Monthly Archives: October 2015
O2 Academy Brixton, London (22/10/15)
Promising a bounteous trove of some of the past decade’s best-loved dance-pop and a seemingly neverending supply of confetti in all the colours of the rainbow, Hot Chip’s double-whammy of London shows concluded their UK tour in characteristically sprightly style. In the wake of the group’s magnificent and rapturously-received headline set at this summer’s Green Man Festival, I was particularly keen for an extra dose of Hot Chip magic, going as far as to bring my dad along for the ride for the first of two consecutive sets at Brixton’s O2 Academy. The cross-generational appeal is symptomatic of Hot Chip’s blossoming universality down the years; no longer do they singularly capture the minds of twentysomething throwback nostalgists; now they’re as close to a household name as any of their contemporaries, able to pack popular venues with fans of all ages.
Support from Lonelady was revelatory to the uninitiated, setting the bar high for the musical feast to follow, and throwing light on Julie Ann Campbell as an artist well worth discovering after the house lights went up. Campbell and her airtight, smartly-dressed live band spent forty minutes working six songs into dynamic, finely-tiered vehicles of funk-flecked alt-pop. Seamlessly flowing from a slinky rendition of ‘To the Cave’ through the nimble-wristed guitarwork of ‘Hinterland’ and ‘Silvering’, the impressive performance concluded with the tastefully ecstatic ‘Groove it Out’, drawn out to an effortless ten minutes. Campbell proved her chops and then some, highlighting herself as an artist clearly snubbed of a crack at this year’s Mercury Prize. (Not that the award is considered all that prestigious these days.)
From cool-as-funk to hot-as-shit, Hot Chip’s own set was something of a victory lap for fifteen years of solid tune-crafting. With a balanced set that drew well from each of the band’s major releases (though much more time could have been given over to In Our Heads‘ material, in this fan’s humble opinion), Alexis Taylor and co. reminded the Academy’s patrons of just how impressively ubiquitous the group have become in the British music scene, as well as how delightfully euphoric and unselfconscious their live sets are renowned to be. With the group’s fashion sense largely reined in (with the exception of Al Doyle and his pristine white ensemble), focus was on movement and spectacle, with the team’s comfort onstage clearly demonstrated through shapes and grins pulled all round. The dense throb of opener ‘Huarache Lights’ exemplified everything Hot Chip do so well in a live capacity, right down to the cracking sight of Doyle and Owen Clarke bopping along in sync.
At the core of the show was Sarah Jones, who barely broke a sweat while anchoring the entire set with a broad display of rhythms and skittering beats, her drumming the bedrock of a show which quickly grew hyperkinetic. ‘Over and Over’ ignited a feverish reaction in the crowds, as dozens shouldered their way forward to wave gangly limbs to Taylor’s “laidback” hook. It marked the most raucous display in a set bookended with banging fan favourites, and although the gig’s midsection largely kept the tempo to a slower average, hearing the band dust down gems such as ‘Shake a Fist’ and the lovely ‘Alley Cats’ helped lighten the sweatiness with sweetness.
A slow-building encore highlighting past greats crescendoed with Hot Chip’s triumphant cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, now a requisite end-of-show treat, replete with Rob Smoughton’s guitar heroics and a holy blizzard of confetti. After seguing into the first verse of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’, the septet bowed out on a note of bittersweet warmth, teeing up their homecoming with one of modern music’s greatest works of songcraft. Hot Chip have made such a mixture of smarts and sincerity their trademark, and as they continue to broadcast joy with their goofy live antics and warm-blooded records, surely few can deny their hearts.
Huarache Lights // One Life Stand // Night and Day // Love is the Future // Flutes // Over and Over // Alley Cats // Cry for You // Shake a Fist // Need You Now // Ready for the Floor // I Feel Better // Why Make Sense? // We’re Looking for a Lot of Love // And I Was a Boy From School // Hold On // Dancing in the Dark / All My Friends
Aside from extending an open invitation to shut up and dance, one does wonder about the principle function of the brothers behind Disclosure. After scoring world-beating success and ubiquity with 2013’s Settle, Howard and Guy Lawrence have crested a seismic wave of adoration, influencing a fresh raft of dance music flag-bearers and racking up an impressive roster of famous friends and wannabe collaborators. They provided a springboard for some of the year’s up-and-comers to become household names, while themselves receiving heroic plaudits as the breakthrough “revivalists” of house music’s 1990s boom.
