Monthly Archives: July 2015
Star Wars (dBpm)
Wilco’s ninth album arrives in a flurry of questions. They’re excited questions, but most are imbued with more than a touch of bafflement. A thunderbolt album from one of the best-loved American bands of the past twenty years, Star Wars is the latest title to pull off the increasingly popular trick of catching the world off-guard. However, as opposed to the likes of Beyoncé’s self-titled opus, Wilco’s stunt is an exercise in confounding expectations beyond the surprise drop itself. Star Wars immediately mocks the very idea of over-analysis by dressing itself in off-the-cuff goofiness, cutting off hype at the knees before it’s barely had the chance to develop. Come on, it’s called Star Wars, the cover is a painting of a cat, and it was cheerily released for free via the band’s own website. By skewering any expectations of grandeur or preciousness, what remains is something loose, fun, and light on its feet, and through this backwards logic, Wilco have actually come through with a solid, modest rock album that’s among their finest releases of the past decade.
Avoiding anything remotely overblown, Jeff Tweedy and co. seem to have relished this chance to cut loose. Over and done with in less than 35 minutes, Star Wars is bereft of distorted non-sequiturs and emotional juggernauts alike; further facets which longstanding fans may find slightly off-kilter. However, the brevity of these songs serves as a smokescreen, disguising the band’s intellect behind what appears to be rawk simplicity: a leather-bound surface that, when pulled away, reveals a team of brilliant minds at work. At first, ‘Random Name Generator’ sounds like one of the most basic rock songs Wilco have yet recorded, but the group’s acuity slyly pokes through. Tweedy’s affable drawl belies the complexity of his snaking vocal melody, and the sprightly way that the song pops into its playful, crunchy denouement is purely gleeful. It’s a technique that serves them well throughout Star Wars, with neat tricks often concealed behind deceptively simple hooks. Centrepiece ‘You Satellite’ progresses as if filling a bag with Wilco’s primary assets (Nels Cline’s chiming, intricate fretwork, brisk percussion, insistent droning), before giving the whole thing a good shake for the conclusion, churning the song into a heady, jumbled delight.
The latter is the only cut which exceeds four minutes in length, and the brevity of Star Wars as a whole demonstrates the group’s collective comfort in its own skin. While loosely bound together by neat mid-tempo numbers, Star Wars takes on a number of guises; each song distinct while retaining a sense of cohesion thanks to the ever-pristine, discreet production. It’s a trip that rarely disengages the listener: ‘Pickled Ginger’ hums away over rising amplifier heat, its low-slung biker blues echoing the tone of Spoon’s ‘Small Stakes’; a melange of reversed drums and weeping guitars roughs up the surface of ‘Where Do I Begin’; and ‘Magnetized’ closes the album sounding like Queen on depressants, pulling together ticking-clock metronomes and Brian May-saluting guitars to end on Wilco’s punch-drunk signature. Of all assembled, there’s nothing that truly jolts Wilco from their gentle mellowing, but given they can still conjure songs as compulsively catchy as ‘Random Name Generator’, this hardly warrants disdain.
And that seems to be the point. With Star Wars, Wilco aren’t delivering world-beaters or mission statements, but cutting straight to the chase and letting their superb musical talents do the talking. The resulting work sounds anything but overthought or uncertain, and this apparent effortlessness is Star Wars’ greatest triumph. It’s casual while not forgetting to care, laidback while invigorated, and subtly deceptive without being smug. So why the cat? Why the title? Why the free release? Why any of it?
Who knows. What matters is that they just went ahead and did it. And that’s possibly why it’s so enjoyable.
“I won’t ever ever ever fall apart like that again.”
The cover art for Currents depicts vortex shedding: the trippy-looking process wherein fluid or gas is displaced around a blunt object. As the former distorts when flowing past the latter, its previously rigid currents are warped into swirling, hypnotic new patterns. Likewise, across his career spearheading Tame Impala, Kevin Parker has used his remarkable talents to contort strands of genres which have settled into linearity, recycling tropes of old and leaving intriguing new shapes in his wake. Down the years, he has woven “classic” rock, astral prog and smooth R&B into irresistibly catchy pop music, which draws from the past while remaining forward-thinking. It’s a skill over which he has exercised greater command with each album: the chugging ’60s fuzz of Innerspeaker giving way to the seismically inventive Lonerism, 2012’s crossover success which catapulted Parker into his role as the new poster boy of guitar maestros.
