Saturday, 28 December 2013

Album review: Darkside - Psychic

In their own incongruous way, Psychic’s two creators do an admirable job of defining the sound of Darkside’s debut LP. While Nicolas Jaar believed he was making an electronic record, Dave Harrington thought he was involved in a rock record. It turns they were both right. What they’ve produced is an impressive combination of the two.

In reality, it’s pushing it to suggest the duo didn’t know what they were doing. Jaar is renowned for his monochromatic swathes that teeter between avant-garde electro and flat out floor-filler. And Harrington – a member of Jaar’s live band since 2011 – is a jazz trained bass player with a track record for cinematic compositions.

So, while Psychic is more likely a pre-contrived melding of minds than a convergence of contradictory style, it shouldn’t lessen the appeal. From the first notes of 11 minute opener ‘Golden Arrow’ – a down tempo opus of astronautic effects and textures – it’s clear this is a collaboration that works, with Harrington building funk-soaked pillars of bass within Jaar’s celestial grooves.

Those expecting an extension of Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise may be left disappointed. Harrington’s influence ripples through the gnawing ‘The Only Shine I’ve Seen’ and the driving cosmic ceremony of ‘Freak Go Home’, helping to deepen the depth and scope of their arcane arrangements.

At just eight tracks long, it should be a brief encounter. But many of these cuts, such as the loose limbed ‘Paper Trails’, are bottomless troves, opening up and unravelling on every listen. And while its creators may disagree on categorisation, one thing’s for sure: whatever Psychic is, it’s fascinating.

Album review: Breathe Owl Breathe - Passage of Pegasus

It looks like Breathe Owl Breathe have finally decided to grow up. Here, on album number six, the Michigan-based trio have replaced the idiosyncrasies of past records with a tonal consistency that runs throughout these 10 folk-pop strains.

This change of tack creates a perfect platform for the rich, emotive baritone of Micah Middaugh to thrive. Each song—in particular "Ferns Move" and the gorgeous "Two Moths"—are fraught, tender tearjerkers that swoop through a fug of pert percussion and grievous strings. And while it may not be enough to win over new fans, this refreshed approach will see Breathe Owl Breathe age well with the ones they've already got.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Xiu Xiu - Nina

An entire record of Nina Simone covers is probably not how most people expected Xiu Xiu to follow last year's Always. Yet given the capricious nature of Jamie Stewart's avant-garde ensemble, it's unlikely to be a decision that surprises many.

Stewart's provocative and emotional approach is the perfect fit for Simone's own powerful sonic impingements, and the peculiar dovetail of the artists' styles starts to make even more sense in this 11-song tribute to the late great jazz chanteuse.

It is a disorienting experience to hear Simone's punctuating keys replaced with incongruous saxophone parps and almost non-existent drum rhythms. "See Line Wome
n" is stabbing and immoral; "The Other Woman" evolves into a deep swell of lovestruck hopelessness; and "Flo Me La" is a loosely-stitched jazz freak out.

Stewart's unfathomable intonations are central to the record, which does its best to emulate the muted neo-baritone of Simone while emitting its own quivering gulp of emotion. So divisive and unsettling is Stewart's delivery that it can prove as destructive as it is captivating, such as during the formless "Don't Smoke In Bed."

Much like Simone's own live performances, there's no middle ground here. What Stewart has produced is a wild, discordant plunge into the legacy of a legend; a visceral interpretation that could only emanate from his creative bowels. Nina would approve.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: 65Daysofstatic - Wild Light

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to fellow Brit noise merchants Fuck Buttons, 65daysofstatic is aiming for higher ground on its fifth studio album.

Combining to form an imposing skyline of layered guitar and percussive bombast, each of these drilling post-rock instrumentals is slashed with electronic skewers and an unavoidable sense that grander plans await. Promising work.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Live From KCRW

The trouble with studio albums is they don’t always capture the essence of a band in the flesh. In the case of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds it’s a point that’s amplified by their blistering outings in support of album number 15, Push The Sky Away. For a band whose integral parts have each passed a half century in years, there are few more beseeching, emotionally raw and darn right beautiful acts currently plying their trade.

It feels apt, then, that Cave and co are bookending a successful 2013 with a living, breathing document of their current vintage. Recorded at Apogee Studio in L.A., Live From KCRW doesn’t just represent the band’s here and now; it retreads and reworks a back catalogue more powerful and burgeoning than any modern day equivalent’s. In fact, so aware is Cave of this sonic goldmine, he teases the audience by taking requests, before admitting he’ll only play songs on “this very short list here”.

As a recording, Live From KCRW is the band at its most reflective. ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is smoky and brooding, weaving a seductive sense of menace through its tragic guitar creeps. The ethereal notes of ‘Push The Sky Away’ extend the melancholic pattern, somehow trumping the original recording’s meditative lament, while Cave baritones “And some people say it's just rock 'n' roll/ Aw, but it gets you right down to your soul.”

The intimacy of the recording is quite something. ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ radiate tender beauty , each underlining the deep intuitive space each musician operates within. And the remodelled majesty of ‘Mercy Seat’ - impregnated by skeletal piano and Warren Ellis’s barbed wire string work - proves that even a stone cold killer can be brought warmly to the bosom.

Ultimately, Live From KCRW is the personable side of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. And, while the appearance of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is a rip-roaring atomic bomb amidst these supple paeans, it’s a record that showcases a band comfortable at the peak of its powers. Thirty years on, they remain an astonishing

Albums of the year: My 10 of 2013

2013 was quite the year for music, wasn’t it?

Indie land’s big album comebacks, for the most part, hit the mark; numerous cherubic acts cracked the mainstream; and glitch-riddled electronica seemed to percolate every crevasse of popular culture.

For me, the most notable trend in my listening was around just how many female voices I made time for. Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter, in particular, made good with their equally ethereal and mesmerizing longplayers. While the poppier side of my tune-chomping was fed by Charli XcX, Lorde and, yes, even the omnipotent Haim.

I was probably most surprised by the quality of the new Vampire Weekend record. I’ve never been impressed by their preppy pseudo-Graceland schtick, but Modern Vampires of the City moved them into a weightier songwriting sphere that combined their ear for a ditty with a touching sense of emotional depth.

 For a long time, MOVTC was my album of the year. Then Spencer Krug turned up with Julia with Blue Jeans On. One man and his piano does not sound that earth shattering, but this evocative, brittle and downright sumptuous recording dragged me through one of the most draining periods of my life. It is, quite simply, beautiful.

So that’s been my 2013 in music. I’ve listened to a lot, old and new. And even now – at the tailend of December – I’m discovering sounds and sonics that would surely have made my final list had I a few more weeks to let them gestate.

But, time waits for no man, beast or last minute top ten contender. So… as it stands, below are my top 10 records of 2013:

1. Moonface – Julia with Blue Jeans
In one sentence: Beatific ivory tinkling majesty from an artist who finally strips out the metaphor to reveal his ear for startlingly naked songwriting.


2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City 
In one sentence: A developed, fully formed masterpiece that measures melody against compositional depth.


3. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
In one sentence: Submerged in haunting string-bound atmosphere, this is ethereal and comatose elegance at its most sublime.


4. Deptford Goth – Life after Defo 
In one sentence: Tranquilised narco-induced dub-step with a sideline in haunting, heart-melting ballads.


5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
In one sentence: Dark, luscious and brooding with menace; as consistent as Cave and co have been in years.


6. Darkside – Psychic
In one sentence: A bottomless, funk-fuelled opus of astronautic effects and textures.

7. Jon Hopkins – Immunity 
In one sentence: A twitching, high brow collection of sharp electronic clusters, visceral beats and jarring bleeps.


8. Villagers - {Awayland}
In one sentence: A true testament to the art of songwriting, {Awayland} was a complex album that managed to sound ever so simple.


9. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
In one sentence: A James Murphy-inspired regeneration, that’s brash, bold and – at times – funky as hell.


10. Factory Floor – Factory Floor 
In one sentence: Furious, impenetrable and completely deranged, Factory Floor’s debut LP is one of the year’s most barbaric sounds.


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Album review: Sébastien Tellier - Confection

Never a man to play things by the book, dream-pop iconoclast Sébastien Tellier has created a sixth album that is an almost entirely instrumental affair. But the fact that his one deviation from type—the louche piano-stroking glide of "L'Amour Naissant"—represents th
e album's unclouded apex, is a telling indication of what this 14-song LP lacks.