All jolly good, but the question mark left hanging over proceedings regards the raison d’être of the Lawrence brothers themselves. What is the true essence of Disclosure, when all the glitz of their guest vocalists is stripped away? Perhaps Howard and Guy Lawrence are primarily concerned with supplying the beatmaking chassis to support a glossier surface supplied by their collaborators. Certainly, the theatricality of their guests occasionally obfuscates the rhythmic craft at the core of their sound. This shouldn’t automatically mark out the Lawrence brothers for criticism, and if Disclosure’s MO is indeed to largely supply only one half of the musical equation, then they certainly put up a strong game as a collaborative duo.
Where things are muddied, however, is when the beats behind the vocalists begin to wear thin, and on Caracal, there are moments when the brothers’ signatures begin to sound a little restrictive. The strongest beats can usually transcend repetition, but there are a few tunes on offer here in which Disclosure’s toolkit appears more limited than it perhaps did on Settle; if not entirely a case of diminishing returns, then at least a tilt in that direction. Tellingly, Caracal‘s major stumbling point is made apparent on the arrival of ‘Jaded’: the first of two tunes bereft of cameos, and where the Lawrence brothers’ lack of burning intensity comes into clearer focus. ‘Jaded’ falls into the traps left in the wake of Settle, sounding closer to the knock-offs attempted by the duo’s imitators than it does the work of the too-cool heroes behind ‘Latch’. Additionally, without a gutsier presence to propel the duo’s thumping dance to greater heights, the relative simplicity of their throwback style is laid bare, the thrill of their usual alchemy reduced.
There are a handful of moments on Caracal wherein the off-beat hi-hats and wubbing synths sound a little too familiar, and with the average tempo significantly reduced this time out, several of these songs lack the compulsive spark of the duo’s best work. Disclosure are much more effective when cutting loose, and though nothing comes close to matching the attitude of ‘White Noise’ or the energised pep of ‘You & Me’, there are some joyous moments in supply. Gregory Porter steals the show on the outstanding ‘Holding On’, in which the Lawrence brothers bring a gleefully gummy two-step to the boil. Porter’s jazz chops allow him to slip into Disclosure’s world with an effortless pizazz, and the result is a soulful jam that bubbles with charisma. As on Disclosure’s best cuts, it offers a convincing synthesis of artistic values: all personalities present complementing and accentuating the key qualities of the other parties. The Weeknd has similar (if less fiery) success on opener ‘Nocturnal’, which sets the table for Disclosure’s slinkier, smoother sound nicely, despite feeling slightly stretched as it passes its sixth minute.
Of course, in the broad spectrum of reviews Caracal has received, critics have responded differently to each song on the record. It’s something of an EDM Rorschach test, and as such, judging the album on the merits of each individual track seems a little moot: different ears will latch onto different flavours with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The album slaloms from the slinky, breathy simmer of ‘Magnets’ (Lorde) to the old-school strobes of ‘Superego’ (Nao), while largely sticking to smooth, keening slow jams, with Kwabs, Miguel and Jordan Rakei crooning like lovestruck soul-men. The overall effect is less compulsive than Settle‘s extravagant showcase: part of that album’s appeal was that it resembled a party in your ears with everyone invited, and its sprawling, saucer-eyed enthusiasm had ideas pinging from every surface. By contrast, Caracal makes an attempt to smooth down and streamline the edges of Disclosure’s music, with bounciness replaced with a thick, bass-heavy sensuality. In doing so, the Lawrence brothers succeed in making a record distinguishable from the first, with a fair selection of keepers in its arsenal, but they still haven’t found a surefire way of developing or advancing the tricks that they burst onto the scene with two years ago. All in all, Caracal is a decent follow-up to Settle, but don’t expect it to start fires burning with quite the same potency.