Such a leap in terms of attention has naturally wrought fundamental changes in Parker’s life, and the third Tame Impala album finds him confronting the process of change from several angles. The would-be cult concern can now be seen on the cover of mainstream magazines and rubbing shoulders with some of modern pop’s biggest names, and consequently, he’s now responsible for one of the most hotly-anticipated returns of the year. For the man who once sang “there’s a party in my head and no-one is invited” on 2010’s ‘Solitude is Bliss’, the shindig is becoming increasingly crowded, infiltrating Parker’s introverted world and flooding it with hyperbole. And although Parker barely seems fazed on the surface, there are plenty of hints towards the cracks beneath that laidback surface. Several months after the release of Lonerism, Parker’s relationship with fellow artist Melody Prochet came to an end; potentially the most personal fallout from the former’s ascendancy. It’s a keystone detail in the sea of changes that Parker has faced down during the making of Currents; another layer to the album’s fixation with transformation and its consequences.
Both emotionally and musically, Currents is a break-up album. Alongside the romantic allusions peppering the lyric sheets, guitars are no longer the primary focus of Parker’s sonic interests. Popping basslines step forward in lieu of frazzled riffs, keyboards and synthesisers sparkle on all sides, and swaying disco grooves stand in for the cartwheeling sprawl of singles past. As if in challenge to the inevitable naysayers, Parker stresses his new tastes blatantly on ‘Yes I’m Changing’, wandering off in new directions and dismissing those unwilling to follow. Although really, in 2015, the only people who remain affronted by the sublimation of guitars are those whose musical educations begin and end with their dads’ music libraries. And that’s only if said dads have highly unadventurous tastes.
Reimagining landscapes to fit the dancefloor is nothing new, but such is the intricate detail and perfectionism with which Parker approaches these songs, the aesthetics are wonderfully impressive nonetheless. Currents’ most spectacular song is also its opener: since dropping back in spring, the flair and ambition of ‘Let it Happen’ remains unshakeably dazzling. An eight-minute odyssey through stomping disco, hazy slow jams, strangled funk, and that transcendental passage wherein the loop button jams in place, it’s both enthralling and a technical marvel. Volumes dip and swell, new ingredients land with marvellous precision, and the seams are all but invisible. There may not be much else on Currents packing the same boldness, but Parker has plenty to draw from, the ideas pouring forth in abundance.
The album’s treats arrive in all shapes and sizes, including sultry soul on ‘’Cause I’m a Man’: a sideways swipe at the bullshit posturing borne from the masculine paradigm, which also boasts a craftily moreish chorus. ‘The Moment’ and ‘The Less I Know the Better’ are hip-swingingly magnificent vehicles of wonky funk, “dorky” enough to suit Parker’s fidgety neuroses, but dazzling in their balance between retro and fresh. Oddest of all is ‘Past Life’, on which Parker’s voice is reduced to a robotic monotone delivering spoken-word musings over a glittering ’80s slow jam, complete with finger snaps and silky harmonies. While initially off-putting, Parker’s ear for whopping hooks gives the song the tools it needs to transcend bafflement, and as it blossoms towards its climax, one can only marvel at his ability to alchemise a mess of concepts into singular brilliance.
Underpinning the aural wonderment is Parker’s emotional journey. Centrepiece ‘Eventually’ is a new high in terms of songcraft, cutting to the heart of an impending break-up with clarity, and a not altogether sympathetic honesty. “I know just what I’ve got to do / And it’s got to be soon,” Parker agonises, his progression repeatedly thrown off by bruising guitars and drums that rip apart the composure. It’s a narrative that shifts and mutates through the bitterness of ‘The Less I Know the Better’, the morose regret of ‘Love / Paranoia’, and smudges of memory in ‘Disciples’. The squelchy ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ isn’t the most bombastic closing chapter imaginable, but when paired with its fellow bookend ‘Let it Happen’, its lyrics tie the album off perfectly. No matter what wisdom one believes to have gleaned from the past, ingrained cycles are fiercely difficult to break. Both in relationships (“I don’t care I’m in love” Parker’s primary vocal sighs, as a background voice urges “stop before it’s too late”) and in music (“I know that you think it’s fake / Maybe fake’s what I like”), Parker has seen many changes, but ultimately, he’s still dealing with the same matters he was plumbing on Innerspeaker, bringing fresh light to old colours.