Like a beatific, ethereal soundtrack to a film that has yet to exist, Confection finds the impenetrably esoteric Frenchman eschewing his more disco-coated side for something a little more sophisticated. And there's certainly an element of bourgeois cultivation in the lisping keys of "Adieu Comme Un Jeu" and the equally regal "Coco Et La Labyrinthe."

Yet, despite the opulent notes and refined compositions, Tellier's smooth-talking panache is a noticeable exclusion. And when it does make that one fleeting but glorious appearance, it only emphasizes his lack of presence elsewhere. An interesting listen, sure, but one that lacks the necessary direction.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Dean Wareham - Emancipated Hearts

For a man who's been plying his trade for over 25 years, it's kind of strange that Emancipated Hearts is Dean Wareham's first solo recording. But, given the stripes he's earned as the frontman of revered dreampoppers Galaxie 500 and the lesser loved Luna, there's little chance of finding a naively coined debut record here.

Emancipated Hearts is as expertly crafted as you'd expect from someone of Wareham's heft. This mini-LP embodies the world-wearied experiences of its creator, exploring darker themes through a series of slow, winding sonic arrangements. It's not a sad album—far from it—but a deep-seated sense of vulnerability writhes through each tenderly sculpted number.

Opener "Love Is Colder Than Death" is the first indication of Wareham's step into a more fragile world. A gorgeous and warm country-flecked lament, its deft keystrokes and melancholic strings allow Wareham to dig up his emotional roots. The acoustic shiver "The Longest Bridges In the World" is just as stirring, exuding a comfort-from-the-storm aesthetic that recalls Damien Jurado at his most abyssal.

Produced by Jason Quever, the Papercuts frontman who's also had a hand in producing Beach House, this is a sublimely finished collection. Each cut has been given space to breathe under Wareham's brittle intone. Notably, "The Ticking Is the Bomb" barely stirs from its slumber of piano and strum, yet evolves as one of the record's most affecting moments.

A spacious cover of The Incredible String Band's "Air" closes the record out on a gorgeous shimmer of chiming guitar, leaving a swelling optimism cradled in the eardrums. It may have taken more than a quarter of a century to come to fruition, but this lack of hurry is exactly what makes Dean Wareham's first solo outing so stirring.

First published here for Under the Radar

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Album review: The Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley

Ten years out of the game is a long time for anyone. But for The Dismemberment Plan it may seem even longer. In the decade since the Washington-born ensemble called it a day, the hyperventilating art-punk genre they once excelled in has been pounded, pummelled, and packaged into something that sells records and everything else—from potato chips to high-end motors.

The return of the pioneering quartet, then, is surely cause to celebrate. In a time where even the most iconoclastic acts reunite to pay the tax man, it's refreshing to think this is one comeback that may actually be about the music—particularly when guitarist Jason Caddell tells us the band have "always been more abstract than sales and statistics."

Studio album number five, Uncanney Valley, certainly backs this view up. An agitated yet hook-heavy affair, these 10 cuts feel like an act reacquainting itself, slipping into a creative comfort zone that still requires a little polish. In that sense, the first few listens will always compare unfavorably against the past, with "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" and "Invisible" in particular sinking as clumsy disappointments.

Thankfully their technical excellence remains intact. The schizoid percussion of "No One's Saying Nothing" is a breathless opener; the love-stained "Lookin" is built on an intricate needlework of guitar and gorgeous synth; while "Waiting" is a jittering, pseudo-funk gem. And while it might lack the punch of old, Uncanney Valley certainly proves that, 10 years on, there's still life left in these old dogs.

First published here fore Under the Radar

Album review: Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On

A Spencer Krug piano album-it had to happen sometime. In truth, the indie rock canon Krug's been mining over the past decade always seemed ill-fitting for his spectral croon. His is a voice that demands unfettered attention; one that craves a simple canvas from which to exhale mystical, metaphorical tropes. And somehow you knew the canvas was always going to be the piano.

Julia With Blue Jeans On actualizes the inevitable. The entirety of these 10 cuts is made up of only two elements: one piano, one voice. There are no overdubs, no harmonies, no screwdriving synth lines—this is as stripped down and streamlined a record as the Wolf Parade vanguard has ever produced. But it works.
Krug's always had the ability to lock listeners down into a world of allegory concerning matters of the heart.

Here, he concentrates this technique by minimising the sonic landscape and notching up the emotional decibels. What he creates is a record that can stride to the solid keystrokes of "Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark" one minute, before floating into the title track's gushing swell of adulation the next.

This shifting cadence is the core to the record's flow. "Love the House You're In" spins a slow, mesmeric web of keys, while "Barbarian" and its sequel bleed extraordinary contemplation with every dashing stroke. But "November 2011" is the real killer. A tear-duct moistening yarn of entwined love, it's one of the most bewitching and disarming five minutes of music you'll hear this year.

Such candour is, perhaps, what's most remarkable about this recording. The piano has displaced Krug's veil of intellect and mystery. What remains is something warm, something sentimental, something beautiful. Spencer Krug has never sounded better.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Los Campesinos! - No Blues

Few British bands walk the indie walk as devotedly as Los Campesinos!. Since releasing their debut LP Hold On Now, Youngster... in 2008, the Cardiff-bred sextet have continued to roam the music industry's less resplendent echelons without feeling the need to compromise their direction of travel for commercial success (give or take appearing on a few actual commercials).

Unsurprisingly, No Blues continues Los Campesinos!' development as reliable mainstays of the U.K.'s fragmented alternative music scene. Abounding with the usual collision of love, death, sex, and football (of the spherical shaped kind), the band's fifth studio album holds no shocks for those who have followed them from the cradle.

Yet, compared with the lovestruck refrains of 2011's Hello Sadness, these 10 cuts represent a more cultivated form of songwriting. Titles such as "A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man" or "Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)" may imply an element of youthful quirk, but these are mature, fully formed compositions, built around tight structures and translucent production.

Without the usual thrust of instrument, No Blues refocuses on melody and Gareth Campesinos' vivid lyrical constructions. While his archetypal ironic wit remains, it plunges into darker depths during fizzing earworm "Avocado, Baby," where he cries "Oh it won't get any better/That doesn't mean it's gonna get any worse/You've got to draft a lifelong love letter/ Sent to the man who will be driving your hearse."

Stunning piano-stained anthem "The Time Before the Last Time," thick with splashing drum and parping brass, perhaps best symbolizes the magnificent scales Los Campesinos! could possibly reach. Yet, so strong are the band's indie roots, it's equally likely they'll never become the venerable grandstanders they should be. A pity, yes, but then again it's impossible not to love them just the way they are.

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Album review: Gary Numan - Splinter (Songs for a Broken Mind)

For a man with nearly 40 years in the game, Gary Numan still holds an impressive amount of sway. Starting out as a pioneering figure of electronic music in the '70s, the U.S.-based Londoner has straddled each decade since with a vigour that's ensured his legacy remains largely untarnished, despite the occasional clanger. And the perennial swathes of praise from today's hip young things further feed his iconic status.

Numan's 17th solo album, Splinter (Songs For a Broken Mind), continues to pedal the industrialised soundscapes and gothic structuralism that are the hallmarks of his recent material. Its contents, then, are as you'd expect; a series of dark, gloomy cuts that range from the searing machinations and piston-like percussion of "Here In the Black" to the more introspective "A Shadow Falls On Me" and the harrowingly austere "My Last Day."

 From a songwriting perspective, Numan lays down lyrics with surprising candour. During the dark, synth-driven blast "Everything Comes Down to This" he wails, "I don't know how we let love turn to pain," while over the piano-twinkling glow of "Lost" he croons, "If I had one wish/I'd wish for one more time/To see you again/Your hand in my hand once again."

 As someone more renowned for trading in utopian yarns, these are remarkably human statements. Sadly, the thrust and thunder of "Love Hurt Bleed" and "We're the Unforgiven" resemble brutally overcooked Nine Inch Nails off-cuts, but for the most part Splinter is a solid and intriguing effort from an artist comfortable with his position in life. His legacy remains intact. (

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Album review: of Montreal - Lousy With Sylvianbriar

Kevin Barnes is clearly not a man for taking a break. Over the last 16 years, of Montreal's leading light has rattled off close to a record a year. And these are never just any old long-player; each is antithetical to its predecessor, a bleeding statement of Barnes' thirst for forward-thinking pop melodies.

