“Is anyone out there wasting their lives
On booze and drugs and husbands and wives and making money?”
Grinderman 2 isn’t that dissimilar, thematically, from Nick Cave‘s day job – there’s a fair bit of religion, and a preoccupation with hedonistic perils, among other things. Musically, however, it’s unafraid to stretch out a bit: “Evil” is the sludgiest bit of stoner rock-cum-death metal I’ve ever heard Cave wail over, and the dissonant jazz squalls on “Worm Tamer” are left untouched by maracas. Perhaps the closest the album gets to the brooding balladry of, say, The Boatman’s Call, or the non-garage rock portions of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, is “When My Baby Comes”.
After an opening trio of swaggering, dirty blues, such respite is welcome, especially when it comes draped in mandolin adornments and boasts an opening passage with a close resemblance, dare I say it, to “Night of the Lotus Eaters”. Lucky, then, that “When My Baby Comes” also boasts one of Cave’s finest (and novel) choruses, which eventually erupts into a second half that’s substantially different. As in, the string arrangement is swept upwards into a frenzied shriek, the mandolin totally vanishes, and the predominant instrumentation comes from a howling lead guitar piercing through a filthy, groaning bassline.
Towards the end, all this madness is swallowed up into a fog of creepy FX, but only temporarily, because then the bass kicks in again with hurricane-like force for a desperate coda overlaid with a similarly impassioned vocal arrangement.
I’ve already listened to this one song at least five times today, and there’s still a good eight hours of it left.
At the apogee of the post-punk revival, you’d have been sensible in assuming that Interpol could reasonably expect to win big. With two albums under their belt, each with one foot on critical acclaim and the other on a reasonable level of commercial success, the band penned a doubtless lucrative contract with Capitol/Parlophone and so began the logical next step in their career, on a major label.
Except, showboating their new riches, they then made an embarrassingly mediocre album – Our Love To Admire. This major-label debut boasted all kinds of studio gimmickry (the synthesised oboe solo in “Pioneer To The Falls” springs instantly to mind), complicated song structures (I don’t think they’ll be repeating the reverse-vocal passage in “Wrecking Ball” any time soon), and the sticky production fingers of Rich Costey, who had at the time triumphantly helmed the production of Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations. Two things that the album lacked, however, were the tunes, and the cool. Our Love To Admire wasn’t filled to the brim with genuinely bad songs (though I’ll gladly bestow that accolade on “Rest My Chemistry”); the problem derived more from the fact that too many of the songs were bland, cheesy, forgettable and… uncool.
There, I said it. Somewhere along the line, between touring in support of Antics and the tortured gestation of Our Love…, Interpol wound up losing their cool. Where previously Paul Banks traded in a kind of lovably abstract circumlocution, now his lyrics were just plain wince-inducing. Where before Daniel Kessler had woven intriguing guitar-based journeys between the chords of songs, he now beat a sledgehammer through songs with over-processed, over-compressed textures. In an act of brutal criminality, Interpol forgot that it was their rhythm section that had made the band, downplaying at their peril Carlos Dengler‘s elastic disco basslines and Sam Fogarino‘s tricksy stickwork.
The closing track on Antics was, as far as I can make out, about a father and son arguing on a boat, Talented Mr. Ripley-style, written from the point of view of a sea urchin.
Track two on Our Love To Admire was about wanting a threesome to rescue your relationship.
Lucky, then, that for album number four, sophisticated Paul has showed up for the lyrics workshop, dispelling the tired rockstar clichés that so plagued its predecessor. But does the music match the lyrical and thematic intrigue?
Well, not quite. For one thing, the band appear to have developed a taste for some pretty unfashionable techniques, possibly taken from an instruction manual for a previous version of Rich Costey. So we get heaps of multi-tracked vocals tackling every possible harmony; oddly jarring drum machines in place of Sam Fog’s natural talent; synthesised orchestral arrangements floating on scummy washes of guitar. So far, so uncool.
There are songs that try and serve up the band’s former breed of choppy post-punk, like “Success” and lead single “Barricade”. These would be fine, if a bit derivative, except that they manage to sound at the same time laboured and skew-whiff. This is Type 1 Uncool: Forgivably uncool.