“Eyes on the hourglass.”
Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)
In her relatively short but mightily impressive career thus far, Julia Holter has developed a considerable knack for drawing her art from the most bizarre resources. She has already re-appropriated texts as disparate as Greek mythology, cookery books, 1950s Colette novels, mid-20th Century poetry and foreign language warbling, carving and sanding them down to fit her ethereal brand of dreamy baroque pop. Her sculptures have ranged from the wonderful (2013’s Loud City Song) to the weird (the phonetic translations featured on 2009’s Maria), but her star has been slowly rising in critics’ circles since the first of her “traditional” album releases landed four years ago. Mysterious and possessing the twin gifts of measured curiosity and conviction, Holter is a music magpie’s dream subject, but one doesn’t need to explicitly understand her lyrics or references to appreciate her creations. Hers is music that inspires and rewards curiosity in equal measure, and Have You in My Wilderness is her most appealing confection to date.
On this outing, Holter seems closer in kin to performance artist, rather than a straightforward songwriter. The nimble way Have You in My Wilderness flits from tale to cryptic tale paints Holter as something of an episodic playwright: in the lights-out gaps between songs, she transforms the scenery afresh, rearranging sets and hanging new backdrops for each scene. The wonderful ‘Silhouette’ opens on a bright, mid-morning cityscape, its protagonist attempting to track her titular object of affection through an increasingly bustling atmosphere, with a roomful of strings closing in to mirror the giddiness Holter’s lyrics conclude on. Moments later, she adopts a husky, languorous tone to suit the doomy, Wagnerian strings of ‘How Long?’, acting as Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, replete with references to fortune tellers and tobacco-stained fingers. Over a few short lines, Holter is capable of breathing life into her characters and fabrications, casting an effective spell through the deployment of well-written riddles and tastefully luscious arrangements.
The songs she emerges with are insistent as opposed to outright catchy, their inventive attributes enticing listeners back into the wilderness while never surrendering their secrets. The instrumentation sounds heaven-sent, but there’s frequently an unease nibbling at the core of Holter’s music; a contrast which she exploits with lyrics of fragmentary beauty. “It’s impossible to see who I’m waiting for in my raincoat,” she mourns amid the bright swoons of ‘Feel You’, her narrative deliberately ducking and stalling rather than following any sense of linearity. Later in the album, she demonstrates a jauntiness on the twinkling ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ and ‘Everytime Boots’, with her more welcoming hooks undercut by allusions to drowning, mental exhaustion, and repeating the same circuit twenty times on a motorcycle.
All the while, Holter pushes her music to new heights, her baroque nous given space to unravel on the edgy, quietly cacophonous ‘Vasquez’, complete with a tingling, hallucinatory blues sojourn. The slow-burning ‘Night Song’ and the hazy beauty of the title track both convey deep emotional gravitas while barely giving the listener time to latch onto a definitive melody. The crowning achievement is ‘Lucette Stranded on the Island’, which shifts in sluggish slow-motion, replicating the in-out eddies of waves lapping at the island on which the song’s heroine is left abandoned. The details that filter through arrive as if Holter is resurfacing from the depths of concussion, her vocal hushed and foggy: “she’s been marooned / Can anybody help her?” It’s heady, spellbinding, while also airy and feather-light. Holter isn’t given to bouts of melodrama or showiness, but the careful theatricality of ‘Lucette…’ and its peers sets her apart.
Holter’s music has been much-garlanded in the press since 2011’s Tragedy, and in the wake of her illustrious, relatively avant-garde history, it’s easy to automatically characterise her as a Serious Artist. However, the truth that might elude inattentive listeners is that Have You in My Wilderness makes for a strikingly fun experience. Holter’s ambition and theatricality both clouds and contributes to the playfulness of the end result. She ushers the listener along, teasing them to dig out the truths and treasures in these atmospheres, leaving tantalisingly brief snippets of aural bliss, lyrical revelations only half-formed, and seldom staying rooted in the same spot for more than a few moments. Ultimately, finding any concrete conclusions is a fool’s errand: Holter is constantly skipping just out of reach, eluding capture and revelling in the blurry ambiguities that dominate these ten songs. Listeners are left adrift in strange, ornate surroundings, plagued with more questions than answers. But what a landscape to get lost in.
