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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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Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’ – Review

20 Nov

Taylor Swift has always stuck it to the haters. As early as ‘Picture to Burn’ she was calling out a scornful ex (‘if you come around saying sorry to me, my daddy’s going to show you how sorry you’ll be’ is my favourite of many delicious threats and put downs). On ‘Mean’ she was digging at high school bullies, on ‘Fifteen’ she trained her sights on the first boy to break her heart, and ‘Bad Blood’ took pointed aim at Katy Perry. Now ‘Reputation’, her sixth(!) studio album, is a full length album manifesto on the subject. The album tries hard to be a serious, thematically unified ‘statement’ album but it lacks the particular nuances needed to succeed on those terms. Nonetheless, it’s the most ambitious, divisive, eclectic, inventive, daring album Taylor Swift has ever made. Compared to the accessible pop of ‘1989’, an album most people could agree on, ‘Reputation’ feels like a risk.

But perhaps, a calculated risk. She tries very hard (and no doubt spent a lot of money) on trying to sound like her less interesting rivals in the pop charts. If ‘1989’ was a pop album in Taylor Swift’s own image – cute, quirky, retro, rated PG – then ‘Reputation’ is a pop album in the image of Ariana Grande, Rihanna and, dare I say it, Katy Perry. It’s dark, seductive, edgy and expensive sounding. In its sleek modernity, and futuristic soundscapes it occasionally sounds xeroxed and, ironically, a couple of years out of date. In 2014 she sounded innovative – to such an extent that a wave of imitators followed in her wake – now she is at the back of the queue, hoping there is somethings still worth queuing for.

Despite this, Taylor still writes the sharpest melodies and smartest lyrics in the game. And in its best moments ‘Reputation’ is weirder and more captivating than anything she has ever produced before. On ‘I Did Something Bad’ she inhabits the role of Femme Fetale, telling us that she plays narcissists ‘like a violin’. Here attack becomes the best form of defence – this is an embrace of bad behaviour as a means of survival. The song has a cutting production that revolves around a chewed up and spat out voice memo that recreates a sound Taylor heard in a nightmare. It sounds dynamic and vital. ‘Don’t Blame Me’ is bluesy, discomforting and unguarded. Like ‘Clean’ from 1989, it centres around a somewhat tired drug analogy but where ‘Clean’ compared heartbreak to addiction recovery, here Taylor seems to be enjoying the sense of dislocation and dizziness that comes from a high. As in ‘I Did Something Bad’, she’s breaking hearts and taking names – ‘Just playthings for me to use’, as she coldly puts it. This is a new way for the listener to think about someone who until now has cultivated a sweet, girl next door image.

After a first listen, ‘Reputation’ felt like a crushing and claustrophobic album to endure. There is very little of the brightness and wide eyed optimism that used to be so prevalent. But while it’s true that a hardened exterior makes emotional connection more difficult, the older Taylor isn’t dead (no matter what she says on ‘Look What You Made Me Do’) she’s just less easy to find. ‘Gorgeous’ is a very familiar love narrative. Taylor (single) meets a handsome guy (taken) in a dark club, falls in love instantly. There are some classic Swiftian metaphors at play (‘Ocean blue eyes looking in mine / I feel i am sink and drown and die’). ‘King of My Heart’ is ridiculously stately and classy for what is essentially a pretty cutting edge dance pop song. Following on from ‘Gorgeous’, and the brilliantly old school ‘Getaway Car’, we remain in classic Taylor Swift territory of Kingdoms, Kings, fast cars, Queens, lips, daydreams and a school girl crush. It’s pleasingly recognisable but sonically sounds brand new.

Not all the songs are as warm though. The album’s opening smattering of songs convey a previously unexplored, and not particularly flattering, mean spirited attitude. it’s there in the tight pop of the trap hi hats, the chilly deflections in the lyrics, and the acidic put downs that prick out from the melodies. Taylor seems hellbent on keeping listeners at arms length (which is to serve the album’s narrative; initially reserved, bruised and with her reputation in taters, Taylor puts up walls around her. Then she slowly falls in love and learns to accept people back in to her life). ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and ‘Ready for it’ may just be the most distasteful one-two gut punch in the history of album roll outs. The nicest thing that can be said about ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is that it was a brave choice of lead single. It’s awful, I think most people agree, but it’s awful in a conversation starting way. Anyway, it’s kind of hidden away in the middle of the album, and in this context feels like a lightweight, almost comical interlude. There is no hiding from the blaring ‘Ready For It’ though, which opens the album. The song contains a terrible Nicki Minaj impression and awful post-Yezus production from the usually reliable Max Martin, which unfortunately steamrolls over Taylor’s clever lyrical conceits. Track two isn’t a whole lot better. ‘End Game’ features Future and Ed Sheeran battling it out for the lamest guest verse in the already overcrowded playing field of 2017.

