As voted for by HP Critics.
PJ Harvey is a strong contender for the best solo artist of the past 20 years, and she has kept up her remarkable level of quality control with her latest offering, the superb Let England Shake. Harvey has explained that the writing of the album found her looking outward for the first time in her career, as opposed to focusing on mood and emotion, an approach which has dominated her previous work. This record turns out to be a paean to Harvey\'s homeland in all its complexity, celebrating its strengths while also examining the darker experiences the country has had in recent years, particularly the traumatic effects on the national psyche caused by the Iraq war. As ever with Harvey, the music is so tasteful it practically makes the listener purr with pleasure. The title track, which opens the record, features prominent autoharp (a rather wonderful instrument that produces a dreamy, shoegaze guitar-type sound), and sees Harvey delivering a typically powerful vocal over a dream-pop soundscape. However, she is careful to juxtapose the pastoral psychedelia with hard-hitting observations. How fitting that in the week Tony Blair offered a characteristically feeble apology for the carnage in Iraq (it was merely "regrettable", apparently), we have Harvey weighing in with the powerful "The Words That Maketh Murder", which contains imagery reminiscent of Guernica or Francis Bacon: "I\'ve seen soldiers fall like loaves of meat...arms and legs were in the trees". Best of all is the extraordinary psych-pop number \'Written On The Forehead\', which shows that the multi-talented Harvey can do chillwave better than most actual chillwave practitioners. With a lyric that documents an odyssey through some surreal landscape, the song is a close relative of Nick Cave\'s classic \'More News From Nowhere\'. It may be only January, but Let England Shake will more than likely feature on many album of the year lists.
Forty years on since he first started his career and 28 since he reinvented himself with the utterly thrilling piece of work that was Swordfishtrombones, it seems as if the demented demi-god that is Tom Waits still has a few surprises left up his hobo’s sleeve: Bad As Me is possibly his poppiest and most accessible sounding offering to date. All 13 of the tracks average around three minutes or so in length, and see the singer hark back to the music of his youth for a decidedly old school R&B flavoured affair on what is his first album of new material since 04’s Real Gone. Waits kicks record number 17 off with the reassuringly bizarre, horn-heavy ‘Chicago’, which sounds like an old school video game soundtrack reimagined by our gravel-voiced hero. ‘Raised Right Men’ gets us back to the more familiar terrain we’ve come to expect from Tom, and features a typically overstated vocal performance. However, it’s not until he hits us with the rockabilly sounds of ‘Let’s Get Lost’ and ‘Satisfied’ that we get a real taster of where his head’s at right now, and his drunken Eddie Cochran routine hints at a more reflective, almost nostalgic performer than we’ve seen in the past who’s capable of finding humour in his own teenage kicks. The delicate duet with rent-a-pirate Keith Richards from the Stones on ‘Last Leaf’, and the lilting ‘Pay Me’ (which sounds like a less pie-eyed Pogues) also tap into this contemplative approach, this time painting a picture of Waits as an aging bar-room hero rather than a young jukebox Romeo. By the time we reach album closer ‘New Year’s Eve,’ which recalls ‘The Last Waltz’, it seems as if Tom is teasing us of his retirement. Only time will tell if this really is the end for the great circus performer-come-troubadour or the dawn of something new. But if this truly is his last album then he’s going out on top. Bad As Me is among his best albums – and that\'s really saying something.
Passenger? Given that she’s been solo for the last four years, the beautiful Lisa Margaret Hannigan has chosen an interesting title for this eagerly-awaited sophomore album. First heard on Damien Rice’s debut O in 2002, the Meath-born singer spent a good half-decade travelling aboard his musical train before having her carriage unceremoniously unhitched one fateful night in Munich in 2007, when Rice fired her from his band (something he has since publicly regretted). In many ways, Rice did her a major favour. No longer a passenger, Hannigan has been sailing her own ship ever since. Most successfully, too, it must be said. Her 2008 debut album Sea Sew – rehearsed in a freezing barn in the Irish countryside before being recorded in under a fortnight at a friend’s home studio – didn’t sell anything like O, but it still went double platinum, was nominated for the Choice Music Prize at home and the Mercury Prize in the UK, and saw Hannigan play bewitching guest spots everywhere from Later... With Jools Holland to The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. For all the album’s success, however, it was still obviously the work of a woman who’d had her confidence knocked and was somewhat unsure of her talent. It was also surprisingly soft. Given the way things had ended with Rice, nobody would have been surprised if she’d released the equivalent of PJ Harvey’s Raw or Rid Of Me. But then, Hannigan ain’t that type of gal... “Sea Sew was the most honest record I could make at the time that I made it,” she recently remarked, “but I look at it today, and there’s a certain sense of wanting to appear happy and confident. I wanted it to seem as though nothing bothered me.” She certainly comes across as confident on Passenger (and why wouldn’t she with a voice so beautiful?), but it’s not an especially happy record. Nor is it a particularly diverse one. For the most part, with just a couple of exceptions (‘Knots’, ‘What’ll I Do’), these songs are melancholic ballads or soft, gentle, folk numbers. Produced by Joe Henry (Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Loudon Wainwright III) and recorded in just a week in Bryn Derwyn studio, Wales, its overall sound is quiet, contemplative and emotional. It opens with ‘Home’, a mournful ballad apparently inspired by Paul Murray’s bestselling novel Skippy Dies. The great Gavin Glass urgently pounds the ivories, underscored by the breathtaking violin-playing of Lucy Wilkins, and Hannigan sings with real passion and pathos. It’s a good indication of what’s to come. ‘A Sail’ begins with an ominous bass groove, but her soothing vocals ease any menace. ‘Knots’ and ‘What’ll I Do’ are faster and more upbeat, but pretty soon she switches down a gear again with ‘O Sleep’ – a rather gorgeous duet with Ray Lamontagne. Lyrically Hannigan mostly appears to be addressing relationships, both past and present. On ‘Paper House’, she breathily recalls the idyll days of an old love affair in Ireland (‘Oh we walked in a hollow place back then/ on the edge of Dublin/ the edge of me and you’). The sweetly sung ‘Little Bird’ may well be about the end of her ultimately tumultuous affair with Rice (‘When the time comes, and the rights have been read/ I think of you often, but for once I meant what I said’). The jaunty title track – featuring a mandolin and some great horns at the end – finds her travelling around America, from city to city, unsure whether or not to contact her lover. The album isn’t without humour, though it’s a rather dark type, expressed on ‘Safe Travels (Don’t Die)’: ‘Don’t swallow bleach out on Sandymount Beach/ I’m not sure I’d reach you in time, my boy/ Please don’t bungee jump or ignore a strange lump/ And a gasoline pump’s not a toy’). While its mood doesn’t vary very much, Passenger is still quite a beautiful, poetic and evocative record. It doesn’t sound like Lisa Hannigan has yet reached her final musical destination, but she’s obviously enjoying the journey. As will you.
