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The Lemon Twigs ‘Go to School’ – Review

16 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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John Hopkins ‘Singularity’ – Review

5 Jul

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

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

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

8.5/10

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Tracyanne and Danny ‘Tracyanne and Danny’ – Review

26 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5/10

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Kanye West ‘Ye’ – Review

3 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

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Arctic Monkeys ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ – Review

14 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.5/10

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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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