Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Album review: Cornershop - Urban Turban

Twenty-one years. That’s how long Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres have been plying their funked-up trade under the Cornershop banner for. And in that time the duo have never once felt the need to fit into the vicissitudes of grunge, brit-pop, trip-hop, grime, nu-rave, chillwave and any other poorly-coined micro-genre that signified the sound of the moment. How many 21-year olds can say that?

It’s an admirable gameplan. Many pious acts has wilted in the face of a dime and a chart topper, but for the most part Cornershop have managed to pitch it their own way. Yet, a discernible lack of airplay and column inches since that hit (which was really someone else’s handy work) means few outside beard-stroking cliques have had the chance to wiggle their rumpus to the mighty 'Lessons Learned from Rocky I to Rocky III' or bust out a fictitious slap bass to 'Good Shit’s endemic indie-an (Indie + Indian?) pop.

But it matter little to messers Singh and Ayres. They’ve kept quietly shipping gold-plated (if not gold-selling) records like the phenomenal Handcream For a Generation; like the extraordinary Cornershop and the Double ‘O’ Groove of; and like the still-growing Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast. Each one is a hot-trot of experimental funk-folk-hip-hop fusion that pushes whatever boundaries these two foremen want to push, whenever they want to push them (there was a seven year gap between albums five and six). As the football chant of the moment goes: They’re Cornershop, they do what they want. And they do.

The pairing’s latest slab of plastic, Urban Turban, won’t come as much surprise to hardened ‘shop afiianados. Of the record’s 12 cuts, half have been released as part of the band’s The Singhles Club, a rag-tag collection of outtakes and collaborations issued sparingly across the last couple of years. It’s hardly a congruous listen, then, but it’s consistent with the quirky, off-kilter pretentions that signify any rewarding Cornershop jaunt on your stereo.

Delicious opener ‘What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?’ is the most Cornershop of Cornershop cuts. Built around a big, bendable bassline and simplistic beat, the track’s sunshine melody is tied together by the unison of Singh’s smooth tones and the chirpy harmonies of a school choir. Sadly this good-time chirrup is the last time we hear Singh take the lead until the same number is reprised down the end of the line, a move which is partially to the record’s detriment.

An overdependence on guest-crooners has the disadvantage of interfering with the record’s flow, particularly as Urban Turnban is as stylistically capricious as you’d expect from a Cornershop affair. ‘Solid Gold’s segue into ‘Beacon Radio’ is particularly awkward; the shunt from euphoric Nineties House to avant-garde break-beat experimentalism is as seamless as shifting from neutral to fifth.

Yet, amidst these transgressions exists joyously-coined numbers that showcase Cornershop at their most inventive. ‘Who’s Gonna Lite It Up’s fuzzy guitar and boggy percussion snarl into an acid-dropping throb; ‘Concrete Concrete’s Hammond-keyed stomp is as raw and infectious as a Sixties soul shakedown; while the ice-cold ‘Dedicate’ turns out an intricate electronic rhythm that belongs on the sun-sodden shores of a small Spanish island.

It’s safe to say Singh and Ayres have lost none of their ability to surprise. And nowhere more so than in the Velvet’s-esque glare of the divine ‘Something Makes You Feel Like’. Sauntering to the hiss and fizz of a languid guitar line, vocalist SoKo wheezes: “Forget your pills for your tummy, for you head, you can’t sleep, you're depressed, you feel weak. Do you bleed? No. So stop your whining…”. Lyrically, it’s as apathetic as Cornershop have ever been, but musically it's the most evocative four minutes of their career.

After 21 years, it’s hard to believe Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres are still capable of producing moments as vivid and relevant as these. But, like an awkward young adult who refuses to join in with the hip crowds, Cornershop have proven they are no ordinary British band. Age, it appears, is treating them well.

Album review: Lower Dens - Nootropics

On the face of it, Lower Dens are as cold as they come. The glacial aesthetic that underpinned the Baltimore quartet’s debut offering Twin-Hand Movement often seemed as dense and impenetrable as a polar ice-cap. But hidden below this frozen facade was a warm heart, teased out by Jana Hunter’s mesmerising purrs and gorgeous fluttering of guitars.

Album number two Nootropics continues to strike a balance between mystical detachment and shy romanticism, connecting band and listener through an opium-daze of languid melodies. Admittedly, it occasionally misses the mark, with numbers like 'Lamb' gently floating off into the ether as a background of understated and underwhelming psychedelia. But when it's on-point, this is an album of undiluted bliss that fingers its way inside your conscience through deftly crafted soundscapes.

