Monthly Archives: September 2011

Touch each other in black and white

I recently wrote of how the 2005 apogee of the post-punk revival was responsible for me getting into M83. This got me thinking about how disposable many of the scene’s bands were, and, in general, how true the conceit is that many people are capable of writing one solid album, but that this does not a fulfilling career make.

Alongside Bloc Party and Maxïmo Park, who definitely fitted this mould, were The Futureheads, who peaked even earlier. Their sparky eponymous debut was released in 2004; a stark and sombre second album had a lengthier gestation but was received mutedly. Two years after they had burst onto the scene, they were unceremoniously dumped by their record label: the band have since recorded two more albums, but the magic has gone.

All this takes away from the brutal energy of The Futureheads at their most powerful, on The Futureheads. Sometimes, they were charming enough to come across like a jagged Beatlesy tribute group, as on songs like “Robot” and “A to B”, which recall “Paperback Writer” and “Eight Days a Week”. At their stodgiest, however, they more resembled Black Flag and Fugazi, with coruscating sheets of dissonant guitar, stop-start rhythms and lyrics that spat venom at capitalist structures. In the verse of “Alms”, a simple descending vocal melody is made more foreboding by the growling and atonal pair of guitars in the background; both “He Knows” and “Trying Not To Think About Time” begin with ear-battering squalls of noise before comparative elegance is restored. Key to The Futureheads’ winning formula were the intricate multi-part vocal harmonies which were always easily at hand, to sweeten the deal when the riffage became too intense. They were so good at the vocals, they even recorded a nearly a cappella number, “Danger Of The Water”, which might just be the most chilling piece of barbershop ever written.

Right at the end of the first album is “Man Ray”, as near a distillation of their complete sound as you can find. Beaten-up guitars that propel the first verse give way to a pre-chorus powered by close harmony and handclaps. Near the end, a cacophony of shouted whispers gradually consumes the vocal prettiness which has characterised the previous thirty-five minutes, before the song implodes in deservedly dramatic fashion. It sounds like the band expended all their energy on “Man Ray”, given the three albums of play-it-safe that followed.

Good news? Later on this year The Futureheads will close the door on their first four albums with a special release called Rant, which will be all a cappella, and will feature new versions of old songs, new versions of other people’s songs, and will hopefully usher in an exciting new era for the band.

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Hurry Up, We’re… excited about M83

Surprisingly, I’ve never shared the story of how I got into M83, so let’s start there. Back in 2005, the world of music was a simple place, with the post-punk revival reaching its apogee. I got my hands on the Japanese edition of Bloc Party’s debut, Silent Alarm, which came with three remixes tacked on at the end. The final one was M83’s remix of “Pioneers”, and it looked like it was over fourteen minutes long. In fact, it was less than six, but the way the CD was sequenced, the bonus-bonus song, “Every Time is the Last Time” got shoved into the same track as the remix, with a great big silence in between just for its own self-gratification. My bad.

Whether or no, the remix was sublime, and I rushed instantly to the shops to get my hands on more of this wonderful music. Dead Cities, Read Seas & Lost Ghosts was what I bought, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Fifteen-years old, and I was being treated to an electronic reinvention of My Bloody Valentine’s seminal shoegaze, with alternately woozy and then wailing synths set against pattering drum machines. It felt like the unfolding of the universe was being screened in my living room, in high definition, in a roller-disco.

Fast forward six years, and M83 have lost a founding member, gained a revolving cast of musicians with ultra-French names (Loïc, Pierre-Marie, Yann), and given birth to three more albums. Two of them, including the newest, which will see release next month, manage to be even more epic and imperious than Dead Cities… but, alas, that doesn’t necessarily make them better than that album. 2008’s Saturdays=Youth was a unique release, given the albums on either side of it. Real songs, harking back to a distinct aesthetic (the films of John Hughes), with attention paid to the overall dynamic of the album, to prevent it sounding like an unstoppable onslaught of exquisite noise.

The album before Saturdays=Youth was Before The Dawn Heals Us, and it is every bit as noirish as its title and artwork suggest. Vangelis might have turned down some of the arrangements for being too ostentatious, but the Blade Runner worship survives intact. Made-up film dialogue populates interstitial sequences, and searing guitars collide with the familiar template.

And now, or at least very soon, we have Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which is billed by its creator, Anthony Gonzalez, as being a stylistic cumulation of everything the outfit has made to date. Expect fireworks. And the birth and death of the day. And a futuristic love story hurried on by untamed oscillators and arpeggiators. Certainly, the opening two tracks, previewed in advance of the album, lend weight to Gonzalez’s suggestion. “Intro”, which features timely interjections from the unique vocal talent of Nika Roza Danilova (a.k.a. Zola Jesus), is an appropriate manifesto for the album, a warp-speed tour of M83’s career augmented by an Arcade Fire-aping choral finale. From its blissed-out embers comes the screaming, thumping “Midnight City”, which, sad to say, foregrounds Gonzalez’s more reedy pipes, which resemble a hollowed-out Dave Gahan. Stylistically, the song is a glorious mess, the National-style brass fanfare at the end adding to the discord. But it works… just.

But I can’t help but fear for the rest of the album—someone’s face could end up splattered in all that unbridled messiness.

