Tag Archives: synth

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.

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.

Muse – Uprising

After last month’s protracted treasure hunt and resulting download-only ‘treat’, “United States Of Eurasia”, today’s radio waves were dominated by exclusive first plays of Muse’s official lead single for The Resistance, entitled “Uprising”. That this new song is the album opener suggests that it is a definitive introduction to the prevailing themes on the album; judging by what Matt Bellamy has said in a video interview with Zane Lowe, we can definitely think of The Resistance as a set of songs that are carefully structured to tell a story. From Mr. Bellamy’s intimations, this unifying conceptual story is one of a conflict-defying romance taking place amidst the geo-political strife of the 21st century, replete with corrupt governments and shady transgressions of democratic ideals.

You may have read just how much of a hammering “United States Of Eurasia” received from music writers, myself included. This criticism was completely justified – it’s a messy, thoughtless, overblown piece of work that does nothing to play to the strengths of the band. “Uprising”, then, has been dealt an easy hand, for to trump the only previous sneak preview fans have had of the band’s latest creation requires no great effort.

The song begins with a neat sonic trick, with the bass emerging from the sound of a record accelerating up to speed. From there on, we are plunged head-first into a glam-rock schaffel, where an octave-skipping, gurgling bass line dovetails with a Doctor Who-aping synth melody. It’s catchy, enjoyable and instantly more edifying than “United States…”, with periodic hand claps leading into a solitary, tasteful squeal of guitar that is much more in keeping with Matt Bellamy’s style, and certainly does not digress into Brian May-style stupidity.

The vocals, when they appear, fifty seconds in, are nonetheless surprising and out of character, with Bellamy singing in a substantially lower register than he is famous for. Perhaps more alarmingly, his pronunciation and intonation is all over the shop, with many of the lines slurring into the kind of gloopy drawl I last detested on Green Day’s “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” – a song that ingrained in me a deep-seated hatred of Billie Joe Armstrong. Lyrically, we’ve got all the traditional Bellamy-isms: shady government propaganda; drugs being pumped into the water supply; the unspecified “truth” being kept from the public. It’s all there, and it’s all unintentionally rather amusing in its naïvety. For me, there’s always been a substantial gap between Matt Bellamy’s undoubted curiosity and intelligence (look at the books he reads, and the stuff he quotes in interviews) and his ability to write sophisticated lyrics that mirror these concerns, and “Uprising”, sadly, is going to do little to dispel this notion.

Musically, the song is definitely a good egg, in a perfectly harmless manner. Perhaps the Devon three-piece really do believe they are pushing the boundaries of rock music with their tasteful synth arpeggios and crisply distorted bass tones. If so, they’re sadly mistaken, because “Uprising” breaks fewer genre conventions than a non-stick frying pan. Nevertheless, the song is solidly written (complete with entertaining interplay between guitar solo and synth backing) and efficiently executed, with minimal flab, and a well-constructed structure that builds effectively, and leads to a satisfying conclusion. Just don’t expect too many surprises.

Easter Surprise!

This morning I dropped into my local Tesco to pick up some hummus and a copy of the newspaper. While queuing up, I couldn’t help but notice a selection of floral arrangements that had been laid out for Easter, one of which, priced at a reasonable £5.99, had been given the rather ridiculous name of “Easter Surprise”. Not much of a surprise, considering the bouquet’s contents were fully on display for all to see.

I felt a similar sentiment when approaching “Vulture”, the new single from Patrick Wolf, taken from his forthcoming The Bachelor album. All the hype and suspense surrounding it had taken on a perpetually surprised tone, as if no reviewer could possibly foresee that Wolf’s instrumental virtuosity might lead to a change in sound on this album. Anyone who has been paying attention to his previous releases will know that each album has pursued quite a different musical route, from the melancholy of his early work to the starry-eyed romance of The Magic Position. All this considered, I was fully expectant of quite a shock and, upon listening to “Vulture”, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Wolf could possibly have spent longer than a ten minute coffee break writing the song, but that’s not to detract from the enjoyment of it. “Vulture” is three and a half minutes of gothic, ultra camp electro pop, filled with continually smile-inducing sonic intricacies. Lyrically, Wolf seems to be comparing some kind of haunting journey through a supernatural forest with the equally horror-inducing situation of “losing my head to Hollywood / My liver to London / My youth to Tokyo.” It’s surprisingly celebrity-baiting, but he takes care not to get carried away with the earnest observations, subsequently launching into a series of delightfully theatrical groans. There’s even a hint of The Kills’ “Now Wow”, with Wolf stammering and stuttering his way through the line “d-d-d-d-d-d-dead meat” in much the same way as Alison Mosshart tackled “Drip drip drip drip drip kinda like / Loosened at the end of the night”. The two songs even share a similar sense of instrumental minimalism, though “Vulture” gets considerably more expansive towards the end, with arch organs and glacial synths adding colour to the skittish bass and percussion.