Of course, with such neverending productivity comes an inevitable decline in quality control. In fact, you could argue Barnes hasn't produced a truly great record since 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?—an album which remains his psych-pop masterpiece.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar doesn't quite scale such hurdy-gurdy heights, but in terms of intrigue Barnes nails his 12th of Montreal studio album with some style. Stripped down to just organic instruments, this effects-bereft affair spotlights its creator's songcraft without using any electronically-coined psychedelics.

For the most part, it works. Album opener "Fugitive Air" is typically upbeat and poppy, filled with louche guitar slides and effortlessly pithy lines like "How can I unmake someone else's mistakes?" "She Ain't Speakin' Now" is just as pulsating, contrasting its minimalist forecourt against a vibrant clang of a chorus.

But it also has the tendency to limp in places. "Amphibian Days" is a piano-centered ballad that barely breaks a sweat, while the Bob Dylan-like jaunt "Hegira Émigré" rambles along without the poise expected of of Montreal. Yet the plaintive probes of "Siren of Your Toxic Spirit" are as bare as Barnes has ever been, gliding into a flutter of heart-melting mandolin and brushing percussion.

By producing an album without electronic stimulants, Kevin Barnes continues to explore fresh musical dimensions. And while it might not always pay off, Lousy With Svlvianbriar proves once again he has a songwriting consistency few can match.

First published here for Under the Radar 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven

Someone needs to look into the damage the modern world is doing to our attention spans. Patience is no longer the virtue it once was. Today, we want everything—music, news, food, sex, technology—at our fingertips. And once we've basked in this instant gratification, we're done with it, slavering for our next quick fix.

In a time like this, you'd expect Daniel Lopatin's—aka Oneohtrix Point Never—seventh LP, R Plus Seven, to perfectly complement our inability to sit still. Every one of its 10 tracks packs in an astonishing range of sounds and textures that hopscotch from one direction to another without any obvious rhyme or reason. In theory, this should be a sugar-rushing, channel-hopping Generation Y-er's dream.

Yet for all the skittering electronics and industrial crunching of tracks like "Problem Areas" and "Inside World," it's unlikely to have any sort of mass appeal. This is the kind of record that will excite bearded experimental aficionados, who are happy to excavate the never-ending sonic crannies that punctuate this avant-garde affair.

 For this rest of us, these computerised structures are a difficult trip to enjoy. The likes of "Americans" and "Cry" aren't so much songs but artistic statements. They flicker effortlessly between scar tissue-ripping pulses, ethereal drones, and ebullient cloudburst synths to create malleable sonic shapes intent on avoiding repetition. In other words, it's as straightforward as a bowl of noodles.

 Album closer "Chrome County" is the most linear track here. Swaying to the chime of melancholic keys and angelic harmonies, it maintains a consistency that is both rare and relieving. And while there are similar moments of brilliance buried away, their fleeting existence only serves to underline what could have been. The modern world has a lot to answer for.

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Album review: Neils Children - Dimly Lit

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago Neils Children were a raging ball of angular, gnarling proto-punk that took aim at superficiality and rampant consumerism. Even today, their debut EP Change/Return/Success remains an astonishingly ferocious collection of anti-societal matter. Yet fast forward to 2013 and that edge is gone. Long gone.

Album number three, Dimly Lit, represents a disappointing calming of the soul for the London ensemble; a sad realisation that youth has passed and ageing is inevitable. The strangulating guitars have vanished, replaced by woozy, carousel dreamscapes like “Never Could be Any Other Way”; while seething hostility has been superseded by humdrum 60s psychedelia like “Trust You” and the lamentable “Warm Wave”.

We've seen this all before, of course. But the Horrors’ accession into shoegaze was always a natural next step. Sadly, Neils Children are much less durable. Their day and decade appears to be done.

Album review: Man Man - On Oni Pond

Man Man are nothing if not adventurous. Over the course of their ten year career the Philadelphia-based beat-freaks have proved little extends beyond their musical reach, consistently producing records which underline the quintet’s frenetic experimental tendencies, while displaying an impressive insight into matters of the soul.

For album number five, Ryan Kattner (also known as Honus Honus, Man Man’s piano-tinkling frontman) has reinstated the melancholic undertones that permeated 2010’s Life Fantastic. But, musically, On Oni Pond has a greater energy than its predecessor, focusing more on the possibilities of life than the final flag of death.

What ensues is a record awash with eclecticism. Tonally, it covers an extraordinary distance across the space of 13 tracks: from the brass-swelling bar brawl of “Loot My Body”, to the angular funk guitars of “Pyramids” and onwards to the bare bone declaration of “Deep Cover”.

At all times, Kattner’s gravelled croon leads the sonic concoction. His deep, gut-churning grunt rumbles through moribund haze of “Head On” with Tom Waits-like wisdom, while his sneering parables transcend the funk-stained guitars of “Paul’s Grotesque” into a lecherous slab of choleric psych-rock.

As aurally impressive and immaculately produced as you’d expect, these 45 minutes do much to surmise Man Man’s career to date. Sure, it treads little new ground, but this is a band that’s done more than enough boundary pushing in its lifetime to earn a little slack. Sometimes, even the most adventurous souls need to take it a little easy.

Album review: Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys have come a long way since their debut LP Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not dropped. Back in 2006 they were four fresh-faced Sheffield kids dousing snappy, colloquial couplets over irresistible hooks.  Fast forward seven years and the Alex Turner-led ensemble has opened the Olympic Games, sold bucket-loads of records across the globe, and been restyled as quiff-sporting teddy boys straight from a GQ cover shoot.

 Despite the fame, you wouldn't accuse the Monkeys of selling out. Even though he calls L.A. home these days, Turner continues to narrate yarns of everyday life with his sardonic steelworker drawl, while the band's rocket-fuelled rock remains intact, albeit beefed up like a weight-lifting gym addict with a steroid problem. 

Album number five, AM, will continue this escalation into stadium-filling behemoths. Calling on support from the likes Josh Homme, Bill Ryder-Jones, and punk-poet John Cooper Clarke, the Monkeys have pulled off their most technically adroit and controlled recording of their career. Whether that's a good thing for longstanding fans is another matter.

 In truth, AM is as sexy as Arctic Monkeys have ever been. Stacked with falsetto harmonies and moody atmospherics, "One For the Road" and "Fireside" are all intense eyes and smoky pickup lines; the closing swoon "I Wanna Be Yours" has Turner cooing "I want to be your vacuum cleaner" with soppy affection; and "No 1 Party Anthem" is as earnest and love struck as an Elton John piano ballad. T

he clang of lead single "Do I Wanna Know?" and "R U Mine?" are about as close as it gets to the riotous rides of old. But it's impossible to compare today's Arctic Monkeys with its original incarnation. That was a band hungry for success. This one is starting to get a bit bloated.

First published here for Under the Radar 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Album review: Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

They may not have medalled, but for Fuck Buttons, the 2012 Olympic Games in London were a career high. Despite their less-than-radio-friendly moniker, the duo from Bristol, England were catapulted onto the international stage via Danny Boyle's masterful opening ceremony, which revisited the U.K.'s cultural highs and lows in front of an audience of billions.

Strangely enough, soundtracking a nation's industrial ontogeny worked. The piston beats and scarring synth lines of "Surf Solar" and "Olympians" from 2009's ambitious Tarot Sport finally had a contextual outlet. It was, in every sense, a fascinating and unexpected triumph.

For album number three, Slow Focus, Fuck Buttons have continued the tectonic plate shifting of previous endeavours. Their dark, enclosing signature is stamped all over this industrial affair, producing a highly technical record laced with glacial hints of melody.

While it's hardly the warmest listen, the juddering topography of tracks such as barbarous opener "Brainfreeze" and frazzled "Prince's Prize" make for a heavyweight 50 minutes. Each track is intent on overpowering the ear with a combination of mammoth percussion and screwdriving electronics.

Despite being their first self-produced long-player, this is far from new territory. And without visual stimulation to accompany the surging volts of "The Red Wing" or "Hidden XS," it's a record that's all too easy to phase in and out of. At times the arrangements seem to meld into one vastly stacked and impenetrable mountain range of sound.

