Tag Archives: album

Spoon don’t need your soul

…because they’ve got plenty of their own.

Four years ago, people found Transference off-putting: long, melancholy songs riding on seemingly-endless grooves before cutting out mid-phrase; sparse demos peppering a nocturnal landscape of blank-eyed art rock. They were mistaken, of course, but let bygones be bygones. Continue reading Spoon don’t need your soul

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

Normal service will resume shortly…

Yes, I realise my activity on the blog has been minimal in the last week or so – my apologies. It’s been election season at university, meaning most of my time has been occupied with newspaper stuff and not much else.

Luckily, there’s only a week and a bit till the Easter holidays, so expect very soon some mumbled verbiage on the subject of:

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Shy Child – Liquid Love

Field Music – Field Music (Measure)

Liars – Sisterworld

Foals – “Spanish Sahara”

and maybe some other sonic goodness too.

[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).

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.

Spoon – Transference

It was perhaps inevitable, given Spoon’s stubbornly indie ways, that their follow-up to follow 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is willfully ragged, challenging and melody-free. Transference is hardly a krautrock behemoth; nonetheless, from the first wavering organ drone of “Before Destruction”, over which Britt Daniel growls like a spectator to the end of days, to the atonal tape loops that cut through the closer, “Nobody Gets Me But You”, this is a deliberately difficult work.

That’s not to say that Transference is a bad album – in fact, it’s a very good album. Self-produced, and often committed to tape from home recordings and demo tracks, the album veers between acoustic laments targeting primal emotions (“Goodnight Laura”, “Out Go The Lights”), and shuffling, dubby funk (“Who Makes Your Money”), in which Daniel’s sparse vocals are further obscured by the kind of playful production trickery the band has become known for. In-studio chatter is prevalent in the interstitial few seconds between tracks; on several occasions, songs either end abruptly, or suddenly isolate one instrument which peters out in a disconcerting fashion.

It’s not all shunt and groove, luckily – that would have been somewhat monotonous and overly gloomy. Spoon may have pruned their brand of minimalist art pop down to the bare essentials, but they’re still apt to throw a wobbly now and again, as on the barreling, piano-thrashing R&B (in a fifties sense, not à la Beyoncé) of “Written In Reverse” which recalls the grander moments of Gimme Fiction, or indeed the scratchy lo-fi of “Trouble Comes Running”, where the drums and guitars are entirely panned to opposing channels in a defiantly Pavement-esque style reminiscent of 1998’s A Series of Sneaks.

Some will argue that Spoon’s relentless infatuation with sparseness and economy has turned to parody on Transference. I would argue that the singleness of vision displayed on this album result in a subtle, vaguely creepy sense of cohesion that lend it an understated appeal that resembles a more low-key variant on the midnight ruminations of Spoon’s 2002 magnum opus, Kill The Moonlight.

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.

Hot Chip – One Life Stand

Much as I enjoyed Hot Chip’s third album, Made In The Dark, I’ll admit that it was a slightly cluttered, claustrophobic listen. There was a lot going on in some of the tracks – “Shake A Fist” and “Don’t Dance” in particular – and though this was offset by the sparser, more low-key numbers (the title track, for instance, was  a masterpiece of concision), the overall vibe was very busy and slightly unfocused. Which is why I’m very excited by the literature surrounding the band’s forthcoming fourth album, entitled One Life Stand because a range of sources have suggested that it will be a more stripped-down and focused affair – an album’s album, if you will.

The album’s release is being preceded by a digital release of the title track which, in truncated form, occupies a radio-friendly three-and-a-half-minutes. And it’s a great pop song, in the catchy mould of “Ready For The Floor”, albeit with an added jaggedness and bite. “Tell me where you’ve been… where you’ve been staying” whispers Alexis Taylor in his most conspiratorial tone, backed by clattering steel drums and a synth line rich in overtones. After a time, synth-wizard Joe Goddard pipes in with a somewhat supernatural moan which continues throughout the chorus, followed by one of the most glorious, buzzing synth melodies I’ve heard in a long time. “One Life Stand” is foreboding and seductive; its relatively simplistic structure belies the love of pop music beating at its core. It’s a wonderful addition to the band’s catalogue of cult classics, and I really do expect it to break high into the charts.

Hot Chip  – One Life Stand (embedding disabled by Parlophone, joyless souls that they are)

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.