“Vulture” isn’t rocket science. It’s more simplistic even than “The Magic Position”, but I doubt the rest of The Bachelor will be nearly so accessible. For all its obvious electro-pop posturing, it’s hard not to hold a soft spot for it, much like one must eventually placate an eager puppy tugging at your clothes. An entertaining effort, then, which bodes well for the forthcoming album.

Therein lies the difference.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been assiduously listening to two recent post-Klaxons albums, nominally of the nu-rave stable: Late Of The Pier‘s Fantasy Black Channel, and Friendly Fires‘ eponymous debut. Though both albums hinge on the elision of rock and dance music, I’ve come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that, whereas the latter album benefits greatly on its commitment to sparkly pop music, the former eventually frazzles out on a wave of unwavering madness and sonic freakery that is just too much to handle.

Friendly Fires is a fascinating piece of work: only one song cross the 4-minute mark; everything is succinctly polished and pristine, and yet it was recorded in frontman Ed Macfarlane’s parents’ garage on a microphone gaffer-taped to a stand. The music is relentlessly energetic, but in a joyous, bubbly way – it never sounds comically overblown or hedonistic. The synth sweeps and throbs and kept in check by delightfully gushing vocals and beautiful guitar lines. It doesn’t feel brash, more plain confident. A particular highlight emerges at the tail-end of Lovesick, where the standard formula segues into the formative strains of a trance breakdown. Magically, after half a minute, it fades out again for a reprise of the original chorus. It’s this minimalism and concision that keeps the album consistently enjoyable and manageable.

The same can’t really be said of Fantasy Black Channel, which is, much like the title suggests, a lot of everything, crammed into stupendously complex song structures, and beaten over the head with Erol Alkan’s frequently disturbing synth gurgles. It’s enjoyable, but only in tiny doses, after which it quickly becomes grating, deafening and slightly ridiculous. It’s in the band’s worship of everything 80s, from Gary Numan to Van Halen, that in the end sounds superfluous and messy, as if instead of keeping distinct ideas to distinct songs, the band have instead elected to shove them all into one. There are definite high-points on the album, but they are more likely to be individual hooks or breakdowns, which are weighed down by a lot of searing synth flab and fat, which effectively fries the record, and possibly also the record player.

The 80s is set to dominate British musical output for the rest of the year, but it’s clear to me that only when bands keep the influences in check, and settle instead for that decade’s shininess and gloss does the idolatry succeed. When the camp, overblown excesses of the 80s drag the music into an abyss of dark matter, it just sounds a bit ridiculous.

The money shot

Some songs are impressive throughout, while others ramp up the tension and build-up before unleashing a climactic killer moment. Sometimes, I yearn for a particular song just to hear that singular moment, when all the individual units of the track coalesce and lock in to reach an apex. Occasionally, I’ll even get this craving while listening to another song – in these instances, I am liable to forget what the desired song was by the time the previous one has finished, and I then spend several minutes scrolling through my library, in search of the elusive high.

About 3:20 into !!!’s Heart Of Hearts, the synced-up groove of whirring guitars, groaning keys and raw, ecstatic vocals lock into a repeated cry of “For a heart of, heart of, heart of, heart of hearts”, set to a snappy motorik beat and astonishingly pulsating bass. Suddenly, the whole contraption comes to a dramatic, pounding halt. A second later, all hell breaks loose, sonically, as the instruments bounce back in, but with ten times the soul and vigour. It’s a pretty spectacular event.

Elbow’s stunning Crawling With Idiot begins in a very low-key manner, with Guy Garvey’s breathy, sensual vocals set to a trickling piano chord sequence and a delicate guitar figure, alongside a subtle waltz time signature. Gradually, electronic burbles and coo-ing backing harmonies enter the fray, creating an oppressive, claustrophobic tone. Finally, at 2:45, a jarringly harsh guitar line drones in, gradually, bringing the song to a wonderfully chilling climax, as the sweetness of the vocals contrasts with triumphant organ and that unsettling guitar. And then the song ebbs away, gently, into bleak nothingness.

Far from being one of the characteristically long epics on the TNT album, Tortoise’s The Equator is an under-four-minute long diversion, travelling along languid guitar work and a fidgety, twitching beat. Halfway through, at about 2:00, a yearning, soaring guitar figure is cut across by a supernova of a whooshing sound, which leads into a gorgeous segment of the song, where the soothing synth wash in the background is complemented by finger-lickingly funky guitar strumming.

