Monthly Archives: May 2015

Album Review: Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

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Playing easy to get: Hot Chip suit up (photo: consequenceofsound.net)

Hot Chip

Why Make Sense? (Domino)

Why Make SenseIt may not sound particularly exciting, but one of Hot Chip’s greatest gifts is the group’s consistency. Six albums and fifteen years into their musical voyage, they still come up with the goods on a regular basis, their catalogue evolving into one of the most steadily assured collections in modern dance music. There may be nothing that quite matches the giddy thrill of witnessing a band’s skyrocketing ascension on the back of an earth-shattering début, but where many come unstuck is proving their longevity in a fickle market. While Hot Chip have never struck it big with an undeniable classic, their reliability and musical nous have made them compelling players, appealing to hipster purists and mainstream onlookers alike. The mantra that kicks off Why Make Sense? is Alexis Taylor’s deadpan drawl “replace us with the things that do the job better”, but in a market of flash-in-the-pan success stories, Hot Chip are a pop band to be cherished.

Their steady inflation reached its magical zenith with 2012’s In Our Heads, on which the five-piece finally struck a pristine balance between technical smarts and emotional frankness. On Why Make Sense?, Hot Chip sound more polished than ever before, but their recent trajectory into blissful euphoria is rerouted. If throbbing lead single ‘Huarache Lights’ sounded like a clarion call for dancefloor escapism, its parent album is a more muddled affair emotionally. Where In Our Heads and One Life Stand were characterised by sunny optimism and merrily-scribbled hooks on all sides, Why Make Sense? is more reserved, spiking its devotion with seeds of doubt, and stripping away some of the bombast to cut to the heart of more personal matters.

The results may be less thrilling than previous offerings, but Why Make Sense? still sparkles with invention, fresh ideas and quirks still fidgeting through every pore in Hot Chip’s songcraft. De La Soul’s Pos lends a verse to the sad-eyed shuffle ‘Love is the Future’, and the (Stevie) Wonderful strut of ‘Started Right’ lopes through basic terrain, but swirls into an irresistible and immaculately-tiered chorus. Both sport the ‘70s-indebted funk flavours which are the most notable new fixtures in Hot Chip’s arsenal, with squelchy clavinets, stub-toed bass and soulful harmonies incorporated into their stylistic palette. They may be more composed these days, but Taylor and co. aren’t afraid to let a slinkiness creep into their music from time to time, most prominently so on ‘Easy to Get’. Taylor lets sensuality take over as he purrs to a paramour in the wee hours, crooning that “there is something about you left on my cigarette”. His nocturnal odyssey is punctuated by a wonderfully camp group vocal: “fear doesn’t live here anymore!” One imagines that few other contemporary acts could make such cheesy earnestness sound both palatable and strangely heartening.

It’s good wholesome fun, but Why Make Sense? still can’t shake a sense of vulnerability throughout its runtime; a sense of concern which slows the general pace and clouds the rosier moments. Those hoping for hit after euphoric hit may be disappointed, but in truth, the real gems to be found are the album’s most open-hearted segments. The endearingly gentle ‘White Wine and Fried Chicken’ sees waltz-time keyboards nuzzle up against a lovely vocal from Taylor, and for all the song’s brevity, it still yields a rapturously simple la-la-la conclusion. Better still is ‘Need You Now’, where a moody house rhythm and a well-judged Sinnamon sample provide the backdrop for some heartfelt soul-searching. “Never dreamed we would belong in a world that’s just gone wrong,” Taylor croons, before a beautiful interlude starring Joe Goddard raises the track to another level entirely. It’s one of the band’s best releases to date, and possibly their most moving.

It’s clear that treasures are in abundance, but it can be a little frustrating that Why Make Sense? never settles into a singularly smooth listen, wavering instead in mid-tempo numbers and rarely giving itself over to exultation. However, this is trumped by the fact that Hot Chip’s heartbeat remains front-and-centre, the group’s deft touch grounding these songs in a warm humanity. Most importantly, they never leave behind that crucial sense of wonder. The album climaxes with its monstrous title track; a towering and triumphant wall of sound conjured by Sarah Jones’ dizzying drum pummels. As the whole chassis shakes and judders and the band rally together for a final push, Taylor grants the album its moment of defiant elation: “why be tough, when strength is just for losers? Be what you are at the mercy of your rulers”. It sounds like a rocket taking off. Of course, stratospheric success has never seemed likely for Hot Chip, but Why Make Sense? adds subtle new dimensions to their already-strong canon. They’re right where they should be.

“Why make sense / When the world around refuses?”

