Tag Archives: indie

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

The fourth album from Arctic Monkeys has a front cover. And, you might say…

… it sucks.

Actually this is very clever, if you think about it carefully. The album’s title is inviting the listener to peer in, without preconceptions based on art production, photography, visual signals etc. In that context, such a pristine, unblemished design is probably perfect.

2010, Q1 – Album Update

Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.

Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.

1. Transference – Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.

2. Contra – Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.

3. Sisterworld – Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.

4. Plastic Beach – Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.

5. One Life Stand – Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!

6. There Is Love In You – Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.

7. Field Music (Measure) – Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.

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.

Vampire Weekend – Contra

The allure of a MySpace preview proved too great. I’ve only gone and loaded up Vampire Weekend’s profile to sample the subtleties of their eagerly-awaited sophomore album, Contra. Well, I say subtleties, but it’s inevitable that somewhere in Rupert Murdoch’s machine, many of the nuances on this record have been eaten up by the low-bitrate monster. In which case, January 11th might be a better point at which to assess this smart, surprisingly low-key creation, which limbers in on a twinkling of keyboards and Ezra Koenig’s wide-eyed, gulping voice, and departs on a plaintive lament.

OK, but I really must say some things about this album right now. First up, it’s considerably less upbeat than the band’s eponymous debut. Where songs once fell into rousing choruses, now everything is tinged with sadness and regret and reflection. Where the music used to fall back on punk, now the default setting is slightly detuned morse code synths and pitter-patter beats. At one point, it even goes all dancehall-via-AutoTune.

Secondly, it’s much less baroque. I mentioned the instrumentation earlier, but what strikes me repeatedly about Contra is how much more modern it sounds. Yes, lead single “Cousins” evokes early Police, but it sits snugly next to songs like “White Sky” and “Run”, which play up the same set of presets as used by keyboard-whizz Rostam Batmanglij on his side-project, Discovery.

Anything else to report on? Of course, Ezra Koenig’s lyrics ought to be scrutinised carefully. 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.

I think I’ll leave it at that for now. But give me another day to digest this work and I’ll probably be back with more thoughts.

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp

I like the fact that Yeasayer appear on Bat For Lashes’ thoroughly excellent Two Suns LP, even though I’m still not exactly sure what they contributed to the album. Both artists are big on percussion; both major on otherworldly sounds that creep into memorable melodies. Now, as a taster of Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, we have the free single “Ambling Alp”, whose title captures perfectly the loping, jaunty rhythm of the song.

“Ambling Alp” emerges from a pool of electronic gurgling and ethereal, percussive cries of joy. The beat is triplet-heavy and rolls about between the channels; Chris Keating’s vocals recall a bygone era of impassioned pop music, occasionally breaking into a spectrum of harmonies. The chorus benefits from parps of brass, and the repeated couplet of

Stick up for yourself, son; Never mind what anybody else done

is going to be sticking around in my head all week. Unsurprisingly, it’s a blast. As the song rides out on a turbocharged tropical melody, I was left relentlessly upbeat and perfectly content with the freezing cold weather outside. Yeasayer have brought the summer back to the world, even in the harshest depths of winter. Can we ask for anything more satisfying?

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp

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.

I’m seeing double and triple: does this ever happen to you?

Yo La Tengo are one of those bands that I really should have got into around the time I got into Wilco, Modest Mouse and Sonic Youth. They’re one of the great cult indie groups of the last twenty years, and I regret not hearing wonderful albums like I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out earlier on. Many critics would say that the band are at their strongest when exploring polar opposites in quick succession – witness the 11-minute freak-out of “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” being followed by the succint pop of “Beanbag Chair” – and, on recent evidence, their forthcoming twelfth album, entitled Popular Songs, will be a continuation of their present form.

Two tracks have been released on the sly, for free, into the wider cybernetic community, and each reveals a very different facet of the band. The first to be tentatively revealed was the tight, bluesy “Periodically Double Or Triple”, which contrasts Ira Kaplan’s nervous, hushed vocals with a storming organ groove and an insistent, shuffling beat. Halfway through, in place of a middle-eight, the song suddenly cuts to a burst of dissonant lift-music in one of those unexpected about-turns that is sure to leave some listeners scratching their heads. For me, it’s the perfect antidote to what has gone before it in the song, and when the regular riff cuts back in, I felt pleasingly refreshed, an effect intensified by the barbershop backing vocals.

The latest track to be set free is the opening track of Popular Songs, entitled “Here To Fall”, and it couldn’t be more different from “Periodically…”. Emerging from a noisy squall of reverb and wah-wah reminiscent of The Verve at their prime, a buzzing bass guitar leads into a beautifully evocative psychedelic passage, with soaring strings and lilting electric piano. Here, Kaplan’s vocals are equally anxious and lacking in confidence, which fits perfectly with the tentative exploration and frontier-breaking of the music. The percussion is intricate and precious, and washes of effected noise break out between the channels. The chorus, offering the dubious opening couplet of “I know you’re worried / I’m worried too,” is a thing of wonder and amazement, with the lyrics falling between gaps in the music in a manner that could so easily have been messy and ill-thought out. There are lovely little passages of instrumental virtuosity, and the song finally resolves into a neat string arrangement that sets up the rest of the album perfectly.

I really can’t wait for Popular Songs and I encourage you to check out these two early gems. Yo La Tengo’s finest albums are known for veering between wildly divergent styles without compromising on a consistent feel and thematic link, and I dearly hope that their twelfth LP will deliver on these qualities. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

Yo La Tengo – Periodically Double Or Triple

Yo La Tengo – Here To Fall

Spoon – Got Nuffin

For me, the appeal of Spoon lies in their economy and their minimalism. On an album like Kill The Moonlight, Britt Daniel and co. showed off a range of styles and structures, but never let any element get ahead of the others – consequently, nothing runs further than it needs to, and no song is extended beyond the bare minimum required to convey a lyrical theme. My only hesitation with it was that some songs felt slightly sketchy and underdeveloped. Pleasingly, on 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, an album about which I have enthused much, Spoon showed a mastery of their art: the style is still almost goadingly economical, but certain songs are fleshed out with greater maturity. “The Underdog”, for instance has a glossy horn section that I simply could not have imagined them using on a previous album.

The prospect of new music, then, is an exciting one, and the latest EP, entitled Got Nuffin, will offer a tantalising snapshot of the band’s current fascinations. The title track, “Got Nuffin”, is right up there at the top of their game. The drums are crisp and urgent; Daniel’s vocal tics and yelps are still very much a fixture, adding emotional detail to an already foreboding air. On a couple of occasions, guitars de-tune ominously, and after about a minute, an insistent piano part pings away in the left channel. Some people have compared it to Deerhunter’s excellent “Nothing Ever Happened”, and it’s true to say that both songs share a motorik beat, and a similar use of feedback and stabs of guitar. But they’re really very different beasts, and Got Nuffin is an exceptionally well-crafted four-minute slice of magic, where the tension continually mounts, without any release. The end sees the piano build to a more substantial role, and the guitar threaten to envelop the whole song, before a teasing fade-out leaves us gagging for more. Any ideas when we’ll be hearing a new album from the band?