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Albums of the Year 2016: 11-7

Mitski: bets on losing dogs, wins at photoshoots (photo: npr.org)

chaleur-humaine

11

Christine and the Queens

Chaleur Humaine

Chaleur Humaine technically counts as an album of 2014, but Héloïse Letissier’s crossover into UK success seemed to come when we Brits needed it most, as if to prove that not every cultural trend in 2016 had to come loaded with shady subtext. Witnessing her accelerated rise to fame since the release of a translated edition of her début has been joyous, her refreshingly spacious take on dance- and synth-pop matched note-for-note by a thumping heartbeat. Chaleur Humaine is an album of self-appreciation beyond Letissier’s own pansexuality: these songs cohere around her own arc of embracing herself, while simultaneously reaching out and inviting others to do the same. Underpinning it all, these are slick and concise pop songs, written (and translated, with varying degrees of faithfulness) with care but without fussiness: the truths are presented clearly and coolly, without recourse to melodrama. This inclusive and unpretentious brand of music was a heartfelt delight for many this year, and only a stone-faced bastard would begrudge Letissier the acclaim she has received. “I am actually good” she presses on the now-ubiquitous ‘Tilted’, and she’s right in so many ways.

“I’m in my right place / Don’t be a downer.”

a-moon-shaped-pool

10

Radiohead

A Moon Shaped Pool

If you really do want to, you can go snooping through A Moon Shaped Pool – and everything in its orbit – in attempts to dredge up evidence to validate the recent gossip (is it their last? Does it hint at what’s coming next? What of Thom Yorke’s marriage?), but there are times when burrowing down rabbit-holes is a pointless exercise. With Radiohead albums, there has occasionally been the risk that the more obsessive fans can’t see the wood for the trees, and while I’m in no doubt that plenty of significance is buried within these eleven tracks, simply listening to them as they are makes for a gorgeous experience.

Really, the true appeal of A Moon Shaped Pool is the music itself: this haunting hodgepodge of tunes, many of which have finally found a home after years of floating about on the peripheries (rare live footage, muddy demos, general rumours from one album drop to the next). They may not sit alongside one another in a way that brings cohesion to the whole, but the collection has scooped up beautiful oddities like ‘Decks Dark’, and demonstrates the breadth of Radiohead’s forward-thinking prowess as it shifts from the throbbing intensity of ‘Ful Stop’ to the steely rallying cry of ‘The Numbers’. While the album largely laps in dreamlike opalescence, the overall sense one gathers from it is that of restlessness: the sound of a group still not settling into an easily-defined routine. Radiohead are as cryptic as ever, but amid the fog of A Moon Shaped Pool, beautiful shapes loom into view, and it’s a pleasure to drift into this album over and over again.

“Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”

lemonade

9

Beyoncé

Lemonade

Discovering that I loved this album was weird for me at first. I suppose I’m not in the main demographic for Lemonade: I’m a scrawny, speccy white guy who works in a bookshop and spent my teens bopping along to pleasantly anonymous indie-rock. I didn’t fully delve into a Beyoncé album until her surprise 2013 release, but it’s Lemonade which really stunned me into paying full attention, and it’s so outrageously good that there’s little to do beyond joining the rest of the universe in applauding it. No matter how much credence you give the dramatics behind the album’s release, Lemonade makes for a tremendous, tense, and hugely entertaining listen: a rallying cry with all the self-empowerment of Chaleur Humaine but thrice the gusto. Musically, it pushes the envelope of modern R&B by successfully assimilating almost every other genre under the sun, while its HBO release was a masterful demonstration of how albums can be presented and consumed through alternative means.

This album gives the impression of sounding universally irresistible (maybe not for Jay-Z, but let’s see how this whole saga pans out, hoax or not): its combination of Beyoncé’s no-fucks charisma and to-the-nines production is shocking and exuberant. There’s baseball bat swagger, tremulous vulnerability, and a levelling of blame and graciousness in equal measure. Knotty emotions are wrestled with even amid the fiercest cuts: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Freedom’ crack with visceral aggression while plunging into headspinning quandaries, never once deflated by simplification. By the time Beyoncé invites all ladies present to get in formation, there’s no doubting her regal prowess. From open to close, Lemonade dazzles.

