Monthly Archives: June 2015
Get to Heaven (Sony RCA)
When listening to Everything Everything’s third − and strongest − album, there are two contrapuntal phrases that stick in the mind, jostling one another for pre-eminence. The first is frontman Jonathan Higgs’ admission that Get to Heaven’s distressing lyrical concerns resemble “a horror bible”. The second is much more straightforward to grasp: “here comes the summer”. Though each seems to be directly in contention with the other, both notions define the air of Get to Heaven pretty well: an album on which violence, helplessness and fear are stirred into sun-kissed art-rock, and topped with an abundance of sticky choruses that threaten to grant Everything Everything their biggest push into the commercial spotlight yet.
True to clever-clever form, the Mancunian quartet still don’t sit straight. This is, after all, the group whose début album opens with a song about a civilian-oriented airstrike, disguised as a narrative about a petulant love triangle. Following on from 2010’s riddle-addled Man Alive and 2013’s winding, widescreen Arc, Get to Heaven sees the band closing in on a sweet spot between fidgety, Talking Heads-indebted guitar pop and risible declarations of modern malaise. More often than not, it’s a formula which is utterly nailed this time around, and the successful hit rate hinges on two particular tactics. For one, the group’s natural flair for melody is given increased favour over elaborate song structures (perhaps producer Stuart Price should be thanked on this count), and second, Jonathan Higgs’ songwriting has evolved into its most focused and cogent form thus far. The tongue-twisting jargon of singles past has been jettisoned and replaced with urgent, visceral and cutting commentaries which land with immediacy and clarity. A horror bible it may be, but it’s one which is hard to put down.
Still planted firmly at the group’s centre, Higgs’ tense falsetto has always been the nucleus around which Everything Everything’s heady sonics revolve. The singer has never before sounded as compassionate as he does throughout Get to Heaven; his voice constantly sounding as though it’s a mere hair’s breadth away from cracking, whether from exertion or emotion. In interviews for the album, Higgs has made no secret of his depressive spiral during the promotion of Arc, nor his intake of a trial-and-error series of antidepressants. The lyrics of Get to Heaven are the product of his subsequent gorging on the most horrific news updates of the past two years, and opener ‘To the Blade’ wastes no time in conveying Higgs’ reactions to the stomach-churning headlines. It’s heartbroken, angry, and very, very afraid, referencing the execution of Alan Henning to open the floodgates for a tidal wave of atrocities. “He didn’t want to be your prisoner / Any more than you’d be mine,” he cries over Alex Robertshaw’s abruptly crunching riff, projecting a sickened disbelief in his characteristically florid manner.
Such fear is the dark thread connecting these eleven tracks, manifested as responses to extremist propaganda (‘Regret’), the rise of caustic politics (‘The Wheel (is Turning Now)’), and concerns as simple and universal as the worry of youth slipping away (‘Spring / Sun / Winter / Dread’). These disquieting thoughts are couched, cunningly, inside some of the catchiest material you’ll hear this year. The title track refracts the gleaming skitter of Arc‘s ‘Choice Mountain’ into something much more captivating; a tropical shimmy that dances along to joyous guitar skiffle, a big calypso chorus, and – yes! – a whistling hook. While the colour palette is brighter than ever before, there’s a vein of humour darker than tar under the surface. “Where in the blazes did I park my car?” Higgs asks, baffled by the apocalypse that arrives in the middle of what sounds like a beach party. It’s a highlight on an album that wriggles, fidgets and fights its way through worry after worry, blazing through the tatters of civilisation with fierce energy. Even non-fans can’t deny the stickiness of the festival-baiting ‘Distant Past’, on which Higgs’ primary desire is to escape the throes of the present through an evolutionary reversal. Further on, the jabbering urgency of ‘Blast Doors’ bobs and ducks like vintage Bloc Party; Jeremy Pritchard’s bass stalking Higgs’ tumbling tirade to a finale adorned with handclaps.