The Coral have a cunning habit of letting 60s-sounding psychedelic pop songs wander into spazzed-out freakouts, and Come Home is a prime example. A jazzy groove is strumming along fairly ordinarily; the vocalist is singing sweetly about magic and myths and sitting by the fire, when suddenly, a reverb-heavy guitar breakdown segues into a organ-led vamp. Gothic sounding vocals loom forebodingly; the jerky guitar piledrives in angrily; the drums get more chaotic; a searing lead synth whistles dissonantly. How very romantic.

4:00 into Blur’s epic album closer, Essex Dogs, after a passage of portentous reminiscence and messing around with a whammy pedal, emerges a torrent of freeform noise rock experimentation and some of Coxon’s finest guitar work. It’s a visceral, guttural thrill that can’t easily be topped.

Brash, overblown and amazing

I realise there’s a lot of Damon Albarn-loving on this blog, but I really do have to say this. Despite the fact that The Great Escape is a predominantly messy, archly pretentious, deeply worrying album, I have a strange addiction right now to its opening track, “Stereotypes”. Everything about it is surprisingly enjoyable – it’s a huge guilty pleasure, but strangely loveable too. From the first hit of chords, played simultaneously on naff organ/synth and ridiculous guitar, to the comedy false end halfway through, it’s utter genius, and it sets up the ridiculous nature of the album perfectly.

In spite of all that, I realise that on another level, it’s a really horrible song. Go figure.

Serious funk

I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.

What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.

The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.

Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.

Scary monsters

People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.

Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.

Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.

Because I never wonder, how the girl feels


Back in 2004, I walked into HMV and was faced with the choice of buying either The Killers’ Hot Fuss or Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut. Thank goodness I endorsed the latter. While their contemporaries have meandered through the wilderness of Americana before pandering to their love of 80s guilty pleasures, Franz Ferdinand’s career to date has been elusive, concise and, most importantly, of a consistently high quality. To those who feel hoodwinked by 2005’s sophomore effort, You Could Have It So Much Better, I would proffer that while their debut was considerably sleeker and tauter, the second release was of comparable quality, only brasher, grittier and angrier. It was recorded in a hurry – often seen as a curse – but I would maintain that its more developed song structures showed greater depth to the band’s abilities.

Step into 2009 and, against a backdrop of mediocre indie and attractive female electro-popsters, how does the Scottish quartet’s latest effort fare? Much has been said of the intervening years, in which the band experimented with creaky synths, Afrobeat grooves and shiny pop producers, but has any of this actually surfaced in Tonight: Franz Ferdinand? One thing that can safely be said is that Tonight… is a considerably leaner beast than the last; more focused on the dancefloor than society’s ills. Tracks like No You Girls and the opener, Ulysses, ride on football terrace choruses and hooks while successfully navigating the waters of synthesiser experimentation. When the band deal a heavier hand, as in the case of What She Came For and Twilight Omens, the songs have a pleasing blend of retro glam and roadhouse eruptions. Treated piano gives way to well-produced rhythm-led stomps that are attractive and memorable, if not instantly history-rewriting.

Conceptually, frontman Alex Kapranos reckons Tonight is a depiction of a typical lads’ night out, from the discovery of a new drug (Ulysses), through the naïvety of first love (No You Girls), to the euphoria of the dancefloor (Live Alone, which channels Blondie and Abba through a Glaswegian burr). In this respect, the album is bang on the money: far from being a discrete set of radio-ready singles, the group are clever enough to know the benefits of pacing and narrative arc, thus the album unfolds true to Kapranos’ cheeky and insightful lyrics. The climax of this night on the tiles arrives halfway through undoubted centrepiece Lucid Dreams, which, isolated from the context of the album, sounds wildly experimental and strangely lurching. In context, this eight-minute marathon represents the transformation from innocence into hedonism, as a krautrock groove makes way for four minutes of Moroder-esque acid-house freakout.

After the peak must come the comedown, surely, and the album delivers here, too. The loping, sideways Dream Again is reminiscent of Tom Waits at his addled best, while closer Katherine Kiss Me is a partial reprise of No You Girls, re-imagined as a acoustic troubadour’s farewell. On paper, these varied genres sound wildly disparate, but the cohesion of an album can come from lyrical themes too, as shown in this instance. By allowing the events of the night to take hold of the album, Kapranos delivers a resounding finger to those who would doubt their breadth in songwriting skills. Tonight may lack the instant appeal of the band’s debut, and the songs may not stand the test of time in the same way, but it offers an intriguing insight into their less obvious influences – a key example being Send Him Away, which apes Vampire Weekend in its pursuit of African poly-rhythms and psych-funk grooves.

Do Franz Ferdinand remain relevant in the aftermath of the scene they helped to revive? Not really, but I would argue that that scene has gone stale to such a degree that no band with any artistic integrity would even want to. From here on, the band could go in myriad directions, provided they can keep on delivering the hooks and lyrical invention and wit that have kept them a cut above the rest of the pack thus far. Long may Nick McCarthy’s Moogs and Korgs fart and groan!