Sometimes Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon must wonder if it’s all a slightly delirious day-dream. Four and a half years ago, he was wintering in a Wisconsin cabin, channelling the painful ending of a long-term relationship into the raggedly haunting ballads that would comprise his debut For Emma, Forever Ago. Fast forward to today and Kanye West’s occasional wing-man sits atop the alternative pop food-pyramid. Critics swoon at his feet, artists line-up to collaborate with him, he’s even been asked to endorse a brand of whiskey. When he recently took a call from Neil Young to discuss a hook-up it is unclear which of them was hoping to bask in the other’s reflected glory. For his second album, there was no doomed romance to draw on, no backwoods out-house in which to mooch. This, you sense, suited Vernon just fine. Recorded with his touring band in a luxury studio, Bon Iver is a gauzy, elusive affair, concerned with pure musical expression rather than heart-on-sleeve venting or campfire storytelling. It certainly doesn’t try very hard to appeal to the floating vote who arrived late to For Emma, transforming it from blogger crush to international hit. With vocals layered upon vocals and multi-track guitars softly shimmering, Bon Iver goes out of its way to be obtuse – it takes four or five listens before its subtleties begin to reveal themselves, up to which point trying to immerse yourself in the record is akin to scaling sheer glass. You want something to grab onto, yet all is mysterious and impenetrable. The bad news it is that nothing here rivals the gorgeous immediacy of For Emma stand-outs ‘Flume’ or ‘Skinny Wolves’. Extravagantly ethereal, ‘Holocene’ and ‘Lisbon OH’ flutter past in a haze of furrow-browed introspection, Vernon’s falsetto smokily unfurling against a swell of parping horns and ghostly rhythms. The closer you listen, the stranger the material feels, its intensity couched in an otherworldliness that seems slightly narcotic. For great swathes, Bon Iver isn’t so much a collection of songs as a stormy passage that requires you to readjust your expectations and surrender to its peculiar ebbs and flows. There is one genuine clunker in the form of 80s power ballad-referencing closer ‘Beth/Rest’. Somewhere between Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross, it wouldn’t be out of place sound-tracking Miami Vice. If this is what Vernon’s attempt at a big pop pay-off sounds like, be grateful that, for the rest of the album, he is more intent on evoking mood than pandering to casual fans. In sum, Bon Iver is a difficult record to get into, but once you’re there chances are you won’t want to leave.
What a turnaround it’s been for The Horrors. When the London quintet first emerged, they were essentially a Cramps knock-off with a few good tunes, but they seemed destined for a decidedly limited shelf-life. The perception of the band changed spectacularly with 2009’s phenomenal Primary Colours – one of the finest rock records of recent years – which found Faris Badwan and the boys retaining some subtle goth influences, but also pulling off brilliantly realised excursions into shoegaze, psychedelia and krautrock. Expectations are naturally high for the follow-up, Skying, and thankfully The Horrors don’t disappoint. Strikingly, all traces of goth have now been removed; this is fundamentally a psych-rock record, and indeed in the accompanying promo shots the boys have ditched the black jumpers and long fringes, and look halfway presentable. From the cover – an ethereal sea/sky combo with lens flare at the periphery – to the vague, fuzzy song titles (‘Endless Blue’, ‘Moving Further Away’), Skying is a very tripped-out kind of album, with echoes of the early ’90s shoegaze brigade (My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive etc.) However, The Horrors have the happy knack of always putting their own distinctive twist on familiar reference points. The opening tracks, ‘Changing The Rain’ and ‘You Said’, are brilliantly executed exercises in psych-pop, the former boasting shoegaze guitars and a naggingly catchy chorus, the latter sparkling keyboards and the hypnotic end refrain, “You gotta give me more”. ‘I Can See Through You’ melds a Neu!-like bass groove with dreamy guitar to stunning effect, but ‘Endless Blue’ is the first track that really indicates just how special an album Skying is. The first half of the song is a melancholy instrumental slice of psychedelia, boasting eerie keyboards and inspired use of brass, while the second half finds the tune erupting into a blazing rocker, with Badwan howling that, “Everyone seems so far away”. Skying, like Primary Colours, is an album that delights and surprises at every turn; the mix of funky bassline and technicolour keyboards on ‘Still Life’; the intoxicating coda to ‘Wild Eyed’, which mixes keyboards, bass and brass; and the vintage synth sounds on ‘Moving Further Away’, which sounds like Vangelis jamming with the aforementioned Neu! You would have got long odds on it five years ago – but Skying confirms The Horrors’ place amongst the front rank of UK rock bands.
Over the last decade or so, Belfast-based musician Danny Todd has seen his Cashier No. 9 project mutate into all manner of interesting and unusual guises. Much like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, his band began life as something of a patchwork creation shape-shifting every now and again to adhere to its maker’s unique vision and, in its own way, this sonic uncertainty worked.However, the last couple of years have seen him steady the ship as he put the finishing touches to the material for Cashier No. 9’s debut album. Now, the project has morphed into a proper, full-blown “real group”, if you will – and has never sounded better. The Cashier of 2011 is a space-age country band, specialising in sugary melodies and skewed lyrics. The upshot is that To The Death Of Fun showcases an outfit who are not only comfortable with themselves as musicians, but also brimming with confidence and . Featuring some sterling production work courtesy of David Holmes, the ten track release regularly flirts with a Spector-esque wall of sound: it’s a perfect compliment to Todd and Co’s alt-pop songs. ‘Goldstar’ is a stand-out – a piece of catchy Byrdsian West Coast pop; ‘Good Bye Friend’ crosses The Beatles and The Stone Roses; ‘Lost At Sea’ has chiming guitars, breasthy vocals and a melody that recalls ‘Gentle On My Mind’. And so it goes. Heavily influenced by ‘60s psychedelia To The Death Of Fun is a very fine record for the times fifty years later. If there is any justice out there, Cashier No.9 may just find that he’s in the money...
Whilst I have always found Guy Garvey a likeable frontman, and the group have written the occasional gem such as ‘Grounds For Divorce’, I have never been fully able to get on board with Elbow’s brand of bloke-ish indie rock. This is a state of affairs that hasn’t been altered by the Mancunian outfit’s latest offering, Build A Rocket Boys!, which has the odd moment of inspiration but never properly attains lift-off, if you’ll pardon the pun. The album kicks off with ‘The Birds’, an eight minute epic built around a moody guitar groove and psychedelic keyboards. Featuring a falsetto vocal from Garvey, the track is hugely indebted to Radiohead, and is none the worse for it. Also in a similar vein to Thom and co. is the rocker ‘Best Little Rows’, while ‘Lippy Kids’ – the lyrics of which are a paean to the halcyon days of youth – is an ethereal piano ballad and ‘With Love’ is a Talking Heads-style mix of thudding bass and choral vocals. All of these tracks are perfectly enjoyable, but as with previous Elbow records, there isn’t a tune on Build A Rocket Boys! that had me really leaping out of my seat with excitement. The likes of ‘Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl’, ‘The Night Will Always Win’ and ‘High Ideals’ are all expertly crafted slices of emotionally charged rock that will delight Elbow fans, but perhaps prove less appealing to the floating punter. It was great to see Elbow making a breakthrough by winning the Mercury Prize a few years back, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them continued success. But I won’t be rushing to put on Build A Rocket Boys! again. There is, I think, a greater urgency needed.
