Monthly Archives: September 2013

Album Review: AM (Arctic Monkeys)

0 AMAt this stage in their career, there’s really no denying the Arctic Monkeys’ legendary credentials. The Sheffield four-piece have been big names ever since the excitable days of 2006, but this has been the year to cement their status as icons of modern music: a band with such verified longevity and credibility that its members are worthy of rubbing shoulders with The Rolling Stones. At this summer’s Glastonbury Festival, one couldn’t help but feel it was a comparison of sorts between the two bands: the rock-and-roll legends of the previous generation posed in conjunction with the icons of the 21st Century.

As much as some of Arctic Monkeys’ early followers bemoan the group’s apparent discarding of their original manifestos, it’d be a push to classify the Sheffield foursome as a band prone to making quantum leaps in style. Even during the worldview-stretching years of Humbug, Joshua Homme and co. have played the role of mentor figures, rather than stepping in as stylistic dictators. (Whatever the contrarians argue, playing moodier, murkier jams does not automatically render Arctic Monkeys a QotSA-ripoff. ) And besides, the central appeals of the group have remained intact thus far: Alex Turner’s tongue-twisters still dance mischievously around well-tuned guitar dynamics, built atop foundations of Matt Helders’ elemental drumming. And even if they’re no longer touting Sheffield dancefloors and taxi ranks in their discourse, the mark of consistent quality lies in the group’s ability to remain sonically engaging.

So no, we really shouldn’t be too surprised by their latest evolution, which resembles an odyssey into the bruising territory of slick Californian rock. Yet of course, it’s not as straightforward a tag as that. AM is a record infused with a variety of flavours, ranging from contemporary R&B and garage-rock to hip-hop and blues. These ingredients are by no means overt individually, because when joined together as a whole, they coalesce into a singular sound, which – quite happily – is recognisably the work of Arctic Monkeys.

Although it lacks the immediate warmth and humanity of 2011’s Suck it and See, AM is a record brimming with personality, as with every one of the band’s previous full-length releases. Their recent tour with The Black Keys has evidently taken root in the members’ collective 0 Arctic Monkeyspsyches, most notably in the blistering riffs and thumping beats which shape the likes of ‘I Want it All’ and the excellent ‘Snap Out of It’. Although there are other prominent influences to be heard, AM perhaps most clearly reflects the blues-rock typified by that Ohio two-piece, from the faux-Gothic gloss of those guitars (witness the opening melodies of ‘Knee Socks’) to the sexually-charged lyrical content.

By now, all listeners will be familiar with the opening two-punch of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ and ‘R U Mine?’, and in the context of the album, both work very well indeed. In particular, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ is the perfect introduction to the Monkeys’ latest incarnation: a slow, deliberate mixture of grinding guitars and call-and-response falsetto vocals. But it’s after these singles that the album sets out its stall definitively, with the fantastic pairing of ‘One for the Road’ and ‘Arabella’, both of which augment one another so dazzlingly that it’s easy to view them as a singularity. The former is a spooked, slinky glimpse into Turner’s night-time crusades, opening with a lament regarding “relegation zone” hearts, before the gleaming surface buckles beneath a meaty solo from Jamie Cook.

But ‘Arabella’ is the juggernaut of the two, condensing the album’s key strengths (lyrical acrobatics, fever-dream erotica and subterranean drum beats) into three-and-a-half minutes of gold. It begins with Cook’s sparse guitar plinks tiptoeing around an ominous bass rumble, before unleashing a monster chorus which is as catchy as it is crunchy. “Her lips are like the galaxy’s edge,” Turner breathes in summary of the titular femme fatale; “and a kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place.” It’s a confident, jaw-dropping beast, best listened to LOUD.