28/05/15

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25 Masterworks: Talking Heads – Remain in Light

My Spin on Masterworks: 12 of 25

Talking Heads

Remain in Light

Sire, 1980

1 Remain in LightProducer, collaborator, musical übermensch, and alleged egotist Brian Eno has described Talking Heads’ fourth album as “terribly optimistic in a way”, characterising its mood as a distillation of “looking out to the world and saying, ‘What a fantastic place we live in. Let’s celebrate it.’”

Now, I appreciate that this is coming from the guy who had a major hand in the album’s conception, but unless he was speaking ironically, I can’t fathom where the heck Eno was coming from. Yes, Remain in Light conveys startling sonic clout and an energy which borders on maniacal at times, but never once do I perceive optimism when listening to the eight songs housed within. If anything, the spirit that emerges is one of utmost bewilderment. David Byrne’s twisty, restless songwriting circles a melange of protagonists whose minds are clouded with apprehension and warped by the demands and prevailing ideologies of western culture. Whether or not this was his direct intention, Byrne’s lyrics throughout Remain in Light ring with fury and confusion, the frontman “preaching, shouting and ranting” in the face of the 1980s climate, yelping out from beneath the oppressive hands of an imperious government. The result isn’t a celebration of the “fantastic place we live in”, but rather a reflection of its jargon and capacity to breed alienation, paranoia, disillusion, and occasionally violence. All this, and it manages to sound effervescently kinetic and imaginative; one of those albums which improves with age, its appeal burgeoning rather than dating.

Byrne, guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and percussionist Chris Frantz undertook a peculiar journey in assembling this collection. There was controversy regarding the twin authorities of Byrne and Eno, new flavours being added to the band’s already-porous mixture (specifically the adoption of African rhythms and conventions), and Byrne’s struggles with writer’s block prompted new methods of self-expression, shifting from linear patterns to more freewheeling vocal displays. When everything finally synthesised, the varied strands of sonic experimentation undertaken by each party produced an outstanding piece of work. Listening to Remain in Light in 2015, one still feels a tingle of the boldly new: something promising sweeping influence, though containing a magic that hasn’t quite been replicated. It inhabits its own space, these jams ricocheting through an elasticated mesh of genres, while still sounding sharp, well-packaged, and intelligent. That its anxieties and nervous tics have also remained malleable across this timespan is either a case of extreme misfortune, or a masterful stroke of forward-thinking songwriting.

Remain in Light hits its 35th birthday in October, and it still fizzes with a vibrancy and relevance which has thrived further in the context of the 21st Century’s peaks and troughs. Nestled at its centre is one of Talking Heads’ best-known and commercially revered songs; the twinkling, immaculate ‘Once in a Lifetime’. The cornerstones of the album find their collective crux here: repetition, textural sumptuousness, and a jittery outlook on modernity. Byrne’s smartly-penned list of life’s notches unfurls like the treadmill of everyman existence: a checklist of desirables that typify another identikit life. Beautiful house, beautiful spouse, beautiful car. And that road eventually screeches into the inevitable life crisis, condensed by Byrne into a simple couplet with deceptively simple magnitude. “And you may ask yourself / ‘Am I right? Am I wrong?’ / And you may ask yourself / ‘My God, what have I done?’” As with the entirety of Remain in Light, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ wraps its startling truths in an evergreen eclecticism which has assured it decades of acclaim.

Talking Heads broke with the swell of new-wave during the 1970s, flipping the coin of post-punk to funkier textures, though without severing their proclivity for social commentary. Several songs burn with a righteous anger, of which ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ is particularly formidable, railing at the moral stormclouds that had gathered over America during the previous decade’s turbulence. Over one of the itchiest grooves ever mined by the group, Byrne near-shrieks his grievances, continually returning to a characterisation of the government as a pair of domineering hands operating under the powerless gaze of first-world citizens. Stretching to six minutes, the relentless repetition of its strikingly dense jam carries the song’s parenthetical mantra: even when the machinations of the oppressive body are laid bare, the heat goes on. Change is harder to secure than knowledge, and the frustration crackles through every bar.

And so it goes. Although these songs unfold without chord changes or stylistic swerves, they pop and sparkle with grace notes from all in play. Fidgety, choppy guitars scramble over bass riffs which pop, lurch, and hum with clockwork precision. Frantz’s African-inspired polyrhythms mesh with Byrne’s acrobatic vocal displays, as he shifts from ranting and raving one moment to scatting and intoning spoken-word diatribes the next. And keeping the listener hooked throughout are the glimpses of spooked lives governed by ever-warped popular doctrines. ‘Seen and Not Seen’ is an unsettling, Lynchian study of one man’s pursuit of his own ideal facial representation. The main character of ‘Houses in Motion’ works towards a a personal goal at the expense of meaningful social contact, moving from life to death with minimal impact on the world around him. Most chilling of all is ‘Listening Wind’, on which Byrne depicts a man driven to extreme recourse by American colonialism. Over creeping, squealing melodies and clipped percussion, we hear of Mojique, whose destructive conspiracy is actually far more sympathetic than the caustic isolationism of the loner in ‘Houses in Motion’. The album wraps with the Joy Division-echoing drone of ‘The Overload’; a groan of exhaustion and resignation which sounds moments from giving out completely.

