Monthly Archives: April 2012

Hot Chip — Night And Day

The first song to be previewed from Hot Chip’s forthcoming album In Our Heads was a whistle-stop (quasi-pun, I’m afraid) tour around the world in seven minutes. The first single, “Night And Day“, is not. Instead, it’s a slice of bouncy disco that wouldn’t look out of place amongst Joe Goddard’s record collection. There’s an elastic bassline, a helium-voiced chorus that recalls the Bee Gees (or, if you’re a little young, Scissor Sisters). Neat production tricks abound, from the odd squelch in between phrases, to the knowingly shadowy vocal fills at the end of the verses.

It’s less of an instant earworm than previous Hot Chip lead singles (“Ready For The Floor” and “Made In The Dark”), but I fear it’s going to work its way into my brain before long—even if it’s just the deadpan bridge with its black-humour couplets telling us to “Quit your jibber jabber”.

Shut Up And Play The Hits

I was going to suggest I write about Shut Up And Play The Hits, the documentary chronicling LCD Soundsystem‘s final days of existence, from a dispassionate perspective. Then, I realised that was an impossible task. Then, I realised that was a pointless exercise. I don’t know what it would be like to watch this film without even a shred of knowledge about this band, and its big greying human centre James Murphy, and I don’t want to know. You might be able to appreciate it for its cinematography, borne of several celebrated visual artists; you might admire the way it cuts between thrilling in-concert footage and a snarky, nasal interview between Murphy and the critic Chuck Klosterman. But you couldn’t feel the darling buds of tears form in your mind’s eye. At least, I doubt it. In any case, no-one deserves to not have LCD Soundsystem in their lives. If you learn of this film but know nothing about the band behind it, for goodness sake make amends.

Typically, in this age, films about bands and musicians are vanity projects or cash-cows. Shut Up… is not such a film. Its directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, came to Murphy with an idea and, together, they developed that idea into a better one.

So we get an incredibly human character-study of Murphy, the morning after the night before, trimming his inimitable beard and cleaning out his coffee machine. These subtly deflate the viewer’s perception of him: just as Murphy worshipped David Bowie as an alien from Mars who couldn’t possibly wake up with a pain in his foot, so do fans of LCD Soundsystem believe their hero to be superhuman in his accomplishments and traits.

And in lockstep with this touching portrait come exhilarating chunks of performance from their last ever concert, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The songs they play have never sounded better: they have the punkish energy fans loved, but are mixed retrospectively by Murphy, also a distinguished recording engineer, himself. The camera flits between overhead shots of fans partying like they know it’s the last time—one repeated, lingering close-up of a teenager, bawling his eyes out, elicited laughter from the audience—and extended shots of members of the extended live band, fiddling with synthesizers and scraping the guts of electric guitars. Pat Mahoney’s drumming, always metronomic, always spirited, is not foregrounded but plays a crucial role from the sidelines, keeping everyone else from freaking out and imploding. At certain moments, the visuals are so sympathetic to the lyrical content of Murphy’s songs, you realise what an obvious candidate for a film his band is. The clearest example is during “All My Friends”: when Murphy asks, “Where are your friends tonight?”, the camera responds by shifting its gaze from the stage to the adoring crowd, one seething mass of togetherness.

If you thought LCD Soundsystem were all about partying, you haven’t spent much time studying James Murphy. A self-confessed failure till he was thirty, he struggled through suburbia, punk bands, lucrative DJ sets, always yearning to step out from the shadows and do something memorable in his own right. The original incarnation of LCD Soundsystem took the form of “Losing My Edge”, a painfully tragic account of younger people being painfully hip. Soon after, Murphy assembled a band of friends to play his music at parties—the best LCD Soundsystem covers band, if you will.

