Monthly Archives: May 2013

Album Review: The National – Trouble Will Find Me

NOTE: I don’t normally write disclaimers at the beginning of my reviews, but I’d like to emphasise that the rating I’ve given this album is a personal one.  Don’t expect to instantly find gratification within this record.  Trouble Will Find Me fell into my lap quite unexpectedly, when I happened to be in the right frame of mind for it to resonate as it did.

1 The NationalThe real cruelty of depression is in its casual nature.  A lot of people who suffer from feelings of despair – for no matter how long a period of time – can all too easily deny its presence, dismissing it as a short-term burst of being “down in the dumps”.  Although these spells do not necessarily lead to total hopelessness, when they occur on a regular basis, the effects can be just as debilitating.

Matt Berninger summarises this condition perfectly on the first single from The National’s sixth album.  Demons rolls through a collage of set-pieces as its narrator softly realises that he’s being dragged back down once more.  “I am secretly in love with / everyone that I grew up with,” Berninger drones, dead-eyed, attempting to prevent his “drowning friends” from noticing the cracks in his armour, until he finally begins to tremble in a desperate plea for help: “Can I stay here? / I can sleep on the floor.”  It concludes with a sudden realisation that he is no longer the man he once thought himself to be, in a devastatingly dark moment of black humour and genuine pathos: “When I walk into a room / I do not light it up. / Fuck.”

As an entity, Trouble Will Find Me makes no pretence regarding its bleak tones.  Clocking in at a relatively steep fifty-five minutes over a course of thirteen tracks, it’s an album which takes its time to fully address its gloomy subject matter.  Such lack of compromise can appear intimidating, especially on the first few listens, when the desolate nature of the songs on offer can feel suffocating, rather than cathartic.  But it really is in one’s best interests to persevere, because Trouble Will Find Me is possibly The National’s most emotionally direct album yet.  Such adherence to murky topics will not be to everybody’s taste, but as a treatise on depression and its effects, it cuts straight to the bone.

2 The NationalMusically, things are kept simple, aside from the occasional off-kilter time signature, or a subtle incorporation of orchestration.  All the hallmarks of The National’s music are present: Aaron and Bryce Dessner weave fragile guitar patterns above Scott Devendorf’s unobtrusive bass lines, while on songs such as Demons, Bryan Devendorf’s thumping drums pummel the bruises ever deeper.  For the most part, the group are wound tight, only sporadically unscrewing the emotional valves before falling back into sombre introspection.

This buttoned-down approach comes full circle in the album’s lyrics.  Although some will dispute the potency of Berninger’s broader observations, for the most part, he compresses universal feelings in moments of intense personal confession.  On I Need My Girl, he recalls an understated moment of breakdown suffered by a loved one: “Remember when you lost your shit / and drove your car into the garden? / You got out and said ‘I’m sorry’ / to the vines, and no-one saw it.”  Delivered in Berninger’s broken baritone, the imagery becomes painfully vivid without losing any of its raw, intimate power.

As much as one attempts to battle against misery, it can easily become a comfort blanket: something to writhe around in – even unconsciously – until the true nature of the condition hits home.  With repeated plays, Trouble Will Find Me begins to form a kind of cohesion around this sensitive issue.  At its length, it remains a little skewed in places, but eventually, everything coalesces to produce a fitting sequence of music.  I Should Live In Salt opens the album in a slow fog of acoustic guitars, shakers and a gentle ghazal from Berninger.  But soon, pinpricks of electric guitar push through the haze, solidifying the guilt which bleeds from Berninger’s admissions that “I should live in salt for leaving you behind”.  From that moment of guilty revelation, proceedings begin to spiral downwards, and there’s no turning back.

3 The NationalThe heartache begins to reveal itself in the pangs of the stunning Don’t Swallow The Cap and the headrush of Sea Of Love, but the two songs which rest at the album’s heart provide the greatest expression of inner turmoil.  This Is The Last Time proffers the bleakest moment of all, underpinned by a circling guitar motif before it falls into a funereal coda bedecked with cellos.  A breathtakingly ghostly backing vocal from Sharon Van Etten asserts that “it takes a lot of pain / to pick me up”, as the full weight of the despair becomes clear.  However, this is swiftly followed by the thrumming urgency of Graceless, perhaps the album’s peak.  It weaves a slow-burn euphoria even as its dark heart unravels, building to a beautiful climax which features a miraculous refrain from Berninger.  “All of my thoughts of you: / bullets through rotten fruit” he begins, the music rising all around him as he unleashes a wry suggestion to brighten dead minds with flowers.  It’s a stunning piece of songwriting, and stands up there with the best of The National’s work.

This isn’t to say that the whole thing fits together perfectly.  Although Humiliation and the swelling dread of Fireproof are both powerful in themselves, they can seem a little ill-fitting in their sequencing: adrift in such a turbulent maze.  But as the album winds down and Berninger realises that, in reality, there is no quick fix available, his acceptance provides a transcendental poignancy.  Hard To Find may be something of a predictable choice of closer, but within its parameters, it works beautifully.  It finds The National searching the night sky, catching glimpses of what may be hidden in the past, but even as the twinkling spirals of the Dessner brothers escalate, it never flutters away.  Instead, Berninger accepts his present condition with a sigh that “they can all just kiss off in the air”, before the record closes with a final, gentle fade.