Currents does occasionally lose its flow in passages where it becomes a little too smooth. Part of Lonerism’s appeal was its gleefully busy approach, resulting in a broad smorgasboard of textures spurred by Parker’s mischievous tendencies. Currents feels strikingly slick by comparison, and there are times when his voice begins to wear thin. By the time of ‘Reality in Motion’, one starts to wish for a deviation from his wispy falsetto to something with greater potency. Nonetheless, brush aside a few moments here and there, and Currents remains a tremendous achievement in which Parker flourishes as producer, musician, and songwriter. The final result may be less world-beating than its immediate predecessor, but it’s highly impressive on its own terms, and points towards spectacular things in Parker’s future. It’s tantalising to ponder what shapes he’ll form next.
“I’m moving on, and if you don’t think it’s a crime you can come along with me.”
We’ve pipped the halfway post of 2015, and the year’s playlists are already stacked high with sonic riches. Here are ten of my favourite LPs of the past six-and-a-smidge months, plus a handful of honourable mentions which are more than worthy of attention. In alphabetical order…
Favourite Albums of 2015 (So Far)
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Melbourne’s finest wordslinger dazzles in characteristically deadpan style on her full-length proper following 2013’s Double EP. Sometimes I Sit… is an inviting grab-bag of bizarre observations, shaggy dog stories, and surprisingly perceptive glimpses at modern living. The through-line for all is Barnett’s knack for clever phrasing, everything delivered with conversational warmth and a quick wit. Grunge-pop gems (‘Pedestrian at Best’, ‘Dead Fox’) rub shoulders comfortably with more poignant deep cuts (‘Depreston’, ‘Kim’s Caravan’), making for an idiosyncratic listen as likeable as its author.
Björk – Vulnicura
Educational workshops, multimedia apps, a glut of lofty concepts packed into a heady rush of a record. 2011’s Biophilia was ambitious to the point of baffling, scaling strange new heights for Iceland’s queen of the aural avant-garde. Following the clout of that album, the focus for Vulnicura is more squarely directed at the music itself: there’s less pomp and circumstance to distract this time around, allowing the sounds more space in which to make an emotional impact. A breakup album in time-lapse, Björk’s ninth is fixated on the periphery of heartbreak, examining the fallout of a fraying relationship rather than wading straight through its melodramatic centre. These spartan, wailing soundscapes can be difficult to truly adore, but one can only admire Björk’s clarity of vision when considering the likes of ‘History of Touches’ and the searing ‘Black Lake’. Moving at its own deliberate, unabashedly gloomy pace, Vulnicura takes time to sink in, but what emerges is worthy to rank alongside the artist(e)’s greatest endeavours.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
As rich and lavishly ornamented as a fully-furnished chateau lobby, Josh Tillman’s second record under the alias Father John Misty is expansive, eloquent, squalid, decadent, and utterly enrapturing. Revelling in the ambiguous blurring of lines between the Misty persona and his own ego, Tillman curates a collection that encompasses loved-up wonderment (that mighty title track), brutally hilarious eviscerations (‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment’), and dry laments for the detritus-ridden United States (‘Holy Shit’, ‘Bored in the USA’). For freshness of voice, boldness of writing and lusciousness of instrumentation, I Love You, Honeybear made an early contender for Album of the Year glory upon its release back in February.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
While hip hop has never been my strongest suit, the magnitude and breadth of Kendrick Lamar’s third album is ineluctable for anybody with a working pair of ears. Aggressively political and fuelled by a compassionate energy, To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, disorienting and stark scan of the most jarring recesses of American politics over the past century. It’s exhausting and exhaustive; pieced together in studios across the United States, at the hands of an Oscar-worthy cast of producers and collaborators, and running at a definitive 80 minutes, it’s a seismic rebuke to the quick-hit Twitter-fed culture of 2015. Bound together by staggeringly good production and unafraid of grappling with the thorniest issues pertaining to race and culture, To Pimp a Butterfly sounds genuinely, compulsively important in a market oversaturated with clamouring voices. The final half of ‘Mortal Man’ splices Lamar’s own spoken-word poetry with a 1994 interview with 2Pac; not a passing of the torch, but a continuation of the heated discussion. Or, as Lamar demands over the sounds of an agitated crowd in ‘i’: “How many we lost, bro? This year alone?”
Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
Five years into a career speckled with greatness, the electropoppers from Baltimore have struck gold. As well as conceiving one of the year’s most glorious singles thus far (‘To Die in LA’), Lower Dens have forged an album charged with clear-eyed ambition and warm instrumental resolve. A clockwork precision to the arrangements never disrupts the four-piece’s ever-flourishing handle of swooping melodies and glossy textures. Escape From Evil works in beautiful binaries; it’s dark and cavernous while also inclusive and euphoric. Here, Jana Hunter and her bandmates sound in full command of a similar intensity to groups such as New Order, channelling a tangible optimism through sparkling synth landscapes. Their smoothest, most accessible album yet, Escape From Evil is the sound of a band ascending to bold new heights, and the results are exceptional.
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
The Spacebomb label has found one of its brightest stars in the form of Virginia’s Natalie Prass: a singer-songwriter graced with an angelic, feather-light voice and an impressive taste for classical theatrics. Her eponymous début is refreshingly old-fashioned in its approach, harking back to ’60s soul and ’70s rock in the tradition of Dusty Springfield et al. Yet while it trades in simple pleasures, this succinct series of dispatches from the soul cuts straight to the heart thanks to its honesty and Prass’ instant, personable appeal. This is an album carved from troubled times and dizzying highs alike, with occasionally dark metaphors bound to arrangements which flutter as sweetly as Disney ballads. While the Spacebomb musicians weave a divine magic behind her, here Prass delivers a nine-song showcase which dazzles again and again.
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Eight months ago, I’d never really given time to Sleater-Kinney’s discography. However, it merely took a seven-second taste of the triumvirate’s comeback album to have me completely converted. All it took was the hot, snarling riff of ‘Price Tag’, and the doors were blasted open to a catalogue of searing, exhilarating, and goddamn fun punk-rock. Returning in a spray of high-wire guitars and lung-rumbling drumming, No Cities to Love sounds less like the work of old hands dusting off their kits, and more in possession of the fiery, embittered-but-hopeful angst most common in bratty upstarts. No Cities to Love packs all the propulsion, ferocity and brevity of a band fresh out of the stocks, defined by a desire to enact change that remains unfettered after over two decades in the business. As Corin Tucker announced during the band’s Roundhouse show earlier this year, “things haven’t changed enough”. Righteous claim.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Given his wide-ranging contributions to the landscape of post-millennial Americana, it’s hard to predict exactly what Sufjan Stevens will be best remembered for several decades from now. ‘Chicago’ may well be the song that outlives all others from his rich catalogue, but in terms of albums, there’s a strong case to be made that Carrie & Lowell has the greatest case for genuine immortality down the years. Opening with the aching, cobweb-thin ‘Death with Dignity’, Carrie & Lowell follows Stevens’ ragged thought processes as he picks through memories of the past in an attempt to find closure following the death of his estranged mother. The beauty is rife throughout these eleven compositions, but while Carrie & Lowell may be intensely personal, it is far from inaccessible, welcoming harmony with any listeners also left hurting from loss. A truly stunning work of beauty.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
Built around frontman Ruban Nielson and his meticulous, sideways approach to layering sounds, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have spent half a decade constructing albums like Christmas stockings: attempting to cram so many goodies into a single space that the parameters are fit to burst. Multi-Love clicks into a higher gear altogether, packed so densely with popping hooks, dislocated beats and acid-drenched keys that it resembles an aural taste sensation. Nielson and his bandmates deliver a pleasure platter of wild proportions, incorporating guttural funk, louche jazz and hazy-eyed synth-rock into a distorted but highly appealing listen. It’s as fun to listen to the surface amusements as it is to go treasure hunting for hidden nuggets amid the tightly-packed sprawl.