His is a band that never set out to start somewhere, but which wrapped up in concrete the place they would end. In one of the more bearable fragments of the Chuck Klosterman interview, Murphy is pressed to suggest what will be remembered as his band’s defining failure. After a few false starts, he delivers his answer: ending the band—maybe. Murphy feared his own justification for drawing the curtains on LCD Soundsystem would objectively be deemed inadequate. After all, he had previously said a purpose of the band was to show young people how live music could still excite, and here he was, in 2011, still showing those upstarts who was boss. In making young listeners bow down to him, Murphy failed to inspire them to ape his own act. In this context, retirement might be seen as failing to take the greatest risks imaginable.

“I was 38 and I decided to make another record. I blinked, and I was 41…if I blink again, I’ll be 50.”

I wish I could remember more of the clever things Murphy says, whether to friends on the phone, or to Klosterman, sat in an Italian restaurant. Maybe this is Klosterman’s fault: he is the kind of pretentious critic who asks questions and then, as if grabbing the microphone from his interviewee, proceeds to answer them himself. This might make for good written interviews, but it makes for pretty aggravating cinema. However, I recognise that, on occasion, Klosterman’s questions prompt Murphy to make a perceptive, insightful remark that perfectly ushers in the next segment of the film. For example, near the end, Murphy says he  likes songs “that come from a particular place”—an ideal introduction to the haunting “Someone Great”, which ends with…no, I won’t spoil it.

Another theme close to Murphy’s heart which gets a fair airing during the film is that of family. We see Murphy addressing his brother, sister and nephews from on stage. We see him greet musical acolytes (Arcade Fire join the band to sing backing vocals on “North American Scum”; the comedian and a cappella musician Reggie Watts skits through “45:33 (II)”) like soulmates. During the many songs which are shown almost in entirety, there is much embracing and unity. It’s another sign Lovelace and Southern, who also made No Distance Left To Run, the film about Blur’s fleeting rebirth, have done their homework. In conception, the film’s strands seem irreconcilable—shoehorning a four-hour concert into a documentary about the end of a band. In execution, the way the film pulls back from the humdrum and then lurches us in media res works well.

Prior to watching Shut Up…, the only comparable film I had seen was Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which follows Talking Heads at their peak over a three-night residency of the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. There are numerous similarities, from the chiaroscuro shots of the bands’ frontmen, to the obsessive highlighting of complementary percussion and amp- and keyboard-fiddling. And, of course, Talking Heads are one of the clear antecedents to LCD Soundsystem.

But Shut Up… is its own kind of film, with its nonlinear narrative (the film starts amidst a sheet of gravelly white noise, which, any dedicated fan will know, is the ‘musical’ cover for the transition between two closing-stages songs, “Yeah” and “Someone Great”) and emphasis on the pedestrian parts of so-called rock stars’ lives (making coffee, taking the dog Petunia for walks). The best way of describing it is to say it is a very LCD Soundsystem film, so in keeping with the spirit of the band and the artist that, as I suggested earlier, watching it without having heard any of their music is pointless and indefensible. The fact the music in it is so impeccably mixed and really benefits from being blasted out of a cinema is significant, if only because you will want to get out of your seat and dance.

Shut Up And Play The Hits, by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is produced by Pulse Films and distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and will be released in the summer of 2012.

Picture credits: Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace.

Spiritualized — Sweet Heart Sweet Light

There are two songs on Spiritualized‘s new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which recall the fried, reach-for-the-sun-or-die-trying splendour of Jason Pierce’s one undisputed masterpiece, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. “I Am What I Am” and “Mary” come as a consecutive pair, and they are glorious. Free-jazz skronking rockets through the former’s glammy stomp; on the latter, plaintive strings pierce through a stately pocket symphony.

More often, Sweet Heart… is a terrestrial affair, reining in the old mores and paranoia and sounding pretty joyful about having nothing much to celebrate. That’s not to say it isn’t a highly accomplished work from a true visionary; rather, it shows Jason Pierce has changed as a songwriter. Of course he still speaks the language of religion from the perspective of a non-believer—he’s not going to heaven unless God’s his chauffeur; Jesus is someone you pray to for salvation, redemption, forgiveness. Of course that makes him cling to clichés other artists would have outgrown long ago—”Love lights the flame when there’s hearts it can burn” and all that guff. And, of course, there remains a patina of druggy imagery in which he is sinner and saviour rolled into one.