“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself back up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

puberty-2

8

Mitski

Puberty 2

Although there’s apparently little that’s original in the topics covered on Puberty 2 (the uncertainty of fledgling adulthood, relationship angst, the struggle to secure happiness on a long-term basis), what sets Mitski Miyawaki apart from her peers is that she absolutely nails the nuances beneath the blanket terms. The fears and insecurities that she purges over backdrops of fuzz guitar kick against simplification: in her writing she sidesteps the obvious and outlines the full weight of feeling behind each moment of (in)decision. The depression that plagues her is frustratingly nebulous: there are moments when she notices it like a knife in her leg, whereas during others she is fully conscious of being engulfed. This awareness she demonstrates gives significant heft to the songs on which she really lets rip, even as she staunchly avoids definitive catharsis: “I’d better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die!”

‘Happy’ and ‘Fireworks’ distill the fickle nature of contentment without recourse to patronising Mitski or her audience, the singer’s turns of phrase sharply constructed rather than overwrought. ‘Your Best American Girl’ lingers on the building doubts and quiet acceptance behind a breakup rather than the turmoil of heartache: the verses capture the fragility of late-night worry, while the towering chorus emerges emboldened by honesty (not to mention a wonderful eruption of noise). Each song clicks brilliantly even when the whole sounds deceptively simple: listeners need to look closely to see just how well executed the trick is. There may be no shortage of confused twentysomethings attempting to churn their plight into art, but few have accessed the level of honesty and empathy attained by Mitski on Puberty 2.

“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”

22-a-million

7

Bon Iver

22, A Million

(This article is leet-free, because I find it confusing and annoying to type.)

There’s a moment partway through 22, A Million which has lodged in my mind, and I’ve started to anticipate it with each play of the record. At the climax of the dizzyingly beautiful ‘33 “GOD”’, a distorted and barely perceptible voice croaks over the final piano notes: “why are you so far from saving me?” It’s an open question directly lifted from Psalms 22, and more than any one of the many cryptic phrases, declarations and entreaties scattered across the album’s length, this one feels integral to the whole project: the plea at the nexus of the emotional storm Justin Vernon weathered in the wake of the extensive touring for 2011’s Bon Iver.

Vernon is hardly a man forsaken, and when his situation is viewed in a broad perspective, he’s got to be pretty far down a Divine Entity’s prioritised list of people to save. And yet, his cries into apparent silence don’t rankle as first-world problems, but rather as a relatable and sympathetic crisis: the sound of a man whose uncertainties extend to what his own purpose is in life, and why it matters. He struggled through the past few years with writer’s block and panic attacks, recoiling against the rush of fame, and struggling to find adequate ways in which to communicate his fractured mindset to a now-huge audience.

22, A Million breaks down these matters in its form and content. The results frequently break away from the backwoods folk of old, and in place of catharsis, there are ellipses at every turn. Even when Vernon’s lyrics are at their most emotive and striking (“goddamn turn around now, you’re my A Team!”), they are rendered blurry by their context; a shuffled pack of surreal observations. But even if full understanding is out of reach, these songs remain touchingly accessible: once past the clattering abrasions of ’10 (Death Breast)’, the album is shot through with disarming beauty, not least on the gorgeous swells of ‘8 (Circle)’ and ‘#29 Strafford Apts’. It may not be handsome in a straightforward sense, but 22, A Million is a captivating and rewarding listen; an album to hold close in troubled times for the hard-won moments of solidarity it offers.

“I could go forward in the light / Well, I’d better fold my clothes.”

08/01/16

25 Masterworks: Radiohead – OK Computer

My Spin on Masterworks: 22 of 25

Radiohead

OK Computer

Parlophone, 1997

ok-computerHmm… okay. If pressed, I’d say my favourite Radiohead album to date is In Rainbows. It’s a touching, beautifully crafted sequence, and unlike its predecessors, sounds free from all burdens of expectation. There’s barely a trace of grandiloquence in its ten songs, and each one is immediately accessible without sounding comparatively basic by the group’s standards. That said, if I want to marvel at an album’s all-enveloping sonic world, it’s Kid A, no contest: its eerie, otherworldly qualities are still completely transporting. Kicking through my twenties, I’m still finding fresh magic and relevance in The Bends, and this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool is comforting and disquieting in equal measure. Further down the scale, both Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief offer up some sublime moments, but as full-length listens, they’re underwhelming entries. Pablo Honey reflects a young band struggling to settle on an identity, but a few green shoots poke through, hinting at great things to come. I think that about covers everyth – oh, wait. The King of Limbs. I keep forgetting about that one.