Depression is not something one simply chooses to wallow in.  Quite the opposite: it consumes the individual.  The National recognise the absurdity of such a scenario, while at the same time being powerless against its current.  At first, it may seem overly mopey and too content to bask in its own sadness, but this is an album which lodges in the mind and rests there.  Even if it doesn’t possess the greatness of Boxer or the force of High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me’s treatise on depression gets under the skin in a way which is simultaneously haunting and unspeakably uplifting.

To reiterate a tired point once more, perseverance is needed.  If you’ve ever felt even the shortest sting of despondency, listen up.  The magic will find you.

9/10

“Wonder if you live there still, / kind of think you always will. / If I tried, you’d probably be / hard to find.”

30/05/13

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Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

When any popular purveyors of indie rock elect to make a “mature” album, more often than not, it’s a cause to set alarm bells ringing.  Casting aside the appealing thrills of youth is seldom a welcomed in today’s musical globe: aside from the backlash of casual fans, it’s a move that risks failing to competently shoulder weighty topics.  Try to grow up too fast, and chances are the result will be an undercooked disappointment.

But Vampire Weekend are not your average indie-pop sprogs.  For all the criticisms railed at their preppy witticisms and smart-aleck compositions, there’s always been a fierce intelligence driving their music.  These four Columbia graduates know what they’re doing, and have taken their time with Modern Vampires Of The City; their third album, and the apparent closer to a trilogy which began with 2008’s self-titled debut.  Considering each record in sequence, it’s clear that Vampire Weekend have become more deliberate as songwriters, shedding some of their earlier impulses to approach new material with more calculated eyes.  Indeed, the care put into this latest effort shines through every gleaming piano chord and feathery harmony.

And by gum, they’ve pulled it off.  Modern Vampires is a record of relevance, with its topics far surpassing those of the group’s previous albums in terms of magnitude.  Against a backdrop of cosmopolitan America, Ezra Koenig and his bandmates plumb some troubling subjects this time around.  Heartache (Step), weariness (Everlasting Arms) and total disenfranchisement (Ya Hey) inhabit the streets that the group wander through on their journey, but this doesn’t make for a disconcerting leap in quality.  Rather, Modern Vampires feels like an organic progression, and thankfully, Koenig and co. haven’t lost their playful charm completely.

Modern VampiresThat said, it’s apparent from the off that times are changing for Vampire WeekendObvious Bicycle opens the album on a sombre note, unfolding in a curlicue of concert hall pianos and a softly crunching drum track.  It’s a brave choice for an opener, but upon hearing the album in full, it provides the perfect starting point before the upbeat chug of Unbelievers whisks the listener into the city itself.  It’s a much more visceral listen, buoyed on warm swells of organ and Koenig’s tuneful address of “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.”  A fantastic segment of flistles and tuba straight out of Pixar’s Brave rises triumphantly towards the climax: a prime example of how Vampire Weekend’s adventurous streak has been honed ever further in the last three years.

However, the band really excel when they allow themselves space to reflect on romance.  Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij have always seemed like modern romantics, and there are two cuts here where their own brand of New York poetry is allowed to blossom.  The fairytale of Step is sprinkled with snowy melancholia: harpsichords and multi-tracked vocals swirl over a waltz-time rhythm, with graceful choral harmonies lifting the song heavenwards as it continues.  This kind of prettiness should fall into sop, but instead, it’s a remarkable feat of songwriting, and perhaps the band’s most entrancing achievement yet.

Of course, many will place that accolade upon the album’s beautiful centrepiece instead, and not without reason.  Hannah Hunt is an instantly disarming ballad which finds Koenig at his most direct and vulnerable yet.  After two albums of relatively calm, assured composure, Koenig’s vocals finally split, in an open-chested, ballsy move which possibly stands as the album’s crowning moment.

Ezra KoenigIf songs such as these find Vampire Weekend straining for catharsis in bleaker times, it’s reassuring that they haven’t forgotten how to have fun, too.  Diane Young is a bonkers lead single from the same apeshit academy as Cousins, with some Flaming Lipsy guitar wizardry and funky pitch-shifting employed to brilliant effect.  Elsewhere, Finger Back is a relentlessly zippy rush of yelps and spoken-word breakdowns, and for all its Marmite properties, it does provide the more serious second half of the album with a welcome shot-in-the-arm.

And finally, following the militaristic darkness of Hudson, the swoonsome beauty of Young Lion closes the album with a cracked piano flourish.  It’s an opulent ending, perhaps a step too far for some, but it’s a suitably warm conclusion, with Rostam Batmanglij’s lead vocal softening the darkness dealt with in the previous two tracks.

