Monthly Archives: September 2015

Album Review: Ought – Sun Coming Down

1 Ought Band

Just them and the big, beautiful blue sky: Ought prepare for sundown (photo: wikipedia.org)

Ought

Sun Coming Down (Constellation)

1 Sun Coming DownBased on two albums’ worth of evidence (sixteen songs, all in), there’s one particular topical concern which already sounds fundamental to Ought’s style. Musically speaking, theirs is a recognisable and occasionally shambolic approach, one which tightly packs post-punk guitar, menacing bass, clattering drums and fuzzed-out keys into hair-prickling grooves that are laced with a highly enjoyable playfulness thanks to frontman Tim Darcy. Conceptually, their songs revolve around deceptively simple musings on existentialism, many of the group’s standout cuts wrestling with the mind-numbing, soul-eroding bleakness of routines that stretch on without end. Such ideas have been done to death by this age, but where Ought thrive is in finding means to both condemn and condone their discoveries simultaneously. Whether it’s the gleeful build-and-release tactics of standout tracks like ‘Today, More Than Any Other Day’, or a well-timed appearance of one of Darcy’s nasally, smart-ass quips, there’s a liberated thrill to Ought’s rattling aesthetic, perhaps borne of embracing the silliness of life’s most mundane enterprises.

Sun Coming Down doesn’t throw out the rulebook in the wake of last year’s triumphant More Than Any Other Day, but it does offer a much starker presentation of Ought’s formula. Recorded live to tape after several seasons of workhorse touring, there’s an angry heat rising from within the full band performances; the lethargic builds of More Than Any Other Day replaced by more unbridled thrashes which strike hot from the off. Bookending tracks ‘Men for Miles’ and ‘Never Better’ may not be the heaviest cuts available, but both exhibit the unease that characterises Sun Coming Down, the latter bearing down on the listener like a monstrous chariot straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road. “This is the high water-mark of civilisation,” Darcy drawls over menacing bass runs as thick as tank tracks, concluding a record which opens with strangely apocalyptic vistas of “men for miles” that bring tears to the eyes.

With barely a hint of production varnish to be found, there’s an unfettered tension to the band’s performances, the dissonance frequently stretched out for minutes in displays both provocative and hypnotic. ‘The Combo’ stands as Ought’s sharpest sonic assault yet, not so much laying its cards on the table as flinging them recklessly at the listener from the outset. Likewise, the title track is almost oppressively atonal, while never quite matching the overt power of a hard- or noise-rock band. There are ups and downs to this method, and for all their impressively-wrought power, it comes as a relief when the group dial down the frazzled energy and let the music breathe. ‘Passionate Turn’ drags its feet in despondency, with drum fills scrabbling itchily as Darcy recoils from contemporary horrors in a surprisingly affecting vignette: “I imagined a perfect room / Never been so far away / Though my feet never touched the floor / I wouldn’t leave if you paid me to.” Album centrepiece (and long-standing live favourite) ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ returns to the outside world, steadily flourishing over a plodding rhythm to a near-hysterical repetition of increasingly vapid questions. The exhausted flipside to ‘Today, More Than Any Other Day’, it’s the greatest crystallisation of the band’s thematic and stylistic strengths to date.

Taken as a whole, Sun Coming Down is messy, but Ought are still testing their parameters, fidgeting and experimenting with the ways in which their knowing, urgent brand of poetry can be packaged inside guitar music. The group have formed something brooding and at times unrelenting, but for all its pronounced bite, this album mainly serves to confirm what More Than Any Other Day established so clearly last year: Ought are at their most acute when the noise dissipates enough to allow Darcy’s idiosyncratic attacks on complacency to ring out over all. Ought find the pointlessness of daily pursuits both a cause of delight and an unequivocal drag, and it’s in exposing – and often wigging out to – the friction between the two responses that the group come into their own. As Darcy himself yelps at the album’s centre, “it’s all that we have / Just that, and the big, beautiful blue sky”.

“I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight / Because that is all that I have left.”

