Tag Archives: album review

Hot Chip — In Our Heads

I thought One Life Stand would surely stand the test of time as the acme of Hot Chip‘s love affair with love. Just look at that title! With its lush, soulful electro-pop about monogamy and brotherhood, it seemed to set a benchmark that I didn’t think the band would try and beat. And yet. Continue reading Hot Chip — In Our Heads

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Field Music — Plumb

Nothing divides opinion like prog. Some lap it up; others despise it; few just “tolerate” it. Field Music, which is a distinctly average name for the partnership of David and Peter Brewis, are often mistaken for prog, but this doesn’t quite hit the mark: prog is dogged, and riffs on the same theme for an extended period of time before veering into a new and sometimes unexciting direction. Field Music may explore a diverse range of instruments and textures and genres in their work but, by contrast, they are restless, skitting from sound to sound like schoolboys let loose in a sweetshop.

The Brewis brothers, who are Sunderland natives and wear their small-town heritage proudly on their sleeves, last released an LP in 2010: Field Music (Measure) was an expansive double album with a second half heavy on bucolic ambience which was sui generis compared with their previous work. The first half was at once more familiar, but also steeped in the shock of the new—more swagger in the guitars on “Each Time Is A New Time”, more seduction in the Princely funk of “Let’s Write A Book”. It was weird, didn’t really work in a live setting, and I loved it.

Seventy minutes versus thirty-five. That’s the first thing that hits you when you look at …Measure’s follow-up, the obtusely titled Plumb. This new release is half the size but bristles with energy, engaging with snippets of moods and scenes across its fifteen songs, which run the gamut between forty-second interludes to three-minute pocket epics. Field Music refuse to settle, as evidenced by their inter-album transformations, and also by the intra-album prevarication which typifies Plumb.

“I want a different idea of what / Better can be that / Doesn’t necessitate having more useless / Shit.”

Lyrically, they’re certainly on more well-worn terrain, exploring the minutiæ of drizzly, transport-laden, indecisive England. There are lyrical sighs on this album which could power entire episodes of Countdown, Antiques Roadshow or Look East. Love is always unrequited, and any anger (“My generation are opting out of choosing sides”, from “Choosing Sides”, is at once fed-up and wistful) quickly dissipates into a wave of deference.

But one mistakes this cosiness for inertia at one’s peril: thematically, there is definite progression from previous Field Music releases. For example, the questioning song-titles (“Who’ll Pay The Bills?”, “Is This The Picture?”, “How Many More Times?”) speak of generational dissatisfaction and a sadness at the age of austerity. It’s not a universal proclamation that “Modern life is rubbish”—in fact, the brothers’ view of society is far more nuanced, and tinged with pleasant anecdotes.

The social commentary may put Plumb in the realm of Gang of Four and XTC, but the scope of styles, tempos, time signatures and textures skated over evades comparison. Compositionally, the album is frequently dazzling and broad. To consider just one exotic pairing, the rousing and punkish final track, “(I Keep Thinking Abou) A New Thing” is preceded by three minutes of bruised krautrock, “Just Like Everyone Else”. Elsewhere, we find homemade found sounds competing against crisp and intricate beats (as in “A New Town”—see top of article) and, in general, there is a great deal more variety than the electric piano fallback of old. The sweetshop analogy rings true, with assiduous selections of stringed instruments, obscure keyboards, and the occasional mournful tuba.

There are also moments of supreme tenderness—as in “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street”, which could have soundtracked one of those awkward scenes in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the stately”So Long Then”—which is not an emotion associated with either post-punk or prog. But tenderness does lie at the heart of what Field Music are really about: sweet pop music, refracted into a thousand disparate pieces.

Duffers are harder to ignore in a thirty-five minute song-cycle, compared with the odyssey that was Field Music (Measure): “From Hide And Seek to Heartache” quickly wears on the listener, for one. But this remains an album of understated brilliance; seldom showy, there is always a treat of a three-part vocal harmony or an elegant string arrangement just around the corner. It might be an album that you initially admire, and eventually love. How long that journey takes is probably an English settlement.



Plumb by Field Music was released on 13th February 2012 by Memphis Industries.

Tago Mago at 40

I won’t forget the first time I heard Can’s seminal krautrock record, Tago Mago. Although history isn’t on my side—I wasn’t in a dingy basement in Berlin, or a warehouse party in New York, or a grotty den in Camden—the setting was so fitting it bears recollection. In the winter of 2008 I travelled across Rajasthan; my soundtrack was a combination of familiar favourites and things I was too young (or not-alive) to have appreciated when they first came out. Jouncing around in the back of an SUV as we journeyed through the desert-and-fortress vista, the album that did the most justice to the surroundings was Tago Mago, whose 40th anniversary is now being celebrated with a commemorative re-release.

