Tag Archives: song

“And then, when it can’t get any more laughable: clarinet solo.”

Hmm. The NME’s review really enjoys pissing on Mr. Bellamy’s parade. The best bits on The Resistance usually occur when the band push their sound to polarising extremes. Hence why “I Belong To You (+ Mon Cœur S’Ouvre À Ta Voix)” is an absolute riot, in spite of its threat to break into Elton John doing cabaret at any given moment. Yes, Bellamy’s French accent resembles a daytripping tourist on acid. Yes, there is a celebratory “Woo!” at the beginning that belongs firmly on Broadway. But, as with so many of Muse’s best songs, it is the wavering on the right side of ridiculous that is the song’s making. Understandably therefore, the clarinet solo near the end is a work of genius – beautifully written; played with just the right tone and character; interlocking marvellously with the rest of the music.

So why, after all this star-struck amazement and wonder, does the band then have to ruin their credibility with utter rubbish like “Guiding Light” – a song so mediocre and in thrall to U2 at their very worst that it should be locked up in a secret cupboard in the headquarters of Magic FM.

Muse – I Belong To You (+Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix)

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Muse – United States Of Eurasia

I’ve defended Muse in front of a fair bit of criticism over the years. While sniffy critics have derided them for their populist, stuck-in-the-past approach, I insisted that their craft was accomplished, ambitious and never lost touch with enjoyability. And now they have unleashed “United States Of Eurasia” on us…

So! The first six rounds of Muse’s latest treasure hunt have been completed, and with this success for the notoriously fervent and geeky Muse fan-base comes the prize: the complete upload of “United States Of Eurasia”, the fourth track on their forthcoming fifth album, entitled The Resistance. A lot has been written on fan-sites with each successive upload, but I’ve mostly reserved judgement on it, preferring instead to wait for the whole song to emerge – after all, it’s a bit ridiculous to assess a song based on a 30-second clip.

Sadly, for all its massive-grin-inducing pomp and bombast, I’m finding it difficult to endorse “United States Of Eurasia”. The song is an almost four-minute long romp through the more unpalatable reaches of Queen’s œuvre, with the cavalcade of multi-tracked vocals, wailing guitars and thumping drums only slightly tempered by some tasteful East-European orchestral arrangements. It’s very low on subtlety, it’s very very BIG, and I’m still not sure whether I like it, or am simply smiling along with the undoubted audacity Muse are showing by creating such a throwback of a song.

The song begins with a light romantic piano accompaniment to Matt Bellamy’s vocals – at this point taking on an oddly gentle timbre – which is surprisingly reminiscent of the kind of supermarket dross conjured up by Coldplay. After a minute, soft, regular, percussion breaks into the mix, recalling memories of woeful 80s stadium ballads. Then, suddenly, at 1:17, a Brian May-style lead guitar line storms in and everything goes very Queen. Lest we get too comfortable, an actually pretty interesting orchestral arrangement is then unleashed, and before long the whole thing is rollicking along at a pace somewhere between “Knights Of Cydonia” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Predictably, it’s insanely catchy and hook-laden, and by the time the song explodes in a confetti-shower of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, screaming out “Eura-sia! Sia! Sia Sia!”, it’s bound to be pretty ingrained in your mind. Who knows? In a questionable indictment of the state of British music, it will probably be hailed as a novelty hit and roam around the higher reaches of the charts for weeks. I’d prefer to salute it as a relentless pastiche of an oft-trodden path, but whether or not I can actually approve it, I remain unsure.

Leaving Muse to their own devices, sans external producer, trapped in the basement studio of a villa on Lake Como, was never going to result in an album low on bombast – and only time will tell if the rest of The Resistance is similarly schizophrenic and cheesy. Reminiscing back to the days of Absolution, Muse were many things: pretentious, portentous, musically ambitious. But in “United States Of Eurasia” I see very little melodic accomplishment and a tendency for the band’s strengths to be overwrought into mere comedy, for all the ominous subtext of the song’s theme. That well-worn grin on my face is starting to hurt.

Bah! Humbug!

I really do think Arctic Monkeys have always been a substantial step ahead of their British indie rock cousins, not just because of Alex Turner’s superior, witty social commentary, but because the band’s progression as musicians has been a joy to listen to. From the wiry post-Libertines indie of their debut, through the melancholy surf rock of Favourite Worst Nightmare, to the dramatic Scott Walker balladry of Turner’s Last Shadow Puppets side project, it’s clear that their influences are far-reaching and constantly in flux, and they’ve never been afraid of channelling other sounds through what could otherwise be a pretty typical British aesthetic.

August will see the release of their third album, entitled Humbug, but before then, we are now privvy to the forthcoming lead single, “Crying Lightning”. A brief approximation would suggest the following result: it sounds like a hybrid of much of the second album, crossed with the epic grandeur of The Age Of The Understatement. It’s presently unclear which of the two producers (James Ford, Josh Homme) is responsible for this particular cut, but there are certainly elements of both individuals’ œuvre. There’s a chilling, carnival, forest vibe that echoes Queens of the Stone Age circa-Lullabies to Paralyze, but this is complemented by the breathy sense of space that I so loved on older songs like “Do Me A Favour” and “Fluorescent Adolescent”. For certain, the drums are less crisp and more military than on their sophomore effort; meanwhile, the gnarled tone of the bass and the eerie Theremin-esque guitar solo are very reminiscent of the output of Josh Homme’s day job.