Both songs also demonstrate the band’s canny ability to weave dazzling bridges into their songs, which find ways to bring their vignettes of the night to exhilarating new heights. It’s an asset employed to fantastic effect several times over AM, and never better than on 0 Glastonburythe penultimate march of ‘Knee Socks’, wherein the mid-tempo strut collapses into a scat-esque vocal break from Helders, with additional crooning supplied by Homme himself. It’s a moment of stylistic and aesthetic bravura, yet it’s pulled off seamlessly. Much of the second half of the album contains similar gems. The rhythmic romp of ‘Fireside’ (described by bassist Nick O’Malley as featuring “wood groove” – whatever that is) incorporates some lively “shoo-wop”s to great effect, and the latter positioning of ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ highlights its melodic strengths.

All of the songs on AM are impressive, aside from the slightly superfluous ‘I Want it All’, which comes off as a watered-down version of ‘The Blond-O-Sonic Shimmer Trap’: the beautifully menacing B-side of yesteryear. In addition to this slightly throwaway cut, AM also stalls from time to time lyrically. Of course, Turner himself is a master of his craft, with a well-matured ear for melody. The issue here, however, is that his accounts occasionally feel a little anonymous. On standouts such as ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ and ‘Arabella’, Turner’s examinations of dangerous love are electrifying, but there are times when his phrases feel slightly put-upon: a selective switch to a standard template, rather than an organic development. AM remains enjoyable, but this time out, Turner’s words do occasionally lose some of their sparkle when the topics seem overly familiar.

But these quibbles are hardly make-or-break, and when everything is taken into consideration, there’s little about AM that fails to impress. Five albums (and eleven years!) into their career, the Arctic Monkeys have travelled well, without losing sight of their signature interplay between tumbling words and thrilling music. There’s no telling how far they’ll push themselves to travel in the next decade, but it’s safe to assume that it’ll be a fascinating journey wherever they decide to turn.

8/10

“It’s much less picturesque without her catching the light / The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes.”

13/09/13

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Film Review: The Way Way Back

0 The Way Way BackThe summer of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) gets off to a pretty lousy start. With his father otherwise engaged for the sunny months, the timid teenager reluctantly joins his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) on a holiday to the latter’s beach house in Cape Cod. At first alienated and humiliated as he tags along on “spring break for adults”, Duncan eventually finds comfort in a summer job at the local water park, helmed by the carefree Owen (Sam Rockwell). In addition, he gradually begins to form a bond with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb): the daughter of Trent’s next-door neighbour.

This sweet-and-simple premise – paired with the writer-director credits of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – is likely to instil preconceptions that The Way Way Back follows the staple rulebook of indiedom, and surprise-surprise, it does just that. This is bright, familiar film-making with few genuine surprises up its short sleeves, but even so, it savours its simple pleasures with an admirable candidness. There is no pretence to The Way Way Back‘s formula, and as a result, it makes for a delightfully laidback and likeable experience. That’s not to say it’s perfect, with the majority of its laughs appreciative rather than belly-busting, but to a degree, this is all part of its relatable charm. Optimism counters its bittersweet language, and consequently, any qualms with its simplicity or ambiguities are gently worn away as the story unfolds.

Alongside director Alexander Payne, Faxon and Rash helped co-write 2011’s The Descendants, and true enough, there’s more than a hint of that film’s gentle melancholy to The Way Way Back. One could go as far to label this film The Descendants‘ teenage sibling, though this is not meant in a derogatory manner. Rather, both films echo one another in their warmth and structural DNA. The resolutions of both stories – though they each twinkle with a sense of closure – are not concrete, and there are plenty of offscreen elements which are left undeveloped. There 0 James Robbare times when plot strands such as these are just aching for further exploration (including a more substantial account of the relationship between Duncan and his parents), but for the most part, leaving all the nitty-gritty details oblique entrenches The Way Way Back‘s less-is-more mentality. There’s just the right amount of every ingredient to form a balanced whole, and besides, as with The Descendants, its real merits reveal themselves slowly over time. Repeat viewings will surely help to highlight its strengths.