Tago Mago is an album of split personalities. The first such division that strikes you is the alternately blissed-out and then frenetic freeform scat of the band’s vocalist Damo Suzuki. He sings and screams in the loosest approximation of English, and sounds perpetually terrified of mankind’s impending doom. The next thing you notice is how keenly the album is halved. The first half is lithely propelled along by Jaki Liebezeit’s instantly recognisable drumming, with subtly tricky polyrhythms coalescing into fragments of funk. Alongside Liebezeit’s continual presence is a palette of strangled electric guitar and limber bass-lines, which continue to crop up through decades of punk, post-punk and disco.

The second half is a freer affair which owes more to improvised jazz and the contemporary experiments in musique concrète. After the relentless eighteen-minutes-plus of “Halleluhwah”, this spacious second half takes you to the other side of the universe, or to another part of your consciousness. Menacing drones and industrial noise collide with Suzuki’s deranged wailing; now and again in drift primitive electronic rhythms. It’s the birth of ambient music, and it makes you realise how derivative all that followed inevitably was.

Of course, I came to love the album having already been a recipient of krautrock’s largesse, in that it had influenced plenty of albums I already knew. Far from diluting the experience, the benefit of hindsight made me appreciate more profoundly the sheer volume of different movements, aesthetics and genres that splintered out from this very special album. And I’m sure that when we consider the music that may emerge in the next forty years, a fair share of it will still be traceable to these seven sprawling, entangled pieces of music.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

I’m not going to spend this review talking about the release of The King of Limbs, the eighth studio album from Radiohead. All I will say on the subject is that the album’s genteel but unanticipated announcement reflects perfectly the content of it.

As with all Radiohead albums, initial impressions may subsequently turn out to be wildly inaccurate, but I would liken The King of Limbs to two forebears, both stylistically and contextually: the quintet’s own Amnesiac (2001), and Blur’s pre-departure farewell, Think Tank (2003). Like the former, The King of Limbs is hype-free, glitchy, and pits the organic against the synthetic in an extremely natural way. Like the latter, this album is limber and light-footed, and betrays a substantial African influence. This is music to listen to while floating above a pastoral idyll – but with the brevity of a Tube journey.

In spite of this overriding sensation of the folksy, the album opens with its least accessible foot forward: “Bloom” does exactly what it says on the tin, but in an unexpected way. From clattering percussion atop a piano loop already called Glass-ian, Thom Yorke moans indefinably, his words practically yawned out. But the secret weapon is the bass – another link to Think Tank, which featured Alex James’s nimble fretwork more prominently than any other instrument. Here, Colin Greenwood’s style recalls that of Dave Holland, who manned the double bass on Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, or, more recently, a more leisurely Thundercat, as heard on Flying Lotus’s 2010 magnum opus Cosmogramma.

A strong emphasis on groove is borne out on a couple of songs – “Morning Mr Magpie” is hypnotic, as is the 21st century Can of “Lotus Flower” – but always there is elegant counterpoint from (Colin) Greenwood. Brother Jonny is less apparent on the guitar, but his role in the electronics department is probably not to be understated. The King of Limbs is a very modern album in its use of loops and wafting samples, never more so than on quasi-instrumental “Feral”, which rubs ghostly fragments against tribal percussion. Rather than simply paying homage to their dubstep contemporaries, it’s nice to see Radiohead refreshing an already tired genre.

But The King of Limbs has its six-string moments too, and it’s here that the Amnesiac comparisons start to make even more sense. “Little By Little” is a strange mash-up of “Dollars & Cents” and “I Might Be Wrong”, right down to the insistent drumming of Phil Selway. A little later, “Give Up The Ghost” channels campfire songs through a reverb spring, with an army of Thom Yorkes backing up the vocals in bewildering fashion – cooing, barking, resonating like E-Bowed guitar.

Amidst all the skronky jazz and accomplished krautrock, you’d be forgiven for thinking The King of Limbs has no heart. Luckily, “Codex” saves the day. Funereal piano and occasional sub-bass thumps are the soundtrack to the now-expected Yorkeian contemplation on mortality, and it’s true, this is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful composition. Strange chord changes and mournful woodwind only augment the melancholia.

The inclusion of a song like “Codex” speaks volumes about this album. Radiohead may still be able to surprise their fans with a totally unexpected release, but the songs themselves don’t quite beguile the listener like they used to. This is a solid release, building upon the “seduction songs” favoured on 2007’s In Rainbows, and introducing orchestral and electronic textures by turns majestic and occasionally sinister. But there’s no confusing this for a Kid A or an OK Computer – even at their most rural, the Radiohead of 2011 are just too lush and inviting.