Predictably, the lyrics reveal plenty of nuanced details, from the references to “pick and mix” and “strawberry lace” (which immediately reminded me of Jarvis Cocker’s similarly creepy confectionery in “The Wickerman”), to the humidity of lines like “And your past times consisted of the strange / And twisted and deranged”. Turner is evidently frustrated about something, and the cracks in his armour are appropriated in his lavish descriptions of the subject of the song – who “puff[s] your chest out like you never lost a war”.

Only the rest of the album will tell to what extent Arctic Monkeys have let their travels of the last couple of years percolate into their music, but on the evidence of “Crying Lightning”, they’ve lost none of their knack for deriving catchy melodies from surprisingly tuneless chord changes; they’re still willing to pile on the drama and the frisson through Alex Turner’s developed and mature lyrics; and, in all honesty, I can’t really imagine Humbug leaving the charts this side of the apocalypse.

Put the crazies on the street, give them guns and feed them meat

For those of you who still believe, after all the intervening years, that Damon Albarn’s songwriting is rooted in the oom-pah music-hall stomp of Britpop, I cannot recommend enough that you try on both 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, both of which are prime examples of Blur giving up on the style that made them such household names, and instead choosing to pursue more experimental and at times difficult music, taking heed of far more wide-ranging influences.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Britpop, which saw Blur win the race to be #1 on the Singles chart – with the cringeworthy “Country House” – but Oasis win the battle of the albums, with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur soon realised the fickle nature of British music, and how quickly the public – who at the time were enchanted by the elision of music and politics made real by the superb efforts of our dear leader, Tony Blair – could abandon a group who they had previously loved. Rather than continue to pump out album-after-album of derivative, uninteresting music (I’m looking at you, Oasis), Blur instead fled to the country they had previously artistically slaughtered – America – in search of new ideas.

The resulting album, Blur, saw Graham Coxon take on a much more prominent role, influenced as he was by mainstays of American alternative music, such as Pavement and Beck, while Albarn’s lyrics took on a decidely more introspective angle, a theme that was to be extended on their next album. Blur remained reasonably commercially successful in the UK, but, crucially, it was equally a hit in America, whose audiences immediately ‘got’ “Song 2”. Even now, I think the album is a great testament to the breadth of the band’s talents, and the opener, “Beetlebum”, is right up there in my top three Blur songs. The band, freed from the pomp and circumstance of Britpop, produced an album that was bleaker, wilder and harsher, but, importantly, a strong melodic vein flows right through, giving it just enough warmth for the listener to want to come back to it.

Story has it that, during the recording process for Blur, Coxon refused to let anyone, including himself, retune his guitar, believing that the truest artistic statement would be to embrace the lo-fi. Perhaps thankfully, producer Stephen Street, horrified at the prospect of unveiling an album horribly out-of-tune to the record company, would secretly come into the studio in the dead of night to retune it!

One of the spirits that leans heavily on Blur is that of Bowie. Unashamed to join the canon of great British songwriters, Albarn’s compositions share a talent for experimentation, and also something intangibly similar, with those of Bowie – none more so than one of the closing tracks, “Strange News From Another Star”, which feels almost violated in its raw emotion. The combination of harsh electronic feedback and sweet acoustic guitar is painful in its emotional tug. With a typical sense of duty and sincerity, Albarn later performed it for a BBC Radio session honouring John Peel, the video of which is at the top of this post. In this context, it is a haunting and beautiful tribute to another demi-god of British music.

Sad Robot

It seems like everyone’s going crazy about the current trend in Hip Hop for AutoTuning one’s voice, which culminated in one of 2008’s bleakest, most emotionally raw albums, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, which papered over Yeezy’s vocal inadequacies with almost continual use of AutoTune, and, in so doing, unearthed the most heartbroken corners of his mind. On a slightly related plane, one of the highlights of Bon Iver’s 2007/8 album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the track The Wolves (Acts I & II), which again presented the singer as an emotionally scarred recluse, hiding behind elusive metaphor to combat the pain and anguish of heartbreak. And, like with Mr. West, one of the most striking aspects of the song is it’s use of AutoTune to fiddle around with Justin Vernon’s voice, albeit in rather more of a subtle manner. Listen to it carefully and, at around 2:52, there it is, making him seem detached and inhuman to dazzling effect. It’s dead clever.

So clever, in fact, that Vernon has taken the trick to its logical conclusion in the new song, Woods, featured on his Blood Bank EP, out this week, and also featured in the video above. Here, unaccompanied by any instruments, Vernon’s vocals are stacked through a vocoder (which, I accept, is different from AutoTune), in a manner not really heard since Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. The effect, too, is similar: he sounds fragile and scarred, wishing to hide behind electronics not to mask any vocal inadequacies, but to depict a precarious and uncertain state of mind. Over the top of the vocodered refrain, Vernon howls like a wolf, presenting another level of anguish and passion. The results are dazzling, but only in small doses. When the song is over, you too feel drained and spent, and one has to hope that Bon Iver leaves his experiment at just that. It’s a wonderful, haunting song, but I certainly couldn’t bear a whole album of it.