“There is an elegant simplicity to parts of the album some listeners will mistake for tiredness”

But alongside all this, there is an elegant simplicity to parts of the album some listeners will mistake for tiredness, and that’s just not correct. You notice it most in the string arrangements, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn flow from Pierce’s pen. Familiar ingredients are gently transmuted into mystical, revelatory elements, as if he were an alchemist. On “Get What You Deserve”, a song whose bottom-end has been pretty much lobotomised (a carryover trait exhibited by all of the Spacemen 3), a faintly Eastern string motif weaves in and out of a misfiring organ drone, creating a sweetly woozy ambience. When John Harris interviewed Damon Albarn recently, the journalist picked up on the titling of “Caramel”, saying it was “seemingly referring to the brown goo produced when heroin is heated up”. On Sweet Light…’s more experimental cuts, there is a similarly opiate vibe.

Elsewhere, these strings are more innocent and playful, as on the soulful “Little Girl”, which could pass for a poppy Yo La Tengo number. “Life Is A Problem”, meanwhile, channels Ágætis byrjun-era Sigur Rós, in particular the palindromic arrangement of “Starálfur“. I smiled upon discovering that parts of this album were recorded at the Sundlaugin studio owned by that Icelandic post-rock outfit.

You might think, at this point, Sweet Light… is an album with an identity problem. It’s switching constantly between Pierce’s beloved 1960s pop, and the space rock he pioneered at the end of the 1980s. The lyrics betray his earlier taste for hedonism whilst also casting him as the family man (two of the songs feature the vocals of his eleven-year old daughter, Poppy).

“Pierce is visualising himself at death’s door, and he’s fine with it”

Well, no. This is a work that’s unafraid of swapping things around, but which essentially operates within one framework throughout: Pierce is visualising himself at death’s door, and he’s pretty much fine with it. The key lyric comes near the start of “Little Girl”: “Sometimes I wish that I was dead,” he sings, “‘Cause only the living can feel the pain.” From that mental image he conjures forth different strands of his life to date: the “Play loud and drive fast” mantra in the liner notes, as in the jangly opening track, “Hey Jane”; the cocky charmer waltzing through “Too Late”; the dying man on an IV drip, petering out infinitesimally, on the gospel-tinged closer “So Long You Pretty Thing”. These are Pierce’s very own seven ages of man, and, he now admits, he revels in all of them.

There are moments of supreme tact and subtlety on this album he has never even thought to attempt previously: a velvety, parping tuba here; a very British take on motorik there. There are also moments where he totally lets go, and you cannot begin to think of this being music assembled painstakingly at home by a man whose liver had disintegrated (the thoroughly mental “Headin’ For The Top Now” is the best example of this). And so this isn’t anything like, in aggregate, that previous masterpiece, but it is an album true to the spirit of that same creator, fifteen years on. And that means it’s a unique set of flavours we should all taste, at least now and again.

Spiritualized’s latest album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, was released on 16th April 2012, on Double Six Records.

Spiritualized – Hey Jane

Jason Pierce has a way with bad luck, but he’s also got a way with making fatalism triumphant. “Hey Jane“, which is the opening track on Spiritualized’s new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, is a case in point. “Hey Jane, when you gonna die?”, Pierce asks, resigned to the titular heroine’s destiny, but also rejoicing in her life.

Beneath Pierce’s burnt-out vocals is the kind of jangly, frazzled guitar popularised in The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”, and a wordless children’s choir who sing out to the heavens. Halfway through, the song collapses into the sonic equivalent of a mental breakdown, like the apogee of a Sufjan Stevens concert. But then it rides back in on a soulful motorik groove for a coda that hints at ascension.

The video, which sort of fits with the tone of the song but also sort of doesn’t, is genuinely harrowing. It follows a black transvestite prostitute, and that’s all I’ll say. Watch it.