Hercules And Love Affair – Blue Songs

Andy Butler from Hercules and Love Affair
Image by acedout via Flickr
The eponymous debut from Hercules And Love Affair was the ultimate album to wallow in your own self-pity to. Charting the rise and fall of gay disco culture, from Studio 54 at its peak to the pitiless devastation of AIDS, the album was a loving and sybaritic pastiche, importing the sounds and sensations of a bygone era.
Around half of the troupe’s follow-up, Blue Songs, wants to be similarly anecdotal and reminiscent. Beguiling opening track “Painted Eyes” introduces us to the album’s secret emotional weapon, Venezuelan-born singer Aerea Negrot, whose intonation is as exotic as her background would suggest. Over an urgent rhythm and string arrangement, the lyrics are elegant and yearning – a trick Negrot repeats a couple of tracks later on the soulful “Answers Come In Dreams”.
At its most ambitious moments, Blue Songs is a triumph. The brace of songs that form the centrepiece, “Boy Blue” and “Blue Song”, are autobiographical compositions, and hearken back to very un-obvious forebears. The former is an acoustic strum written as a paean to Sinéad O’Connor, which builds to an echoing climax; the latter is a lazily tropical number with woodwind, Jew’s harp, and polyrhythms galore.
The trouble is, the other half of the album follows more base desires, with more rote and predictable outcomes. The rot begins with “Falling”, which deals in the same musical tropes Hercules And Love Affair have employed to better effect elsewhere, and reaches crisis point on “Visitor”, which is about as interesting as listening to a dishwasher for five minutes. H&LA main man Andy Butler usually wears his influences on his sleeve, but here the sticky fingers of Mark Pistel and Patrick Pulsinger are present not only in spirit but in person too. If anything, this invitation to collaborate robs the songs of their excitement.
The album closes on an even weirder note, with a wobbly cover of the Sterling Void song “It’s Alright”, popularised by the Pet Shop Boys in 1989. The effect is haunting, with Butler’s adolescence and futurism colliding via the strangely dispassionate singing of his partner-in-crime Kim Ann Foxman.
My admittedly high expectations of Blue Songs have not been matched fully in the album’s execution. Butler has shown he can write music that evokes the spirit of old-school disco, but here, all too often, he looks to a different historical period; one that he is unable to recreate so well, in spite of its obvious significance in his personal development. A missed opportunity.
Pick ‘n’ mix: My House, Answers Come In Dreams, Boy Blue.

LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening – (Re)appraisal

Two months on from when my much-promised review of This Is Happening never materialised, I now feel ideally poised to reflect on the album’s longer-lasting appeal. Now that the dust has settled on Mr. Murphy’s downcast visage, and my initial, giddy, excitement has died down, what remains is a perpetual slow-burning joy at this lovingly crafted, beautifully expressed object. Continue reading LCD Soundsystem — This Is Happening – (Re)appraisal

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.

Vampire Weekend – Contra (Mk. II)

Yes, I’m back. I couldn’t really keep away from this intriguing little album for much longer. In fact, I’ll probably end up writing a third (and final!) review of Contra as a kind of blog-exclusive. The micro-review below is to be printed in next week’s PartB culture supplement of my university newspaper, The Beaver. Enjoy!

What I really loved about Vampire Weekend was its fusing of catchy pop music, subtle world influences, and some seriously smart lyrics about “college” life. It was the great unifying soundtrack to my first year at university, depicting the perfect, globe-trotting lives of four Ivy Leaguers while I stumbled drunkenly around rainy, gloomy London. That their critiques of privileged youth appropriating distant cultural trends were misinterpreted as somehow endorsing colonialism was bizarre – as anyone who listened properly to “Oxford Comma” would know, Ezra Koenig wasn’t so much flaunting his knowledge of punctuation as criticising that kind of pedant.
Anyway, now they’re back, with the knowingly titled Contra – a wink and a nod to The Clash, and we’re off, with the starry-eyed vocals and thumb piano of “Horchata”, a song that rhymes aforesaid milky drink with “balaclava” and “aranciata”. Cheeky bugger. The next song, “White Sky”, melds the chirpiness of the band’s debut with a new-found love of synthesiser bleeps and beats, no doubt informed by producer-at-large Rostam Batmanglij’s side-project Discovery.

At this point, the most noticeable change in direction exhibited on Contra must be brought to the fore – namely, the sense of sadness and regret that tinges large swathes of the album. This is not such an upbeat album as even a song like “Holiday” would suggest: where cheeky verses once practically fell into rousing choruses, now the default setting is slightly detuned synths and pitter-patter beats. It’s certainly less baroque, as the AutoTuned dancehall of “California English” and the ambitious, sample-heavy “Diplomat’s Son” will testify.

The second noteworthy progression on Contra is, unsurprisingly, in the lyrics. Vampire Weekend was very much an album about campus life; Contra is all about this same set of Ivy League types graduating, inheriting the earth, and now re-evaluating their place in society. So, relationships crumble, and tales of distant shores are nostalgic and wistful. Which, all told, is probably a good thing, because I don’t think another thirty-six minutes of cold professors studying romances, and Blake, with his new face, would have washed with Vampire Weekend’s more astute listeners. Contra is a subtle, limbering creature; less catchy and celebratory; more reflective and critical in its aesthetic and lyrical bent.