Luckily the album gets better the deeper you get in to it. ‘Delicate’ is a trippy little ballad that sounds like a demented Imogen Heep song. ‘Dress’ is a pretty steamy Rihanna homage that seems to have divided opinion. I’m not a big fan myself, but the dress motif is an iconic one in Country music as a whole and Taylor Swift’s songwriting particularly. Here it’s removal is a symbol of emancipation from expectation, politeness and restraint and so you sense its importance in the Taylor Swift story. ‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ is a pretty unimaginative club song until the bridge kicks in when the song becomes the soundtrack for an imagined, nostalgic slow dance: ‘I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.’ This is heady stuff.

I was tempted at first blush to hear ‘Reputation’ as Taylor’s very own ‘History’, Michael Jackson’s mammoth and initially misunderstood masterpiece that followed several years on from Jackson’s own ‘1989’ (the fluorescent pop classic ‘Bad’, of course). ‘History’ was at times unnervingly, unflinchingly personal. Jackson openly confronted his detractors, unafraid to literally name names and expose his anger. While that resulted in classics like ‘Scream’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us, occasionally that anger frothed in to a rather ugly and misguided petulance, as on the track ‘D.S’, which fired shots at the judge who attempted to prosecute Jackson in the early 90s. The parallel with ‘Reputation’ is clear. Sometimes Taylor’s mean face reveals nothing more than a childish snarl. ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Thing’ is syrupy and petty, giving ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ a run for its money as the most cringe worthy song on the album. Swift describes a Gatsby-esque decadence and extravagance in the first verse before asking an unnamed antagonist ‘why’d you have to rain on my parade.’ In the chorus she breaks the fourth wall when she giggles ‘forgiveness is a nice thing to do…haha I can’t even say that with a straight face.’ Yikes…

Ironically ‘Reputation’ is not at all dissimilar to Kanye’s ‘Life of Pablo’ – both are overreaching, ambitious, eclectic collections of gems and coals that play to both the artists greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Like ‘Pabo’, ‘Reputation’ doesn’t just settle for mildly bad – in its worst moments it’s downright ugly. But even in said moments, it is a fascinating examination of human folly and ego from one of the most famous stars on the planet. It’s therefore captivating in ways that few other artists are capable of. You can summarise both albums as near masterpieces soured by an intrinsic, unjustified resentment and bitterness.

All that said, the anger that blights’ some of the early songs, and the self pity that wrinkles much of the middle, has dissolved by the time we reach the album’s beautiful final couplet of ‘Call It What You Want’ and ‘New Year’s Day’. Love, optimism, wins out. ‘New Year’s day’ is the most sparse and interesting song on here. The imagery is precise and evocative – glitter and candle wax on the hardwood floor – a sense of something special being tainted as a result of last night’s celebrations. Really though, this is a love song to the man who stays to help clean up the wine bottles the morning after. And that’s the revelation of this song. Taylor has always used the traditional fairy tale structure as a plot device – ‘Love Story’, ‘Enchanted’, ‘The Story of Us’ – but here she puts fantasy in the past, as she embraces the realism of true, hard fought love. A love that sticks around. ‘Don’t read the last page’ she pleads; the sincere hope that this is the start of something real, not the end of yet another make believe romance. And it’s this real, relatable hope that trumps all the self pity and resentment.

8/10

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Alvvays ‘Antisocialites’ – Review

22 Oct

Antisocialites’, the new album from Canadian indie rock band Alvvays, is exactly the kind of second album it’s difficult to get right: one that continues down the debut’s main road but finds interesting little diversions, without ever venturing too far off the beaten track. History is littered with failed sophomore records that have either been too similar to the debut, not similar enough, too rushed, too laboured over etc. The balance is so tricky to get right, especially when you have a lifetime to write the first album and a year to write the sequel. But on ‘Antisocialites’ Alvvays have achieved success in style.

The band’s self titled debut was a heady, intoxicating summer mix of folky melodies and crunchy riffs with indie pop sensibilities scattered throughout. It positioned Alvvays as an old school c86 type band come to life in the age of Spotify and Instagram. They sang melodramatically about living life to the emotional limit, burning out and blowing up. Their vintage aesthetic and melodramatic outlook are just as prominent on ‘Antisocialities’ but everything feels less amateurish and more accomplished. It lacks a water cooler classic like ‘Archie Marry Me’ but from start to finish this is a more consistently interesting record.

Rankin comes from a traditional folk background (as the daughter of the acclaimed songwriter John Rankin) and tellingly she is brilliant at shaping melodies that feel uncannily familiar, yet somehow fresh at the same time. The tunes are sticky sweet and She has has grown in to a confident singer, willing to hit high notes and bend melodies to her will. If you find cuteness cloying then a few of these songs may grate, but there’s an acidic element to her lyricism that undercuts the sweetness. Take for example a line from highlight ‘Plimsol Punks’; ‘When I chip through your candy coating you’re stuffed with insulation/Just strawberry ice cream floating with a hint of indignation’. Clever, funny, sweet but a little bit deadly.