‘Brains’s labyrinth-like rhythm is the immediate show stealer. Breezing along to tap-dancing percussion, it expands into a gorgeous swell of synthesizers that recalls the frantic folky-murmurs of Here We Go Magic, before delving seamlessly into the coruscating afterglow of ‘Stem’. Less immediate but no less engaging, the gloomy 'Candy' leans on taut guitar lines and Hunter’s breathy intonation of “I never could cut you down” to create an inverted and gorgeous sweep.

Frustratingly, Nootropics is let down by Lower Dens' penchant for pissing about. The scene-setting scar of twitching feedback evident on ‘Lion in Winter Pt.1’ does little to prepare you for the metronomic beat and electronic judders of 'Pt.2'. Likewise, the 12-minute-slog of ethereal undertones and breathless sighing found on tedious closer ‘The End is the Beginning’ is bereft of precision, preferring to loll along aimlessly, as if teasing listeners to reach for the off-switch prematurely.

But for all its challenges, for all its moments of indecision, this is an album busting with an array of sweet spots to hone in on. Coiled around swooning harmonies and a deep, bulbous bassline, the delicious ‘Propagation’ is the sort of melting, heart-string pulling swell Grizzly Bear would be proud of; while the stuttered percussion and cathedral-atmospherics of 'Nova Anthem' are synchronised into a gorgeous sweep by Hunter’s seductive tones.

Ultimately, Nootropics takes time to ingest and understand. It’s undoubtedly complex, awkward and occasionally without direction, but it also produces moments of astonishing splendour, each with the capacity to bring neck hairs bristling to attention. They may continue to exude a cool air of pretention, but musically Lower Dens are starting to warm up.

Album review: Graham Coxon - A+E

The Brits 2012. Globally-adored, multi-million-unit-shifting pop songstress Adele has just had her Best British Artist acceptance speech cut short by multi-million-shit-joke-shifting celebrity brown-noser James Corden. Adele flicks Corden two of her finest digits and saunters off to the cradling arms of her record label chums and a champagne-soaked table. In another world, the Twittersphere is already going ape-shit - or as close to it as you can with 140 characters.

What could be more important to the British music industry than the biggest selling female artist on the planet in 2012? And not just any ‘biggest selling female artist on the planet’. One of us. A local girl who’s vocal chords are so pure, so wholesome they don’t need to be digitised to the point of resembling a phlegm-hacking chest infection to sell records. She’s Grammy award winning, for Christ’s sake.

The reason? A blast from the past. A band that will never die, no matter how obsolete songs about park living, country retreats and woo-hooing are today. Blur - fucking Blur - are making a comeback. For the thirteenth time (probably). We’re told by Corden and his media lackies that we must treasure this moment; this epoch-defining opportunity to relive Britpop. A lawyer, cheese-monger, a gorilla and a be-spectacled man-boy stand foppishly on the stage like the last 20 years haven’t happened.

It sounds agonisingly shit.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Blur is no longer each member’s main squeeze. It’s a band that’s wheeled out for special occasions, like your dad and his pals thrashing on their Fenders to 30 reception guests for Aunt Val’s third marriage; a school reunion of middle-aged men kicking out the jams of their glory day in the garage of a detached suburban bungalow. With one exception: their next session is the Olympic Games. Not bad for a garage.

Yet, if you listen to any of Graham Coxon’s press interviews, this backward-looking bullshit doesn’t sound like his bag. The others, perhaps. But Coxon? A limelight-avoiding indie kid who never really grew up; a stripy t-shirt wearing, borderline-depressive; a creator of 2009’s poignant, introverted acoustic slowburner The Spinning Top. It doesn’t add up. Why would he relive a period that left him crippled and dazed? Why go back when he’s doing an admirable job of going forward?

Maybe Blur is just a hellish vice to give up? A band-based equivalent of a decaying crack pipe. Going by Coxon’s eighth solo album, A+E, it certainly seems that way. Instead of proving he’s happy to lay former glories to rest, Coxon uses these ten tracks to send out a message that he’s far from done with Blur. In fact, a number of these thrashing, trashing pop stutterings sound so eerily familiar it’s as if he’s created a concentrated PR campaign to prove that Blur is in fact he. The good guy. Not those egotistical, press-slavering parasites (and Rowntree) who have sullied its name.

This is not always a bad thing. Especially if you have a penchant for the bouncing indie-pop tuned to the lo-fi frequencies Coxon and co flushed out in their latter years. Opener ‘Advice’ clangs to a barbed-wire guitar that fuzzes and scratches into an explosion of drum while Coxon screeches ”someone gonna give you advice until the morning”. Its successor, ‘Bah Singer’ is equally tumultuous; stacked with aggravated, staccato guitar that hurtles across a backdrop of mayhem percussion and wailing sirens.

