Monthly Archives: February 2010

[New Release] Foals – Total Life Forever

Heads up, there’s a new Foals album just around the corner. Entitled Total Life Forever, it’s set to be released on 10th May, presumably on Transgressive Records.

The Oxford quintet’s debut, Antidotes, was something of a damp squib, riding in on a tsunami’s worth of hype, but never really reaching the heights we anticipated. It all felt rather soulless and empty, which is always a risk when you trade in vector-like math rock and guitars and synths that sound like insects, but fail to deliver any particularly meaningful lyrics or emotion. Unlike their contemporaries Battles, Foals’ music rarely captured the playfulness required to lift math rock into the category of music that you could enjoy, and not just appreciate.

Antidotes also had a troubled gestation – producer du jour Dave Sitek had his mix unceremoniously dumped in favour of the band’s own. This new one has been produced by Luke Smith, formerly of Clor, in Gothenburg. Judging by the photographs I saw of the band beavering away in the studio, it looks like some kind of palace to IKEA. Here’s hoping Total Life Forever will succeed in conveying the kind of fun most kids enjoy in an IKEA ball-pen (as opposed to the consumerist nightmare most adults endure in the rest of the store).


In other news, according to this tweet, James Murphy’s new LCD Soundsystem record has been completed, and is imminently being sent off for mastering, in the capable hands of Bob Weston (of Shellac fame).

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Spoon — Electric Ballroom (16/02/10)

Spoon‘s 1997 EP was entitled Soft Effects; its opener, “Mountain To Sound”, was an almost robotic splurge of chunky guitar chords over a barren expanse of tape. Thirteen years on, Spoon trade in far subtler terms on record – the psychoanalytically titled Transference possesses compositions of nuanced yet ragged beauty, replete with lovingly painted washes of droning synths and bizarre vocal, yes, effects. Going in to my first Spoon gig, what I wanted to know was how this meticulously arranged chaos that the band have mastered in the studio plays out in a live setting, where everything is instantaneous and nothing can be rearranged or meddled with later on.

Impressively, and perhaps this is a rationale for why so much of Transference stems from live demo tracks, the band pulls off the performance with passionate and anthemic aplomb. From the get go, they are unafraid of playing with our conceptions of how their songs, whether new or old, sound and develop. Opener “Don’t Make Me A Target” is suitably slow-building, rising to a brutal peak as frontman Britt Daniel conjures the same vocal trickery used in their newer material. Throughout the gig, two things remain constant: the entire band’s sonic tapestry-weaving, and drummer Jim Eno’s delightedly precise and virtuosic rhythms, which manage to fulfil the same manifesto as opening band White Rabbits’ arsenal of percussionsists with considerably more economy and considerably less showiness.

A few songs later, when translating another Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga gem, “The Ghost Of You Lingers”, the band once again engage in direct combat with the material, with Britt Daniel’s characteristic gravelly bark gradually overwhelmed by feedback, reverb-drenched keyboards, and bliss-nearing slabs of white noise. From a band that usually trades in rock qua rock, in a minimalist style, this is an unexpected gesture that revels in their playful, emotionally raw experimental side.

The setlist is culled almost exclusively from the band’s last four albums (alas, despite numerous calls from the crowd, “Fitted Shirt” is absent, along with anything else from Girls Can Tell and its predecessors), but to be honest, many of the songs are melded into the aesthetic favoured on recent release Transference – in particular, “My Mathematical Mind” and “They Never Got You” are subsumed into effects-heavy motorik grooves, much to their advantage. Britt Daniel looks like he’s having a riot of a time mucking around with his voice, and it’s just as well that the crowd adoringly lap up his playfulness. This is evidenced further by the band’s mesmerising cover of The Damned’s 1979 single, “Love Song”, which ditches the original’s clattering punk in favour of the same droney keyboards that underpin “Before Destruction”.

Nevertheless, when it’s time to rock out, Spoon prove they’re no slouches, with “Rhthm & Soul” and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” dispatched with great vigour and sparkle. Kill The Moonlight-era fare, meanwhile, is represented by the classic pairing of “Small Stakes” and “The Way We Get By”, and encore closer “Jonathan Fisk”, which is delivered with the maximum conveyance of end-of-tether anxiety.

As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, it’s a crying shame that Spoon aren’t bigger fish here in the UK – particularly telling is the fact that on the same night, on the other side of London, bright young things Vampire Weekend were busy playing to a sell-out crowd at Brixton Academy. On the other hand, it’s always a pleasure to see such masters of their art at close quarters, and in this respect, the Electric Ballroom can’t be beaten. Taken in combination with probably the best live mix/engineering I’ve witnessed at a gig (we can thank the perfectionist Jim Eno for that, I suspect, and not just because the drums were notably crisp), this was a really tremendous performance, with a set of songs cherrypicked from a career full of cult classics. Spoon rarely bring their concise breed of art rock to Britain; this was an unmissable opportunity to see them weave their magic over a rainy and miserable London.