The title of Radiohead\'s eighth studio album The King Of Limbs might refer to a 1,000 year old monster oak in a Wiltshire forest, but it could equally serve as an homage to drummer Phil Selway, whose tightly coiled rhythms – sliced, diced and recombined into fractal patterns that have more to do with the industrial rhythms of Frankfurt and Detroit than whiteboy rock or black funk – determine at least two thirds of the eight-track, 37 minute collection. All told, The King Of Limbs is minimalist and ensemble-oriented. No showboating vocals, no scalding breaks from Jonny Greenwood, no radical new directions. The record\'s most strident moments suggest Jeff Buckley and Tom Verlaine remaking Byrne and Eno\'s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts for Wire readers. The remainder is sci-fi chamber music as imagined by Kubrick.
You’d have thought I’d learned not to judge bands by their first albums. After all, two of my favourite groups, Blur and Radiohead, delivered mediocre debuts before going on to properly find their voices as artists. Still, following 2008’s Limbo Panto, I had decided that Kendal quartet Wild Beasts were a mildly interesting art rock outfit, nothing more. All in all, then, I felt a bit foolish in 2009 – which, just to emphasise the lesson, was a year of great albums, with brilliant sophomore efforts also coming from Jack Penate and The Horrors – when the band produced a bona fide masterpiece in Two Dancers, a truly monumental piece of work that was a richly deserving winner of Hot Press’ Album of the Year. So, will the band consolidate the success of Two Dancers with the much-anticipated Smother? It’s a pleasure to report that the answer is a resounding yes. Bar the addition of the occasionally other-worldly synth sound, Wild Beasts haven’t altered their approach hugely this time out, relying on the tried and trusted template of dream pop soundscapes, topped off with the splendidly contrasting vocals of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming (the former, of course, singing in his trademark falsetto, the latter deploying his gravelly croon). Smother opens with ‘Lion’s Share’, a piano ballad decorated with buzzing electro effects reminiscent of Fuck Buttons (an acknowledged influence on the record), the central refrain of which is the wonderful couplet “It’s a wonderful scare but that’s why the dark is there”. From there, the band work their way through an exquisite, ten-song suite of atmospheric dream pop, with each song distinguished by finely crafted details: the delicate harmonies on ‘Deeper’; the chiming guitars on ‘Loop The Loop’; the ethereal synths on ‘Plaything’. Wild Beasts’ sound is so unique that they remain the hardest band in rock to pin down. You can hear a bit of the Cocteau Twins here, a touch of The Associates there, but really, trying to distill the essence of their baroque avant-pop is a fruitless exercise. Better just to savour the gorgeous tunes generated by a remarkably gifted group.
According to the accompanying press release, Björk’s seventh full-length album isn’t an album at all. Described as a “multi-media project”, Biophilia comprises five elements; 10-track album, documentary, live show, website and, the one that’s been getting all the attention, a highly stylised iPad app inviting you to play with the songs using your own two hands. Even Björk herself has accepted that the last part of the suite is a “recipe for disaster”, but for a woman who appears to march exclusively to the beat of her own drum and scarcely knows what a three star review looks like, there really is nothing to lose. While 2007’s Volta was an experiment in production-heavy avant-garde pop, on Biophilia, Björk’s magnificent pipes once again become the star of the show. In fact, when she soars to her first core-shaking howl on opening lullaby ‘Moon’, it feels like a triumphant homecoming. Strikingly sparse arrangements are tailor-made to enhance Björk’s metamorphosing intones, while her instruments of choice include a digitally-controlled pipe organ, a 24-woman Icelandic choir and a set of 30-foot tall aluminum pendulums. Remarkably, she sounds every bit as clear and emotive at 45 as she did at 27, and just as strange. It seems almost impossible that after two decades in the public eye, Björk is still one of the most mysterious people in music. As well as being the Chinese dragon of the fashion world and the Medusa of the celebosphere, there’s still something about her that suggests a musical Cyclops. Some of the tracks on Biophilia follow the form of blissful first single ‘Crystalline’, whirring along in Björk’s signature spook before a great, thumping electronic bass line propels the whole thing to breakbeat stomper status. Others, like the cinematic ‘Hollow’, and the plodding ‘Thunderbolt’ are full of adventure; in a parallel universe, Hitchcock cohort Bernard Hermann could have had a hand in ‘Dark Matter’. Lyrically, Björk doesn’t stray far from the twin subjects of astronomy and maths, but for all her discussion of lunar cycles and plate tectonics, at no point does this record feel scientific. Save dubstep production duo 16bit, there are no new collaborators on here, which also means that there’s nothing as catchy as 2007’s Timbaland-produced ‘Earth Intruders’ (and don’t even think of wishing for another ‘Venus As A Boy’…) Still, Biophilia is unmistakably Björk, just not the wild, glossy Björk we’ve grown accustomed to. Her songs are every bit as possessed as before, and a million times more impetuous, but with this record, we’ve caught her in a totally unfamiliar mood. On Biophilia, she is soft, studious and peaceful. But don’t worry, she’s still howling.
Kate Bush’s first collection of entirely original material since 2005 – last summer’s Director’s Cut contained reworkings of earlier albums – is well named. A creepy hush pervades the record, as though everything was muffled beneath a dense blanket of snow. Singing in a soft sing-song, Bush sounds, in the best sense, only half-awake, the words tumbling out in dream-like trance. Imagine Hounds Of Love re-recorded from the bottom of a well in deepest midwinter, with the electricity having just failed. It’s sublime but a bit eerie too. 50 Words For Snow is marketed as a Yuletide album but, listening to it, the last thing that springs to mind is Bush in a patterned jumper squaring up to the business end of a Christmas cracker. In fact, the record feels deeply spiritual – you could, without much of a leap, imagine the hymnal ‘Lake Tahoe’ soundtracking a midnight mass from your childhood. Granted, there’s a step up in tempo on the title-track, where 4AD-style ‘80s guitars swirl about a duet between Bush and a very Gandalfian Stephen Fry, with results that suggest Dead Can Dance soundtracking Harry Potter. Generally, though, the prevailing mood is cool contemplation – this is palpably the work of someone who has cut themselves off from the hubbub of the everyday and is perfectly happy to be at one remove (Bush has lived in semi-recluse since the ‘90s). Had she released it during her late ‘70s/early ‘80s pomp, 50 Words For Snow would probably have been categorised as engaging curio but not really worthy of a place incanon. Considering the scraps fans have had to do with in the years since, however, it is difficult not to see it as anything other than a glorious return, no matter that it’s more likely to send a chill down your spine than warm your Christmas cockles.
