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Albums of the Year 2017: 16-12

Thundercat, in the hat (photo: Amy Harris, rollingstone.com)

I wish that Top Tens could contain more than ten, because in many other years, some of these records would easily fit snugly into that tier of glory. Alas, such a concept is a paradox that defies maths itself, so they’ll have to make do with the Top Sixteen, which is still not to be sniffed at.

16

The War on Drugs

A Deeper Understanding

As sonically lush as 2014’s wonderful, wonderful Lost in the Dream but a little less rigorous in design, The War on Drugs’ fourth album is an hour-long soundscape to get lost in. Adam Granduciel’s perfectionism remains integral to the group’s steady success, and the finishing touch that brings many of these cuts in to land is that they sound so aurally enveloping, every element fitted and polished just so. Although as a full-length it’s less unified and cohesive than its predecessor, A Deeper Understanding is an album composed of stunning moments: a picturesque voyage in which magic frequently spills forth like a stunning sight appearing from around a bend. ‘Thinking of a Place’ shimmers like a road stretching on forever, baked under a low and heavy sun; ‘In Chains’ and ‘Holding On’ summon stadium-sized joy from their E Street crescendos; and album highlight ‘Pain’ is five-and-a-half minutes of pleasure. His platitudes may occasionally waft by without leaving much of a mark, but when Granduciel pours gusto into a lyric like “I resist what I cannot change”, it’s more than enough to get the job done. Call it highway music, call it dad-rock, call it a tastefully-done nostalgia fest which blends vintage rock subgenres (soft, psych, winding) into one lovingly curated package. Whichever way it’s diced, A Deeper Understanding sounds gorgeous.

“I’m moving through the dark.”

15

The xx

I See You

The xx are enjoying themselves! Seemingly stunned into creative paralysis after the gargantuan success of their debut, it’s refreshing to hear the tentativeness that plagued Coexist has been thrown to the wind in favour of a bolder step out of the gloom. With additional production duties handed over to Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie Smith’s skillset comes to the fore, his breezier instrumentals in turn bringing the best out of his bandmates. ‘Dangerous’ and ‘On Hold’ are the sounds of the trio savouring the chance to lock into a groove together, swaying in the sunshine rather than mumbling from the shadows. That’s not to say I See You exists in an emotional vacuum: Romy Madley Croft’s ‘Performance’ and ‘Brave For You’ find her leaning into distress (the latter is a shining tribute to her deceased parents) to draw strength, while Sim takes the lead on ‘A Violent Noise’ and the gorgeous wash of ‘Replica’ to address his own weaknesses and struggles with alcohol abuse. The immaculate sound of the record is matched beat for beat by these assured vocal takes, and what emerges is evidence that the trio have relaxed into a new understanding of themselves as a unit. Their acknowledgement that lightning can’t be rebottled has left them creatively liberated, and brought them to a fine place.

“Test me, see if I break.”

14

The Horrors

V

The Horrors’ fifth is their strongest front-to-back creation since their sophomore gamechanger Primary Colours realigned all expectations resting on their shoulders. With Paul Epworth at the controls and coaxing the group into glossier territory, V successfully blends the Horrors’ classic staples (motorik pulses, moody psychedelia, space-rock squalling) into a vibrant display built on punchy melodies. Opener ‘Hologram’ judders and groans without shrinking away from the earworms it’s founded on, Faris Badwan’s voice imbued with a little more thrust and menace as he keeps his eyes on the middle-distance. It sets an accurate precedent for the group’s most accessible collection yet, which concludes with one of the Horrors’ career highlights – and tune-of-the-year contender – ‘Something to Remember Me By’. A wide-open surrender to their anthemic impulses, it’s a thumping work of sun-drenched majesty; a fitting finish for this triumphant chapter in the band’s chronology.

“Let’s leave this ordinary world.”

13

Thundercat

Drunk

Listening to Drunk is like tripping through Thundercat (alias Stephen Bruner)’s very own PlayStation game, one dug out of a dusty shoebox housing knackered GameBoy cartridges, a few smashed bongs, and graphic novels worn to pieces. Few albums sound as idiosyncratic as this, the work of an auteur whose technical flair is countered brilliantly by his own love of pop culture, soft rock, and fart jokes. Drunk is a ride unlike any other, swerving from rapid-fire whimsy (‘Uh Uh’) to twinkling, weightless glee (‘Bus in These Streets’), while taking in troubling sights along the way. He casts anxious glances over his shoulder to the cops patrolling his block (‘Jameel’s Space Ride’), frets over his own mortality and that of his friends, and the fractures in his psyche wrought by the tensions surrounding American race and class (‘The Turn Down’). As such, the sound of retreat into a private world is sympathetic, and while Bruner does throw out the occasional barb to the wider world, Drunk is a largely sweet and escapist vehicle: a sticky-eyed phantasmagoria that blends the virtuosic with the absurd. With Thundercat’s constantly enjoyable presence and some friends along for the journey (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Kenny Loggins himself), Drunk has been one of the most intoxicating states to exist in this year.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