Sex and violence, melody and silence

Just before I went travelling I was given a Kindle as a birthday present—ideal, given my voracious reading habits, and its 3G, which was a boon when I couldn’t face looking for internet cafés in Mexico. It’s great, but it’s totally changed my life as a commuter. On my way into work, I want to read, and I want to listen to music, and I’d ideally like to do both at the same time. The right way of doing this is to pick a sophisticated book, and team it with an album which is similar in mood but entirely vacuous in terms of lyrical content—or, better still, is instrumental.

My current source of literary fixation is Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, and I think I’ve found a suitable soundtrack for its tale of an outsider’s endless struggle against social conventions and the outrageous turns of Fortune.

With their bombastic, psychedelic and cloud-scraping brand of Britpop, The Verve are so much a part of the accepted 1990s canon that we don’t often step back and consider the true import of their music. Unlike with their extended contemporaries (Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, for the uninitiated), no one really thought to imitate them at the time—probably because any kind of extension on their themes would have come across as faintly ridiculous.There were tons of Britpop also-rans (hands up, who remembers Shed Seven and Menswe@r?) but none of them dared encroach on The Verve’s musical bacchanalia.

Against the sturm und drang of their music—guitarist Nick McCabe in particular really knew how to coat the songs in five layers of sonic treacle—Richard Ashcroft belted out generally context-free lyrics which expounded on universal themes which, in the hands of a lesser ego, frequently results in the most awful kind of faceless nonsense (see The Killers, Coldplay). Just look at the song titles. “So It Goes”, “Space And Time”, “One Day”: Ashcroft truly was a master generalist, capable of uniting every man on the side of his tormented everyman persona.

In this context, the christening of their purported masterpiece as Urban Hymns should be treated with indifference. The songs on it are no more urban than they are suburban, rural, arctic, mangrove or tundra. These are songs that speak to the universe, and its celestial bodies therein.

You can do cheesy things, as long as they’re original cheesy things. So The Verve got away with the sweeping, narrative-free truisms, the soaring string arrangements, and the freewheeling, slightly baggy rhythms. In fact, they did more than get away with these things: they practically invented them, and it took a good few years for trash to imitate art. You need a healthy suspension of disbelief to enjoy The Verve at their most hokey (“History”, “On Your Own”), and so too with their more meandering compositions (“Catching The Butterfly”, “Brainstorm Interlude”, most of their first album). But if they catch you at the right moment, when you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll be floored.

[DISCLAIMER: None of this applies to their “comeback” album, Forth, which really is terrible]

Five weeks; an eternity

I spent most of the summer travelling through three proximate but culturally distinct Central American countries—Mexico (specifically the Yucatán Peninsula), Cuba, and Belize. Not a typical trio to cover in one trip, but like I said, they were next to each other on a map, and like I didn’t say, I wanted to put as much distance between myself and university as possible. So that happened.

Even though the summer is traditionally a Siberian outpost as far as new music is concerned, I got back and felt like I must, surely, have missed out something big. Amy Winehouse had died while I was in Cuba, but that didn’t really count. I wanted there to have been a massive album release or new discovery that I would be forced to retrospectively acclimatise myself to; instead, there was the silly-season mush, with a few glimpses of quality piercing through a fog of festivals. The internet, it seemed, hadn’t taken kindly to my disappearance off the face of the earth (a sample comment posted on my Facebook wall read: “if you could find yourself it would be a great help, we’ve been looking everywhere, under tables, in little bins, nooks and crannies, inside the LSE penguin, google earth, but you are so little you’re not really there”), and had retaliated by sinking into indifference.

I came back and the most significant thing I could think to do, against the backdrop of starting a new job, was tackling another Steely Dan album. (For those who don’t know, several years ago, on a post-Field Music high, I bought the entire Steely Dan discography on iTunes for £7.99. An education.) Previously, I immersed myself in Aja and The Royal Scam. The former was known to be a career highlight, but also the perfect manifestation of the difficult duo at their most arch and pretentious; I loved it. The latter was the album which preceded it, and was less effusively praised; I loved it.

Now, I took on Pretzel Logic—the last album they made as a normal band i.e. the people writing the music also played the music, and then went and toured in support of the music. It’s also the album that is given the most unqualified plaudits, perhaps because the songs on it are economical, relatively conventional in structure, and less inward-looking than the jazzier compositions on Aja. Now that I have heard thoroughly three of Steely Dan’s albums, I can begin to spot their favourite chord progressions as they unravel; the same goes for their preferred guitar tones, and also the stacked harmonies they put to good use in choruses. Listening to three of their albums in reverse chronological order, as I have done (though Katy Lied, which fits in between Pretzel Logic and The Royal Scam, is still to be broken in), is an interested exercise in that it has allowed me to observe their musical hallmarks in a kind of reverse-evolution.

Whereas certain structures in the human body (e.g. the eye) seem irreducibly complex, the aforementioned Steely Dan hallmarks become, if anything, more appealing the simpler they get. So now, having appreciated the band at the apex of their existence as a ‘rock’ band (a misnomer, but it’ll do), I can see why their later albums are less universally admired. Pretzel Logic is a very fine album, with tasteful musicianship but also a more explicit sense of the fun that sometimes got lost in black humour and tricksy rhythms on the other two albums. The songs zip along tidily, and when they are at their most canonical, e.g. the folky “With A Gun”, it is easy to ascribe to the view that so much recent music is essentially derivative—and only occasionally does justice to the source material (see LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Girls).

I shall finish by quoting one of my own tweets: this may be a bad move, but it neatly presages the next few months of this blog.

See you next time.