Tag Archives: review

Paramore ‘After Laughter’ – Review

15 Jun

Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter’, is on some levels the band’s most exuberant record yet. But its sparkly, shiney exterior is also a red herring; Paramore ask an interesting question – what happens when the laughter stops and could it be masking something? Despite first impressions, the album is challenging and deeply introspective. You can take the girl out of Emo but you can’t take Emo out of the girl. Contained in these pop nuggets are tear stained lyrics about a rising anxiety. The album opens with a typically forthright deceleration. ‘All I want is to wake up fine/tell me that I’m alright – I don’t want to die.’ The song’s Emo sentiments are delivered with a fizz, and the sweet/sour balance ensures the song scans as an upbeat summer anthem and not a morbid indulgence in depression. But make no mistake – this is heartfelt stuff.

From top to tail, ‘After Laughter’ is the most surprising album of 2017. I’ve long regarded Paramore as something of a joke. I dismissed them early on as a second rate, third wave Emo act. I tried again to get on board with the more tasteful ‘Paramore’ record but didn’t find anything worth sticking around for. Not that Paramore had any reason to be bothered by my lack of persistence; they have a large, loyal fan base who have stuck by the band through lineup crises, changes of sound and various controversies.

‘After Laughter’ is the consequence of all of the above. Gone is Jeremy Davis on bass whilst drummer Zac Farro returns to the fold after sitting out on the last album cycle. Upon quitting the band last time, Farro and his brother (guitarist Josh) posted a lengthy online statement that implied Hayley Williams had become a puppet of major label playmakers, who put pop goals in place of serious artistic progress. As if to shrug a ‘yeah so what’ at that point, ‘After Laughter’ is pretty much the pure pop album the Farro brothers had accused Williams of long wanting to make. It incorporates elastic grooves, twangy guitars and coca cola melodies that worm in to your ears. The clear pop punk influences of the past have evaporated almost entirely, leaving nothing but Williams’ twangy, southern accent as a reminder of past petulance.

Lyrically though, little has changed. Williams is a pessimist, to say the least – a justifiable position to hold but one that is exhausting to listen to over and over again. Here are just a handful of excerpts: ‘For all I know the best is over and the worst is yet to come’, ‘I cried till I couldn’t cry – another heart attack’, ‘I can’t think of getting old, it just makes me want to die’, ‘I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me.’ Yes, Williams truly is down in the dumps. Too often the lyrics indicate that she’s content to dwell in misery rather than confront it with any clarity or conviction. This can be frustrating. You end up agreeing with an ironic lyric on ’26’ where she says ‘man you really know how to get someone down’. Emo has always been self indulgent and whiney, that’s kind of the point, but you’re going to need a high tolerance for that stuff if you’re going to play ‘After Laughter’ on repeat.

One exception is the sophisticated ‘Idle Worship’; Williams’ tone is more reflective and her diagnosis more measured as she unpacks the fan/idol dynamic. ‘It’s such a lonely fall down from the pedestal you put me on’ she observes. ‘Grudges’ also feels more thoughtful. With a deft touch, the song tackles Williams’ relationship with Josh Farro and the bridges they built to restore a broken friendship. The song’s central epiphany is that problems are better when tackled in close company, with a healthy dose of humour. ‘We’ll laugh till we cry, like we did when we were kids, cos we can’t keep holding on to grudges.’ The laughter implied in the title doesn’t always have to be a mask – it can also be a remedy. That’s an argument also made by the music, which soars, fizzes and sparkles in a way that doesn’t allow you to dwell on life’s hardships. Who could possibly be sad when you’re having this much fun?



Gorillaz ‘Humanz’ – Review

30 Apr

Over the past two decades and five albums, Gorillaz have created their own demonic, melancholic, star-studded world. If you’re already a signed up member, you’ll find a lot to love on ‘Humanz’, a typically madcap entry in to their discography. The tempos are faster, the grooves are slinkier and the sonic palette is more modern but it’s surprising how distinctively recognisable Gorillaz albums continue to be. ‘Humanz’ really does sound at one with ‘Plastic Beach’, ‘Gorillaz’, ‘The Fall’ and particularly ‘Demon Days’. There isn’t anything else out there that sounds quite like this. That’s even more commendable when you consider the vast quantity of guests Damon Albarn collaborated with – this time he hooked up with the likes of De La Soul, Danny Brown, Grace Jones, D.R.A.M and Benjamin Clementine.