When a band proudly announces their intention to release a double album and profusely swear that it’s their “most ambitious project yet”, a flashing red light tends to go off somewhere in the brain. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers so shamelessly demonstrated with 2006’s Stadium Arcadium, the double album concept often leads to a depressing lack of coherence and a host of tracks that should never have escaped B-side status. With that in mind, huge praise must go to M83 chief Anthony Gonzalez for making every single second of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming mean something. The pulsating opening strains of ‘Intro’ have barely had time to register before Zola Jesus turns up to add a touch of gothic elegance to proceedings. Her presence is note-perfect, as is the immediate tonal shift to ‘Midnight City’ and ‘Reunion’, the former boasting the most wildly ostentatious saxophone solo that you’re likely to hear for years. Gonzalez has gone on record that this is his most personal work to date, a claim that appears to be backed up by what’s on display, from the raw emotion of ‘Wait’ and ‘Splendor’ to the sheer bravado of ‘Echoes Of Mine’ and ‘This Bright Flash’. Curiously, it’s the one track that Gonzalez has expressed some degree of reservation about that resonates above all others. The music of M83 has always been about capturing a sense of wonder, of reaching out and embracing something extraordinary. Never has this been more evident than in the form of ‘Raconte-Moi Une Historie’, in which a five year-old child (producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s daughter) regales the listener with a tale that could only work coming from the mouth of pure innocence. The result is both beautiful and strangely heartbreaking, tinged with the bittersweet nostalgia that permeated 2008’s Saturdays = Youth. Gonzalez may fear that the song will divide opinion, but it is the most perfect illustration of his artistry that he could hope to create. In an age where the album carries less and less weight and attention spans are waning, the very nature of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is something of a gamble, but one that pays off hugely. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
If Duckworth Lewis Method was Neil Hannon’s I’m Still Here Moment – a reminder to an uncaring world that he hadn’t gone away and still had interesting things to say – it also served as an overdue validation for Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh. A one man Beach Boys/ ELO revival, the affable Crumlin songwriter had spent the best part of a decade authoring candy-lacquered power-pop that offered gorgeous homage to the sixties and early seventies whilst never quite losing its footing in the here and now and tipping into pastiche. For all his sweat and strain, he was roundly ignored, by media and punter alike (a source of deepening resentment, judging by the interviews he gave at the time). Everything changed when he struck up a friendship with Hannon, recenty relocated to Dublin from London. Both were that rarest of creatures: Irishmen who adored cricket. Four pints into a confab one night, they hit upon one of those ideas that really only make sense when you’ve been imbibing – with the historic Ashes tournament between England and Australia on the way, why not pay tribute to their favourite sport via an old-fashioned concept LP? To their shock, when the hangovers cleared the idea still made sense. From there, things must surely have been a blur for Walsh, as Duckworth Lewis Method were feted with sell-out concerts, swoonful reviews on both side of the Irish sea, an Ivor Novello songwriter nomination. For an artist whose previous career highs had included supporting Dave Couse at The Hub, the sense of having at last arrived was surely overwhelming. How many mornings, you wonder, did he wake up thinking he’d imagined the whole thing? All of a sudden the invisible man of Irish retro pop had his name up in lights. Post-Duckworth Lewis Method, the fairytale continues. Incredibly, Walsh has been snapped up by a major label and his new Pugwash album actually arrived preceded by a degree of anticipation (let’s hope it doesn’t do so well as to reduce the chances of a DLM follow-up – if the world needs anything right now it is a wry concept record about the joys of competitive croquet). From the start, it’s obvious Walsh has seized the opportunity by the lapels and is determined not to let go. Bigger, shinier, more ambitious than Pugwash’s previous four albums, The Olympus Sounds is not only the best thing he’s ever done under his regular pseudonym. It’s also a worthy follow-up to the The Duckworth Lewis Method’s sublime debut, one that will hopefully demolish the misapprehension (particularly prevalent in the UK) that DLM was a Hannon solo affair in all but name. Fair enough, nobody is going to hand Walsh a gong for outside-the-box thinking. Whatever else, originality has never been one of his strengths. From the first chiming note of ‘Answers On A Postcard‘ he isn’t coy about his influences, steering, as he does, a hazy route between Village Green Preservation Society Kinks, ELO circa ‘Mr Blue Sky’, and Beach Boys in their Holland, post-Brian Wilson goes bonkers phase. Deploying harmonies, multi-tracked vocals and bouncy melodies with abandon, ‘Be My Friend’ is Macca on a Vitamin C binge; ‘Kilocycle Tone’ takes the Beach Boys ‘Little Honda’ and goes freewheeling without any brakes. There are gentler moments too. Dear Belinda is a dewy-eyed strum-along that waxes Fleetwood Mac mellow; ‘I Don’t Like It But I Gotta Do It’ could be Ram-era McCartney fronting Belle and Sebastian around the time of ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’. Any downsides? Well, it’s a shame the best song ‘August Born’ is only available as an iTunes bonus track. Otherwise, The Olympus Sounds is simply heavenly.
We know now that when Lady Gaga first bounded onto the international stage in 2008, Stefani Germanotta already believed herself to be the most powerful woman on earth. Her off the wall image, grotesque dance pop and headline-making shock tactics appeared like something from another planet, but because she fought so fiercely to defend it all, we couldn’t help but give it a chance. I don’t need to tell you what happened next. 23 million albums, 69 million singles, five Grammys, one meat dress and an untalliable number of fans (AKA her little monsters) sum it up pretty well. When things finally did click, we hardly expected it to come at the paws of a 10-year-old girl. Gaga’s status as a pop game-changer was finally cemented when she tweeted a link to a YouTube clip of a minuscule Canadian named Maria Aragon singing ‘Born This Way’ at a ginormous keyboard, a video which has now been viewed 33 million times. The sight of this particularly little monster singing lines like “No matter gay, straight, or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I’m on the right track baby/I was born to survive” with all the ferocity and conviction of a 25-year superstar was the oddest and most humbling Gaga moment yet. There’s just no ignoring the message that thrusts forward on Ms. Germanotta’s second album. Lyrics like “I scream ‘Mom and Dad’, Why can’t I be who I wanna be?” (‘Hair’) and “I’m a bitch/I’m a loser baby I should quit” (‘Bad Kids’) are tailor-made to cater to the insecure and hormone-ridden. Combined with a few indiscernible religious motifs (see ‘Judas’ and ‘Bloody Mary’) and one triumphant piano-driven lovesong (‘You And I’), the twin themes of freedom and self-expression are the backbone of the record. If The Fame was prompting ‘Let’s Dance’, Born This Way is demanding “Love the person that you are”, and saying it with all the might of a rabid ring announcer. Gaga’s unapologetic 14-tracker simmers with gothic strings, spooky opera vocals, ‘70s cheese guitar (thanks, Brian May!), sultry sax (thanks, Clarence Clemons!) and lyrics in French, German and French, all of which become unfortunately smothered in pulsating RedOne-brand dance wallops. There are a few immediate write-offs; the forgettable ‘Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)’, plodding synth travesty ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ and something horrid called ‘Electric Chapel’ that pretty much speaks for itself. On the other hand, parts of ‘Edge Of Glory’ are immensely satisfying and will be instrumental in your automobile and cable television purchases over the next 12 months. Elsewhere, ‘Americano’ marries ‘That’s Amore’ and ‘Mambo Italiano’ on a Eurodisco dancefloor, ‘Scheiße’ is deliciously dirty and for all its shameless inanity, ‘Government Hooker’ is an instantly lovable floorfiller. As expected, Born This Way is Madonna all over. Songs like ‘Bad Kids’ tread the fine line between homage and theft and Gaga even calls out a ‘black Jesus’ in one of the song titles on the special edition. Ironically, the unapologetic freakdom that won Gaga the respect of millions, is the very thing that makes Born This Way so exhausting. The album throbs along with as much power as its message, but sadly, Gaga and the people around her have been unable to edit the chaos in her increasingly brilliant brain. She didn’t do herself any favours by promising fans at a show in Poland that her second LP was “the greatest album of the decade”. But then, Gaga is simply too big to fail - at the time of writing, it is undeniably the biggest album of the year, boasting the highest first week sales of 2011 so far. Whether Lady Gaga is a heartless, fame-hungry pop caricature or a hyper-sexualised Mother Teresa who just wants to bring a morsel of frivolous joy into people’s lives, what’s important now is that she is, beyond all doubt, bringing that morsel of frivolous joy into people’s lives. Accusations that Lady Gaga equals Madonna 2.0 are easily justified, but if she wasn’t doing what she’s doing, and doing it with such consistent snarling intensity, little Maria Aragon would probably have to resort to “Sex in the air/I don’t care/I love the smell of it”. Her punchbag pop may range from the essential to the disposable, but Gaga’s cultural impact is priceless.