Speaking of, alongside its breezy writing and bright settings, The Way Way Back is particularly noteworthy for its cast. James is perfectly anonymous as Duncan: a sullen-faced chap with bruises all over his self-confidence, yet one whose spirit is invigorating when it finally gets the chance to exhibit itself. In addition, Collette simply bleeds pathos as the soft-spoken Pam slowly begins to crumble into helplessness, and Robb makes a great impression from all-too-scant screen-time. Even though the plot concerning her Susanna does feel a little forced, it doesn’t prevent her from remaining welcome company when she appears. The film’s heartbeat is in good hands with such a triumvirate.

Better yet, the film is just as canny with its splashes of comedy, with the ever-dependable Rockwell (seriously, who else could it be?) on 0 Rockwell Carellfiring form throughout. Mixing deadpan deliveries with a sparkling sense of humanity, Rockwell is the film’s ace in the hole, nailing Owen’s dry witticisms in tremendous style. From goofing around on the job (“Is it a homicide?” he asks when informed that a “situation” requires his attention) to simply dispensing worldly advice, he’s a magnetic presence, and makes for the perfect surrogate brother to James’ queasy Duncan. Allison Janney fares just as brilliantly as Betty, the barmy woman next door who strives to recapture her youth while mercilessly laying into her own children.

If one really has to pick holes in The Way Way Back, then there are several to discuss. Its concluding set-piece does overdo things by a few margins, standing as slightly off-kilter and inorganic in relation to its modest story thus far, and again, viewers may find several threads wanting at times. But damn it all, it’s hard to begrudge The Way Way Back such shortcomings when it’s just so damn likeable. With its lazy grins, easygoing nature and a wealth of memorable characters, it boils down to 100 minutes of cinema which deliver everything promised from the outset.

8/10

It’s not without its flaws, but by God, it’ll leave you feeling warm. Tingling with nostalgia and with a bittersweet sting in its tail, The Way Way Back makes for a lovely farewell to the sunny season.

10/09/2013

New Sounds: Jordan & The Sketcheads

0 JordanCombining a love of honest-to-goodness pop music and the infectious fizz of the stage, 21-year-old student Jordan Charles has been keenly incorporating his taste for the theatrical into musical forms for the last couple of years.

Jordan began this project back in the summer of 2010, and in the intervening years, has gradually assembled a group dynamic, which went on to be christened Jordan & The Sketcheads in 2012. The band members currently include Sean (drums), Tim (guitar), Ed (bass), and Jordan himself on main vocals and keys. As a unit, the band is now in the process of establishing its presence online, and has already developed a burgeoning following around their dual bases in Leamington Spa and Nuneaton.

The group have performed at various venues across Birmingham and Coventry, and when competing in this year’s edition of the University of Warwick’s annual Battle of the Bands, reached the Semi-Finals when competing in this year’s edition of the University of Warwick’s Battle of the Bands. Subsequently, they went on to perform at the Secret Stage at the university’s Summer Party, and have been producing a number of covers and videos over the past few summer months.

Their latest release is a cover of John Newman‘s ‘Love Me Again’, which will be announced today on the band’s YouTube channel and social media personalities. It’s a very impressive piece of work indeed, with the supercharged soul of Newman’s original stripped-back, and shifted into a major key. Jordan & The Sketcheads’ interpretation is more intimate in its delivery, featuring barely any of the bells and whistles which characterise the original, but even so, these alterations render the song sound no less triumphant.

0 SketcheadsAccompanied by dramatic piano chords and twinkling melodies, the focus is certainly trained more directly on the vocals themselves, and Jordan delivers a series of tremendous vocal acrobatics which exhibit a gutsy power. Excitable and with a firm charisma, it’s a seriously impressive cover, especially as Jordan makes the leap into that chorus refrain.

Catch their single online from this afternoon, and keep an eye out for further covers and releases from this group over the next few months. If you like the sound of soul-infused pop music with a dynamic voice at its centre, Jordan & The Sketcheads have plenty to offer, and then some.

For further information about Jordan & The Sketcheads and the group’s music, hop across to their Facebook page and YouTube channel.