guise but the back to nature aesthetic is equally unconvincing. The end result is a disappointing mess.

4/10

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The Shins ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – Review

6 Feb

‘The Worms Heart’ finds The Shins reimagining, reworking and re-releasing last year’s brilliantly life affirming ‘Heartworms’. You don’t need any excuse to listen to that great album again but ‘The Worm’s Heart’ gives you one anyway. It’s being presented as a sort of stripping back, and for all it’s inspired melodies and typically beguiling lyrics, ‘Heartworms’ did feel a little busy and overly complicated at points, as if James Mercer had spent too long at the stove faffing about with seasoning when the basic ingredients were tasty enough to begin with. It’s a point he conceded in a recent interview where he said ‘Me, sitting there tinkering forever and getting too deep into the details of things — I think that ended up with having some of the Heartworms mixes being overwrought. ‘The Heart’s Worm’ then, in theory, works as an antidote, and its highlights succeed for exactly that reason.

‘Cherry Hearts’, the most spazzy and distracting moment on ‘Heartworms’ is here more simply rendered as a straightforward power pop song. The melody, always engaging, now has the space to truly stretch its legs. ‘Fantasy Island’ works for similar reasons. The 80s influenced song has been stripped of its shoulder pads, double denim and wayfarers and given a more laid back indie pop make over.

But as on ‘Heartworms’, Mercer wasn’t able to suppress his overactive imagination or controlling tendencies for long – despite the best of intentions ‘The Worms Heart’ is actually considerably more dizzying and ‘overwrought’ than the original album. It skits uncomfortably from genre to genre, tempo to tempo, mood to mood, so that the effect is akin to being on the most unpredictable rollercoaster in existence (a simile that makes the album sound considerably more exciting than it actually is).

The original album’s track listing has been flipped so that it now opens with a slouchy version of ‘The Fear’, a gorgeous meditation on an ageing relationship that still feels like a closing statement rather than an opening gambit. ‘Name For You’, therefore becomes the big finale, and likewise it doesn’t really suit its new fixture, nor does the funeral march tempo enhance the song’s naturally bouncy melody or sprightly lyrics. ‘Painting a Hole’, already the weakest song on ‘Heartworms’ from a songwriting stand point doesn’t benefit from a bare bones stripping of the psychedelic sound effects and original, effervescent arrangement. These new versions are so misguided it makes you wonder how a songwriter as gifted as James Mercer could have so little understanding of how best to render his own material. Before ‘Heartworms’ the only time he’d self-produced was on the band’s debut, a muddy sounding collection of endearing but hardly demanding indie rock songs. That record was recorded quickly out of necessity whereas Mercer sat in his home studio recording ‘Heartworms’ and ‘The Worm’s Heart’ for literally years. The difference will be obvious to even the most casual listener.

But all things said, those songs were some of the most engaging indie rock tracks of the past twelve months, and even dressed in odd new clothes that still remains true. All in all ‘The Worm’s Heart’ may be a misguided album, but it’s an enjoyable on . At times in fact, it’s an absolute blast. ‘Heartworms’ slinky disco makeover is elastic and ridiculously catchy (but then the song was already pretty fab in the first place). The reggae-lite lilt of ‘Half a Million’ and the garage rock stomp of ‘Mildenhall’ offer fresh flavours even if they don’t best their original incarnations. ‘Dead Alive’ now has a haunting arrangement to support its eerie lyrics though its melody is stretched and slowed like a record being played at the wrong speed.

This kind of track by track breakdown and comparison is kind of pedantic and nerdy, which perhaps tells you all that you need to know about ‘The Worm’s Heart’ – it’s an exercise in production targeted mainly at The Shins hardcore fans. The kind of people who have spun ‘Heartworms’ to death and are interested in something new to dig their teeth in to. I’m here for that – just not massively impressed with most of the new versions. Which makes me wonder what an unencumbered listener would make of it, in the unusual circumstance that they would hear it before ‘Heartworms’. I can’t see anyone picking this up over the original, and nor should they, but if they did what would they make of it? My main question though, is what could James Mercer have achieved if he’d spent the past twelve months writing new songs instead of pouring over old ones?

6/10

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