Liars — No. 1 Against The Rush

After two more guitar-focused albums, 2007’s Liars and 2010’s Sisterworld, the permafrazzled three-piece Liars return with the largely-electronic WIXIW (pronounced ‘Wish You’, since you ask), to be released this June.

Whetting fans’ appetites is the first single “No. 1 Against The Rush” (see above), which drifts in on a burbling lake of electronics. The beat is dry and motorik, and the usually-scuzzy guitars are limited to textured fills and atmospheric vibes. Frontman Angus Andrew sounds pretty chilled; certainly more so than you would if you had recorded an album directly beneath a Los Angeles freeway, in a grimy, vice-ridden subway. There’s a definite link to The Horrors’ “Sea Within A Sea“—it’s there in the rhythm, and in the graceful array of notes played on an analogue synthesizer. The outro finishes what the intro started: highly resonant, percussive pings rattle between the channels while guitar feedback oscillates wildly, bringing the song to a juddering, but not threatening, close.

Here’s hoping there’s still some room on WIXIW for the bloodsucking yuppy vampires of old.

The crazy world of MiniCritch

Back when I was at school, the guy alphabetically proximate to me in class was into a lot of teenage emo and pop-punk. Think Fall Out Boy, Green Day, I don’t even want to remember the names of the others—he’s already going to hate me for saying this. Anyway, he went to university, switched things round a bit, and now puts the name of MiniCritch (named in honour of our old Latin teacher) to his music, which veers between caustic house and the glitchy brand of reggaeton known as ‘Moombahton’. You should definitely check his stuff out.

His latest track is “Doctor Black” (see above), which rides along a seriously fat ground bass line and has frenetic lead synths that syncopate with the four-to-the-floor beat. There are also some comedy cut-up vocal samples, which give the whole thing, like the rest of MiniCritch’s stuff, an endearingly DIY feel. Near the end, a highly-resonant line kicks in an octave up, before the track cuts out like a dying robot.

Be sure to watch out for his next move: he drops new tracks and remixes whenever he’s busy being pedagogical.

Fifty words for breathtaking

There’s a wonderful moment on “Lake Tahoe” (see above), from Kate Bush‘s 2011 album 50 Words For Snow, when she lifts her fingers from the piano for a moment, sighs exquisitely, then carries on with the plaintive chords that flesh out the song. Forget the tumbling, rumbling timpani, the fragments of lilting flute, the occasional orchestral draws—that’s the moment you realise this album was constructed in a real studio, in real time, with real and unmistakeable instruments.

Through the 1980s, Bush pioneered the use of the Fairlight CMI, an early digital sampling synthesizer which fleshed out the experimental compositions on albums like 1985’s Hounds Of Love. For some artists, the studio becomes their instrument; for Bush, it was the Fairlight. But at the same time, she never let go of her most powerful two tools: her piano, and her voice. Those were the tools that underpinned “The Ninth Wave”, the powerful and career-defining suite that forms the second side of Hounds Of Love.

On her ‘comeback’ album, Aerial, released in 2005 after a twelve-year hiatus, Bush hid her piano pretty well, even as she penned songs that were alternately wittier or more mature than before. That might have been the album’s undoing: the music behind these lengthy ruminations was sophisticated, but drifted towards the forgettable. Tastefully dry crunches of electric guitar; smoothed-out drums; a pace that never rises beyond the incidental. The industry forgave her; she had evolved into a sacred cow.

If Aerial stripped back the artifice of her supposed mythology to reveal the joy she took from mundanity (raising her son Bertie, doing the laundry, worshipping Elvis in the supermarket aisle), then 50 Words For Snow is the album which strips back musically. Never has Bush sounded so naked. That’s not to say the music isn’t complex, however. The way the piano weaves and wends its way around the two voices—those of Kate and Bertie)—in the opener “Snowflake” is rich in subtext. Between the cracks seep organic wafts of electronic resonance; the elder Bush sets the scene; the younger takes on the role of the titular snowflake, on its patient and meandering descent to earth. The next two tracks complete a trio of piano-led numbers thirty-five minutes in length; at its pinnacle is “Misty”, an adult-oriented retelling of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. The narrator falls for a snowman; she invites him back in; he melts at her touch. The morning after, soaking sheets are the only trace of their tryst. It’s a haunting tale, and it’s told in such a way that any obvious innuendo is avoided.