Considered in its entirety, Modern Vampires is not quite perfect.  Some may be dismayed at the less instantaneous properties of the songs on offer here, and there are times when the pacing of the album feels slightly skewed.  But when all is said and done, there’s little about it that fails to impress.  Although I’d rather not judge it against the band’s previous offerings, it’s clear that Vampire Weekend have refined their idiosyncrasies to close their trilogy.  This is an album which deals in intelligence and ambition, while never disconnecting from a rich emotional core.  All in all, it’s a record which can remind us what good pop music can achieve.

8/10

“I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house / Such a modest mouse.”

17/05/13

Live Review: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

O2 Apollo, Manchester, 01/05/13

Support: K-Holes

Ever since the opening pulse of Zero sent vibrations all through my system back in 2009, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been in pole position on my list of “Acts To See Live Before I’m Deaf”.  Over four years, I’ve nursed the notion that witnessing Karen O and co. composing explosions onstage would be akin to a religious experience.  I pictured being in a grotty, cavernous venue, squeezed among thousands of other worshippers; shrieking, stomping and swooning to the New York trio’s glam-punk sounds.

Well, at the O2 Apollo in Manchester at the beginning of this month, those fantasies were finally realised for myself and my two accompanying friends, Josh and Jess (albeit in a much lovelier, grander venue).  As the time ticked forward tantalisingly, our nervous energy was met with the throaty, lo-fi stylings of K-Holes, the night’s opening act.

The five-piece started the evening competently enough, and in many ways, their music was pleasantly surprising.  Although they never really got the crowd moving beyond the appreciative toe-tap, the group had just enough swagger to maintain our buzz levels.  Somehow, the loudest instruments of the ensemble managed to be the frontwoman’s maracas, while the bassist carried with her the sexiest stage presence I’ve witnessed in a good long while.

Well, that was until Karen O flounced onto the stage to light up the Apollo with the opening powerhouse of Sacrilege.  Wearing a bright yellow jacket and with her blonde locks flicking all over her heavily mascaraed eyelids, Karen O instantly had everybody present jumping as the song built to its huge, gospel-hewn finale (sadly without choir accompaniment, but the audience made for a competent substitute).

The woman truly does boast a remarkable stage presence.  With her excitable disposition, perpetual wide-eyed grin and dynamite dance moves, she had the entirety of the crowd in the palm of her hand for the duration of the gig.  When onstage, she somehow gelled two separate personas into one glorious whole.  With her cheeky smile and outlandish costume choices, she outwardly seemed like an innocently cheeky youth, full of beans and mischief.  But all the while, there was an electric sensuality fuelling her performance.  With her animalistic yelps, her penchant for deep-throating microphones, and – at the climax of Y Control – her stunt whereby she snaked her mic through her flies, she simply oozed pheromones.

“The gig heartily delivered with fifteen high-wire distillations of energy, excitement and real, heartfelt emotion.”

Her bandmates were just as iconic onstage.  Nick Zinner, clad in black (as ever), scrubbed out buzzsaw guitar riffs with his awesome hairdo shaking in every direction, and Brian Chase performed with an unhinged look in his eyes through the whole set – most engagingly so during Soft Shock, wherein his crazed jubilance behind the kit became totally infectious to those in the audience.

The set was pleasingly democratic, with each of the group’s four albums getting a fair airing.  An early highlight was the glam-grunge thrash of Black Tongue, at the end of which Karen O stamped on a floor switch, showering the crowd with Y-shaped scraps of gleaming confetti.  Under The Earth made a menacing transition to the live set, before old-school fans went a little crazy in the wake of Art Star.  Karen O then skipped gleefully offstage, as Zinner and Chase began churning out the opening bars of Zero.  After a prolonged absence (almost providing an encore in itself), Karen O re-emerged from the wings in her studded-leather jacket, which prompted mass mayhem as the synth-pop masterpiece unfolded in all its visceral, euphoric glory.  For four minutes, I was in gig nirvana: few other live spectacles have come close.

The second half of the set was no less frenetic, as the band zipped through classics such as the campfire stomp of Gold Lion and new highlight Despair (to which Josh almost wept in gratitude).  Heads Will Roll ended the body of the concert by stirring the crowd into a tangled frenzy of raised arms, sweatily interlocked bodies and raw throats.

And of course, the encore was set.  The group’s stripped-back, slowed-down rendition of Maps was truly beautiful: a lighters-aloft moment which found the band at their most emotionally potent.  And then, they tossed one final stick of dynamite into the audience for the big finish of Date With The Night, which was treated with the wildest reception of all; a fitting conclusion to a spectacular evening.

Half an hour later, tucked away in a snug corner of a Mancunian pub, Josh, Jess and myself discussed the success of the evening.  Sure, the band didn’t play all of the greats: no Cheated Hearts, Hysteric, Tick, nor Dull Life.  But in a gig like that, we were grateful for what we did receive: fifteen high-wire distillations of energy, excitement and real, heartfelt emotion.  Although I am now able to cross the Yeah Yeah Yeahs off that list, that doesn’t mean I won’t be rushing to see them again as soon as they return to these English shores.

Setlist

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Sacrilege // Black Tongue // Mosquito // Phenomena // Under The Earth // Art Star // Zero // Subway // Soft Shock // Gold Lion // Y Control // Despair // Heads Will Roll.  Maps // Date With The Night.

11/05/13