Monthly Archives: November 2009

Spoon – Written In Reverse

I wish I had grown up listening to Spoon. I’ve written on several occasions about the way their precision-engineered intelligent pop music gets to the point in just the right length of time, with witty, insightful and intellectualised lyrics coupled to hooks and grooves that are sparse, but catchy as anything. I defy anyone to listen to “I Turn My Camera On” or “Don’t You Evah” and not have their hips swinging within the first thirty seconds.

And my, how they’ve grown. It’s startling to think that the same band that produced a work of such brooding melancholy as Kill The Moonlight has since gone on to create a sparkling gem of a pop song as The Underdog, laden with parping brass arranged by Jon Brion. Their 2007 LP, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was a masterpiece of concision and emotion. In January, they will bestow upon their adoring fans a new creation, which will be called Transference – possibly in honour of the psychoanalytical phenomenon involving the unconscious redirection of emotion from person to person.

In anticipation of this, Spoon have treated us to an early indulgence, in the form of a new single, entitled “Written In Reverse”, which hits digital retailers tomorrow, but can be streamed from NPR Music right now. Unsurprisingly, I’ve already given it a spin on your behalf. It’s an interesting beast, somehow more reminiscent of their Gimme Fiction-era work, riding in on parlour-room piano and an almost criminally lazy drum beat. The bass is throbbing and occasional; Britt Daniel’s vocals are sandpaper-hoarse and multi-tracked like a choir of Tom Waits clones. Unlike some of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s best surprises, there’s a return to the wandering, night-time feeling that characterised the two albums before it. 3 minutes and 20 seconds in, you think there might a dose of levity in a surprising chord change on the keys, but the respite is fleeting, instead leading into an exquisite interplay between piano triplets and gurning, insistent guitar moves. The protracted false ending could be another comedy gesture, were it not for the claustrophobia that envelops the actual ending.

“Written In Reverse” is expansive and sophisticated, and certainly the song I predicted would follow sneak-preview single “Got Nuffin'”, released earlier on in the year in a three-song EP. That song had a quick-limbed motorik groove; this song is more lumbering and sleazy. Which is no bad thing, because no band this side of The National does reflected sleaze and grease better than Spoon – the way Britt Daniel can paint a character’s portrait is wonderfully enriching. It’s a grower of a track, then, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being etched into my brain before long, like so many of the band’s previous creative apogees. For sure, I expect Transference to be nothing short of a magnum opus.

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Free Energy!

I feel like a whole week of music news passed me by, and only now have I realised the gravity of the announcements that I missed first time round. The first stroke of good news was the return of Field Music, which I discussed a a few days ago. Now, I absolutely have to get off my chest just how excited I am about a band/project/against-all-odds-miracle called Free Energy.

When indie-rock also-rans Hockey Night shut up shop a few years ago, no one could have predicted that members of the band would someday wind up sharing a studio with James Murphy and Pat Mahoney (of electronic/disco production powerhouse the DFA) under a new guise. And yet, somehow, that’s exactly what’s happened, and the fruits of this unlikely match-up’s labours are now being revealed song by song.

When news of this collaboration began being whispered about in hushed tones what seems like at least two years ago, I wasn’t actually hugely surprised. I always guessed there might be a love of FM rock and power pop lurking away in James Murphy’s heart, and it would appear that this guilty pleasure of his has finally found an outlet in the joyous riot of a party that is Free Energy. Their songs bounce around on chunks of guitar chords that have ridden straight out of a 1970s cabriolet. The drums are crisp and fills come tumbling out of the sky like confetti. The lyrics, delivered in an excited tone that suggests years of waiting for fame, are all about partying, the joy of relationships, and probably driving around America in a vintage cabriolet. At a time when power pop is being bludgeoned to death by increasingly puerile Weezer releases, and stadium/arena-rock is being pulverised and banalised by Kings of Leon, Free Energy are a breath of fresh air. Obviously, the production plays its part too, capturing the undeniably passionate sound of an unbridled electric guitar, alongside the occasional squelch of vintage synth. But importantly, the songs are there too – seemingly having jumped off the writer’s page, fully formed, snappy, catchy.

