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