Wilco’s eighth album, the first on their own dBpm label, is bookended by two mammoth aural exercises that could be misunderstood as attempts to confound the listener – or perhaps, rather, to remind us not to presume when it comes to a long-player from Tweedy et al. The opening gambit is the lengthy, experimental, multigenre ‘Art Of Almost’, to which the 12-minute meditation ‘One Sunday Morning’ is a sombre rejoinder. These tracks stretch not only conventional timings but also structures and tonalities. But they do it in such a compelling way that they could only be executed successfully by a group of musicians with abundant aptitude and flair. Sandwiched in between are sundry gems of a typical Wilco ilk including new single ‘I Might’ whose impeccable pop sensibilities and stand-out keyboard riff plant themselves firmly in the grey matter. Elsewhere the quiet country shimmer of ‘Black Moon’, delicate melodic canter of ‘Born Alone’ and rousing post-punk-tinged bluster of ‘Standing O’ are evidence of a fertile creativity at work. Thematically, the long-player spans an assortment of subjects, including falling in love again, on the effervescent and joyous ‘Dawned On Me’ and the pitfalls of urban dwelling on the playful ‘Capitol City’ – over which the figure of Randy Newman looms large. With a mind-boggling array of talent on display to isolate players might seem unfair, but undoubtedly guitarist Nels Cline (who also has responsibility for overall sonic textures) and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone are two stand-out talents amongst a group of heavyweights. Whether or not their independent status has conferred a newfound freedom, The Whole Love has a sense of adventure absent on previous outings. Get ready to take a trip...
Being ranked second on the BBC Sound Of 2011 poll is a pretty big deal these days, but in spite of the fanfare that surrounds the annual countdown, it’s no guarantee of a solid album. Just ask The Twang. Actually, maybe don’t ask The Twang. They might sing for you. For 22-year-old James Blake, making the shortlist of the Beeb’s poll is just one of a hundred big-ups bestowed on the London producer over the past 10 months. Blake kept voguish musos guessing in 2010 with three excellent, but hugely varied EPs – the spooky The Bells Sketch, the throbbing Klavierwerke and the rather genius CMYK, which saw Blake work his sampling magic on music by R&B divas like Kelis, the late Aaliyah and Brandy. Still, this upstanding trio of records hasn’t exactly made Blake a household name. Those who do know the rosy-cheeked innovator’s work are likely to associate him with dubstep – a genre so underground that Blake is probably as mainstream a mascot as it’s going to get. But so what if loudmouth pop vixen Jessie J did him out of both the BBC top spot and the Brits’ Critics’ Choice award? Give her debut single ‘Do It Like A Dude’ a spin and you’ll have her figured out in 60 seconds. James Blake is something else. A head-scratcher. Stunning from the first breakdown, James Blake opens with the mysterious ‘Unluck’: a bumping, grinding and hissing hodgepodge of noise that sets you up for 38 minutes of perplexing electronic sorcery. Piano-led Feist cover ‘Limit To Your Love’ is the clear crowd-pleaser, while second single ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ buries a hummable tune under a mass of deconstructed beats. With its morose subject matter and sparse funk, Blake’s debut picks up where fellow Londoners The xx left off. His emotionally-loaded tracks will go down well with lovers of Bon Iver and Antony And The Johnsons, while the somersaulting Vocoder on ‘Lindesfarne’ will tickle fans of Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide And Seek’. Those already acquainted with experimental neo-soulster D’Angelo (yes, him with the abs…), should spot the troubled songwriter’s influence a mile off. But it’s entirely appropriate that D’Angelo’s Voodoo is an inspiration for the young Brit – much of what Blake does is pure witchcraft. The eponymous LP is the first time we’re allowed to lap up Blake’s voice, which was clipped and muffled to death on previous releases. His distressed boyish croon is made of pure soul, with the occasional hint of gospel. It’s beautifully fragile on ‘I Never Learned To Share’, proudly regal on the Nina Simone-esque ‘Give Me My Month’ and utterly forlorn on ‘Why Don’t You Call Me?’. On closer ‘Measurements’, our electronic bandleader even harmonises with half a dozen other James Blakes. At times, the vocals are the record’s glimmering star. At others, they’re stifled by dense sampling. Yet this struggle between the workman and his tools is precisely what makes James Blake so special. You’re never quite sure who’s going to come out on top, but you’re happy to stick around for the battle. The piano lines are equally compelling (Blake is classically-trained) and, when added to the jumble of rupturing melodies and exploding beats, call to mind countless musical whoah! moments: Aphex Twin using the violin as a trip hop platform, Outkast remixing Rogers And Hammerstein, James Blake letting on like he’s playing the spoons. So there you have it. A couple of dozen listens later and I’m still not sure if man or machine finished first. All I know is I’ve got 11 hugely impressive tracks on my hands, each one haunted by a tortured narrative (see lines like “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them”). As debuts go, this one is powerful, engaging, and yeah, a bit odd. It jars, it unsettles and it stirs up lots of questions, but it’s this more-ish discomfort that makes James Blake such a beautiful anomaly.