Spoon played:

Don’t Make Me A Target
The Mystery Zone
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
My Mathematical Mind
The Ghost of You Lingers
Is Love Forever?
Don’t You Evah
Small Stakes
Love Song (The Damned cover)
Written In Reverse
Who Makes Your Money
The Way We Get By
You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
They Never Got You
I Summon You
Rhthm & Soul
Got Nuffin
Black Like Me

Encore

The Underdog
Nobody Gets Me But You
I Turn My Camera On
Jonathon Fisk

Massive Attack – Heligoland

Massive Attack used to excel at taking really disparate, exciting sounds and weaving them into a tapestry of overwhelming despair, over which they spun woozy vocal melodies sung either by themselves (Daddy G, 3D) or by intriguingly chosen guest vocalists. On their finest work to date, Mezzanine, while never totally abandoning their early interest in reggae and soul, the (then) trio departed unexpectedly from laid-back, dinner party tempos, favouring an almost punishingly unhappy mood and tone. Electrical noise, squelchy bass synth and distant, distorted synths were the order of the day, along with that heavy metal guitar that cuts through “Angel”. Importantly, these crazily challenging sonics were forged onto equally sophisticated and dependable song structures – in particular, the climactic “Group Four” segued through several movements, never losing sight of its drive and mystery. Mezzanine was a knockout masterpiece; one of my undoubted albums of the decade.

Seven years on from their last effort (and it represented quite an effort to get through 100th Window), Massive Attack return as a duo, with Heligoland. Say it differently and you get “hell ego land”, possibly. Equally tenuous, sad to say, is the premise that the band have lost none of their touch, because this album is undoubtedly a disappointment. In place of the group’s formerly deft touch with textures and sonic themes, here, they seem to content to drop just one exciting sound per track, drag them out for longer than is necessary, and expect the rest to follow. It doesn’t – at its worst, Heligoland is criminally repetitive, with interesting ideas that go nowhere. “Psyche” sounds like a half-baked sketch of an instrumental backing, albeit with a notably pretty vocal performance from Martina Topley-Bird; not even a brief orchestral swell can save “Flat Of The Blade” from its interminable, ugly and atonal electronic whirrings.

On the album’s more successful tracks, Del Naja and Marshall venture further with their collection of synth presets and little chunks of melody, instead of riding along contentedly on repetitive grooves. “Girl I Love You”, for instance, is unafraid to suddenly pick up in pace, take on a gloriously filtered brass arrangement, or meld into a dissonant cloud of noise. Another highlight is “Paradise Circus”, which ebbs in on intricate bells, vibes and the softest of beats, before shifting direction, twice, replacing this arrangement with dubby bass, and then a surprisingly stirring orchestra. True, little of this progression includes a return to Daddy G-provided “blackness”, but with such thin pickings, we can hardly complain. You’re just left wishing the rest of the album was similarly risk-taking.

The other big problem affecting much of Heligoland lies in its vocals. In their earlier career, Massive Attack made careful and assiduous choices when inviting in guest singers. Shara Nelson on “Unfinished Sympathy” was an inspired move, as was the sprinkling on Liz Fraser on Mezzanine. On Heligoland, by contrast, the ageing big guns are slathered all over. You have to wait till track three to hear 3D and Daddy G for the first time; in total, they make just three vocal contributions to the whole record. That would be just about acceptable, if their replacements’ performances were particularly meaningful.

All too often, however, the individuals roped in sound either past-their-prime (does anyone really think about Hope Sandoval anymore? or Topley-Bird, for that matter?) or deeply uncaring – witness Elbow’s Guy Garvey sounding extremely disinterested on “Flat Of The Blade”. I can excuse Daddy G from being absent from 100th Window – he was on paternity leave at the time – but here, even though he has returned to the fold, his solitary vocal mark rests at a few dope-heavy lines on “Splitting The Atom”, unfortunately chained to a funhouse organ chord progression that is spun out over five minutes. Horace Andy‘s contributions are more stirring, but, in the absence of a serviceable tune, they frequently crumble into insignificance.

On the closing track, “Atlas Air”, you can tell Massive Attack are aiming for the kind of multi-section epic that was once christened “Group Four”. That they almost achieve such heights, but fall short, is an undesired shame. We all knew Massive Attack were outrageously talented producers: what we wanted was clear evidence that they were also gifted songwriters (Lord knows their outside production work has been despairingly infrequent). On Heligoland, their craft bears the undeniable mark of rustiness and laziness, to the extent that many tracks that seem superficially lovely (well of course they sound lush, given the knob-twiddling fingers involved) end up being enhanced considerably when played alongside their video treatments. What’s new on Heligoland? An unoriginal dependence on orchestral arrangements, and a surprising and crushingly saddening lack of invention and songwriting sparkle.