Then there are songs that try and improve upon the atmospherics of the previous album, shoehorning in lounge piano and tepid string arrangements and god-knows-what-else. The finale, entitled “The Undoing”, sees Paul Banks pleading with a Spanish version of himself. Toy Story 3, this is not. Songs like this, and also “Try It On” are Type 2 Uncool: Look Away Now, Modestly, Before They Attempt Something Even More Foolish.
Though I haven’t given this album up for dead yet, there is a line of criticism about Interpol so spot on I feel further analysis is possibly redundant. In the words of Dan Nishimoto, writing for Prefix Magazine,
Where they used to sound like the crackling of a subway car rounding a bend or the seediest alleys of New York in the pre-dawn hours, here they sound like alt-rock renderings of what moody post-punk is supposed to sound like.
Bands usually self-title their albums to set out their position. If it’s a debut, this is the band’s pocket-sized introduction of what to expect from them in the coming years (or, in the modern age, the coming fortnight, while their hype-inflated worth is still riding high on Twitter). If it’s an album later in the band’s career, this suggests a definitive account with subtle reinvention, as if this is from where future listeners should draw a template. If this was Interpol’s ambition, then I am tempted to say Carlos Dengler was justified in walking away from the band as soon as the album was completed, so that he does not feature in such a template.
And this wasn’t even supposed to be a review of the album.
Always good to see Nick Cave’s 9-to-5 office hours paying dividend, whichever outlet from which it may emerge. Grinderman’s eponymous first album was a lecherous riot and a blessed offering to Onan. This time round, the primates are out and the wolfman is in, as evidenced by artwork and lyrics currently doing the rounds.
None of this can prepare you, however, for the hungry, visceral power of lead single, “Heathen Child”, which is best heard in conjunction with its John Hillcoat-directed video. Warning: this video is nothing like The Road. Consistently hilarious in its lyrics (“She don’t care about Allah – she is the Allah”) and bursting with Warren Ellis’ typically squalling noisemakers, “Heathen Child” is a seething, slithering mountain of MENACE, and it’s out to get you, personally.
She’s sitting in the bathtub, sucking her thumb…
Oh, and did I mention there’s a special version of the song (entitled “Super Heathen Child”, because Nick Cave doesn’t care about looking ridiculous) engorged with a guitar solo from Mr. Robert Fripp?
The album, Grinderman 2, is out on September 13th. Prepare for a snarling monster of bluesy madness that makes Jack White’s chimerical side-projects look like Fisher Price nursery rhymes.
“Drunk Girls” is a predictable LCD Soundsystem lead single. Witty and punky, it’s the natural successor to “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” and “North American Scum”. It sounds like Bowie, in the sense that Blur’s “M.O.R” sounds like “Boys Keep Swinging”.
“All I Want” is what happens when you give James Murphy almost seven minutes to ape Bowie. Clattering in after five seconds of studio noise, and riding on an unending krautrock beat, “All I Want” is like the super-awesome sequel to “”Heroes”” that Bowie never wrote. Over victorious piano chords and a beautifully cocky lead guitar squall, Murphy comes over all Bono, intoning “I’ve never needed anyone for so long” in a pretty world-leading style. At this point, “All I Want” could be the second cousin of “Beautiful Day”.
Then, magically, the 70s art rock is overtaken by a terrifically squiggly synth melody which ascends in a manner initially euphoric, and then downright cosmic. Channelling the further-out reaches of electronic music through a beating heart of pop is a decision I initially treated with some scepticism, especially since the direction Murphy’s keyboard travels is a bit… self-indulgent, shall we say. To his credit, in amidst all the portamento-fuelled weirdness, the song never loses control and always remains just about in orbit. As he and his bandmates wail out “Take me ho-oooome!” and the piece decays into gorgeous vapours, you think, yes, he’s pulled it off.
“All I Want” is definitely the kind of epic art rock that nobody has dared tackle for at least 30 years. It manages to be simultaneously extremely louche (in a white chinos and deck shoes kind of way) and also super-slick – and one senses this is probably the smallest of compliments I’ll be handing Mr. Murphy by the time I’ve heard the rest of This Is Happening.
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 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.
Themes 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.
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.
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.
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.