Most moving of all is the penultimate ‘No Reptiles’, which precedes the stumbling balm of ‘Warm Healer’ with an ever-swelling sea of keys and a bouncy drum loop. It offers a suitable representation for Get to Heaven itself, finding a sonic approximation of paradise while skirting modern-world apocalypse. Anybody left unconvinced by Everything Everything’s previous ostentatiousness are unlikely to be converted by Get to Heaven, but what the band lack in nuance is moot point given their sheer earnestness. A willingness to shriek in today’s musical climate seems to be the only way to get heard over the tumult, and Everything Everything look set to smuggle a switched-on and restlessly creative mindset right into the heart of the mainstream. Here comes the summer − and impending doom along with it.
“Did you think that Everything Everything would change?”*
*Possibly not what Jonathan Higgs intended to indicate.
In Colour (Young Turks)
Dance is a diverse form of magic. Presented professionally, it is valorised as an art in its own right: a display of finesse and precision, immaculate and expressive. In its more accessible and common guise, on the other hand, ideas of craft are abandoned in lieu of a fundamental reach for escapism. Dancing leaves our brains on the backburner and releases our energy physically, clouding the regard for one’s own image (hence the risk of looking like a bit of a muppet). The feeling overrules the thinking, and – especially in concentrated environments – the rush of released endorphins unlocks a transcendental feeling of bliss: a sense of belonging and infinite potential, as anxieties melt away along with self-consciousness. The mechanics of the pleasure are incredibly basic, but a great dance record can make an instant, visceral connection such as this, where the compulsion is so swift and compelling that it utterly transports the listener.
He may be only several years into his career, but Jamie ‘xx’ Smith has already demonstrated an intuitive grasp of how dance music functions, applying his sonic Midas touch with an acuity which can be breathtaking. His reputation has steadily grown since his emergence in the late-noughties, operating as the thoughtful backbone of quiet champions The xx, remix artist par excellence, and producer-of-choice for a burgeoning legion of famous fans including Drake and Alicia Keys. With his CV so impressively stacked, Smith has become one of the leading lights in contemporary dance music, even if his persona is one which seems to be permanently shrouded at the back of the club. Surrounded by his more outspoken collaborators, he resembles a watcher in the shadows; a magpie whose curious mind is constantly alert to the sounds around him. As a result, even while heavily invested in his tentpole projects, Smith has amassed a broad collection of field notes and sonic morsels, which he decided to corral into his first solo album as late as autumn 2014.
It speaks dividends about Smith’s talent that in spite of its casual conception, In Colour is a phenomenal result. Smith takes the world chronicled in The xx’s work – lonely, delicate confessionals as intimate as whispers between friends – and floods it with light, filling the empty spaces with mesmeric beats, bright splashes of keyboards, and samples – of his own candid footage and homages to past greats alike. The xx’s music never sounds less than intensely personal, and Smith’s own sculptures can serve as insights into the tastes of an insatiable audiophile. Yet the auteur’s audience-savvy instincts elevate these tracks far beyond personal indulgence, as he taps into that transcendental escapism with a consistency that dazzles.
The irresistible tug of ‘Gosh’ dispenses such magic immediately. Its playful pirate radio samples and seismic, siren-like crescendos harness the wide-eyed excitement associated with the beginning of a journey – in most cases, a Journey to the Centre of the Rave. The effective, gleefully deliberate build-up is a sheer joy to return to, but as with much of In Colour, it’s a trick that never feels overthought. It’s polished, but not obsessively so, and likewise, Smith’s many influences are assimilated into the odyssey without sounding clunky or distracting. ‘Sleep Sound’ draws from the same twinkling ambience as Until the Quiet Comes-era Flying Lotus, braiding together dreamily cascading melodies and staccato vocal snippets into a pulsing shuffle. Elsewhere, one senses the warmth of Caribou, swirls of Orbital, and the starry fug of Floating Points, all brushed between the rave-ready beats which jump between ’90s house and modern breakbeat.