Of course, this isn't entirely a bad thing. Slow Focus is exactly what you'd expect from a Fuck Buttons effort: it's brusque, overwhelming and complicated. But for a band so intent on pushing boundaries, this is a strange, almost faltering, sidestep. A place on the podium remains out of reach. (

First published here for Under the Radar

Album reivew: Wiseblood - id

When Chris Laufman blasted onto the indie scene in 2011 it felt like a star was rising. The Pittsburgh producer/vocalist's efforts under the Wise Blood moniker raced to a fusion of beats, bleeps and bombast, culminating in the remarkable These Wings EP. At that point, the future was Laufman's for the taking. And then he vanished.

Two years on and Laufman has finally resurfaced. In many ways, it's like he's never been away. His debut LP retains the chaotic principles of his early work: "Target" is a hop-scotching, jazz-tinted nod to his favourite department store; "Spider Web" mixes Middle-Eastern shades with street-born depravity; and "Consumed" is an inspired segue of choral samples and snare drum percussion.

Sure, an indolent flutter of disinterest seeps through "AM 1020," but this is a record that comes close to realising the vision Laufman laid out two years ago. His star is finally back on track.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Postiljonen - Skyer

Despite their Scandinavian roots, hotly tipped trio Postiljonen aren't exactly what you'd call a winter band. The airy soundscapes and melting synth lines of the trio's debut long-player swoon to the romantic, carefree chords of a late summer evening that stretches on until dawn.

Across these 11 tracks, the dreamy pop ensemble produces a slew of sun-kissed melodies that lie somewhere between the cloud-walking ambition of the underrated Air France and the grandiose atmospherics of every aspirational '80s pop outfit you can think of. If you're looking for something gnarly, Skyer is not it—these are sounds for sentimental souls.

Underpinning the gentle ambience is vocalist Mia Bøe. Her crisp, ceramic tones tease opening number "Help" into a breezy choral bliss; she exhales a heavenly harpsichordal mew over the tapestry of "Supreme"; and album peak "Skying High" finds her scaling jittering M83-like synth l
oops with an elegant nimbleness.

While there's much to admire in these simple moments, this is a record that rarely rises from slumber. Harmony-smothered numbers such as "Plastic Panorama" and "All That We Had Is Lost" are meditative slithers that could soundtrack the most relaxing tai chi session, while "Atlantis" is a dreary, ethereal sigh that trails off into an insufficient finale.

Such Balearic bliss won't appeal to everyone, but Skyer is still capable of leaving a glow of satisfaction, given the right occasion. And with winter's chill not too far away, such a gratifying slab of summer is probably no bad thing. (

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Washed Out - Paracosm

The biggest surprise about Washed Out's 2011 debut was just how warm it felt. Buried amongst a clamour of too-cool-for-school hypnagogic popstrels Within and Without was a snug, amiable pleasure; the kind of record that greeted listeners with a beaming smile before dousing them in rich sonic textures and gooey melodies.

 Whether that's what its creator Ernest Greene intended is another matter. But given the earthy, amoebic nature of follow-up Paracosm, it's safe to say he is still looking for a way to remove himself completely from the noxious chillwave movement. Inspired by paracosmic literature—a smarty-pants way of saying "books about fantasy worlds"—these 12 tracks extend Greene's foray into amiable, slightly wistful electronic pop splendour.

Here, he builds a record that transmits inter-planetary feelings soaked in coruscating effects and pressureless atmospherics. Each number moves as slowly as a sea of cushions. The gliding undulations of "It All Feels Right" make for a lilting opener that recalls Bradford Cox's more tender canticles; "Great Escape" is a gentle loll, built on graceful drifts of synthesizers; and the title track's haze of keys and strings melt at the sound of Greene's hushed calls.

 With almost every track extending beyond five minutes, it can feel overstretched. The meandering "Weightless" never seems to wake up, while the nimble guitar lines of "Falling Back" fail to spark a final flourish. Yet in the pert jangles of "All I Know" there exists enough zip to prove Greene is capable of shifting through the gears when pushed.

 While not as immediate as its predecessor, Paracosm emits the cozy glow of an artist happy to remain in a comfortable sense of stasis. Giving in to its charms is really all you can do. (

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Album review: The Child of Lov - The Child of Lov

Being anonymous in this day and age isn’t easy. For a few months, The Child of Lov admirably retained his anonymity while generating a beehive of buzz around his first two releases. But now, with his debut LP about to drop, Cole Williams has finally come clean. The Amsterdam-based musician’s name is on every hipster’s lips, as is the all star cast that’s helped to cobble these ten tracks together.

Much of the record revolves around a deep sense of malevolency built up through dark rhythmic beats and warped funk sequences. The sinister atmospherics of album opener "Call Me Up" sets the standard, led into a sleazy g-funk corner by the Prince-like falsetto. Off kilter beat-feast "Give Me up” takes this menace further, while the prowling séance of “Days” is accentuated by DOOM's methadone growl.

It’s a luscious sounding effort, coated in creamy layers of production, but numerous ten-a-penny cuts drag it down. Flat out cock-rocker “Heal” is a boneless dirge left helpless by banal lyrics like "do you want to sit with me, I'm your soldier, set me free"; the slow-handed drawl of “Warrior” is just as drab, resembling an overcooked TV on the Radio cast-off; and not even the appearance of Damon Albarn can save the torpid indulgence of "One Day". 

Despite such desolation, Williams finds time to bring in some bounce. The up-tempo “Fly” is a persistent bass-slapper that slinks away to an endemic guitar line. The sauntering rhythm and group-hugging chorus of album swansong "Give It To The People" sounds even finer. If it weren’t for Daft Punk’s Get Lucky it would, unquestionably, be this year’s summer anthem.

While it may not live up to the hype, this is still deeply intriguing debut recording. And now the mask of anonymity has been lifted, Cole Williams can start making a name for himself.

First published in the June/July edition of Under the Radar magazine

Album review: Sweet Baboo - Ships

For a population of just over 3 million, Wales produces an impressive array of acclaimed indie acts. Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Manic Street Preachers all belong to the pantheon of Welsh greats and, since releasing his debut LP in 2008, Stephen Black – the singer-songwriter behind Sweet Baboo - has been tipped to join this stellar collection.

Album number four, Ships, should have been Black’s moment. Jammed with quirky horn-led flourishes, it’s a record that will warm the hearts of the more sentimentally disposed. Yet, despite the trumpet-parping sweet spot of “If I Died”, there's a diluted Noah & The Whale feel to many of these troves.

The honeyed twangs of “C'mon Let’s Mosh” and “Chubby Cheeks” are particularly nauseating – each a damning indictment of feeble execution. And while it’s not a complete failure, Ships’ myriad weak points show Stephen Black may struggle to scale those grander Welsh peaks.

First published in the June/July edition of Under the Radar magazine

Album review: Bibio - Silver Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson appears to be mirroring western trends by going organic. On his seventh LP under the Bibio guise, the English producer’s experimental leanings take on a distinctly naturalistic focus; veering away from the kaleidoscopic blur of 2011’s Mind Bokeh to create slow-burning sonic collection.

In keeping with his previous outings, Wilkinson’s textural approach work remains impressive. Many of these multi-layered compositions unpeel in the ear canals, levering illuminating synth lines against brushing percussion and nimble guitar. Despite – or perhaps because of - the technical showmanship, Silver Wilkinson never really gets going.

Dreary acoustic lullaby “Raincaot” epitomises this curious lack of life, ambling out as a forgettable Seventies hippy dip that wallows in lackadaisical acoustics. “Sycamore Silhouetting” and album finale “You Won’t Remember…” are equally short on substance, sunk by torpid guitar strums that conjure a sloth-like acoustic haze.

Yet with added purpose, it can be a spellbinding trip. “À tout à l'heure” is an elegant rhythmic swing led by tribal percussion and breezy vocal whirls; “Look at Orion!” oscillates with jerking house minimalism; and the cut ‘n’ paste thrum of “You” puffs up like The Avalanches at their hookiest.

These sprightly nods are, however, mere blips on a record that struggles to reach beyond its comfort zone. Going organic may have its advantages, but for Stephen Wilkinson it’s a move that doesn’t come naturally.