12

LCD Soundsystem

American Dream

For the magnificent live shows, the pithy commentaries, and the album itself, LCD Soundsystem’s comeback has been totally justified. American Dream lives up to the project’s rich past without feeling derivative or short on fresh ideas. Sure, the LCD coterie sound a little less goofy than they used to, but the long-term gains in the power of some of these songs more than makes up for a little less footloose fun. James Murphy’s oft-improvised broadsides at encroaching age, emotional haircuts, and DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy (chronicled in the whomping ‘How Do You Sleep’) are full of bite, and even when the emotional wiring is called into question by the frontman’s tongue-in-cheek manner, there’s no resisting the beautiful bombast of a crooner like ‘Oh Baby’ or the headlong rush into the glorious pile-up that closes ‘Call the Police’. As Murphy himself knows as well as anybody (as evidenced on the haunting ‘Black Screen’), heroes are disappearing alarmingly fast in this increasingly detached world. Thank goodness then that some are able to return, and give us exactly what we were hoping for.

“My love life stumbles on.”

02/01/18

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Live Review: the xx Will See You Now

The xx put on a Performance (photo: MP)

the xx

O2 Academy Brixton, London (09/03/17)

Everybody loves a good homecoming reception. South London collective the xx have the pleasure of savouring theirs across an entire week, having sold out a seven-night run at Brixton’s O2 Academy to conclude their 2017 European tour. And as if a week’s residency in the 4,900-capacity venue wasn’t quite festive enough, the celebrations have been further embellished by a sprawling line-up of additional shows, parties, film screenings and radio events which the group have curated as part of the area’s Night + Day festival. For a group whose beginnings were so rooted in tense silences and whispered revelations, their current circumstances would seem to indicate an unabashed embrace of the limelight.

Yet such assumptions would be wide of the mark; in truth, it’s easy to see why the group pulled out all the stops for this particular return. As Oliver Sim emphasised during a fervent speech at the close of their second night’s set, this part of the world has been a stomping ground for all three members of the group since childhood. Treating the audience to a quick trip down memory lane, Sim recalled the night that his mum dropped him and bandmate Jamie ‘xx’ Smith off at this very venue to see the White Stripes: the first gig that either young’un had ever attended. This kind of “I never dreamed it’d be me up here” patter is common enough at any given live show, but Sim’s words carried a genuine charge, and the kick that the trio get from performing here – not to mention the adulation they receive from crowds on home turf – was immediately palpable. As with the xx’s music, through the nerves and shy wordplay, there’s a resolute honesty underpinning every move they make.

Speaking of, one of the main pleasures to be experienced when witnessing the group in a live capacity is a refreshed appreciation for their unaffected intimacy. The tight-knit friendship between the performers was discernible throughout, from wide-eyed glances between songs to a few clumsy hugs at the set’s climax. Likewise, the anxiety from which their songwriting springs was charmingly apparent: Sim and Romy Madley Croft fumbled through their brief speeches with quavering voices and helpless grins, their hearts clearly overwhelmed by the deafening, drawn-out applause that crowned several of the evening’s highlights.

The group were well-equipped to make the most of their extended tenure in the Academy: flanked by rotating pylons of mirrored glass and with a reflective ceiling that dipped and tipped throughout the night (showing off Smith’s impressive array of tech in the process), it was a marvellous set-up which would surely have dwarfed the group were their own figures not so quietly magnetic to behold. The result was a show of controlled tension-and-release, complemented with the kind of light spectaculars that seemed to directly channel the emotional eddies conjured in the music, from bristling agitation (‘A Violent Noise’, ‘Infinity’) to dewy-eyed tenderness (Croft’s spotlit solo rendition of ‘Performance’).

Teed up by the lush cascades of ‘Say Something Loving’, the xx’s set offered a democratic run throughout three albums’ worth of treasures. The contributions from their first two records work a stark magic that’s enough to fill the lofty recesses of venues such as this (Madley-Croft’s guitar lines revereberated from wall to wall like great shafts of light), but there were particularly fine results to be heard when the group tinkered with longstanding favourites, marrying the spectral sounds of old with the newfound mettle present in I See You and Smith’s own In Colour. A late highlight was reached across a seamless segue from ‘Fiction’ into the ever-beautiful ‘Shelter’, before the trio allowed the night to ascend heavenwards on the golden harmonies and choice samples of ‘Loud Places’, which closed the main set on a giddy, stratospheric high.

Although several of their renditions couldn’t quite silence the yakking of a handful of loudmouthed punters, the xx provided a beautiful experience that was moving in all the right ways. The frequent moments in which the whole hall was flooded with light drew subtle attention to how keen the xx currently are to connecting with their fanbase, and the nature (and aesthetic) of these performances goes some distance to disambiguating the meaning behind I See You’s title. The xx may still dabble in the shadows, but they’ve been peering out at the rest of the world ever since their intimations were first discovered. And on nights like this one, the gaze they return to the crowds brims with a heartfelt gratitude.

Setlist

Say Something Loving // Crystallised // Islands // Lips // Sunset // Basic Space // Performance // Brave For You // Infinity // VCR // I Dare You // Dangerous // Chained // A Violent Noise // Fiction // Shelter // Loud Places // On Hold // Intro // Angels

10/03/17