And then there’s the presence of The xx, whose signatures are never fully abandoned. While In Colour‘s trip is Smith’s own brainchild, these ‘narratives’ occasionally overlap with those of The xx, as Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s brief appearances come across like parallel events witnessed in the same space. It’s a balance perfected on ‘SeeSaw’, where Madley Croft’s voice floats in and out of the warm clatter like a solitary individual in a packed club. She makes a more direct return for ‘Loud Places’, though her yearning vocal is subverted and then glorified as Smith twists the melancholia into a neo-gospel plume, with the aid of Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’. Sim’s own outing on ‘Stranger in a Room’ is the cut which cleaves most closely to The xx’s traditional template, but the burbling electronic melody keeps the line drawn without disrupting In Colour‘s headier flow.
But leaving aside all baggage and just looking into the manifest sounds, In Colour is distinctive and flavoursome enough to stand alone. Put simply, these are just great tunes, man. They don’t need overwrought analyses or lofty interpretations to work, because they sound terrific of their own accord; sleeky produced and seamlessly sequenced into a fantastic single listen. As with all nights out, there is a misstep or two along the way; most noticeably the cameo of Young Thug, whose incongruously X-rated verses almost derail the otherwise glorious ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’. His crude wordplay chafes awkwardly with the album’s otherwise blissful tone, but if you can tune out Thug’s references to his squishy dick, there’s barely a blemish to be found on In Colour. From the giddy pulse of ‘Gosh’ through to the crystal-cool swagger of ‘Girl’, it’s a near-flawless showcase for Smith to loosen up and transport his audience to higher places, proving dance’s power as a catalyst for an extraordinary experience.
“OH MY GOSH.”
Field Day Festival
Victoria Park, London (06-07/03/15)
Field Day 2015 could almost have passed for London’s answer to Primavera. Although the English capital lacked some of the more exotic aspects of its Barcelona cousin, both festivals shared a wealth of tentpole names, and an unexpectedly game sun beamed down on the throngs of (largely hirsute, Red Stripe-swilling) festivalgoers with summery generosity. With just under ten stages speckled around Victoria Park across the weekend, there was musical pleasure to savour in all manner of guises. Given that its schedule was almost twice as broad as that of Sunday, Saturday’s party was a more varied (and raucous) affair, but there was a near-constant overlap of several of the giddiest bands-of-the-moment throughout the festival, not to mention the re-emergence of a particular headlining artist, whose appearance unequivocally won the day at the weekend’s close.
In atmosphere, Field Day resembles that quintessentially British booze-up of a Bank Holiday weekend, just with bigger tunes and more cider-addled teenagers. In the space of a few hundred yards, tents were packed out to bruising hip-hop, sun-dappled indie jangles, screeching punk and more besides, with fans filling up the site relatively quickly after the gates opened up. Early-afternoon sets from Stealing Sheep and Allah-Las were modestly attended, though the former still managed to inspire widespread pogoing, with the help of a limb-flailing cameo from Duncan Wallis of Dutch Uncles fame. By the time SOPHIE took over the Resident Advisor tent at 3pm on Saturday, there were wasted attendees left, right and centre.
The popularity of SOPHIE was a particular surprise: the eardrum-cracking beats of the artist’s bubblegum bass had the tent absolutely brimming, with bodies bounding over from the nearby bars with each passing minute. The denouement of ‘Hey QT‘ saw the titular heroine herself appear in a flurry of bright red hair, launching into the helium-high hook after a swig from a can of the reality-blurring DrinkQT. Effortlessly catchy and simultaneously repulsive, ‘Hey QT’ was an early highlight for the Saturday line-up, though the euphoria reached a high with the advent of Todd Terje & The Olsens‘ hour-long jam as the night drew in. Building steadily for roughly twenty minutes, Terje and his group gradually achieved take-off for their second half; cosmic jams swelling into a set of cheer-inducingly great house-pop that culminated in the mighty ‘Inspector Norse’.