First published in the June/July edition of Under the Radar magazine

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Album review: Saturday Looks Good To Me - One Kiss Ends It All

Over the last decade, Fred Thomas has operated a revolving-door policy that surpasses even Mark E. Smith's (of The Fall). But so far his fluid approach to Saturday Looks Good to Me's line-up has always come up trumps, delivering such vivacious sonic offerings as 2007's excellent Fill Up the Room.

Album number five, One Kiss Ends It All, once again finds the basement-born ensemble's foreman ringing in the changes. Over the course of this 40-minute affair, Thomas hosts a variety of faces old and new to create a record that re-mines a penchant for heart-quivering, brass-plastered arrangements.

 Predominantly delivered through the porcelain intonations of three female vocalists (Carol Gray, Amber Fellows, and the more familiar Betty Marie Barnes), Thomas' latest creation draws on sweetened '60s pop melodies and C86-era indie lilting.

Predictably, what ensues is an album drenched in nostalgia. "Empty Beach" is a Camera Obscura-lite shimmer of guitar chimes and corduroy-clad sensibilities, while "Sunglasses" is a jangling polka-dot pop endeavour that recalls the crystalline splendour of Phil Spector-styled girl groups.

While these breezy charms are easy to embrace, the cutesy retrograde of tracks such as "Negative Space" and the ineffective "Johnny" come off as a weary step backward. And for a progressive like Thomas, that's a worrying development: the cast may be changing, but the sound is beginning to feel all too familiar.

First published here for Under the Radar

Saturday, 15 June 2013

What I was listening to last month: May

Woah, this is a late post. Still, I’ll try and forget that we’re stuck slap bang in the middle of June, and instead look back to what I was listening to last month.

There were a whole heap of records released in May that will no doubt sit in and around the top ten records of 2013 by the time December comes around. Whether they get a place in my top ten is another matter.

The global salivation that greeted Daft Punk’s latest full-length was a tad OTT. It’s a good record, yes, but it hardly seemed groundbreaking. Likewise, The National’s latest effort, Trouble Will Find Me, was in every sense a The National record; morose, enveloping and stacked full of crescendos. Did it surpass the masterpieces of Alligator and Boxer? I don’t think so.

Still, there was much to enjoy last month. I made a trek to Field Day in London where I saw a caught the likes of Animal Collective, Savages, Chvrches, Solange and Django Django. But, the real find of the weekend was Francois and the Atlas Mountains, whose blend of French-tinted pop and intricate math rock motifs created a  limb-shuffling forty odd minutes of rare brilliance.

Finally - against all my better instincts - I fell hook, line and sinker for the new Vampire Weekend record, Modern Vampires of the City. I’ve never really paid too much attention to VW; their Graceland-inspired melodies merely made me want to reach for the actual Graceland. But this new VW offering is a supreme slab of indie intelligence, the likes of which I never imagined they were capable of.

Goes to show that, underneath all the superlatives and verbosity, we critics know very little at all.

Album review: Jagwar Ma - Howlin'

Back at the tail end of 1980s Britain, things were getting loose. As the vise-like grip of Thatcherism tightened, the cultural reaction was antithetical: tent-sized flares, mind-altering chemicals, all-night raves, and skinny Manchester dudes with bowl cuts were all in vogue. Baggy, as unlikely as it seems, was a kind of non-protest protest against the political ideology of the day.

 In 2013, a revival is improbable—these days our clothes, tunes, and wallets are as tight as our governments' austerity programs—but try telling that to Jagwar Ma. Over the past year the Australian duo of Jono Ma and Gabriel Winterfield has been making a splash with a series of loose-fit grooves that borrow heavily from the flowered-up floors of Madchester.

 Their debut album Howlin continues to burrow into the baggy aesthetic, delivering luminously lit melodies led by anagogic lyrical structures. But to dismiss the pair as pure plagiarists would be unkind; there's an educated ear to this record that runs from the acid house chow of "Four" to the ethereal dream pop gaze of "Backwards Berlin."

 Of course, early singles "The Throw" and "Come Save Me" are album showstoppers, each a livewire of groove-riddled retrograde executed with a modern twist. But the aerated rush of "That Loneliness" is just as enticing, built on sparse guitar jangles and quick-stepping percussion; and slouching dreamscape "Did You Have To" is an effortless, palm-tree swaying lilt of harmonies and chiming keys.

 Despite its pleasures, Howlin struggles to surpass the faint feeling of pastiche that runs through "Uncertainty" and the frankly ridiculous pop flutter "Let Her Go." In the 1980s, the cultural context allowed such flaccid sounds to thrive, but today is not the time to play it loose. Against their better nature, Jagwar Ma are going to have to learn to tighten up.

First published here for Under the Radar

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Album review: Cayucas - Bigfoot

Nothing screams summer quite like indie pop and sunshine, does it? Together, the two are an irresistible combination, soundtracking rose-tinted notions of fun, frolics and whatever else equates to youthful good times these days. It's no wonder so many bands pursue a sun-soaked aesthetic. After all, hit the right vein of ebullient melodies and you're guaranteed a run of upper-billing festival appearances and a relentless sweep of airplay between June and September.

Cayucas are, unquestionably, shooting for this sphere of the indie pop canon. Given the quintet hail from the shores of Santa Monica, California, this shouldn’t come as much surprise; sunshine is in their blood. If ever a band was to embody a baking, breezy day on the beach, they would be it. Up-tempo, infectious indie-pop isn’t just their schtick, it’s what they were made for.

Which is probably a good thing. Because this world’s way too monochrome these days. Think of all the shit we hear about on a 24 hour basis: austerity, poverty, political sleaze, child labour, Nigel-fucking-Farage. Now think about Cayacus’ debut long-player Bigfoot: an aired out flush of romantic jingle-jangling that trades only in subject matter a love-struck school kid could feasibly care about. Sounds refreshing, right? Well, it is. Kind of.

 You see this is an album you can come at from two levels. On the one hand, tracks like ‘Cayucos’ and ‘East Coast Girl’ generate the sort of tropical rhythmic gaze that made Vampire Weekend such a unavoidable proposition in the first place. Each cut is unashamedly pop, filled with chasms of reverb and joyous reels of melody. ‘High School Lover’ is even sweeter, shooting out a fumble of drum and chiming guitars as vocalist Zach Yudin yearns for the memory of a lost mid-school sweetheart.

Yet it’s for these same reasons Bigfoot loses some of its sheen. This is an album filled with throwaway indie pop statements that lack any kind of staying power. Sure, ‘A Summer Thing’ is a gratifying three minutes of swooning piano twinkles, but it hardly rivals 'Wouldn’t It Be Nice'. Likewise, ‘Deep Sea’ is an ornate stroll of sea-shell harmonies and wide-eyed dreaminess, yet when it’s over it’s as forgettable as a watered-down margarita on a package holiday in Cyprus.

And, ultimately, it comes down to what you want from your sun-stroked indie pop. If emotional depth is what you’re after, these eight tracks are never likely to be your bag. But, if you can take Bigfoot for the sun-blushed, sweet-natured collection of songs that it is, then this could be the soundtrack to your summer. All you’d need then is a little sunshine.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Album review: Savages - Silence Yourself

They may be the latest British buzz band, but Savages sure don't sound like one. Rather than mining their home country's rich rock heritage, the current darlings of the U.K.'s indie press pull their energy from the seething, sex-charged sonics of acts like The Birthday Party and Suicide. Judging by the hype that's surrounded them since the release of their inaugural single in 2012, that approach is working.

Over the last year, the London quartet has taken to the road to tighten the towering gothic structures and rabid post-punk squalls that coined all the commotion. Their debut LP Silence Yourself is the fruits of this labour, combining the disarming thrum of their live appearances with a studio-born subtlety that showcases an ear for nuance.

 But this is no easy listen. Singer Jehnny Beth's moribund tones are led by a roar of serrated guitars and the kind of barbarous percussion that never seems to let up. From the opening notes of "Shut Up" the onslaught is relentless: "Husbands" pulverizes, "City's Full" howls, and "No Face" screeches. This is anarchic, itching punk at its most primal, most belligerent.

 In their pre-release press spiel, the band are at pains to state that these 11 tracks are best heard loud—in fact, it's the only way to hear them. The depth and ferocity of sound found on "I Am Here" needs decibels to deliver its full aural assault. Background filler these songs are not: each cut (and they all feel like a cut) is intended to rattle bones from the floor up.