Of course, as with past efforts, some collaborations bare juicer fruits than others (for my money ‘Strobelite’ ft. Peven Everett and ‘Submission’ ft. Kelela are the highlights, whilst ‘We Got the Power’ ft. Noel Gallagher and Jenny Beth feels like the biggest missed opportunity). The record well and truly runs out of steam after ‘Busted and Blue’, when the tempos slow down and the overcast mood becomes slightly too oppressive. It’s no shock to learn that when pitching the album to potential collaborators Damon called the album a ‘soundtrack for a party at the end of the world’. All Gorillaz records have been similarly apocalyptic, not to mention too long, too scatterbrained and too bleak – that’s part of their appeal to many fans, who will no doubt lap ‘Humanz’ up.

If this Is an imagined soundtrack for an end of the world party, then Damon himself plays the nagging parent, putting a downer on the vibe. Almost every time he opens his mouth he brings the mood down. It’s particularly noticeable on ‘Let Me Out’, where Mavis Staples and Pusha T’s synergy is interrupted by one of his typically lethargic melodies. This is similarly true of ‘Saturnz Bars’, where a usually irrepressible Popcaan gets dragged down by one of the sleepiest choruses Damon’s ever concocted. This disconnect between Damon and his collaborators is jarring, and the better songs songs on here are the ones where his presence is minimised.

Or indeed, brought to the forefront. The highlight of ‘Plastic Beach’ (still Gorillaz most well rounded effort) was the gorgeous ‘Melonholy Hill’ – essentially a Damon Albarn solo track. Here the equivalent number is ‘Busted and Blue’, a minimalistic number with a beautifully sad melody given an understated performance. The song highlights the album’s theme of disconnection (from political leaders and the world at large) and undercuts the cartoon group’s association with technology by emphasising real love over computer love. ‘Where do they come from, the wires that connect us…I can’t get back without you, be my love.’ It’s a message also reiterated in the album’s dying seconds when Damon reunites with his one time enemy Noel Gallagher’ to proclaim ‘we got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens, we got the power for that’. It’s an encouraging message that overrides the album’s prevalent cynicism, made more powerful because of Noel and Damon’s shared history. If those two rivals can build such a positive bridge then there truly is hope for all Humanz.



Kendrick Lamar ‘Damn’ – Review

24 Apr

Kendrick’s Lamar’s new mantra is ‘What happens on Earth stays on Earth.’ We hear it again and again on his impressive new album ‘Damn’ and it signals the clear intent behind the record. This is a knotted, spiritual album that acts like a clearing out of the junk of the soul prior to entry to a higher realm. The God frequently referenced on the album is the Old Testament God and Kendrick’s beliefs are not fashionable, evangelical or simplistic. He references curses, punishments and exile, and makes his sins (and their consequences) abundantly clear. Even more so than on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, he’s talking from the depths of despair to a stained society. But ‘Damn’ was released on Good Friday for a reason, and thus Kendrick also gives glimpses of redemption.

In contrast to the opulent ‘TPAB’, on ‘Damn’ Kendrick goes direct – as if extravagant jazz arrangements and expansive funk samples are an indulgence we can’t afford in the Trump era. The truths delivered are sharper, clearer and pointed – the backdrops hit just as hard. Lamar is talking to a mainstream audience in language they will understand. The beats are thicker, harder and heavier. The samples draw more from soul and r&b. There are DJ scratches and drops that hark back to the late 80s, courtesy of the legendary Kid Capri. Nothing is unprecedented but that feels inclusive rather than disappointing; it may lack the musical flair of ‘Untitled Unmastered’ and ‘TPAB’, or the dark, distinctive atmosphere of ‘Good Kid, Maad City’, but it turns out Kendrick does old skool hip hop just as well as anybody.