23/09/15

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Album Review: Foals – What Went Down

1 Foals Guardian

Yannis’ flatulence is a major mood-killer: Foals ponder what went down (photo: theguardian.com)

Foals

What Went Down (Transgressive)

1 Foals What Went DownFoals’ music hardly cries originality, but one can’t begrudge that they are now the keepers of their own signature sound. Since 2010’s Total Life Forever, they have worked to harvest an edgy, muscular form of rock that appeals to the indie disco, heavy in mood and scale, if not vulnerability. Having progressed to become the indie fan’s stadium outfit du jour, they are now something of a benchmark against which other British upstarts are measured. There is no ambiguity or mystery surrounding each new record: we all understand what a Foals album should sound like by this point. And in that regard, What Went Down qualifies as a success: another release that sees them maintaining a firm grip on their perch. The results are as one would expect: a continuation of Holy Fire‘s guitar-heavy attack, with the occasional hip-swinging groove stirred in to keep the waters warm. Yannis Philippakis and bandmates have taken this mantle of a big-league rock troupe with the gravity of a defender of the realm receiving his sabre, and it’s an approach that sees them frequently tripping over their own feet in pursuit of greatness.

That said, there are moments on What Went Down where Foals nail their own trademarks so confidently that it’s hard not to be impressed. The title track is their most convincing distillation of thunderous fury yet, squaring up to previous apex ‘Inhaler’ and trampling it beneath five minutes of high-octane aggression. The final distorted crescendo – nicely building from a blurry mid-section – effortlessly radiates the kind of heat that Philippakis and co. have been threatening to wield for years. ‘Mountain at My Gates’ is a much more streamlined follow-up, but stronger still: the kind of bouncy bustle that the group can toss off in their sleep by now, but intoxicating in execution, chopping up its own rhythm to spring into a spirited finale that fans of ‘My Number’ will lap up like nectar.

The steady hands of producer James Ford have helped to guide the Oxford quintet the last few increments to what sounds like their dream aesthetic: glistening guitar melodies, raw ’70s riffery, and tight, snaking rhythms – all two-stepping around Philippakis’ central totem. The slower number are glossier, the rockers even more visceral, and each element polished to emanate the mythical sweep they’ve been gunning for since 2010. With this full realisation of sound and vision, Foals have taken to their performances with even greater confidence. ‘Albatross’ (an unsmiling Coldplay) and ‘Snake Oil’ (’20th Century Boy’ with less glam, more yowl) are both neat additions to enormodome-baiting setlists. The band’s collective appreciation of space is sharpened too, with ‘Birch Tree’ and ‘Night Swimmers’ prioritising patience and texture over fiery bravado. There’s a genuine dance-friendly swagger to the latter, whose lean guitar riff is played late in the game, adding a lustiness to the song’s fidgety energy.

In terms of songwriting, too, Foals still cleave hungrily to the “go big or go home” adage, and within the first minute alone, Philippakis has namechecked vultures, unforgiving landscapes, and the burying of emotions and organs alike. By ‘Mountain at My Gates’, he is on an all-terrain quest for the object of his desire, and spread over these ten songs, it’s a search that never seems to cease. Whether he’s in the throes of unquenchable lust, thwarted by rough terrain, or – comically simply – just running late (‘Lonely Hunter’), Philippakis is a man unable to attain contentment. Perhaps bolstered by the success of Holy Fire, the frontman is an electrifying presence when caught in his most passionate throes, able to justify the hurricanes of hyperbole that the group do little to abate. However, just as he can prove the band’s MVP, he is just as frequently its Achilles’ heel, as the album’s uninspired lyric sheet demonstrates. The most glaring problems arise when Philippakis combines his top-of-the-mountain gusto to comically mundane sentiments like “you caught the bus and I caught the train”, causing any visions of grandeur to fall flat. This particular song – the rain-sodden ‘Give it All’ – fails to convince even in its most brash, sucked dry of drama even with Philippakis recounting being “bloody from a fistfight”. Their best moments aren’t immune from such clangers, either: when Philippakis boasts “I drive a car without the brakes!” on ‘Mountain at My Gates’, the aggression seems like nothing but laughably empty braggadocio. It’s a flaw that dulls their appeal, and saps further life from the band’s driest moments, such as closer ‘A Knife in the Ocean’, which stretches itself to seven minutes, apparently just for the sake of closing the record with a Big Bang.