 Perhaps the one chink in Silence Yourself's armor is the darkly veiled drone that turns "Waiting For a Sign" into a mechanical slog. But this is a minor stutter on a record that conjures up something truly unique. That something? A buzz band out-buzzing the buzz.

First published here for Under the Radar

Saturday, 4 May 2013

What I was listening to last month: April 2013

Now we’re into May, with the sun shining bright and the barometer rising, I can look back on April through a rose-tinted lens.

What started out as a month fraught with uncertainty around Su’s job (and mine) ended with late evening bike rides on our new two-wheeled steeds, safe in the knowledge that Su will be employed in the newspaper industry for at least another year and that we have a long overdue trip to Scotland coming up in the very near future. In terms of music, it’s been a fruitful sort of month.

I completely fell for Charli XCX's debut LP and all of its android-pop glory, as well as Cayucas’s breezy Vampire Weekend-esque indie saunters. Steve Mason’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time was a slowburner for me; it took time to love but once it clicked I return to it almost every other day.

It’s hard to talk about April without mentioning the return of Daft Punk. The Pharrell fronted Get Lucky is already the impossible to resist single of the summer and I fully expect to hear it blasted from the rafters at house parties over the coming months.

 I also had the opportunity to hear the new Savages record for, oh, one whole play – trying to write a review based on one listen is not as easy as it sounds – and my final words were something along the lines of “a buzz band out-buzzing the buzz”.

 Jon Hopkins’ new record Immunity is a feast of glichy effects and kinked beats that is arguably the most innovative eletronica-record of the year to date. And while Wiley’s latest effort was a fairly inconsistent beast, a few tracks stood out – particularly the striding My Heart, featuring omnipresent pop harlot Emeli Sande.

So that was April. May sees the full return of Daft Punk, which will no doubt polarise opinion. It will be no Homework, that’s for sure. Actually, I’d be rather disappointed if it was.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Album review: Steve Mason - Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time

Given the perilous condition of the Western world, it's surprising so few modern-era musicians reflect this in their craft. Perhaps the general ennui that's set in since the global economy went into meltdown in 2008 has had something to do with it; after all, who wants to hear hope-bereft protest songs when the world around you actually feels like it's bereft of hope?

Thankfully, Steve Mason has other ideas. The former Beta Band man's third solo effort, Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time, not only addresses key societal issues but also confronts them, challenging the dominant political ideologies that, he believes, left us in such a mess in the first place. In other words, he's actually got something to say.

 Despite the hard-hitting choice of subject matter, Monkey Minds is pleasingly appealing. In between the looping clips of political unrest, Mason has created a collection of songs that nods its head to both the melody-hewn compositions and the dub-heavy experimentalism that have steered the Scotsman's career to date. The results tend to be impressive, with the shimmering gospel swell of "Lonely" and the equally compelling "Oh My Lord" representing a maturing in Mason's songwriting nous.

At 20 tracks long, it gets a little over-familiar. The meandering "Operation Mason" and "Never Be Alone" would have been best abandoned in the cutting room. But what remains is a buxom sonic treasure trove that serves up the brass-parping beatsmanship of "Fire!" alongside percussion-stroking ballad "Seen It All Before" and the savage hip-hop of "More Money, More Fire"—a furious MC Mystro-led tirade about 2011's London riots. 

As protest albums go, Monkey Minds is probably not a movement-inspiring rabble-rouser. But in an age of anodyne opinions, it's reassuring to know today's musicians can still take to their soap box and make such a persuasive stand.

First published here for Under the Radar

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Album review: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito

Say what you will about Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but you can't deny they're consistent. For 13 years, the New York trio has been propelling their double-jointed brand of hyperventilating punk throbs and tender balladry without feeling the need to change tack. Even when they polish up a mainstream sheen, as they did with 2008's It's Blitz!, they're unable stray from their career-defining blueprint.

Despite this whiff of predictability, it's impossible to tire of Karen O and co. They retain the capacity to thrill, either through a barrage of stabbing guitars or the tear-stained laments that launch O into full seductive purr. While their mid-2000s contemporaries quickly lost the knack of kicking out a tune, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have continued to produce the goods.

It's no surprise then to find album number four, Mosquito, venturing down the same path as its predecessors. Throughout this 11-track affair, the band's grotty and occasionally indulgent motifs are in full swing, with discordant throttles like "Area 51" crashing against the cushioned canticle of "Wedding Song" and slumbering disco groove "These Paths."

For once, it's these nocturnal slow-burners that hog much of the limelight. These days O's aging intone appears more comfortable winding through the dark rumbling of "Slave" than buzzing (quite literally) across the title track's crotch-charged cranks. Her snug-fit delivery over "Buried Alive" serves greater purpose, ensuring Dr. Octagon's scattershot rhyming isn't misplaced in such unfamiliar territory.

In keeping with previous endeavors,  moments of filler rear their head and the lithe beach acoustics of "Always" are a particularly rough ride. But the occasional lemon is made more palatable by Nick Zinner's wiry guitar and the swaying gospel harmonies that transform "Sacrilege" into an enthralling album high. For all their consistency, it's good to know Yeah Yeah Yeahs remain capable of pulling off the unexpected.

First published here for Under the Radar

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Album review: Charli XCX - True Romance

That True Romance is likely to ruffle few feathers on its release speaks volumes about the current shape of modern-day pop music. Once upon a time, such a collection of android beats and glitch-riddled melodies would have singled its creator out as a libido-led sonic provocateur. In 2013 it merely ensures Charli XCX's place in the pack.

Still, there's an element of the unexpected to the artist christened Charlotte Aitchison. So far, the hyper-hyped Brit has amassed an impressive array of superlatives for her highly glossed off-piste pop. And to keep the teenagers and tabloids happy, she's already had to apologize for glamorizing guns in the promotional video for infectious early single "You (Ha Ha Ha)."

 Charli XCX's debut LP attempts to straddle both sides of her dichotomous persona. Cuts like "Nuclear Seasons" and "Black Roses" are laced with irresistible neon-lit hooks, while her bruising vocal during the futuristic "What I Like" follows the M.I.A. blueprint for lyrical brutality. Not that she can't transmit cuter vibes when pushed: "Take My Hand" is as sugarcoated as any cherubic pop saunter of the last decade.

For the most part, it's a breathless ride that gyrates to atomic hip-hop beats and darting synth lines, polished off with XCX's rough-riding narratives. But when her fucking and/or fighting rhetoric wears thin—as it does during the tedious "Lock You Up" and equally stifled "Stay Away"—the maximalist production occasionally rings out like anodyne chart fodder.

Mercifully, such lulls in quality are fleeting. True Romance's core focus is on exploring the kind of innovative sonic caveats that sustain long-term interest. Part of the pack she may be, but Charli XCX proves she's adventurous and unconventional enough to break out on her own.

First published here for Under the Radar

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Album review: Chk Chk Chk - Thriller

Thr!!!er by name, thriller by nature. Having set their stall with an innovative play on punctuation, Sacramento dance-punks !!! – more readily Googleable as Chk Chk Chk - have been trumpeting longplayer number five as their high-water mark, a record to finally put the sextet on the map.

 Yet 2010’s Strange Weather, Isn’t it? hardly suggested this was a band preparing to set the world ablaze. In fact, so unwieldy was the record’s clatter of kaleidoscopic funk, it seemed more likely they’d be harrumphing to the bottom of a slippery career slope, never to be heard from again. A game changing moment looked unrealistic.

To an extent, Thr!!!er dismisses this pessimistic train of thought. These sounds are !!! to the core, filled with sleazy, air-tight grooves and sinuous guitars. But produced under the guiding hand of Spoon’s Jim Eno, the infuriating peaks and troughs that riddled previous endeavours have been ironed out, creating a consistently danceable forty five minutes.

 And dance is what Thr!!!er does best. This is an album made for feet on the floor; an album that surges from the rainbow house euphoria of “One Girl/One Boy” to “Except Death”'s crotch-grabbing bassbin, before re-routing into the schizo- freak beats that rumble through the magnificent “Slyd”. Sure, “Station (Meet Me At)” and its turgid, swamping blues may lessen the pulse rate somewhat, but, make no mistake, this is grade-A party fodder at its most unhinged.