Life, death and this review ending with some terrible beer pun (my money’s on ‘An Ale Of Two Cities’): some things are just plain inevitable. And so it is written in the stars (or at the very least, scratched into a tree somewhere in a South Dublin schoolyard) that the contents of Closer To You will shortly be ubiquitous – on every wireless, fellow bus user’s iPod and/or RTÉ GAA advert, coming to a screen near you, very soon. Well, relax, this will be no hardship – because Closer To You is indeed rather good. Three albums in and, such has been the scale of their success to date, The Coronas could probably release a spoken word mariachi record and it’d still find a place on Today FM’s top 40. It’s a great position to be in. Thus emboldened, rather than sticking to the tried and trusted, on Closer To You, Messrs O’Reilly, Egan, Knox and McPhillips have set sail into previously unchartered waters, making what is clearly their most energetic and upbeat album yet. This is very good news for those of us who struggled to make up our minds about the band in the past (for example, I couldn’t get enthused about their chart-topping debut Heroes Or Ghosts, but Tony Was An Ex-Con standout track ‘Far From Here’ mysteriously ended up on my iTunes ‘most played’ list): we will now be able to make our judgement based on these 11 individual tracks. First single ‘Addicted To Progress’ may or may not borrow a riff from Two Door Cinema Club – give it a close listen! – but it is a blistering track nonetheless. In contrast, ‘My God’ – on which more later – is a folksy acoustic hymn. ‘Make It Happen’ kicks off with a whopping great glam rock intro, and sinister opener ‘What You Think You Know’ is roots rock through and through. While, in the past, the band’s ballads have erred on the side of schmaltz, they’ve really got it right with ‘Different Ending’, a charming, earnest number that builds to a thrilling, rocked-up, epic finish. Lead singer Danny O’Reilly’s vocals can be mannered, but they can also be very lovely, like on the dreamy ‘Mark My Words’. There are a few lyrically questionable moments: it’s hard to know for sure if Danny is being ironic in ‘My God’, which includes lines like: “My God will keep me warm and my God will fight my war”; meanwhile, for me, the heartsick emotion of ‘Write To Me’ is diminished by throwaway lyrics like, “Yeah, I’m a weirdo, but at least I’m your weirdo.” Still, even the lesser tracks sound immaculate, thanks to producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Supergrass, The Kooks) who has given the whole thing a sonic boom. Closer To You is vibrant, accomplished, and – something I hadn’t expected – ambitious. And it confirms, once and for all: The Coronas have bottle...
Ok, so I know what you’re thinking. I thought it too when I put the record on. It goes something like this: “Yes Mr Turner, we know you’re an icon of rock ‘n’ roll godliness, we know you’re a bit of a whizz on the old geetar, we know you’ve been getting your thing on with Josh Homme and going all psychotropic desert rock on us, but have you written anything as awesome as ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ this time?” If your internal narrative ran anything like mine, then you might as well stop reading now because the short answer is “no”. If, however, the twists and turns Arctic Monkeys have taken through the rock ‘n’ roll bazaar have left you breathless or, at least, curious as to the next stage of the journey, then Suck It And See (despite the unbearably naff title) will most certainly not disappoint. With James Ford on sonic sat nav, Turner and Co. have created a surprisingly poppy record that’s humming with leaden guitars, big rockin’ soundscapes and lyrics that only one as lauded as Turner could get away with: “Bite the lightning and tell me how it tastes/ Kung fu fighting on yer rollerskates/ Do the macarena in the devil’s lair/ But just don’t sit down cos I’ve moved yer chair” – a line so ridiculous it makes the cynic in me wonder if he’s seeing just how far he can push it. There are strong notes of Britpop in there, particularly on opener ‘She’s Thunderstorms’, while the title-track ‘Suck It And See’ and album closer ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ hark back to the kind of soft, slippery vocals, thumping bass and walls of jangly guitars that finely-tuned ears might trace to the classic British indie rock of The Smiths and The Stone Roses. The opening line on ‘Love Is A Laserquest’ has more than a hint of Mozza about it as well. There’s some scarily Kasabian-esque epicness on ‘Brick By Brick’ too, a song that actually sounds more like Kasabian than Mr. Meighan and Co. do, while ‘All My Own Stunts’ lands somewhere close to Queens Of The Stone Age territory, with tense riffs and those floaty, snarling vocal lines Josh Homme is such a master at (he’s doing backing vox too). All in all, Suck It And See is a strong record that’s likely to be received with a colossal sigh of relief by fans, and mild indifference by those of us who hold out hope for another singular, era-defining guitar pop classic.
The first pop star to look genuinely, no-bullshit fantastic in a flouncy skirt and daisy-chain tiara since Kate Bush went the full recluse, Florence Welch doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of the tragic rock casualty. So it’s been surprising to hear her banging on about her destructive drinking and the dark side of the music lifestyle in the run-up to her second album. A reckless booze-hound whose preferred onstage state of mind was blathered incoherence – honestly, Florence, we didn’t think you had it in you. While not explicitly comparing herself to Amy Winehouse she has told journalists that, as her career went stratospheric, the only thing that kept her sane – and then only by her finger-tips – was her relationship with the bottle. “I used to think it was all part of the performance to go out there, go on tour, and get as drunk as possible,” she explained recently. “Like, oblivion. Oblivion. Living almost out of control.” Whether this is a howl for help from the depths of her soul or a canny stab at deflecting the spotlight from the new record is unclear. Very possibly it is both, a venting of demons that has the useful side effect of giving critics something else to ponder other than her progression as an songwriter. What can be stated with certainty is that if Welch’s struggle with debauchery produced any artistic after-burn it‘s been thoroughly exorcised from Ceremonials. Listening to it, you would never guess it the work of an artist who, by her own telling, has been through the wringer – much as you wouldn’t have really thought that Lungs, her two-million-selling debut, was a heartfelt break-up album. Recorded between marathon jaunts across the US – in the course of which she finally knocked the boozing on the head – the new LP is essentially her debut writ large and transposed to widescreen. If you swooned over Lungs’ epic contours and applauded its determined absence of subtlety, Ceremonials will have you tingling with delight. For those who felt Florence has too often lurched towards human air-raid siren, there is little here to win you around. In fact, you will probably come away with your prejudices even more deeply ingrained. This is unquestionably true of ‘What The Water Gave Me’, the Siouxsie And The Banshee-esque belter given away as a free download. It’s got a cracking chorus and a rollicking guitar outro. But there’s something too predictable about the way Welch’s vocals come yomping in, like cavalry over hill. A Florence song that likens drowning to obsessive love. Hang on, you think, haven’t we heard that a dozen times already? She does better when she stretches her wings. The single ‘Shake It Out’, for instance, teases you with glimpses of what Welch might sound like if she dialled down the pagan priestess schtick. Reigning in her voice, Florence is more ‘little girl lost’ than fiery-eyed druidess, no matter that the synths in the background seem to have wandered in from a sci-fi remake of Wagner. Better still is the weepy show-stopper ‘No Light, No Light’, which could be mid-’90s Madonna fronting Ladytron. By all accounts Welch regarded Lungs as unnecessarily bleak and, mindful of her ever-expanding teen fanbase, wanted to write something more affirmative. Truthfully, it’s hard to pick out much emotional nuance in Ceremonials. There are no emotional dips and weaves, just that hurricane of a voice and a grab-bag of quirky melodies. This is all good. But maybe the next time she has a breakdown, she’d do well to make an album about it.
Feist’s fourth album could have been called The Reminder II. Not because it is similar to her last album The Reminder, but because it is yet another reminder of her undoubted talent. An earthy and altogether bluesy collection, it scales the heights with Feist’s glorious voice soaring overhead but with both feet placed firmly on the ground. There are no songs to match the catchy nature of ‘1234’ or ‘Mushaboom’ this time. But having said that, ‘Caught A Long Wind’ and ‘How Come You Never Go There’ are more textured, rougher around the edges and have a feeling of longevity. The textured ‘Caught A Long Wind’ showcases Feist’s piercing vocal style which is both spine-tingling and hypnotic in equal measure. The groovy ‘How Come You Never Go There’ references ‘60s girl groups with its enchanting backing singers slowly caressed by blues-rock guitar rhymes. The best compliment we can pay is that at its best Feist’s singing sounds like something from an Ennio Morricone score.