Eno may have had a point in some regard. Remain in Light certainly seems to revel in musical creation, marvelling at the range and brilliance of the styles and sounds it pays homage to. But at its core, it also seems to acknowledge the broken systems it was forged under, and each bane it draws attention to (consumerism, oppression, the drive into self-imposed isolation) remains unyieldingly salient to this day. 35 years ago, Byrne stepped into the recording booth and wailed about the choking capacity of an America whose moral compass was perceived to be spinning wildly out of line. In 2015, western politics only incite scepticism, disillusion, and monstrously violent projections of outrage to greater and more chilling degrees. As has been the case for decades, a major percentage of the population is left unheeded. Voices are still being rebuffed and rebuked, identities blotted out like faces beneath garish digital scribbles. And the heat goes on.

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Talking Heads, l-r: Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth (photo: rockcellarmagazine)

25/05/15

Live Review: Belle & Sebastian (If You’re Feeling Ministerial)

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Belle & Sebastian live: Stuart Murdoch and some newfound friends nail those harmonies.

Belle & Sebastian

Central Hall Westminster, London (11/03/15)

As you’d probably expect from “the whitest band alive“, there was little to appease hard-nosed cynics at Belle & Sebastian’s opening night at Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall. With the aftermath of the Parliamentary General Election still casting a long shadow over this neck of the woods, the prospect of wispy, keening pop music from the troupe who brought us ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ surely lacks mass appeal. Thankfully though, B&S have always been unashamed of their fey mannerisms and chirpy tunes, and those willing to embrace the night’s sock-hoppy vibe found pleasure in abundance. As Stuart Murdoch chuckled halfway during the evening, “there’s no irony on this stage”. At this particular juncture, that suited me – and most of the 2,000-strong crowd – pretty fine.

Head-scratching in theory – but thoroughly impressive in execution – was the booking of Lower Dens as the band’s support act. The Baltimore four-piece have steadily assembled an excellent catalogue of sleek, humming, and stirring drone-pop, and while this year’s Escape From Evil has honed the band’s pop chops, their creations are still a far cry from B&S’ signature jangle. Yet Lower Dens steamed through their performance with a poise and sensuality which swiftly earned appreciation from the audience. All four members maintained mystique through taut control, delivering their new-wave thrums in tight-knit, unshowy fashion. Over nimble bass runs and spare, sparkling guitar melodies, the commanding Jana Hunter bathed the hall in a cool, steamy aura; ‘Ondine’ and ‘To Die in LA’ showcasing her ceiling-scraping vocal power at its most stunning.

The expansive Belle & Sebastian coterie marched onstage following a 30-minute screening of an old-timey documentary about the city of Glasgow, and the huge projector screen was utilised repeatedly throughout the set to provide nifty backdrops to the band’s antics. Kicking into the warm anthem ‘Nobody’s Empire’, the band received rapturous applause from the get-go, though for all the supposed adoration, the crowd never fully gave themselves over to joyous noodling, even during peppy numbers such as ‘The Party Line’ and ‘Sleep the Clock Around’. A Canadian woman just behind me spent much of the former’s rendition shrieking in bewilderment, “why aren’t more of these people dancing?”

Given that the band’s major demographic probably favour lapsang souchong to Beck’s by the bottleful, it wasn’t much of a surprise that much of the crowd remained static, even while Murdoch strutted his stuff smoothly front-and-centre. Nonetheless, the show was a lovely display of good ol’ clean fun, with the show highlights also those which would make the unconverted cringe with schmaltzy nausea. Fittingly for the venue’s nature, Murdoch presided over an on-stage marriage proposal before the mellifluous ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’, and invited a banner-bearing fan up for a pretty adorable jig during ‘Jonathan David’. The requisite invasion-cum-party during ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ crowned the night brilliantly, with a dozen or so goggle-eyed fans careering excitedly around the stage as the main crowd gently bobbed along to the earworms.

They may be “the whitest band alive”, but to paraphrase Murdoch himself, sometimes it’s nice to be nice. And in the context of the ugliness displayed in the same area just a few days ago, B&S’ show was a welcome dose of warmth in the heart of the capital.

Setlist

Nobody’s Empire // La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie // The Party Line // We Rule the School // Wrapped Up in Books // Piggy in the Middle // Perfect Couples // Piazza, New York Catcher // Electronic Renaissance // The Book of You // Jonathan David // I Didn’t See it Coming // A Summer Wasting // The Boy with the Arab Strap // Legal Man // Sleep the Clock Around // There’s Too Much Love // Photo Jenny

13/05/15

Album Review: Blur – The Magic Whip

Pretty swish.