Radiohead’s turbulent, ever-evolving catalogue is fascinating to examine. I could happily fill page after page writing about any one of the quintet’s nine existing albums, at least four of which I’d readily class as masterworks, for their own distinctive qualities. So why have I opted for OK Computer as an entry in this series? Or to be more specific, why have I opted to toast the Radiohead album that has been venerated so greatly – and for so long – that surely there’s nothing left to say at this point? Well, it’s precisely because of the deafening clamour of praise surrounding OK Computer that I’ve selected it. The appeal of the album has become slightly drowned out over the years; it’s now saddled with an intimidating amount of hyperbole to the point that it’s surprisingly easy to miss its genuine strengths.

Just as OK Computer is the Radiohead album that’s easiest to praise, it’s also the easiest to criticise. It’s been placed on such a pedestal ever since its release, it has become a clear target for disdain as sceptical listeners attempt to pick holes in what is regularly (and exhaustingly) flaunted as one of the Greatest Albums of All-Time™. In a way, OK Computer has steadily become the album equivalent of a GCSE set text: guitar music’s answer to Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. It has been studied endlessly, its observations and ideas regarding human nature have remained staunchly pertinent, it’s a work still widely discussed which continues to prove influential for other artists in the form, and the consensus regarding its greatness is so inescapable that it can paradoxically seem to be a bland choice of favourite. Announce in public that OK Computer is among your most-loved albums, and chances are (especially in this age of hipsterism) you’ll be derided (silently, if not out loud) for such an obvious pick.

As such, it can be tough to connect with OK Computer free from the rhetoric and various attitudes swirling around it: the piercing rebuttals, the bewildering superfan theories, the heavy expectations it’s been lumbered with. It’s a shame, because while an album can undoubtedly be enriched by close attention, there are cases in which the works themselves become tiresome to regard; a state in which OK Computer has undoubtedly been put at risk. So I’m not going to try to defend this record’s perceived shortcomings or highlight striking new surprises hidden in its depths. Instead, I want to celebrate how amazing the album sounds on its own terms, because really, it’s a fantastic listen in and of itself.

There’s a lot folded into OK Computer, and a cursory look at its gestation reveals that its conception was something of a perfect storm. Still uncomfortable with their stratospheric rise to stardom, the band continued to recoil against the commercial machinations of the music industry, shirking anthemic songwriting in favour of stretching the rock song into alternative shapes. Thom Yorke exorcised his bewilderment at modern society in his increasingly sharp lyrics, and sketched out his tentative predictions for the coming millennium – many of which are still salient to this date. His words are occasionally impressionistic, but they capture very human concerns in the face of an increasingly cold and detached age. Anxiety over mankind’s uneasy relationship with ever-advancing technology are spotlighted repeatedly, amid bubbling paranoia, mental and physical deterioration (‘Climbing Up the Walls’ and ‘Let Down’), and the western world’s cutthroat emphasis on efficiency and speed. It closes with Yorke screaming at someone (maybe everyone) to “slow down”. Down in blur of sound and noise, the dust, the screaming, and the yuppies networking, his plea rings out, but whether it’s ultimately heard and processed is not clear.

As with every other work that becomes swamped with hyperbole, it’s possible to give the creators too much credit when assessing the quality of OK Computer. Time after time, Radiohead’s members have exhibited a keen intelligence and passion, but their career has admittedly seen its fair share of coincidences and (un)happy accidents too, not to mention the occasional misstep. But even so, without letting those theories get too detached from credibility, OK Computer articulates the paranoia and alienation that has characterised both the pre- and post-millennial years following its release. The band’s deriders label them as miserablists, but in truth, the group subtly locate the valour of the listener amid the confusion and chaos of modern life. There may be anger directed elsewhere (“we hope that you choke”), but Yorke extends words of compassion and solidarity to the everyman lost amid the tumult: “one day, you’ll know where you are”. ‘Airbag’ and ‘Lucky’ go so far as to cast their protagonists as superheroes, “back to save the universe” in the wake of cataclysm. OK Computer offers a sounding board for individuals who feel disillusioned with society and their place within it.

Above and beneath the words, the music remains incredibly powerful. If The Bends was a firm step forward for the group in terms of musicianship, OK Computer found their chemistry in full flow. Ed O’Brien, Jonny and Colin Greenwood outdo one another repeatedly with headspinning guitar gymnastics and subtle, left-field bass hooks. Philip Selway’s drums are spliced with machine-tooled beats and distorted loops to blur the line between human and technology. The results sound mighty, and there are some strange, subtle mysteries still lurking here and there. What the hell is it making that sighing noise during the coda of ‘Karma Police’? There’s the scree of tiny wails and squeaks that unsettle the second half of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, raising a few extra goosebumps in an already-haunting piece. And of course, there are the monstrous shapes and shadows shifting in the background of ‘Climbing Up the Walls’, behind Yorke’s jagged, barely discernible words.