“Language is such a play.”
Over the weekend, some very sad news rippled through the British music industry, in the wake of Carey Lander’s death of osteosarcoma on the morning of Sunday 11th October. The keyboardist and backing vocalist for Glaswegian indie-poppers Camera Obscura was diagnosed with the rare form of bone cancer in 2011, and spent the last few months of her life campaigning to raise money for the charity Sarcoma UK. As part of a statement she posted on her JustGiving page, Lander wrote: “It’s probably too late to help me, but it would be great if we could find something in the future that means children don’t have to undergo such awful treatment and have a better chance of survival”.
The instability of the musician’s health over the past four years led to cancellations of several live dates in Camera Obscura’s tours, and she was forced to change her performance style. She was no longer able to sing live, was required to remain seated all through all shows, and called a halt to her musical career this summer in order to focus on her health and fundraising endeavours. Her private life must have been subject to countless blows since her diagnosis, and it’s incredibly upsetting to consider that she only lived to the age of 33. Her bandmates posted a statement this weekend to convey the news to the world, and tributes from famous fans and casual listeners alike have been flooding in on social media. Clearly, Lander’s story has touched a great many people.
Personally, I have loved the music of Camera Obscura since hearing the excellent single ‘Do it Again’ in 2013. I worked my way through their five-album catalogue in reverse order, tracing them backwards from the smooth edges of Desire Lines to the gentle guitar pop of 2001’s Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Most remarkable is the band’s consistency over this significant timespan; there is not a single dud to be found in their canon, and when they really succeed, Camera Obscura nail a sweet spot between yearning whimsy and homely wisdom. I’ve already written a specific tribute to 2009’s My Maudlin Career, but examining their career more broadly, Camera Obscura have always had charm and an intimate vulnerability to spare. Their musical prettiness has constantly been fuelled by the big, beating hearts behind the songwriting, and for this writer, that appeal has failed to wane even in the wake of countless replays.
Lander’s role in the band’s dynamic may not have been showy, but when tracing their catalogue with a keen ear, one can spot the arrangements of hers which help shape their parent songs into even more magical ventures. Her first outings in 2003’s Underachievers, Please Try Harder showcase a new musical confidence in the group, as the orchestration swelled slightly at Lander’s hand. She brought a supple melancholy to the likes of ‘Suspended from Class’, her simple piano chords drive forward the jaunty ‘Number One Son’, and the organs dusting ‘Knee Deep at the NPL’ complete the entrancing, romantic effect. From 2002 onwards, she brought greater texture and instrumental warmth to the group’s output, and together with Tracyanne Campbell, provided a gentle foil for the poker-faced Scotsmen also manning the stage. The two were side by side in many interviews, band videos, and of course, fronted the knick-knacky album cover of Underachievers… It was in such ways that Lander felt quietly indispensible, and her loss is a very sad one for the band, as well as for the wider world of indie music.
In the immediate aftermath of this upsetting news, there has been no word regarding the future of Camera Obscura as a band. There will be time for such updates in the coming months, but for now, it is well worth poring over their impressive catalogue and (re)appreciating Lander’s presence: both her musical contributions and her role in the group’s shifting line-up. Her untimely death was tragic and unjust, but one can only applaud her spirit through the final years of her life. She leaves behind a tremendous legacy: her Sarcoma UK fundraiser greatly surpassed her final target of £50,000, and donations can still be made via her JustGiving page. Hopefully her championing of this worthy cause will have a tremendous impact on fellow sufferers of bone cancer further down the line, and of course, that whole library of beautiful music to which she contributed will always be available. May she rest in peace.