Hounds Of Love had a second side consisting of a piano-centred suite; 50 Words For Snow front-loads its wintry equivalent. Its back half is musically more varied: “Wild Man” takes an Irish folk jig on an expedition in the Himalayas, on the hunt for the Yeti, while “Snowed In At Wheeler Street”, a duet with Elton John (!), unfolds over eerily filtered synthesizer pulses. The title track, meanwhile, is lyrically witty but sonically evokes the 1990s paranoia of Massive Attack, with brushed drumming and penetrating, lurking bass-work. The closer, “Among Angels”, is a barely-there performance for piano and ethereal strings. As the song peters out delicately, Bush sings, “There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it / You might feel it and just now show it”, beautifully summarising the translucent, watchful and protecting gaze heavenly bodies seem to hold over this album.

It would be tempting to think of 50 Words For Snow as a seasonal gimmick—she has form, after all, having released a Christmas single in 1980, “December Will Be Magic Again“—but to do so having actually listened to this work would be criminal. The timing might have been fitting, but the songs themselves, and the way they fit together into an uneasy, creeping mood, is timeless. If this is the start of an Indian summer for Bush, I don’t care that it started in the depths of winter.

50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush was released in November 2011, on Fish People.

M83 and his Wall of sound

The more time I spend with M83’s recent double-album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the more I understand its place in the history of progressive music. By eschewing the shoegaze structures that characterised their breakthrough album, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, the band has managed to weld together the perfect kind of lengthy, wandering album. There were hints of the pop ethic on their previous full-length, Saturdays = Youth, but this time round the choruses are bigger, the vocals clearer, and the studious techno marathons reduced to interstitial passages.

If you’re looking for the album’s clear antecedent, it’s got to be Pink Floyd’s The Wall, released in 1979, which was a sprawling opus of tangled emotions and paranoia, but also, crucially, had a fair few easily-strummable hits that were then dressed up in ceremonially progressive garb. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is an awful lot more triumphant than The Wall, and it’s not convoluted by even the sketchiest of narrative conceits. All the same, the parallels are plain to see. Continue reading M83 and his Wall of sound

I wrote previously about Floating Points’ ambitious techno, which aims for a cerebral corner of the galaxy, and doesn’t mind getting jazzy. “ARP3” is perhaps the most syncretic cut on his recent Shadows EP, with foreboding bass peregrinating between delicate pulses of synth. Beneath it all a snazzily Leslied Rhodes piano plants down the chords, while the first half rides along a shaker- and hi-hat-heavy rhythm track.

Halfway through, the beat drops out, the synths get more granular and fuzzy, and then there’s just the mother of all drops. It’s like standing on a platform attached to a space station, and then having that platform pulled out from beneath your feet.

“ARP3” is taken from the Shadows EP by Floating Points, released on Eglo Records in November 2011.

Chord changer, life changer

It’s the rule that 80 per cent of what’s written about James Mercer’s The Shins should refer to Natalie Portman’s gushing endorsement in Garden State.

“You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life; I swear”,

is what she said in the 2004 film, referring to “New Slang”. But I don’t think The Shins changed too many people’s lives, mainly because Mercer’s creativity seemed to have dried up soon after the release of 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. That album was clearly the work of an auteur and his sometime bandmates—emotionally disenchanted, studio-laden, heavy with storytelling—and the story behind this new comeback album, Port Of Morrow, does little to dispel the prevailing attitude. Very publicly, this time, Mercer shoved away his old band, bringing to bear the idea that they were only ever bit-part players. Very privately, he holed himself up in studios with Greg Kurstin, an old hand who has worked with an array of chart-friendly pop singers, to create a subtle and elegantly understated gem of a record. Continue reading Chord changer, life changer