For all its flaws, What Went Down is significant for unabashedly cementing Foals’ style and status, securing their position at the forefront of British big-league rock. For all their big talk in pre-release interviews, the band haven’t budged from the path they started to carve for themselves five years ago. Over three albums, they have stuck to – and arguably enhanced – their core strengths, while also carrying with them the same weaknesses that have always felled them: lacklustre lyrics, turbulent quality, a propensity for po-faced bluster. Where established fans and festival crowds will soak it up, the naysayers will remain unmoved. Foals have settled into a stylistic comfort zone, and given the rapturous commercial reception that What Went Down has already received, don’t expect them to canter into new pastures any time soon.

“Time holds no fear when I turn around to face it.”

11/09/15

Album Review: Beach House – Depression Cherry

1 Beach House

Black and white force: Beach House retreat into the shadows (photo: bellaunion.com)

Beach House

Depression Cherry (Sub Pop)

1 Depression CherryVictoria Legrand and Alex Scally joined to form Beach House over a decade ago, and as their gentle dream-pop has bloomed in popularity through the years, each new record has brought with it a promise of comfort, of relief, and of timeless, bittersweet longing. Swathed in a husky mystique since their formative releases, they quickly perfected their craft, inextricably twining aching sadness with wide-eyed delight over four albums of increasingly lush textures. Yet in the years following 2012’s Bloom, an uneasy question regarding the group’s future has begun to nag at listeners, communicated by critics uncertain of the group’s staunch refusal to step from their comfort zone. How long can the same spell continue to transfix with the same power? There surely must come a point when even the most patient of fans will crave a deviation from what increasingly resembles the band’s self-made shackles of convention.

Portents for the duo’s fifth album were mixed. When details of Depression Cherry arrived in May, the group proclaimed an intention to ignore their “commercial context in which [they] exist” while honouring their own “natural tendencies”. So far, so traditional, but the unusually scuzzy (by Beach House’s standards) lead single ‘Sparks’ suggested a refitting of their sonic template. As it cycles up in a mesh of brittle guitars and a cranky, carnivalesque organ tone, ‘Sparks’ presents an intriguing new flavour, some hallucinatory imagery (melting houses, rising spines, blurs of green) augmenting the friction of Beach House’s fuzziest song to date. It was a perfect choice to set fans’ mouths watering, but in truth it occupies a strange position on an album which favours more skeletal, reverb-free soundscapes, occasionally reduced to the point of wispiness. Although more tweak of the dials than a total stylistic 180, Depression Cherry strips away some of the band’s more cosseting tropes, and in doing so, loses some of the hypnotic majesty heard on albums past.

As the duo admitted in the aforementioned press statement, the booming swoop of their past two albums didn’t suit their personal tastes in the long run, but one does yearn for more captivating material when songs such as ‘Wildflower’ and ‘Bluebird’ promise more magic than they ultimately muster. On such cuts, that classic Beach House magic is hinted at without being fully coaxed into the light, and the shedding of layers adds a chilly edge to Beach House’s aesthetic, reducing the warm sparkle of yesteryear and forming empty spaces where melancholy hovers. As a result, the dreamlike quality that they have always traded in feels a little less alluring. Hooks don’t resonate with the same clarity as on previous albums, and there are a number of tracks which float prettily during playback, but which disappear from the memory after expiring.

However, the duo’s compositional talents are far from lost, and when the hooks are strong enough to push through the vapour, Depression Cherry houses moments as spellbinding as their past highlights. In contrast to its slighter peers, ‘Space Song’ bubbles with ideas and joyous little lifts, from its bubbly keyboard line to the background melodies that nuzzle against the song’s closing cascades. The intimate drone of ’10:37′ circles a foregrounded drum machine, and Legrand furnishes her rhapsodic sighs with soft harmonies as keyboards billow beneath her. Yet Beach House truly outdo themselves with opener ‘Levitation’, which skirts as close to perfection as one could pray for. It hits all the right notes one expects from a Beach House composition, yet is carried with such poise and emotional cogency that it feels as intimate and moving as a private performance. It’s here that the duo add — rather than remove — layers in their structuring, allowing their characteristic drone to swell to the point where it achieves that magical, intoxicating moment of weightlessness. “Take my hand, as our bodies lift up slowly,” Legrand whispers over the closing moments, and the song holds itself at a hover, drawing out that innocent, brief sensation of total immersion, before quietly returning listeners to reality.