Still, hyperactive, dancehall bangers have always been !!!’s shtick; here, they’re just tighter and sturdier in execution. And ultimately, such safely played conservatism feels like an opportunity squandered. Rather than opting for an exhilarating sonic adventure, Thr!!!er defaults on ass-slapping, mindless tunes. While the results are at times scintillating, it often feels like a thriller without quite enough killer.

First published in the print edition of Under the Radar

Album review: Rachel Zeffira - The Deserters

It feels wrong to say a classically-trained soprano is better known for her work with the frontman of a mid-league English proto-punk ensemble. Yet that’s exactly how it is for Rachel Zeffira, whose sublime Cat’s Eyes collaboration with The Horrors’ doomsayer Faris Badwan brought her to the attention of indiedom in 2011.

But, unlike Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell’s similarly coined beauty/beast interplay, it was the Canadian chanteuse’s chandelier tones that stole the show; often casting Badwan aside as a moping, brutish mule while her airy purr took flight over a sea of delicate melodies. Her debut solo LP The Deserters finds Zeffira continuing to pursue this harmonic aura, creating a record that’s frequently soothing and every so often surprising.

Built around crisp piano slithers and filigree strings, “Here on In” and “Silver City Days” glide along with an elegance that’s both swan-like and technically sublime in finish. But such frail balladry has the tendency to trundle and “Star”’s midstream meander and the tedious My Bloody Valentine reinterpretation “To Here Knows Where” wisp out as anonymous, joyless drones.

Thankfully, “Break the Spell” steps up the pace and its eerie gothic pop, pirouetting and twisting like primetime Kate Bush, is a glorious album high. Carry on in this form, and Rachel Zeffira’s reputation will finally be of her own making.

First published in the print edition of Under the Radar

Album review: Fol Chen - The False Alarms

As declarations of intent go, defining your sound as ‘opera house’ is as bold as they come. The trouble with Fol Chen’s third longplayer is that it never lives up to its pre-release promise. Instead the LA collective’s synthesized blustering lands somewhere between The Blow’s more cutesy washes and Grimes at her most prosaic.

 While occasional pirouettes brings welcome relief- “I.O.U.” is a fascinating blow-out of glacial R&B and “Boys In The Woods” plays the oddball pop card with impressive finesse – they’re consistently drowned out by insipid, overly complex electro throngs. Neither opera nor house, The False Alarms disappoints in every possible way.

First published in the print edition of Under the Radar

Album review: Rhye - Woman

Since shuffling into the spotlight last year with the immaculate “The Fall”, Rhye have been shrouded in a cloak of self-made mystery. Much of the mystique revolved around Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal’s brittle-boned soul and softened sexual narratives, but Milosh’s effeminate purr seemed to stoke its own ‘he or she?’ intrigue.

 Woman, the duo’s debut longplayer, attempts to sustain this cryptic - almost esoteric - allure. Bathed in smooth velvety melodies, it’s a compelling and comfortable record; one that’s completely at ease slipping between “3 Days”’s easy handed glide and the hypnotic 70s disco of “Hunger”.

 Admittedly, it can get a little lounge-roomy at times; the title track is a featherweight wooze of Moon Safari proportions and “One of Those Summer Days” is equally translucent of tune. Yet such moments of disinterest quickly disappear, faded out by “Major Minor Love”'s sensuous lament and the string-soaked elegance of “Verse”.

 Woman may struggle for consistency over the course of 35 minutes, but it’s a bewitching enough listen to justify the buzz that follows its creators. Mystery solved.

First published in the print edition of Under the Radar

Album review: Team Ghost - Rituals

Escaping the shackles of the past was never going to be easy for Nicolas Fromageau. The co-founder of M83 may have jumped ship in 2004, but his early contribution to the synth-pop outfit continues to cast a heavy shadow over his work.

 In truth, Fromageau doesn’t help himself. Last year’s brace of Team Ghost EPs pedalled likeminded sonic themes, and with its opulent instrumentation and introverted atmospherics, his debut LP displays detectable traces of his former plaything.

Despite the parallels, Rituals outlines a not-so-subtle shift in tack. The spindly electro-gazing has been supplanted by tense post-rock structures that throb out like the enveloping “Things Are Sometimes Tragic” and “All We Left Behind”’s sky-scraping fervour of drum and guitar.

It doesn’t always hit the mark – “Montreuil”’s radio-friendly slink is painstakingly lightweight – but there’s enough substance here to suggest Fromageau can finally put the past behind him.

First published in the print edition of Under the Radar

Album review: Wiley - The Ascent

Richard Cowie has never looked like someone who wants to play the game. As the globally-recognised godfather of grime, the man who goes by the handle Wiley has flirted around the edges of populism while never seemingly being arsed enough to do what it takes to be a bona fide popstar. Hence the myriad no-shows at gigs, constant retirement threats, jealousy-tinged beefs with contemporaries who’ve dared to leap the boundary, refusing to appear in his own promotional videos… the list goes on.

 Official album number nine, The Ascent, is meant to be the moment Wiley realises his potential as the man with more flow than Dizzee, Tinie and Tinchy put together. The record marks his debut release on a major label and follows not-so- hot-on-the-heels of last summer’s chart-topping earworm ‘Heatwave’. And if that wasn’t enough, it also includes cameos from a swathe of the UK’s and US’s finest rhyming talent. By all intents, this should be the one.

So what do you do if you’re Wiley? You leak the entire record six days before it’s due to drop, of course. What should have been a sure thing, may have been sabotaged the man who stands to benefit most from these tunes being gobbled up by a surge of paying punters. That judder you’ve just felt is Warners’ PR team repeatedly thumping their heads against their iPads.

 To the outside world it seems like Wiley couldn’t give a shit. But it’s much more likely he does. This is a man, after all, who has spent his career finessing a personal brand that serves to differentiate his particular form of grime from the competition. Playing the iconoclast is all part of an image that’s gestated since his early garage days, sculpting out a contrarian caricature that creates the mystique that he is something unique, something untameable.

 This tactic makes The Ascent a rather curious proposition. As Wiley albums go, this is as populous a record as he’s ever produced. The beats, the rhymes, the hooks and the plethora of mic-sharing guests combine to deliver one full throttle assault on the mainstream. If you found Wiley through the careening corporate-club swell of ‘Heatwave’, it will help you recall those demented Jägerbomb-fuelled nights; but for long-standing fans it will feel like a Krystal-swigging shunt away from the syncopating, off-kilter bangers of the past.

Ever on guard, Wiley seems to pre-empt the reaction of his more faithful devotees, thanking them for keeping him grounded during the euphoric, but utterly derivative, EDM charge of 'Hands in The Air'. The cognisance doesn’t last. What follows touch kicks all of what made Wiley so compelling – the idiosyncratic production, palpitating beats and self-effacing rhymes – in favour of manufactured chart fodder that focuses on three predictable staples: girls, booze and living the life of Riley (or more pertinently, Wiley).

 In truth, The Ascent doesn’t actually feel like a Wiley record. That’s mainly because it’s a struggle to find him amongst the gaggle of voices that spit their way across vapid efforts like the Chip and Ms D collaboration ‘Reload’ and the pedestrian Far East Movement-mauled ‘So Alive’. But even when he decides to make a full appearance on spacey album swansong ‘Humble Pie’, there’s a laboured energy to his flow as he reels off sloppy verses like: “She wants Nandos, I want Chinese, I’m Capricorn, she is a Pisces”. 

Mercifully, Wiley still has enough in his armoury to knock out the occasional scorcher. Album opener ‘The Ascent Introduction’ is a harrowing grind of piano samples and throbbing static that bear no resemblance to the gossamer sheen of what’s to follow. Elsewhere, Emeli Sande’s appearance on ‘My Heart’ escalates its punctuating brass and stropping percussion into a traumatic emotional tear jerker that has Wiley exposing himself with unfamiliar frailty.

Despite the occasional apogee, The Ascent represents a rather strange point in Wiley’s career. On one hand, its highly glossed arrangements maximise the opportunity for a full scale invasion of the mainstream. Yet, so readily do these sounds step away from what made their creator such a peerless proposition, they risk tarnishing his reputation at the grassroots. Wiley may not want to play, but the game is now in full effect.

First published here for Drowned In Sound

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What I've been listening to this month: March

March has come and gone – and what a ridiculously cold month it has been. Seriously, this is the kind of weather that makes Su and I reconsider this living in the UK option. Sometime soon spring is gonna come, right?