The band burst through these songs at a Ramonic pace, pausing only here and there for a couple of show stopping, minimalistic ballads that demonstrate a more tender and heartbreaking side. ‘Dreams Tonite’ is probably the best example of this; a hazy synth ballad that finds the middle ground between Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star. Sharp synths are used ingeniously through the album, giving the album a slightly more polished sheen than ‘Alvvays’. And although occasionally the enthusiastic use of the instrument blurs the lines between the other instruments, giving songs an unnuanced fuzz that is a little unsettling, generally it adds a new flavour to Alvvays sound.

Rankin’ an astute lyricist, both superficially (rhyming unexpected phrases like ‘you and me’ with ‘rhetorically’ and ‘metaphorically’) and on a deeper level as well. She writes about well worn subjects such as love and loss in engaging and original ways. The water is a source of constant inspiration and symbolism for her – ‘You find a wave and try to hold it as long as you can’ – she sings at one point, which could be a metaphor for how Alvvays have navigated the perilous waters of the rock world. Elsewhere though water is less a guide and more a source of nostalgia, danger or romanticism. On ‘Already Gone’ the draining of a pool represents the end of summer, and more tragically, the loss of youth. On ‘Forget About Life’ drowning in the lake is a tempting last resort for a worn out soul. ‘You’re the seashell in my sandal that’s slicing up my heel’ she sings on ‘Plimsal Punks’ as she describes a walk along the beach with a frustrating lover. Even here, a seemingly innocent, pleasurable activity has an undercurrent of pain and danger. It’s another good metaphor for a band who are so much more than the cutesy, indie pin ups they might initially appear to be. ‘Antisocialites’ sounds great in any trivial circumstance but if you have greater cares or troubles, it will hold you, share with you and indulge you.

8/10

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The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’ – Review

17 Sep

I feel like every review of a new National album starts from the assumption that it is going to be boring. When I return to them, I think I start from that assumption as well. I suppose their sad, slow songs are so good that we collectively forget there are both shaggier and sharper sides and edges to this band. Songs that shout, scratch and shriek. Songs that pop like balloons. All sides of the band are represented on their seventh (seventh!) album, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, whose biggest achievement is how it manages to readjust the temperature controls ever so slightly whilst essentially keeping the listener feeling comfortable and relaxed. This is still a National album, and it sounds like it. But things are just ever so slightly grouchier, darker and more agitated.

The big picture is that this is Matt Beringer’s divorce album – the twist being that the writing process actually saved the marriage. It encompasses all the rage, contemplativeness, grief, depression, optimism and renewal that that process implies. Nice idea, but, well, both Beyoncé and Jaz Z stamped their names on that idea on their most recent albums, and besides, every National album has covered themes of grown up, marital disharmony before. So what’s really new?

Mostly it’s the music. At times the sounds are more fragmented than they’ve ever been before, which makes it feel like the band members are working against an ideal of unity; rubbing up and pulling at the edges of each other. On lead single ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’, a Woody Woodpecker guitar squeals and splutters in fits and spurts while brooding percussion builds tension and drama. On ‘Empire Line’, a tightly wound beat rattles against thudding synths. Peculiar vocal snatches, and a flickering high hat, disrupt Beringer’s bassey croon on ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The songs themselves aren’t anything particularly groundbreaking for the band, and a couple are completely forgettable, but it’s consistently fascinating on a sonic level. Throughout there are guitars shredding against crystallised beats or bass lines circling in spite of chaos and noise. This creates for a tension that makes ‘Sleep Well Beast’ decidedly not an easy listening record, in spite of the grand pianos and stately melodies that ground almost every song.

You sense it wouldn’t be quite like this if it were left to Matt Berigner. By quite some distance this is his sleepiest contribution to a National record. His singing is lazy – even on the frantic, oddly positioned rocker, ‘Turtleneck’, he sounds like he’s on downers, fighting against a head cold. Thankfully then, his lyrical contribution is as singular as ever. He shines a light on the dusty corners of a marriage; with a novelist’s eye for odd detail and a Soap writer’s awareness of pure emotive power. As I said before, marital disharmony is hardly new ground for The National – arguably nothing here hits as hard as ‘Slipping Husband’, a frantic song on the subject from the band’s second album – but they’ve never gone in at the angle quite so doggedly before. In the past middle age was a scary prospect, creeping around the corner, here it’s a living and breathing reality.