The outfit recalls the perpetual enjoyment of Thin Lizzy and Tom Petty with none of the sneering irony of early noughties garage rock. These guys are dead earnest about having a blast, and I’m dead pleased that their debut album, entitled Stuck On Nothing, is going to be released on 26th January 2010. At least that way, it’ll have a good six months to settle into a groove in people’s consciousness before its true season – the summer – blasts off.

Hit their MySpace for the lowdown, and be sure to check out the free single, “Dream City”.

The return of Field Music!

Back in 2007, I got very very obsessed with the sophomore album from Sunderland’s Field Music, a 30-minute progressive punk art rock odyssey into the mundanity of small-town life. In borrowing the least lifestyle elements of Steely Dan and fusing them to a jerkiness that recalled Wire, the then-trio (comprised of the two brothers Brewis, and their friend Andrew Moore) created a masterpiece that provided concise chunks of song that packed in a multitude of musical ideas – from Billy Joel-esque piano, to crisp beatboxing. Tones of Town was magnificent, and its lack of fame was nigh-upon criminal. When the band announced they were going on hiatus, I practically cried myself to sleep.

Well now, via several intriguing side projects, they’re back. And in a more expansive mood, clearly, because their forthcoming third album, entitled Field Music (Measure), is a double album, with twenty songs that aren’t afraid to be less cohesive, in a manner apparently styled after Tusk and The Beatles. Predictably, I’m very excited, especially since the band (now a four piece, sans Moore) are whetting our appetites with two choice cuts from the album.

The first, “Each Time Is A New Time”, cruises in on a liquid bassline and some pretty FM-rock guitar, backed up by typically intricate drumming. When the vocals come in, the way they harmonise and interlock is sophisticated and aurally pleasing. Halfway through, the song cuts to a stripped-down passage that builds back up with insistently mellifluous guitar figures, wordless chanting and military percussion, before breaking straight back to the original riff. And then, in true Field Music style, it’s over.

The second sample, the title track, “Measure”, explodes from a suitably baroque string arrangement into a clanging, rustling, piano-led groove. The band has not lost its knack of combining the ancient with the modern, as the vocal interplay and hand claps (which sit alongside the strings, and some very steely guitar) will testify. The mood is wistful and meandering, interspersed with occasional shouts that recall Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac. As the song fades out to looped strings and a thrumming beat, I can’t help but feel a wave of relief that the band has stretched away from the brilliant style they had previously perfected, in order to explore new ground.

Both songs are little gems, and, wonderfully, both are available for free, from the band’s charming website. Field Music (Measure) is released 16th February 2010, on Memphis Industries, and promises to be one of the year’s most intriguing albums, not only in terms of scope and scale, but also in terms of the fascinating, filigree-like music it will contain.

“And then, when it can’t get any more laughable: clarinet solo.”

Hmm. The NME’s review really enjoys pissing on Mr. Bellamy’s parade. The best bits on The Resistance usually occur when the band push their sound to polarising extremes. Hence why “I Belong To You (+ Mon Cœur S’Ouvre À Ta Voix)” is an absolute riot, in spite of its threat to break into Elton John doing cabaret at any given moment. Yes, Bellamy’s French accent resembles a daytripping tourist on acid. Yes, there is a celebratory “Woo!” at the beginning that belongs firmly on Broadway. But, as with so many of Muse’s best songs, it is the wavering on the right side of ridiculous that is the song’s making. Understandably therefore, the clarinet solo near the end is a work of genius – beautifully written; played with just the right tone and character; interlocking marvellously with the rest of the music.

So why, after all this star-struck amazement and wonder, does the band then have to ruin their credibility with utter rubbish like “Guiding Light” – a song so mediocre and in thrall to U2 at their very worst that it should be locked up in a secret cupboard in the headquarters of Magic FM.