Short stabby pop songs are evidently a piece of Coxon’s past. Despite being just ten tracks long, A+E doesn’t short change the listener. Every cut passes the four minute mark and some roll further on, seemingly without end. Often, it’s a successful ploy that showcases Coxon’s ear for intricacy: the gnarling, introverted ‘Knife in the Cast’ screwdrives the ear-canals with painstaking precision, while languid cowboy lullaby 'Ooh Yeh Yeh’ shows Coxon at his most mellow. Yet, the unlovable ballast of ‘Running For Your Life’ should have been cut short at birth, never mind five minutes down a track of shambolic, unlistenable punk-pop.

Most intriguingly, an unmistakeable dance-driven undertone drives A+E’s finer moments. Built on a kaleidoscopic loop of bleeping effects, 'What’ll It Take' examines the more cordial side of krautrock while Coxon wails "What’ll it take to make you people dance?” over and over before dissolving into the background like some sort of mangled smoke alarm. The outstanding ‘City Hall’ is a motorik punk banger, and ‘Seven Naked Valleys’ throbbing riffs and gyrating sax bring out a loin-rubbing side to Coxon’s usually tamed mannerisms. It’s enthralling stuff.

Despite the quality of the execution, it’s difficult to shake the sense that A+E has been done before. And although the steer towards more dance-friendly aesthetics reaps significant pay-off, this isn’t an album with the clout to feature high on many playlists come the summer months. Which is a shame, because some of Coxon’s finest solo moments are to be found in the belly of this rewarding, if stunted, record. But today, in 2012, A+E and Graham Coxon will always fall under the shadow of something much, much bigger. Something that will never end. And, like that night at the Brits, it’s not Adele.

Album review: Maps & Atlases - Beware and Be Grateful

In just two albums Chicago’s Maps & Atlases have experienced the kind of transformation few bands ever encounter. From the epileptic math rock squalls of their early recordings, the quartet pushed their frenetic guitar noodles out as more rounded arrangements on debut Perch Patchwork. Album number two, Beware & Be Grateful, finds the band edging closer towards more mainstream climes; building on their pop-sensibilities to create a consistently fascinating longplayer.

Much of the band’s presence lies with frontman Dave Davison, whose emotional purrs push the knotted melodies of Fever and Old Ash into gorgeous, shivering swells. Despite the trend towards more accessible blasts like Vampires, a sense of intricacy presents itself in the likes of Silver Sail and Bugs, which rattle to a labyrinth of time signatures and ebullient guitar noodles. With Beware & Be Grateful, M&A have created their most rewarding effort to date. Their transformation is almostcomplete.

Album review: Dead Mellotron - Glitter

Given the celebrated output of Deerhunter/Atlas Sound foreman Bradford Cox, it’s surprising just how few imitators he has. There’s good reason for this: few have the wont to subject audiences to an hour-long interpretation of My Sharona, nevermind the dedication to reel out a slew of high-quality longplayers without pause for breath. While it’s likely Baltimore outfit Dead Mellotron possess neither of these attributes, there’s more than a trace of Cox’s shoegazing shtick to their enveloping swoons.

On third record, Glitter, the trio’s dedication to tripped-out psychedelia bleeds through this spacious seven track effort. But despite any perceived familiarity, there’s little predictability on show. The shimmery trance of Can’t See combusts into an exhausting guitar collision; Making Up is a coruscating melodic sweep; while the opium-den chimes of Babe melt insouciantly into the airwaves. At times magical, Glitter is Dead Mellotron’s first clear step to discovering themselves, rather than others.

A neglected blog...

Phew, it's been a while.

In my defence it has been a pretty dramatic couple of months. I've finally taken the step to cut out the commute and as from 11 June I will be working much closer to home. It's been a tough decision - I feel a bit disappointed I'm not going to get to see the Olympics in full swing - but ultimately the opportunity to travel for 40 minutes a day, instead of almost three hours, is far, far too tempting. Plus the money's good.

So what will I do with all that time? Well, that's what I keep asking myself. I guess I'll need to get my teeth stuck into something juicy, or at least palatable. So far I'm mulling over kayaking, yoga, photography and karate. I'm also seriously considering getting dog. Although I sense that may be a step too far.

Hopefully it means I'll have the opportunity to do some more rambling around Colchester's rather divine countryside when there's light (and it's not actually raining). Last weekend Su and I made our way around a local country park while the sun made a rare appearance. It's been a while since I've used the camera, which definitely shows, but it was good to get back out and about. Long may it continue.