To compensate for the necessary dullness of what is being described – essentially a slow, mundane collapse of a relationship – Beringer’s language becomes typically colourful and unusual. His style is to mix stone cold realism with ambiguous surrealism, to leave the reader swimming in the contrasts. And so, for example, we get intriguing head scratchers like ‘for years I used to put my head in the speakers in the hallway’ and ‘no other faith is light enough for this place’, splashed in with the brutal, simple honesty of ‘I don’t need you, besides I barely even see you anymore.’ The overall effect is both disorientating and captivating – it’s what makes Matt Beringer such a unique lyricist.

He knows when and how to dial it back as well. The National have always been capable of delivering gut punchingly simple sentiments (‘About Today’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Slow Show’, ‘I Need My Girl’), and here they do it with the album’s best song ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, a pretty tune with a refrain of ‘I’m going to keep you in love with me’. It’s a song about how quickly time passes – one minute you’re struggling to talk to the girl you like, the next minute you’re on the brink of separation. The ultimate message though is about perseverance and commitment, and The National remain the greatest embodiment of, and ambassadors for this idea. The small miracle is that after all these years, The National Still sound like The National. Altered a little perhaps but recognisable as the same band. Like the longest lasting marriages, they’re complicated, slightly unstable and built on a foundation of deep lasting love.

7.5/10

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The War on Drugs ‘A Deeper Understanding’ – Review

10 Sep

2014’s ‘Lost in the Dream’ was a nuanced, successful evocation of what Adam Granduciel had been hearing in his head, and trying less successfully to articulate with music, for nearly a decade. It’s predecessors ‘Wagon wheel Blues’ and ‘Slave Ambient’ were best described as promising, and ‘Lost in the Dream’ realised that promise in the most unexpected ways. That makes a follow up a tricky proposition, particularly when Granduciel clearly has such a precise idea of what he wants to achieve. He has no desire to divert from the formula that made that record such a success – moody melodies, crunching guitar solos, hypnotic synth drones under steady beats and extensive running lengths. So on ‘A Deeper Understanding’ he gains exactly that; a deeper understanding of what interests him musically and emotionally.

Or to put it another way, he’s still painting the same picture only this time the canvas is bigger, the brush strokes are broader and bolder and the colours, while largely the same, are brighter shades. This results in an album that is similar to ‘Lost in the Dream’ but equally successful.

Essentially, Granduciel is concerned with the intersections of feelings. The space where the past meets the present or love becomes loss. Or, as he puts it on ‘Strangest Thing’, ‘the space between beauty and pain and the real thing.’ Therefore this music is necessarily mysterious and unsettling. You never quite know where you stand or what exactly you’re being asked to feel. All that you know is that the feelings are strong nonetheless. Extended guitar solos convey exactly that mystery; they aren’t, like most solos, flashy exercises in technical wizardry, they’re direct and powerful personifications of uncertainty that nudge, dive, halt and grind in unexpected ways. In contrast, the reliability of the krautrock rhythms gives Granduciel something to kick against. The wash of synth arpeggios and reverb soaked backing vocals aren’t nostalgic indulgences, they’re ghosts – signifiers of a past trying to make itself heard and reconciled.

It remains difficult to express what is so moving about War on Drugs music. It consciously builds like fog rolling across a river and in its own way is just as hard to describe. One thing for certain is that it requires a degree of patience. You have to wait for the moments you love. The tension builds and builds across wide open spaces until it becomes almost uncomfortable. The release is astonishing. ‘In Chains’ is perhaps the best distillation of this. At nearly eight minutes long the song is certainly epic, but for large periods little actually progresses. This is what makes the moments of magic so compelling; the bright burst of synths three minutes in, the synthetic chimes at four minutes, The introduction of harmonies at five minutes, then the sudden ‘Be My Baby’ drum break at the ultimate climax before a harmonica wails at us from the distance. As the song fades it sounds like a Cure song, at other points it bounces off Tom Petty, The Boss, and Roy Orbison. But it never really feels like anyone but The War on Drugs.

Of course, they remain a divisive band to a large extent and if you don’t get it by now, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ isn’t going to change your mind. Their songs are still somewhat indulgent (the longest track is eleven minutes) and broadly sound quite similar. And if you were to participate in a drinking game where you took a shot every time they sang about darkness, rivers, trains, the road, lights, the sea, dreams or memories, then you would get very drunk very quickly (there’s one line in the final song where he mentions four of these things in a single line!). But even cynics are surely able to get on board with the shimmering pop of ‘Holding on’, the dramatic swells of ‘Strangest Thing’ and the sheer, jaw dropping, emotive ambition of ‘Thinking of a Place’? At some level, even in its darkest moments, ‘A Deeper Understanding’ is their most accessible record to date. It confirms to a wide audience what fans already knew – The War on Drugs are the biggest sounding, and one day hopefully the biggest, rock band on the planet.

9/10

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