Pick ‘n’ mix: Girl I Love You, Paradise Circus, Saturday Comes Slow.

Hot Chip – One Life Stand

Hot Chip - One Life StandThemes of marriage and commitment work surprisingly well in music that isn’t rock. In “My Love”, Justin Timberlake asks if his girl would “date him on the regular” and refers to a “ring” that “represents his heart”, over one of the finest R&B tracks in my lifetime. More recently, Beyoncé used “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” to implore young men to make that commitment, in order to prevent the pains of post-breakup jealousy. Conversely, in rock music, similar subjects all-too often fall flat and limp and mawkish. It’s little wonder some of my favourite music is so dark, because an awful lot of empowering music is unavoidably dull and derivative.

Hot Chip fall neatly into this marital R&B turf, boasting an array of catchy hooks and melodies that would function just as well were they not to be serviced by an arsenal of squelching synths and chart-reflecting beats. Their music veers exceptionally close to soul, and also to the idiosyncratic songwriting of Robert Wyatt and Paul McCartney, albeit with a modern instrumental bent. Following the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach taken on 2008’s Made In The Dark, the band has toured relentlessly, refocused, and emerged with a triumphantly mature new record, entitled One Life Stand. No more a bachelor, and now encumbered by the responsibilities of fatherhood, frontman Alexis Taylor has helped forge an album that is considerably more pruned down, and lacking the quirky excesses that previously plagued some of their weaker material.

One Life Stand is… solid. In places, as on the New Order-ish opener, “Thieves In The Night”, it is inspired. Elsewhere, it sees the band knuckle down and write richly melodic and warming songs about the joys of companionship and brotherhood. The album’s opening quartet of songs recall various eras of dance music – synth pop, disco, house, piano-stomping Motown. To the band’s credit, it never sounds too well-trodden, and, in the title track, they re-earn the truly great electro-pop crown previously bestowed upon “Ready For The Floor” and “Over And Over”.

Then, the band tones thing down for a middle section that some will find… slushy (sorry!), but other will cherish for its broad and smile-inducing balladry. Of particular interest is the afore-referenced “Slush”, which emerges from a bizarre vocal warm-up exercise and takes a while to get going. But when it does, it is properly good, and fashioned from a very McCartney II-esque mould. Four minutes in, a beautifully subtle brass arrangement combines with almost tear-jerking steel drum, creating a final two-and-half minutes of downbeat, melancholy yet utterly compelling music which defies genre. As the song is swallowed up by a foetal fog of atmosphere dust, you would be a cold-hearted creature not to be touched by it in some way.

The final three tracks see a return to Hot Chip’s preoccupation with electronic music. “We Have Love” is shadowy and danceable, and unfolds like a less crazy version of the last album’s “Don’t Dance”; “Keep Quiet” is sinister and rides along vaguely tropical percussion and synth glows that would not have gone amiss on the Fever Ray album. Finally, we are left with the triumphant house of “Take It In”, which performs the band’s great trick of shifting suddenly from a faintly worrying minor-key verse to an anthemic major-key chorus, with precision-honed perfection.

One Life Stand will probably bore a lot of listeners. It doesn’t radically alter the landscape of quasi-dance music; it doesn’t permit the band to indulge in their more insane electronic compositions. Instead, favouring a more subtle strategy of writing more-than-competent pop songs, the band’s new focus and concision pays great dividends. Never messy or sprawling, One Life Stand is a well-sequenced work that never outstays its welcome, and I think Hot Chip have finally created an album-lover’s album.

Gorillaz – Stylo

Sounding like a cross between “Night Fever” and the Knight Rider theme tune, the lead single for the forthcoming Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, is a seriously catchy slice of music. “Stylo”, as it is titled, is also a star-studded affair, boasting some fairly unhinged wailing from a chap called Bobby Womack, and a rap at the end that appears to be telephoned in by Mos Def. And, despite my rather cynical tone, I rather like it.

Damon Albarn treads very gently over “Stylo”. Yes, the first verse is occupied by his wistful mumblings, but beyond that, it really sounds nothing like any of his previous work. It doesn’t even resemble a Gorillaz song. Entirely synthetic in its instrumentation, “Stylo” is a one-idea song that’s probably as addictive as crystal meth, and, let’s hope, not too representative of the album as a whole. Much as I’m enjoying it, I refuse to believe Albarn would seriously contemplate making a whole album of similar material – more likely, “Stylo” is a palate cleanser before Plastic Beach makes its entrance, replete with substantially more weirdness.

I say all this, and then I hear Bobby Womack literally crawling through my speakers with his deranged intrusions, and I think this song is utterly brilliant and terrifying at the same time.