To Pimp a Butterfly’ was structured around a poem that was revealed line by line in between the tracks. There is no such framing device here, although repetition is once again used to tie thoughts together. Samples of a Fox News debate about the social influence of Hip Hop are deployed throughout the record. One inflammatory extract comes courtesy of political commentator Geraldo Rivera who says ‘hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years’. Kendrick Lamar imagined this album as the most appropriate response. It froths with an anger and vulgarity that already has Rivera doubling down on his position. But equally there is unparalleled intelligence, imagination and integrity that you’d like to think would surprise the Fox News talking heads. The songs are sequenced to create a dialogue; they sing to each other. So ‘Humble’ follows ‘Pride’, ‘Love’ follows ‘Lust’ and ‘Duckworth’ follows ‘God’. All roads lead to ‘Fear’, the longest, most ambitious song on the record and the culmination of all the questioning and internal wrestling.

When Kendrick Lamar is at his best (and he’s at his absolute, fiery best on at least half these cuts) there is nobody in Hip Hop, Pop, Poetry or culture at large who can currently match him. Everyone else in the game should be exhausted just trying to keep up. Unfortunately, at times, Kendrick is slowing down and mimicking their moves – perhaps trying to let the crowds get a better look. On the (thankfully not included) stand alone single ‘The Heart IV’, Kendrick sounded out a siren call to the opposition. He’s clearly keeping tabs. And If he doesn’t call them out directly on ‘DAMN’ they he certainly tips them his hat. ‘Love’ is the worst offender; a diminished ode to such a grand topic that almost seems to say ‘anything Drake can do I can do better’. ‘Loyalty’ is another frustratingly slight and insubstantial song that features a guest appearance from Rihanna, who can’t muster a hook worth savouring. On ‘God’ (another title deserving of more than it receives) his casual drawl falls at the exact halfway point between Future’s and Young Thug’s. And I’m not the only person who hasn’t been sold on ‘Humble’ (alhough it is currently number one in the States). The song’s demanding, patronising tone has upset some feminists while his repeated use of the word ‘bitch’ in the refrain feels below someone of his intelligence.

If these concessions to mainstream tastes and lesser rappers are disappointing then they shouldn’t distract from what is largely a singular release from a true individual. Part of Kendrick’s talent is his vocal versatility – he’s always enjoyed trying on masks and subtly shifting tones, moods and his cadence. But he’s always best when he plays himself. On a physical level, nobody else could come close to matching the ferocity of Kendrick’s delivery on ‘DNA’, his sheer verbal dexterity on ‘XXX’ or the way constant rhymes and half rhymes trip of his tongue with such apparent ease (often flaunting natural onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration in the process).

Back to that central masterpiece, ‘Fear’; what exactly is Kendrick scared of? Well, what have you got. He lists his fears in all caps on the track listing – ‘LOVE’, ‘PRIDE’, ‘LUST’, ‘DNA’, ‘DUCKWORTH’ (himself), and ‘GOD’. Mainly God. ‘Damn’, used as a verb, is something that God does. Damned, is how Kendrick feels. But closer to home, we live in a world where we damn each other as well. Constantly. Maybe one explains the other and vice versa. Kendrick is trapped in one such cycle. It’s a complex idea that Kendrick spends an hour unpacking. He contemplates salvation whilst staring down the gun of temptation; speaks of his sins in crude terms over explosive beats; preaches forgiveness whilst chastising enemies; Acknowledges his flaws even while flaunting them. He states it most clearly on ‘DNA’; ‘I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.’ As I say, this album is Kendrick’s decluttering of the soul and an acknowledgement of his inherent (human) contradictions. It’s his attempt to come to terms with the ballers, Fox News, critics, gangs, God – but perhaps most importantly, himself.



Mount Eerie ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ – Review

2 Apr

Phil Elverum’s career has in many ways been defined by clear consistency. He has recorded music as Mount Eerie since 2003, the same year he married Genevieve Gosselin. Like waves that calmly lap on the shore, Mount Eerie records wash up every eighteen months or so, each one sounding roughly the same, and roughly as good, as the one before it. But any sense of consistency was surely disrupted in 2015 when Genevieve was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Within twelve months, Genevieve lost her battle.