Muse – I Belong To You (+Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix)

Guilty Pleasure #1 – Muse

Much as I hate to admit it, I’m suspiciously drawn to some songs on the recent Muse album, The Resistance. I get that it’s totally counter-intuitive to philosophise about pretentious music all day and then go home to a loud, outré, sloganeering chunk of symphonic rock, complete with time-signature changes, wholly self-indulgent guitar solos, and violently operatic vocals. But I really am beginning to love bits of it, at least.

Slap bang in the middle of the album lies the seven-minute long, multi-part leviathan that is “Unnatural Selection”. It opens with Bellamy phoning in a drawl over the kind of church organ that hasn’t been acceptable since Origin of Symmetry. From this innocuous opening emerges a slithering beast of a riff that recalls “New Born”. This somewhat pummelling passage eventually morphs into a rather baroque chorus that invokes memories of Bach, albeit interwoven with some background chanting resembling a football-terrace chant. Eventually, the song collapses into a gloriously decadent waltz, replete with woozy guitar licks and a Hammond organ that has somehow escaped out of a 50s horror film. When that passage is fully spent (and my, Bellamy has a lot of nonspecific wailing to get through), the baroque riff breaks through once more for a final showdown, this time with ten times more multi-tracked vocal harmonies and half a dozen more guitar overdubs.

And you know what? It’s marvellous.

Sometimes, Muse play up their theatricality until it just sounds ridiculous, but when they get it right, every disparate element of their schtick can fall into place perfectly, with a careless swagger than ploughs through any idea you may have had of decency. The lyrics may be meaningless nonsense, but when Bellamy is busy waking up the residents of Lake Como with his pair of bellows, it’s hard not to admit that he sounds like he’s having a good time. And, more to the p0int, that you’d be a bit of a killjoy not to have a good time yourself.

Vampire Weekend – Cousins

I’m going to pretend that the last few months haven’t happened – just assume that the extended hiatus of this blog is a figment of your imagination. Yes, I’m a slacker. I’m also a stupidly busy student/journalist/trouble-maker.

OK, poor excuses over, let’s crack on with the music. One of my favourite albums of last year was Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut – not only because it was a smart, concise album of intelligent and fun pop music, but also because it was pretty much the soundtrack to my first year at university. Having seen them open for Blur at the Hyde Park gig, during which they treated anyone who could muster a smile to a selection of new tracks, it was evident to me that their follow-up might be riskier and bit more grown-up, but would still provide maximum enjoyment.

On the evidence of the new single, “Cousins”, taken from the album Contra, fans of the band will have very little to be disappointed about. The song is snappy and catchy; it has frequent frenetic breakdowns; Ezra Koenig’s famous wit and skills of observation are still very much intact. More intriguingly, the song reminds me of early Police – there’s something about the punky tone of the guitar and the fluid bassline that had me hearkening back to the delights of “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Message In A Bottle”.

“Cousins” displays a fondness for experimentation, too: the bells at the end certainly do little to link the band with the Afro-pop of their first record. It would appear that the band’s searching for innovative and fun sounds have taken them further afield than Africa, this time round, and this was probably crucial, lest they continue to be considered in thrall to a singular sound. Furthermore, the frantic twin-guitar interplay that fills every chunk of air in the song shows off some fascinating echoes of Arabic music.

The evidence so far suggests that Contra is going to be a bit of everything, musically: the opener, “Horchata”, is heavy on twinkly keys, tribal percussion and programmed beats; live favourite “White Sky” is like a supercharged Afro-pop hit of yesteryear, with call-and-response backing vocals recalling tropical adventures. Now, we have “Cousins” – a brave stab at poppy punk that sees the band unafraid to fill the space that so characterised their debut effort, with chaotic percussion and delightful fretwork. Hopefully, the album’s release will excite and amaze existing fans, while drawing in a new batch of pop music lovers. Because when you cut through all the global/world-music hype, Vampire Weekend excel at making truly special popular music.