It’s a potent blend of uncomfortable words and questing, forceful music, and instead of the awards and endless discourse, it’s this that keeps us returning to OK Computer. As we know, there’s so much that can be said about this album, and no shortage of commentary or criticism to sift through (ahem). But when all is said and done, the most refreshing thing to do is to cut straight through the wank and just listen to the music, because the strikingly affecting core of OK Computer can be reached with direct engagement. (Re)discover the delicate, crystalline beauty of ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Let Down’, both of which sound as stirring as ever. Check out just how stunning the dense guitar squalls of ‘Airbag’ are, lurching and squealing like rending chrome or shards of glass. There’s the slow-burn wonder of ‘Lucky’, the interwoven humour and grace of ‘Karma Police’, the towering headtrip that is ‘Paranoid Android’. Yes, this is an album of technical mastery and prophetic sentiment, but it’s also abundant in fantastic, creative and passionate songs.

Ultimately, that seems to be the best way to approach OK Computer: listen to it, not as the Greatest Album of the 1990s or whatever, but as the work of a group of people who took the time to articulate their worries for the future and set them to this single disc. Get away from the hype and try to focus on what’s there in the music itself. The punch, beauty, and ache is still there, without the need for any extra noise or commentary. It’s still relevant, still chilling, still wonderful. Stop reading and start listening.

Radiohead

Radiohead, circa 1996 (l-r: Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, Colin Greenwood; photo: thefoxisblack.com)

26/11/16

25 Masterworks: Jeff Buckley – Grace

My Spin on Masterworks: 16 of 25

Jeff Buckley

Grace

Columbia, 1994

GraceExpressing a storm of emotions is simple. Expressing a storm of emotions well is maddeningly difficult.

In theory, complete and utter sincerity should seem desirable. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable proposition to shoulder, especially for poets and songwriters. When feelings are presented at their most naked, there’s nothing to hide behind: nothing artificial to lean into, no irony to break the tension. Heart-on-sleeve writing can be courageous purely in its existence, but it can all-too-easily collapse into the polar pitfalls of being either overly basic or overly elaborate. The words are expected to retain the intensity of original feeling without simply resembling slapdash stream-of-consciousness. Braving such territory in sung verse can be even more intimidating: everything hinges not only on the words themselves, but in the delivery thereof. Huge, heartfelt ballads are generally associated with ostentatious bluster, but at their core, they represent a tremendous gamble: with all chips on the table, every single line or couplet must hold its place in the chain, lest the whole thing break into pieces. If the material fails to convince at any point, the artist’s emotional integrity appears compromised; a disastrous result that stings all the more for the highly personal nature of the piece.

Partway through St. Vincent’s headline performance at Green Man Festival in 2015, Annie Clark gave a lengthy (and occasionally bewildering) speech, into which she smuggled the observation that “it’s so much braver to admit that you love something than to say that you hate it”. While the rest of her words are largely gone from memory (except for a hilarious gaff about Greggs “steak burgers”), that particular truism has continued to percolate in my mind. Transparent expressions of love put one in a vulnerable position. When it’s clear that you hold something dear, it can be hurtful for somebody else to refute it (and by extension, yourself). This applies when defending somebody else, and doubly so when standing by your own thoughts or creations.

Listening to his sole completed album, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Buckley couldn’t possibly have suffered from such concerns: throughout Grace, Buckley sings from the depths of his soul without so much as a flicker of self-doubt. Grace is not a record that sounds fragile (at least not in the same sense as For Emma, Forever Ago and its peers) but it is uncommonly intimate, the words poured straight from the heart with no discernible filter of irony or pretense. Even when revisiting past treasures such as ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ or Nina Simone’s ‘Lilac Wine’, Buckley fills their compositional vessels with an emotional charge that is entirely his own; his fervent croon making their well-worn sentiments new again. In no small part, this is down to his astonishing voice, blessed as he was with the kind of swooping range that so many troubadours dream of. Equally, by the time of Grace, Buckley had developed a precise control over his vocals, his fiery caterwauling tempered by finesse and timing. His feelings may sound raw, but his style was far from unpolished.