This is the difficult subject matter of ‘A Crow Looked At Me’, a record that chronicles the months before and after Genevieve’s passing in uncomfortable degrees of detail. It opens with the line ‘death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not’ and gets no less direct as it progresses. This album is an open wound slowly being healed by the air. Padding the autobiographical lyrics and simple melodies are unfussy musical arrangements – usually a guitar and tepid beat to just about hold things together. Most of the instruments used belonged to Genevieve. The album was recorded in the room where she passed away.

Over the last two years we have been gifted with some of the most moving albums about grief – ‘Carrie and Lowell’, ‘Skelleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ to name just three. But even in this context, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ feels unprecedented. Its insights about coping with loss feel poetically specific and universal at the same time. With what sounds like the most delicate ease, Elverum has crafted perhaps the definitive musical examination of mourning.

The passage of time – and its ability to simultaneously heal and exasperate pain – is a key aspect of this record’s framework. The narrative is roughly chronological; Elverum often counts how many months have passed since the death, as if crossing out days on the calendar. It creates a sense of momentum, only there’s never a clear sense of what we’re moving towards. Time is creeping on, the gap between the past and present is growing, but days, and thoughts, blur into each other. He never strays far from a handful of familiar chords and melodies, whilst he often repeats the same lyrics, scratching for some kind of revelation that will make things easier. The quietly tick tocking drum beat mirrors the seconds passing in half time, the barely there vocals strain for closure. This is the dull, thick fuzz of grief.

The songs often end with a simple, direct thought that expresses grief in the rawest terms possible. ‘I Love You’, ‘Death is real’, ‘how could I live?’ Art aims to convey real or imagined experience in the hope that it elicits some kind of vivid reaction and understanding. This is what mount Eerie achieve. Art that is as brave and brutally honest as this Is in some ways the most necessary, even if it happens to be the most difficult to consume. Of course, confessional art should not get a free pass simply by the nature of its candour (I am one of many who feel Sun Kil Moon’s haphazardly autobiographical lyricism is greatly overrated). There has to be a degree of craft and contemplation, otherwise what separates art from the glut of misery memoirs and tragic life stories that clutter shelves in book stores? But not to worry, ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ is the product of not just aching sincerity but also subtle craft and instinctive innovation.

There are many details of mourning that Mount Eerie manage to write about with real understanding. For example; Elverum spends much of the album seeking out and questioning signs and symbols. Contemplating if there’s any significance in the sound of a closing door, air coming through open windows, a fly buzzing around the room. Wondering if hundreds of Canadian geese on the beach, and later two Ravens flying towards the sunset, could contain any symbolism. In the final song he might finally have found what he is looking for. Hiking with his daughter, he hears the sound of a crow as they weave ‘through the cedar grove’. His daughter starts muttering ‘crow’ to herself. ‘And there you are’ Elverum sings cryptically. The record’s final line. The mysterious symbolism of the crow recalls the central metaphor in Max Porter’s recent novella, ‘Grief is a Thing With Feathers’, another piece about the grieving process written from the perspective of a young father. At points Elverum’s lucid poetry also reminds me of Sharon Olds, C.S Lewis, Mark Kozelak and John Darnielle. Yet perfectly, it’s also a distinctly unique album with no precident. ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ confronts tragedy head on and that bravery is rewarded. This is an album for the ages.



The Shins ‘Heartworms’ – Review

22 Mar

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

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

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

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

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




Ed Sheeran ‘Divide’ – Review

19 Mar

Ed Sheehan must be good. There is no other logical reason a scruffy, chubby, ginger, middle class songwriter would currently occupy nine of the top ten spots in the single chart. Right? Is Ed a slippery, sophisticated, Trumpian snake oil salesman or is he the real deal? Most major publications haven’t bothered to find out (though both NME and Rolling Stone have backtracked on early disdain by featuring cover interviews with the singer) because they see no reason to. Ed is a privileged, white male who appeals to middle England – nothing interesting happening there, they conclude.