In many ways Watch The Throne is the record that both Jay-Z and Kanye West needed to make. For Mr. Beyoncé, this opus is an opportunity to prove that he can do collaborations successfully in the wake of his creative misfires with Linkin Park and R. Kelly. For Mr. Hitler, sorry, West, on the other hand, the album is a great way to remind people of just how talented he is (when he isn’t making a show of himself, boo hooing that people hate him as much as Hitler). As you might expect, Watch The Throne sees both acts come out with all weapons blazing: much of the material on the LP stands shoulder to shoulder with their best cuts. ‘Murder To Excellence’ features a beautiful, tribal vocal hook and powerful lyrics that speak out against gang violence; ‘Lift Off’ boasts an excellent vocal performance from Beyoncé; and ‘Niggas In Paris’ has a hilarious sample from the Will Ferrell film Blades of Glory that keeps the proceedings in a playful mood. The only downside is that much of the subject matter retreads the same old macho posturing that we’re already overly familiar with. ‘That’s My Bitch’ may be a sweet ode to his wife in Jay’s mind, but it sounds a little sleazy all the same. As for Kanye, his statement that, “White America assassinate my character,” on ‘Gotta Have It’ is a typically deluded statement from someone who’s spent the last five years talking bollocks of biblical proportions. Not to worry. For all its lyrical faults, musically Watch The Throne is a humdinger: a triumphant-sounding record that plays to both rappers strengths and reaffirms their status as the leading lights of the scene.
34.2 mins. 12 tracks. The Minutes don’t hang about. They can’t afford to. Debut album Marcata is an urgent manifesto – a cacophonous, confident and crushing slab of attitude and authenticity, steeped in the anarchic history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s Johnny Cash giving the finger, Sid Vicious bleeding destroy, Chuck Berry snarling, ‘Don’t fuck with me’. Desert rock, gospel, grunge, punk and blues are stuck into a blender and made their own. The production is raw and raucous, perfectly capturing the sonic swagger of a live act furiously blasting out seductive groove and riff spit, as if their lives depended on it. But there is much shade and nuance amidst the thumping rhythm and sonic drill. The tribal intro to ‘Black and Blue (A Letter)’ is counterpointed by an ominously lurking guitar riff before opening up into a slow thrusting throb that lurches from anger to twisted pain. Discordant piano emerges unexpectedly from the shadows of ‘Fleetwood’ like a flick knife-wielding greaser threatening the song’s exuberance. ‘Heartbreaker’ is a hatful of holler that should be retitled ‘Neckbreaker’. The twists and turns of ‘Guilt Quilt’ could serve as the soundtrack to a garage band painting by Grant Wood. Its contorted rockabilly stylings are an ambiguous mixture of thrashing reverence and ambiguity. Their version of the old blues standard ‘I.M.T.O.D’ is souped up and bashed out as a punk parson, high on the fire and brimstone of Old Testament sermonising. It stands on a par with Zep’s rendition. In fact this entire album is that good. Don’t waste time. Get it – this minute!
Three years is a long time in the life of a twentynothing Swedish vixen, but crucially in an era when pop music can be dated almost to the month, Lykke Li’s first album Youth Novels has aged well. Li’s made no secret of the fact that she was feeling every bit as heartbroken writing second LP Wounded Rhymes as she was writing her debut, albeit this time around, she’s got just a few more lines to her rock résumé. Thankfully, the 24-year-old hasn’t let Drake samples, Twilight soundtracks or Kanye collaborations go to her pretty little head. Björn Yttling (minus Peter and John) returns as producer and tune for tune, she’s kept to the Lykke Li blueprint of lo-fi beats, killer percussion and fetching hooks. The difference? This time there’s fire under her heels. Where once she was bashful and cooing, now she’s ferocious and authoritative, pawing and scraping at the beats like a woman possessed. Bounding melodies, warlike throbs, and unearthly howls are clunked masterfully together; frankly, we didn’t think she had in her. Pulsating opener ‘Youth Knows No Pain’ joins singles ‘I Follow Rivers’ and ‘Get Some’ for the ass-kicking portion of the record, each one deliciously belligerent and insolently primal. Elsewhere, doleful ballads are souped up with hand claps and sultry, woozy vocals. Lyrics are haunting and forlorn, but clever all the same, like when she achingly repeats “Oh, my love is unrequited,” or playfully croons “Sadness is my boyfriend/ Oh Sadness, I’m your girl.” Choral closer ‘Silent My Song’ is practically a hymn. Excusing the less-than-sweet lyrics, ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ could be a Shirelles cover, while ‘Unrequited Love’ is pumped full of actual shoo-wops. The psychedelic ‘60s are revived on some of the gutsier tracks too (there’s even a tune with a boy’s name as the title!), but it rarely feels throwback or retro. Instead of bunching the intimate with the hostile, she’s allowed the rhymes to run riot, so that we’re kind of bucked about from emotion to emotion. This probably has something to do with representing the tumultuous nature of the heartbreak we talked about earlier, but really, it just makes for very interesting listening. This a moodier, more ferocious, more grown-up Ms. Zachrisson, but it’s still textbook Lykke Li. Youth Novels was an altogether cuter affair (she’d hate to hear me say it, mind), but Wounded Rhymes has real depth. Lykke Li isn’t so much licking her wounds, as she is parading around in them for all to see.
Camp is Childish Gambino\'s latest record. The rapper, actor and comedian Donald Glover already released three albums and a pair of mixtapes as Childish Gambino, but Camp now is his first commercial record.
Hotly tipped songstress Anna Calvi’s debut is a subtle slab of wax. Mind you it should be, having taken a whopping three years to make. With the likes of Brian Eno, Nick Cave and Interpol singing – well, make that talking – the praises of her dark laments, the omens are good. On immediate contact, the Londoner’s sound seems to lie somewhere between Jeff Buckley and PJ Harvey, but after repeated listens, Ennio Morricone and Diamanda Galas influences (as well as the more malevolent side of 50s rock ‘n’ roll) also come to the fore, in what all told is a bewitching brew. ‘Desire’ is a wide-screen, epic tune that sizzles from start to finish, ‘Suzanne And I’ is a belter of a song that really shows off her deep croon and ‘Blackout’ is as menacing as it is mesmerizing. And there is an impressive silver screen sparkle to ‘Desire’. Oddly the album opener is weak by comparison: ‘Rider To The Sea’ is merely dull. Similarly, ‘Morning Light’ is a little too maudlin for this reviewer. On the whole though, Calvi’s self-titled debut is a fine, moody piece of work that generally manages to sound much more than the sum of its parts. Hey, if it’s good enough for old Nick, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
Sometimes less is more. While some bands go for epic orchestral arrangements, Dublin band We Cut Corners show just how much you can do with just a drum kit and a guitar. Their excellent debut album sees them jump easily between making a glorious guitar-shredding racket (the Patti Smith-esque ‘Three People’, the poppy ‘The Leopard’ and the plaintive ‘Say Yes To Everything’) and creating perfectly crafted lo-fi folk pop (‘A Pirate’s Life’, ‘Dumb Blonde’). It’s amazing how much wonderful noise can come from combining those two instruments. Drummer Conall and guitarist John have already been compared to The White Stripes, but they’re often a lot more interesting than that rather one-note drum-and-guitar duo. The heavier songs are exhilarating but complex – ‘The Leopard’ is a particular highlight – and even when the music is tender, the lyrics have bite. “I should have tried it when we were friends because you were much more vulnerable then,” they coo on ‘Dumb Blonde’; ‘A Pirate’s Life’ begins with the fantastic lines: “The night breaks into little parts/ And I’m reduced to stealing hearts/ It’s a pirate’s life for me”. In fact, the lyrics are great throughout, reminiscent of Belle And Sebastian at their most sweetly caustic. The band sound self-assured – and justifably so. Some debut albums are merely promising. Today I Realised I Could Go Home Backwards is the sound of a band who have already arrived.