Legrand sounds as enticing as ever in her invitation to “a place I want to take you” in ‘Levitation’, but where that song (and several others) succeeds in achieving a heavenly ascension, Depression Cherry suffers from a lack of clear direction as a whole. As beautiful and heart-achingly lovely as Beach House’s music is – and this reviewer, for one, dreads the day that they finally disappear – you do wonder just how long their appeal will remain as enchanting as it was at their recent peak. “It won’t last forever,” Victoria Legrand hums during the ballroom waltz of ‘PPP’, before teasing “or maybe it will”. While we’d like to imagine that their brand of dream-pop will remain evergreen, for a band so adept at encapsulating the sad sweetness of the ephemeral, one does wonder how long their spark will continue to glow.

“There is no right time.”

07/09/15

Live Review: Ought (Sound of the Underground)

1 Ought Band

Just them and the big, beautiful blue sky: Ought prepare for sundown (photo: wikipedia.org)

Ought

Village Underground, Shoreditch, London (01/09/15)

Ought first came to my attention at last year’s Green Man festival. After stumbling unassumingly into their afternoon show in the Far Out tent, I was almost immediately hypnotised by the band’s springy, twitchy garage-rock energy and the magnetic countenance of frontman Tim Darcy; the flâneur whose witty, flouncing manner rivals that of Jarvis Cocker, though with the latter’s clipped burr replaced by a highly distinctive Canadian twang. One year on, that original, energetic excitement hasn’t waned, thanks to the frenetic clout of their début record and catching an additional live show in November.

In support of their – really rather good – new record Sun Coming Down, the group packed themselves into the humid caverns of Shoreditch’s Village Underground, in front of a shuffling crowd whose collective admiration was unshowy, though perceptible. The din ensuing from the stage was ear-shreddingly mighty, yet clear; a post-punk clamour that smartly masks a technical acuity, with drummer Tim Keen and bassist Ben Stidworthy keeping the jackknifing rhythms and tempo changes on course. The sonic mutations since last year’s More Than Any Other Day can be heard in the density of the new material showcased: ‘Men For Miles’, ‘Passionate Turn’ and ‘The Combo’ are all characterised by much thicker, busier guitar work, each song cresting on waves of end-of-tether heaviness as opposed to ducking and diving on the likes of stalwarts such as ‘The Weather Song’.

Yet while the meatiness of Sun Coming Down sounds much more apparent on record, in a live capacity, the seams between old and new are more neatly stitched. Long-time live staple ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ has finally seen its day in the sun as a single, and thanks to greater familiarity, its themes punched home all the harder. Coming off as the flipside to the magnificent ‘Today, More Than Any Other Day’, its plodding bass motif saw Darcy nudged towards a grinding cycle of mundane mantras, repeated ad finitum. As with Julian Casablancas in The Strokes’ strongest work, one of Darcy’s most effective skills is bringing a friction to the band’s performance through his knowingly somnolent drawl, which frequently erupts into wails during the throes of songs such as ‘Habit’; a six-minute monster led by a stealthy bass riff that reverberated around the Village Underground like a nagging itch.

The whole band deserve plaudits for a thick, intoxicating set, but Darcy performed particularly brilliantly throughout; a magnetic presence even in his more sedate moments. Between tearing the neck off of his apocalyptically loud guitar and drunkenly waving his arms aloft like some wiry prophet, it was impossible to remove one’s eyes from his lean, tense figure. Soaked in sweat by the relentless crush of main set-closer ‘Gemini’, he and his bandmates looked every inch the subversive upstarts whose tunes have struck a nerve with an increasingly large crowd. As a preview for Sun Coming Down and a glimpse into the current mechanics of their fine-tuned operation, Ought’s show was promising on every level.

Setlist

Pleasant Heart // The Weather Song // The Combo // Beautiful Blue Sky // Today, More Than Any Other Day // Habit // Passionate Turn // Men For Miles // Sun’s Coming Down // Gemini // Around Again // Waiting

03/09/15