Pretty swish: Blur have another crack at it. (photo: diymag.com)

Blur

The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

1 Magic WhipFor one of the most keenly-anticipated returns of the decade (let alone this year), there’s little about The Magic Whip that gives away its status as a comeback for one of the most beloved British bands of the past two decades. Aside from a handful of propulsive moments, Blur’s eighth album skirts ceremony and cuts straight to projecting the murky vision of its authors, all pomp and circumstance dispelled in a swirl of spaced-out melancholy. It’s an album of textures and moods rather than a sure-footed collection of fizzing pop, and it takes several listens to get a handle on its character.

Given its stop-start gestation, it’s pretty amazing that The Magic Whip exists at all. Recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, and eventually moulded into shape by Graham Coxon and producer Stephen Street, The Magic Whip lacks an unambiguous stamp of identity, Blur’s style now infused with shades of the 2000s output of Coxon and Damon Albarn. Heard alongside its fellows, the contours of The Magic Whip sound much more malleable, less the work of a single group, and more the pooled offering of a team of artists. Consequently, it doesn’t hang together perfectly, but when all four members lock into a tight composition, the excitement surrounding its release is wholly justified.

Albarn recently put forward a complaint regarding what he terms “the selfie generation”: the current glut of self-absorbed singers projecting their personalities outwards, instead of reflecting wider topics. Tracing back his own lineage, one can appreciate Albarn’s point. Parklife was arguably the definitive reaction to Cool Britannia; a response equally intoxicated and overwhelmed by the rocketing excesses of the period. 13 and Think Tank picked through the ensuing hangover, bound up in a state of millennial tension and rueful disillusion. Twelve years on from the latter, The Magic Whip is hardly a manifesto, but it often dives headfirst into the confusion, jargon, and urban alienation that has come to dominate the 2010s. ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ and ‘New World Towers’ peer through the sea of smartphones and skyscrapers at suffocating grey skies and overpopulated streets teeming with unbalanced lives. Both are among the album’s best moments, cutting out melodrama in favour of deadpan, weary reportage. Albarn’s grave delivery of the former’s title refrain is stark and plain-spoken, its lack of overt humanity both unsettling and appealing.

Even in their catchiest moments, these songs are underpinned by the sense that modern life is still rubbish. Album opener ‘Lonesome Street’ is chock-full of charisma, driven by the thumping, twanging charm of their mid-90s vintage and completely saturated with hooks, but Albarn’s words temper the mood from jubilance. Sonically, it’s a red herring, but it’s thematically in key with The Magic Whip’s preoccupation with dislocation. ‘Go Out’ is a brilliantly groaning mess, a cousin of 13’s ‘Bugman’, but with that song’s psychotic exhilaration reduced to a polluted cough of exhausted vocals and lurching bass notes. Coxon wreaks merry havoc with his distortion pedals, and the sticky chorus is largely composed of tired moans; naturally a prime fit for lead single. The “cold sore / high score” punchline of the tremendous ‘I Broadcast’ could allude to the warped view of Facebook Likes as digital currency, and though the sweet singalong of ‘Ong Ong’ is more hopeful, it still hints at a yearning for retreat: “I wanna be with you.”

The remainder of the album wears its fatigue on its sleeve, and this may be where those hoping for a return to brash form are left cold. Even the ballads take a few plays to sink in; ‘My Terracotta Heart’ requires patience for its full weight to unspool, and ‘Pyongyang’ rests resolutely bleak and ghostly at the album’s close. While it sounds hugely ungrateful to say so given the album’s contextThe Magic Whip sounds as though it would benefit from the snipping of one or two cuts. Pleasant though it is, the twinkling ‘Ghost Ship’ sounds particularly jarring, more suited to the sun-kissed haze of a Gorillaz record.

The best manner in which to approach Blur’s return is to take note of Albarn and Coxon’s summative statements. Coxon has described this album as an exploration of “sci-fi folk”, whereas Albarn was very taken with producing a work of “dysto-pop-ia”. Viewed under this lens, The Magic Whip seems much more convincing a prospect. It sits uncomfortably, its skewed pacing and general dearth of up-tempo moments resulting in a restless experience, but its sprawling sonics and Albarn’s compelling vignettes somehow render it intoxicating. It nags and itches at the ears, pulling one back into its embrace and shedding its secrets with each listen. Rather than a triumphant, assured return, it’s a fragmented treatise on fragmentary times, and in some sense, that’s exactly what Blur have always excelled at.

“Before you log out / Hold close to me.”

06/05/15