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 J├Ągerbomb-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