This month has been slightly less intense on the writing front, with UtR going to print and only a few notable releases that I fancied penning words on for Drowned In Sound. We have, however, booked tickets for Field Day at the end of May, so a lot of listening has gravitated around figuring out who we’re going to see that we're not so sure about (which is one of the things I love about festivals the most, if I'm honest).

Solange – aka Beyonce’s sister – is near the top of my list (much to Su’s disdain), as I’m finding her brand of bubble-gum pop played with subtle intricacy quite difficult to resist. I’m also looking forward to finally getting round to seeing Animal Collective, and checking out Daughter – who’ve made one of the albums of the year in my opinion.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the John Grant record and oddly impressed with the Cold War Kids new track, despite my initial hesitation. Also somehow Cat Power’s Manhattan has managed to wangle its way on to my list, thanks mainly to the number of times it’s played on BB6 Music. You'll note the abomination that is Hurts is nowhere near this list - there's a reason for that.

Roll on summer, or at least a slightly more hospitable April.

Album review: Hurts - Exile

When Thom Yorke wailed “ambition makes you look pretty ugly” back in 1997 you suspect Adam Anderson and Theo Hutchcraft were not taking notes. Bedecked in razor-sharp suits and sporting cheekbones with angles a mountaineer would struggle to overcome, the core components of Hurts – a Manchester-based synthpop pairing with a predilection for grandiose musical symbolism – place stiff emphasis on delivering the aesthetic of aspiration. Ugly is one thing they are not.

 What they are depends on where you stand on darkly-veiled, sky scraping pop tunes. For some, their debut longplayer, 2010’s Happiness, was ablaze with stylish (of course) slabs of austere melodies and rousing, neck hair-quivering choruses. Others were not so complimentary. To the naysayers, it was Eighties pastiche carried out by a pair of Bros lookalikes in awe of the New Romantics, but unable to conjure up the substance required to carry it off.

Exile will do little to change mindsets on either side of this divide. These 12 cuts are essentially a souped-up extension of their predecessors. If Apple’s marketing department had got its hands on it, they’d probably have stuck an extra ‘S’ on the end of Happiness and accentuated the subtle tweaks that allows existing consumer products to be repackaged as a game changer. Something Exile ain't.

Instead, this is an album that maintains the joyless musical brand Hutchcraft and Anderson crystallised with their two million (TWO MILLION) selling debut. The totemic choruses that light up the clichéd-ridden melancholy of ‘Cupid’ are all in check; while the effete boy band styling of tracks like ‘Mercy” and the abysmal 'Somebody To Die For' continue to be cloaked with industrial synths and metallic guitar lines that suggest there’s something more macabre, more intriguing at work here. There isn’t.

 What there is, is a lot of volume. At times it’s a flat track bully, overwhelming the listener with towering stacks of percussion and synthesizers, with the occasional smattering of brass, piano or a gospel choir thrown in to mix it up a little. Yet this hit ‘em hard approach rarely works. The dark disco beat of ‘Only You’ belts out like an Enrique Iglesias-inspired Eurovision entry, while ‘Mercy’s orchestral writhes and ominous trumpet parps congregate as an anti-climatic swell bereft of hook or belief.

 This lack of conviction is an ever-occurring issue. Each hackneyed narrative is more likely to have been crafted through a random Emo lyric generator than Hutchcraft’s black and broken heart. The elegant and atmospherically charged ‘The Crow’, for instance, is permanently scarred by his croaky cries of “Cold heart, warm gun, a dying sun”, and ‘Somebody To Die For’s talk of letting “the Devil know I was brave enough to die” could make even the moodiest, most mascara-caked 14 year-old baulk.

 But given its creators, it’s hardly surprising to find Exile lacking in depth. Substance isn’t a ballpark Anderson and Hutchcraft have any intention of playing in. These big, slick slabs of black ice pop will wallpaper every tear-jerking vampire flick or poignant sporting moment that matters over the next two years. And once its teat has been milked, they’ll do it again. And again. Because for a band like Hurts ambition isn’t ugly - it’s profitable.

First published here for Drowned in Sound

Monday, 25 March 2013

Album review: Daughter - If You Leave

Despite its many virtues, the digital era has had a fairly negative impact on the western world’s attention span. Thanks to back catalogue-swallowing jukeboxes like Spotify and Soundcloud, shifting focus from track to track, album to album or artist to artist has never been easier. In this age of eternal distraction, rarely does a collection of songs come together to ferment in the ear canals for longer than a few spins. When it does, it’s usually something special. Something like If You Leave.

 Based around ten beautifully crafted cuts, Daughter’s debut longplayer is an engrossing and deeply moving affair. But this mesmerising listening isn't purely based on the sounds it makes; it’s just as much about the ones it doesn't. By exploring and executing periods of momentary silence, Daughter create a series of tragic atmospheres - amplified by Elena Tonra’s bloodied and sensuous crow – that ranks amongst the year’s saddest and most desperate sounds. For a record crafted by just three sets of hands, it’s an expansive and, at times, strangling experience.

Initially thread bare, ‘Lifeforms’ open up like a butterfly, wafting great swarms of melody that sound huge and hopeless in equal proportion. This despondent air seeps through the misery-strewn ‘Youth’, where Tonra opines: “And if you’re still bleeding you’re the lucky ones, because most of our feelings, they are dead and they are gone”.

Such psalms are steeped in isolation and emptiness, but they’re guided deftly with a thrilling sense of drama. Album opener ‘Winter’ sets off on a slow barge of melancholic chords and Tonra’s sweet vocal glide, before leaping in to a post-rock thrum led by brutal, jarring percussion. The suffocating ‘Touch’ sketches similar motifs with its dank, echoing chamber of drum machine and overbearing guitar, conveying coyness and savagery as one unified whole.

 Across these ten cuts, Tonra’s presence is hard to ignore. Her vocal wears the after effect of toxic romances and each monochromatic arrangement provides a platform from which to bear her scars. ‘Smother’s thick, cathedral synths and gentle guitar amplify the ache in her weeping tones, while ‘Tomorrow’ harvests a barren landscape for her mournful lament. Likewise, the thud of distant drum that spines the magnificent ‘Still’ enables her sharp staccato bursts to hit a mark lying between apoplectic rage and heartbroken despondency.

 With its quilting, cloud-bursting acoustics, album swansong ’Shallows’ eventually wipes away the misery like the rising of an early morning sun. After being dragged through the emotional wringer for almost an hour, it’s a moment to cherish. Because an album as beautifully conceived as If You Leave is one you follow from start to finish, riveted by the story it weaves and the emotion it bleeds. And in these digital days that feels like a remarkable achievement.

First published here for Drowned in Sound

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Album review: Young Dreams - Between Places

As a term of musical reference, symphonic pop feels faintly oxymoronic. Pop in its most instinctive form is not meant for grand statements; it's short, stabbing, and to the point. Overblown orchestration shouldn't really come into it.

Yet a closer inspection of the last 50 years shows the collision of symphony and pop works. The Beach Boys were, of course, kings of the craft. In the last decade, Panda Bear, Arcade Fire, and Grizzly Bear have all, to some extent, taken up the mantle, producing huge, ear-filling arrangements imbued with a distinctly poppy edge.
It's remarkably easy, then, to imagine Young Dreams mingling freely amidst this roll call of acts. The Norwegian collective's debut long player, Between Places, is possibly more symphonic than it is pop. Each track is ambitious and meticulously honed, gravitating around woozy melodies that lilt like palm trees in a West Coast breeze.
On a surface level, it's an incredibly easy and rewarding listen. "First Days of Something" is a doe-eyed,Graceland-infected earworm that swells into a summer-pop cacophony. Album closer "Young Dreams" touches on dreamy acoustics before revealing its harmonious swoon, peaking on hope-filled declarations of "We'll live forever."
Such simplicity, however, disguises the architectural craft behind this record. "Footprints," the buoyant album opener, is an entanglement of thumping percussion and seismic brass parps. "Fog of War" is just as beguiling, drifting in with Matias Tellez's drum-backed a cappella before its combination of keys and violins creates a dazzling, cloud-floating daze.
While Animal Collective comparisons will probably never be too far away, Young Dreams tend to stick to more accessible textures-even during 11-minute beach-combing opus "The Girl That Taught Me to Drink and Fight." Oxymoronic it may be, but symphonic pop doesn't come much more natural or sweeping than this.