Jamie xx – In Colour
Euphoria and loneliness go hand in hand more neatly than seems apparent; a fact Jamie Smith explores with wide-eyed wonder on his first full-fat album after years of collaborations and production work beyond The xx. He steps out of the shadowy zones chronicled in his band’s efforts with an album that radiates energy, mirroring the excitement (‘Gosh’), dizzying kineticism (‘The Rest is Noise’) and subtle isolation (‘Loud Places’) typical of your average after-hours weekend. Like the best dance records before it, its appeal is universal, moored in appeals that attract the non-raveheads too: mighty hooks, seamless guest vocals, and good old fashioned charisma. With new albums from Disclosure, Kwabs and James Blake on the horizon, Smith has raised the bar to a tantalising new level.
Ten more records of the year so far, which are well worth tuning into.
Everything Everything – Get to Heaven
Manc head-scratchers come good on their third album, where their most visceral and urgent songwriting to date mingles with some of the catchiest alt-rock you’re likely to hear this summer. Full review here.
Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
London’s magpie maestros return from the heights of In Our Heads with a more sedate but equally heartfelt collection, realigning the focus onto deep house, soulful R&B, and strutsome funk. Full review here.
Robert J Hunter – Songs for the Weary
Growling, howling, fuzz-cloaked blues from a new talent hailing from the Channel Islands. Songs for the Weary pays homage to the big names of stumbling blues-rock (specifically Tom Waits, whose marble-gargling register receives tribute in Hunter’s own yowl), but is a hugely enjoyable throwback with plenty of grist and mettle of its own.
Gill Landry – Gill Landry
A weary but sparkling collection of folk, country and bluegrass, Gill Landry’s third album brings rich flavours to well-worn conventions through his own gruff tones, a widescreen production aesthetic, and unshowy collaborations — witness Laura Marling’s quiet contribution to the heartening ‘Take This Body’. And speaking of…
Laura Marling – Short Movie
The “English rose” goes west for her fifth album, taking a more sprawling, less taut approach to performance and trying her hand at self-producing after several years on Ethan Johns’ roster. While sounding less calculated than Marling’s other recent releases, Short Movie is nonetheless steeped in melodic dexterity and the singer’s own way with capturing the distinct character of a place and time. Full review here.
Mini Mansions – The Great Pretenders
Michael Shuman, Tyler Parkford and Zachary Dawes’ first album felt like something of a spin-off from the members’ other hard-rock projects, approximating a warped spin on late-era Beatles rock. The Great Pretenders finds them shifting into smoother territory, meshing the playful rock of groups such as Spoon with the light-headed swirls of Lonerism-phase Tame Impala. With the band’s chemistry at its most charming — and marvellous contributions from guest vocalists Brian Wilson and Alex Turner — The Great Pretenders is fantastic fun.
Pond – Man, it Feels Like Space Again
While Tame Impala are equally prone to stargazing in their search for new sonic highways, Pond are the real space cadets of the closely-linked two, bringing a heady bombast and crazed glee to their aural adventurism. The results on their sixth album oscillate between infectious and incredibly messy, but the fun factor far outweighs any editorial reservations.
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
2013’s Cerulean Salt brought Katie Crutchfield greater recognition in indie circles, and Ivy Tripp looks set to be another slow-burning victory. Now signed to the Merge label, Crutchfield’s third album wrestles with a sticky tangle of the subtler emotions that shade the burgeoning adult experience. The deeper, more detailed arrangements provide an assured backdrop for Crutchfield’s steely vocals to take a greater command of her growing audience, and she delivers with gusto and heroism.
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
Like Girls before them, Viet Cong dive into the rubble-strewn sounds of post-punk apocalypse with diminished scale, but no less clout. Cuts like ‘Continental Shelf’ and ‘March of Progress’ stamp through macabre visions echoing those of Ian Curtis, possessing a similar intensity of gaze which is hair-raising and hypnotic.
Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool
Thanks to the ever-ballooning threat of destructive hype, Wolf Alice were almost set for a fall before they’d ever truly begun. However, by smartly shrugging off the hysteria and moving ahead in their own good time, Wolf Alice have enjoyed success both ways, broadening their fanbase over five years without alienating their own creative impulses in the process. My Love is Cool is a rock-solid first bow from the four-piece, with equal emphasis given to supple textures as much as the loud-quiet-loud dynamic that powers their meatiest cuts.
… and there’s still plenty to come in the next six months. On this evidence, the end-of-year recaps are going to be mighty indeed.