But we must do better than that. Something in the music of Ed Sheeran taps in to a universal desire. His hooks are clingy enough to lodge in intelligent minds for months on end. His melodies have soundtracked countless wedding dances. Politicians are always talking about the man on the street, well the man on the street listens to Ed Sheeran. People enjoy his music because it sounds familiar yet modern. They’re songs you can imagine appearing in films or soundtracks. There’s a nice mixture of styles, tempos and themes – you can imagine different songs soundtracking different, everyday routines. And even the stranger songs on the album are held together by some absolutely huge sounding pop songs. Mainly, ‘Divide’ will be popular because it’s distinctly pleasant. And pleasant is something most people can get on board with.

In fact ‘Divide’ is an ironic title for an Ed Sheeran album. Few albums are less likely to divide an audience; this is nice, middle of the road pop that is, by design, almost impossible to hate. And whilst it may be hard for some critics to believe, it also appears fairly easy to love. Just ask the fans who have streamed the singles from it literally billions of times. That said, it is fitting that he has chosen mathematical symbols as album titles; few albums this year are likely to be more calculated. Ed is a self confessed music industry nerd who is just as interested in the business side of things as he is the music. He has engineered this album to tick as many boxes, and appeal to as many market areas and target audiences, as possible. Sheeran used to wear his heart on his sleeve, now he’s wearing his ambition there instead.

But if there’s one thing ‘Divide’ proves, its that sometimes artifice and calculation can be nearly as affecting as pure sincerity. I know that the syrupy ‘perfect’ is pure shmultz; It has a prom night, ‘Lady in Red’ quality to it that should be repellant – but isn’t. Nothing about its chord progression, string arrangement or heartfelt sentiment is original – in fact the song is massively cliched and contrived – but packs an emotional wallop that is pretty undeniable. Sheeran himself thinks it will end up being the song, that in generations, he is remembered for. At this stage that might be hard to argue with. There are other warm hearted moments like this as well. ‘Dive’ is a gorgeous doo-wop-esque ballad that highlights Sheeran’s increasingly robust vocals. ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is a moving eulogy for his grandmother that reveals the immediate aftermath of her death in a way that wouldn’t sound completely out of place on the new Mount Eerie record.

Elsewhere he’s moving ever further away from his initial heartbroken sweet spot. In a recent interview, Zane Lowe assumed Sheeran had been influenced by U2 on the ‘Joshua Tree’ kissed ‘Castle on the Hill.’ But he insisted he’d never heard the album, or any other U2 album for that matter. In fact he’d nabbed all the ideas from Snow Patrol’s ‘Fallen Angels’ record. This anecdote sums up Ed Sheeran. In his down to earth way, he has no qualms or hang ups about his perceived uncoolness (which is actually what makes him pretty cool). The fact that he references Snow Patrol (and not just any SP album, but ‘Fallen Angels’, their commercial flop and critical nadir), or in the same interview professes his love for Figtstar, Nizlopi, Damion Rice and The Corrs tells you everything you need to know (EXACTLY say his fans. EXACTLY say the haters).

For such a massive seller, his last record ‘Multiply’ had a significantly disproportionate amount of duds. As well remembered as ‘Sing’ and ‘Thinking Out Loud’ are, does anyone remember ‘Nina’ or ‘Afire Love’? Like ‘Multiply’, ‘Divide’ is a patchy album that features as many throwaways as potential classics. The folky ‘Galway Girl’ (a cynical attempt to appeal to the large Irish fan base) has a fun ‘so bad it’s good’ quality, whilst the likes of ‘What Do I Know’ and ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ are forgettable in less interesting ways – they’re bland, generic and verging on kitsch. But at least these songs are politely bad. Ed took a year off before recording ‘Divide’ to go travelling, and in its weakest moments the album plays like a kind of Gap Year Travelogue where he bruises the surface of one culture before sailing on to the next destination. ‘Barcelona’ features Spanish guitar and a vaguely Mediterranean vocal chant whilst ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’ is called, well, ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’, and here Ed borrow’s Paul Simon’s exact intonation and some vaguely African guitar licks to riff on some ‘deep’ themes about throwing up on car seats and making mistakes. Yep, It’s pretty bad.