Donate to Carey Lander’s JustGiving page here.
b’lieve i’m goin’ down… (Matador)
Kurt Vile’s sixth album is the songwriter’s most self-aware release to date. Scanning the lyric sheet, the Philadelphian longhair spends much of the time outside his own head, curious to analyse his own behaviour with a playful detachment. It’s fitting that an artist renowned for his unhurried aesthetic is so fascinated by his own proclivity for mental wanderings, able to conjure magically captivating imagery from the most basic resources. As b’lieve i’m goin’ down…’s irresistibly sweet closing track puts it, he’s got something of a “wild imagination”. A deep thinker of small thoughts, a perennial daydreamer, and a smoke-ringed mensch of the guitar, Vile possesses the light touch of peers such as Mac DeMarco, but instead of peddling “jizz jazz”, here we have immaculately spangled six-string jams allowed to unfurl over luxuriant runtimes. Across six albums, Vile has concocted an intoxicating daze, and it’s easy to get lost inside of it.
More so than his previous records, b’lieve… moves along at a saunter. There’s nothing nearly as peppy as 2013’s whooping ‘Shame Chamber’, nor are there impressively-tiered slow-burners stretching to ten minutes apiece. Instead, the focus makes a subtle shift from engulfing instrumental sunniness to a more intimate distillation of Vile’s signature charms. Recorded in ten different studios with a fluid cast of supporting players, b’lieve… takes a leisurely journey through the landscapes of Vile’s mind, and while the pace slackens in several pockets along the way (most noticeably in the album’s second half), Vile’s MO has always been album-oriented rock music, rather than a string of punchy four-minute capsules.
Opener ‘Pretty Pimpin’ sets the stall by blurring the line between brilliance and lethargy. Vile’s deceptively simple observations gradually wear on the ears, as the hypnotic undertow of entwined guitars trundles along, granted a sharp resolution courtesy of Rob Schnapf and the unwavering tubthumping of Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa. What at first sounds almost lazily rudimentary soon reveals its knowing smile, as Vile’s story of “the man in the mirror” unspools in a dreamlike haze. “I proceeded to not comb some stranger’s hair / It never was my style” he mumbles, and the grin playing at the corner of his mouth is discernible even through the recording. The same affable wiseguy attitude prevails throughout b’lieve, Vile’s humour constantly overriding any sense of ego. “What’s there to feel but totally whacked?” he asks amid the Wurlitzer fug of ‘Dust Bunnies’, before fixating on “the painfully obvious” one track later, and namechecking “a little funky psychosis” on ‘Lost My Head There’. His grip may not be particularly firm, but Vile’s personality has an appeal that sets b’lieve… in good stead for repeat listens.
Less instrumentally cossetting than Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, b’lieve… sounds slighter than its two immediate predecessors. There’s nothing to match the enveloping warmth heard in the likes of ‘Goldtone’, leaving Vile’s laidback drawl to take greater eminence in the mix. Nevertheless, b’lieve… is hardly bereft of flavour: the winking ‘I’m an Outlaw’ is tickled by a fingerpicked banjo, and the loose, nursery piano heard on ‘Lost My Head There’ coaxes the singer into one of his most sanguine outings. Additionally, his acoustic tones have never sounded as crisp: the arpeggios of ‘That’s Life Tho (Almost Hate to Say)’ sound dusty with Mojave sands, and ‘All in a Daze Work’ twangs with an oaky clarity. In the moments when Vile himself doesn’t have much to report, it’s enough to marvel at his fingers gliding dexterously over the fretboard.
The wisecracks and sky-gazing observations are all present and correct, but what will keep listeners returning after multiple listens is the mellifluousness of Vile’s knack for melodies. He shrugs off as much in ‘Kidding Around’: “ain’t it funny when others try to tell you what you’re trying to do? / But I’m all ears, clearly, have you not been listening to my pretty song?” The complete effect may not be as beguiling as that of … Pretty Daze, but for the bulk of its sixty minutes, b’lieve I’m Goin’ Down… delivers prettiness in spades. For KV, it’s all in a daze work.
“He was always a thousand miles away / While still standing in front of your face.”