SBTRKT is the debut record of London musician/producer SBTRKT. Aaron Jerome not only uses the mysterious pseudonym, but also dons masks when performing, to support the concept of anonymity. This is to let his music be the centre of attention. Although Jerome has already released various singles and EPs, SBTRKT is his first long-player.
On ‘Lifening’, one of several standout tracks on Snow Patrol’s mightily impressive sixth studio album, frontman Gary Lightbody gently croons the simple things that would make him happy: “Ireland in the World Cup/Either North or South/The Fanclub on the jukebox/The birds and, yes, the bees/This is all I ever wanted from life...” As things turned out, the aptly named Lightbody got a lot more than he ever asked for. ‘Lifening’ is a word invented by the Bangor-born singer himself, which he defines as, “to have lightning and light thrust into your life, or to simply let them into your life.” While there was a long period of darkness – or at least wilderness – in the early years of Snow Patrol, the Irish/Scottish five-piece have had enough lightning and light thrust into their lives in recent times to power all of Vegas for, oh, at least 20 minutes. Their rise to success started with 2003’s ‘Run’ and hasn’t really slowed since. They were chasing cars, and they caught a limousine. To date, the band – singer Lightbody, guitarist Nathan Connolly, bassist Paul Wilson, drummer Jonny Quinn and keyboardist Tom Simpson – have shifted in excess of 11 million albums and been responsible for a string of era-defining hit singles (‘Chocolate’, ‘Chasing Cars’, ‘Take Back The City’, etc.). Their records have been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, Grammys and MTV Europe Music Awards, with Final Straw landing them an Ivor Novello Award in 2005. Of course, the multi-million euro question when you hit their level is, where to next? Bang out another soundalike album and keep the moolah rolling in? Or continue to develop artistically, experiment musically, and take chances? Of all the big bands the ‘00s threw up, the only serious stadium-sized sonic successors to U2 (from this side of the pond at least) are Coldplay, Muse and Snow Patrol. When they’re not supporting Bono & Co., the Patrol are still an arena act. But they’re only one more hit record away from that kind of stadium-sized mega-success... and probably still unsure if they even want to go there anyway. On the strength of this, they may have little choice. Produced again by Dubliner Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, Fallen Empires was recorded from start to finish entirely on Californian sand. In October 2010, the band headed to The Joshua Tree National Park for initial writing sessions at Rancho De La Luna Studios. Although these yielded fruit in the shape of four near-finished songs, Lightbody then fell victim to an excruciating bout of writer’s block (possibly having blown his lyrical load on the Tired Pony project), which lasted almost three months and left him reconsidering his future as a rock star. Eventually the tender ministrations of Dr. Michael Stipe got him back on track. Ready to rock, they set up a studio and recorded at Eagles Watch, a seafront house in Santa Monica with widescreen windows and breathtaking Pacific views. The glamorous location led Lightbody to write about home (needless to say, he also writes about heart). However, he’s shifted perspective. The album is bookended by two decidedly non-autobiographical songs about homelessness – the U2-esque ‘I’ll Never Let Go’ and the moving ‘The President’ (final track ‘Broken Bottles Form A Star’ is an instrumental coda to the latter). But the real meat of this album comes with epics like ‘The Weight Of Love’, ‘The Garden Rules’ and the title-track. One of the most talented lyricists of his generation, Lightbody has the knack of often being simultaneously poetic and anthemic. Sometimes he just does one: he’s rarely sounded as vulnerably heart-bruised as he does on ‘New York’. Musically, they’re taking their cues from LCD Soundsystem’s The Sound Of Silver, U2’s Achtung Baby! and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Connolly and Wilson were obviously given plenty of room to manoeuvre and they’ve created some memorable riffs. Quinn goes all-out nuts on ‘This Isn’t Everything You Are’. Simpson’s influence is more obvious on the techno and ambient moments. All told, these are musicians playing at the very top of their game. They had a little help. Some backing vocals were recorded by the LA Inner City Mass Gospel Choir in Compton, and Troy Van Leuwen from Queens Of The Stone Age provides additional guitars on two tracks. While their last studio album, 2008’s A Hundred Million Suns, was more self-consciously ‘arty’ than previous offerings, it could hardly be described as a major change in direction. Although the band had hinted in interviews that Fallen Empires – whose 14 tracks play out at just under an hour – would showcase a completely new sound, it’s still instantly recognisable as Snow Patrol. This isn’t quite their Zooropa or Kid A, but the good news is that it’s probably the best album they’ve ever made – epic, adventurous, melancholic, joyful and deep, but still somehow endearingly populist and at times positively exhilarating. Never considered the coolest of bands, and unfairly castigated as bland in certain critical quarters, here they’re trying to be all things to all men... and somehow almost succeeding. Their detractors will continue to hate them, but it’ll be a hollow kind of hate. Fallen Empires isn’t quite their masterpiece, but it’s never less than masterful.
House Of Balloons is this year\'s nine-tracked album of The Weeknd. Behind this stage name is Abel Tesfaye, a 21 year old Ethiopian-Canadian singer. House Of Balloons was first published through The Weeknd\'s website.
I’ve beem waiting in expectation for this record since last year, when I was transportedinto a state of ecstasy by The Waterboys’ Abbey Theatre show, ‘An Appointment With Mr. Yeats’. Mike Scott and his band received standing ovations for their 20 gorgeous pieces of original music based on the poetry of WB Yeats. An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, the album, offers listeners the chance to hear 14 of those beautiful creations. Scott has revered Yeats’ verse for decades. Turning the great writer’s words into music is a tall order, especially where poems of the familiarity and resonance of ‘Song of Wandering Aengus’, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and ‘September 1913’ are concerned. But The Waterboys have carried it off. Here Yeats’ imagery and symbolism resonate across a whole new auditory spectrum, provided by Scott and the wonderful crew of musicians, including witchy vocalist Katie Kim. There is a strong flavour of Bob Dylan in parts and Steve Wickham plays some incendiart and beautiful fiddle. While the tracks on An Appointment With Mr. Yeats sit within the genres of rock, pop, country and trad, and indeed unexpectedly, blues, they are connected by a sense of musical timelessness. Even if you’ve never picked up a book of poetry in your life you will adore the results.