But there’s more imagination here than he may be given credit for. Imagination In the sense that he could be churning out the same generic hooks and production tricks as every other huckster with one eye on Spotify. Sheeran’s references are at least pretty unique for someone in his influential position. At the end of the day, barring some kind of surprise Adele release, ‘Divide’ will be the biggest selling album of this, and possibly next, year. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best album of the year, or even the best Ed Sheeran album, but there are worse albums than one that conveys love and positivity with no filter through classic songwriting, and a heartening mix of tradition and subtle invention.




Surfer Blood ‘Snowdonia’ – Review

10 Mar

Surfer Blood were once gloriously unencumbered by complication. Their music first gained kudos in the beautiful summer of 2010 when their lo-fi pop-rock singled them out as a young Weezer for the chill-wave generation. For a hot minute it looked like they might actually fulfill that ambition as well. Debut album, ‘Astro Coast’ owned the hyped and its follow up e.p ‘Tarot Classics’ upped the stakes and polished the grimy surface. Nobody was surprised when they then signed to a major label and were earmarked to work with Gil Norton – this was wish fulfilment aligning with common sense.

Then the proverbial hit the fan. Big time. In a series of events that still aren’t entirely clear, lead singer John Paul Pitts was accused of domestic battery. The charges were contested and later dropped but that kind of fog doesn’t clear easily. The controversy was increased by songwriting and posturing that seemed tone deaf to potentially ackward implications – a boy flexing his muscles on the album cover, lyrical references to being ‘true blue’ and ‘squeezing blood’ etc. Things went from bad to much worse last year when guitarist Thomas Fekete tragically lost his battle with Cancer. It’s understandable that with all this STUFF, their music gets somewhat ignored.

If all this feels like a whole tonne of context then that’s because new album ‘Snowdonia’ is pretty much all context. You can’t escape your preconceptions of what Surfer Blood have done or what they’ve become. But if you’re expecting new album ‘Snowdonia’ to be one long apologia then you’re going to be pleasantly surprised/disappointed. This music tries so hard to return to the band’s unfussy roots that any background details feel somehow lose significance. ‘Snowdonia’ is a breezy listen, clocking in at just over half an hour, it contains the warmest melodies and stickiest hooks Surfer Blood have recorded since their post debut e.p.

On ‘Frozen’ Pitts seems to burn the type of major label execs they must have encountered at Warner Bros. ‘Roll your sleeves to show off your tattoos/ He’s great friends with Seymour Stein, I never knew’. That whole experience didn’t end well for the group and they address that disappointment as well: ‘And in an instant everything was lost, Seems like somebody got their wires crossed.’ But the song ends positively: ‘Your free trial is ending soon, either way it won’t stop the birds from singing.’ The song’s breezy tone and laid back melody match this positive outlook that is consistent through the album. Even on the elegiac ‘Burning flags in F and G’, Pitt’s processes his grief through euphoric remembering of past glories.

The album does lack some of the qualities that their debut had in spades – urgency and an emphatic sense of purpose. But then those qualities can so often boil over into aggression – something no doubt Pitts Is doing his best to steer clear of these days. And so ‘Snowdonia’ has all the temper of warm bath. It’s gentle, sixties inspired guitar licks and sunny day harmonies hint at renewed calmness in the face of understandable anxiety and grief. The lyrics are somewhat less ambiguous in laying out Pitts aims. Album opener states “In a world so full of murky intentions, we’ll make ourselves a home.” He’s largely true to that promise and carves out a quietly interesting space in a field of homage indie rock acts.

It’s therefore ironic, or perhaps fitting, that a band who have made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years should make such a modest and unfussy record. ‘Snowdonia’ may not live up to what we once hoped for from this band but it’s a whole lot better than we might have anticipated just a couple of years ago. In 2017 it sits quite nicely on its own terms, freed from the shackles of the band’s past and uninterested in making ambitious promises for the future. In that sense it’s the first Surfer Blood album not to make forward glances or backward stares. It simply is what it is – A laid back and enjoyable rock record at a time when those are increasingly scarce.