It’s a shame that the crowds weren’t nearly so enthusiastic for tUnE-yArDs‘ set in the Crack Magazine tent across the park. The sound rang through clear as a bell, and the flower-sporting Merrill Garbus and co. were on top form, but the bulk of the audience utterly failed to appreciate their talents, sapping the set’s energy with a general nonchalance. As with many other open-air London shows, Field Day has garnered something of a reputation for sound problems, and I’ve noticed countless attendees have vented their complaints on comment threads across the web. Personally, I found that the sound was much less of an issue than the attitudes of some of the crowds in attendance, as numerous sets were diminished only by the reticence of audiences who were too interested in laughing gas or bitching about sub-par halloumi (is there even such a thing?) to pay attention.
Thankfully, no such apathy was present during Run the Jewels‘ Saturday evening slot in the Resident Advisor tent. El-P and Killer Mike had the massed hordes in a frenzy before they’d even started spitting, arriving onstage to Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ and bounding ferociously around the stage with vitriol and energy. The hot-headed ‘Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)’ and the staccato mantra leading ‘Lie, Cheat, Steal’ had the whole audience champing at the bit. The vitriol died down for Caribou‘s blissful closing set on the Eat Your Own Ears stage, where heavy drawing from Our Love and Swim built the set to its blissful two-punch coda. An extended, weekend-topping rendition of the mammoth ‘Can’t Do Without You’ was soon followed by the slow-burning skyscraping of ‘Sun’, as bombastic strobes lit up the whole field and closed the Saturday sequence on a euphoric high.
Sunday oozed with chilled vibes from the very beginning, and baseball-capped and baggy-shirted alternative fans were treated to the double-whammy of DIIV and Mac DeMarco for the better part of the afternoon on the main stage. The former let forth an hour of reverb-soaked waves of celestial garage-rock, as Sky Ferreira and DeMarco watched from the wings. Although melodies were difficult to discern amid all the echo effects, and Zachary Cole’s vocals were unintelligible for the most part, DIIV exuded a modest magic, held in place by the band’s bassist, whose face was hidden behind a curtain of thick hair throughout the set, while his nimble bass grooves kept the rolling shebang in check.
Mac DeMarco’s set, meanwhile, was utterly infectious, encompassing sunny singalongs, hundreds of sparked Viceroy cigarettes, baguettes thrown on-stage, a thrashing cover of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, and the requisite crowdsurf from DeMarco himself. (I carried his butt for a few seconds. Nice.) Few contemporary artists match the guy for both his slacker-pop poetry and his irresistibly fun persona. No such tranquility during Savages‘ performance, which bristled with aggression as Fay Milton smashed her drumkit to within an inch of its life, and Jehnny Beth baited the crowd into shrieking raptures. “We were in Greece two nights ago,” she growled. “I want you to be louder than them.” The new material from their upcoming second album sounds truly explosive, rubbing shoulders with old favourites such as ‘Shut Up’ and ‘Husbands’ with ease.
The two headline slots for Sunday were those of Ride and Patti Smith, and while the reformed shoegaze outfit put on a commendable show, the crowds were rapidly dwindling to beat the tube traffic out of East London. Instead, it was Smith and her coterie of virtuoso musicians who truly stunned Field Day, delivering the gargantuan Horses in its entirety and concluding with a handful of past favourites, including a heartfelt ‘Because the Night’ and a shambling cover of The Who’s ‘My Generation’. Professing herself as 97-years-old (Smith is 68), the punk poet laureate plunged into the fiery ‘Gloria’ oozing with charisma, her dark glasses and crisp white shirt bridging the gap of the past 40 years since the release of that image. Dedicating the moody ‘Elegie’ to her fellow musical icons who passed away since the New York’s rock heyday, Smith capped the festival with tangible glee, poignancy, and her own strain of self-effacing humour. A breathless sequence, and a real jewel in the crown of a festival built on wide-ranging appeal, joyous performers, and an endless sea of plastic cups.