As is often the case for the reception of so many heart-on-sleeve songwriters (especially those with a taste for the theatrical), there are plenty of listeners who are turned off by Buckley’s style, but that’s not for his work’s lack of sincerity. Grace is an album so thoroughly open-chested that it is worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the output of artists Buckley himself worshipped – Simone, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday – as a work of pre-eminent emotional intensity. Its ten songs are sharply drawn from defiance, angst, and soul-baring declarations of love which verge on hallowing. Even listening to the album’s best-known song – the oft-celebrated cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which Buckley was actually drawn to after hearing John Cale’s own rendition) – proves a staggeringly intimate experience. Buckley and producer Andy Wallace present the song as unhurried, hushed, and spacious, with its few details rendered finely. The notes of Buckley’s guitar flicker like candles in the dark, his voice ascending from a dusty stool to scrape cathedral-sized heights. The emotion driving the song can be heard through every breath, and it never once sounds affected or disingenuous.

In his own songs, Buckley pulls off even the most impossible of sentiments thanks to the very same sincerity. “I never stepped on the cracks ’cause I thought I’d hurt my mother,” he sighs during ‘So Real’ – the kind of lyric that would attract adjectives such as “drippy” were it not for Buckley’s sheer commitment to the part. On the opus ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’, he builds from “my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” to “she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever”, without faltering once. Around these peaks and valleys of romantic ruin, Grace’s edges are darkened like singed parchment paper. The “white horses” of ‘Mojo Pin’ are a torch-song cousin to Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ of the following year, whereas ‘Dream Brother’ is a warning in the face of a friend’s temptation to self-destruct.

Buckley naturally holds the spotlight throughout Grace, but his bandmates are pushed to miracles in their attempts to match him, and sweet Jesus, the sound is just blissful. Listening to ‘Last Goodbye’ is like sending your ears on a four-and-a-half minute trip to Heaven. His subject matter is as old as time, but Buckley wrings fresh pain from an end-of-the-line dialogue with cut-glass phrases, while surrounded by tiny musical gracenotes. “This is our last embrace,” he asserts, and one of Karl Berger’s most gorgeous string melodies sails in to dovetail with the impossibly sharp pang, Buckley’s stretching ever so slightly to ask “must I dream and always see your face?” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so tiny in the breadth of the full album, but the effect is matched time and time again. ‘Grace’ itself shifts from jangly beauty to an explosive kick against the eventual dying of the light; a notion that would of course prove to be devastatingly timely. And yet it transcends its context and still sounds spirited and full of promise two decades after Buckley’s death: the performances are full of vim and gusto, and that hair-raising crescendo is a potent demonstration of the electricity preserved in the fibres of the album.

It’s dispiriting that to this day, the vaults are still being pilfered by music executives hoping to squeeze more lucrative posthumous releases from Buckley’s slim catalogue of work. This year’s You & I is a disheartening example of offcuts and demos cobbled together for the sake of capital at the cost of mystique. While arguably valid as insights into Buckley’s creative trajectory, many of the works dredged up following his death (aside from the more rounded productions lining Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk) show the artist at his most inconsistent, before he was able to fully realise the power of each recording. As such, Buckley’s less successful (and occasionally risky) endeavours have been canonised, at the risk of tarnishing his legacy.

And yet in spite of these blemishes, Buckley’s artistic immortality was confirmed long ago, thanks to the transcendence of what was completed on his own terms. Grace is certainly a tragic reminder of a talent lost too soon, but it carries within it so much life and fire, its emotions articulated with piercing sincerity that time has sharpened rather than blunted. In the span of its fifty minutes, not a single note rings false.

07/10/16

Back with a ‘Bang’: Blur and the Virtue of Ignorance

Blur, circa the “teenies” years (photo: pitchfork.com).

I was first made aware of Blur’s resumed activity in December 2008, courtesy of an issue of NME which had excitedly plastered a black-and-white shot of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon together on its front cover. “BLUR REUNITED!” screamed the headline, as the five-year gulf since 2003’s itchy Think Tank concluded in an instant, and fans the world over rejoiced at the return of one of Britain’s most-adored bands.

However, things haven’t been quite that straightforward. That particular magazine’s publication date was December 13th, 2008. Flash-forward to the present day, and with minimal prior warning, Blur have unveiled their incoming eighth studio album, The Magic Whip, slated for release on April 27th. To allow for a sharper sense of the heft of that time lapse, as of today’s announcement, it has been six years, two months, and six days since that issue of NME heralded Blur’s reunion.

Cover of NME, December 2008 (photo: vblurpage.com).

It’s not like they’ve been inactive in that interim. There have been multiple Hyde Park performances, rapturously-received world tours and headline slots, and a sprinkling of new singles along the way. And of course, the joy spread by the band’s return has been genuinely touching to behold. But personally, proceedings began to grate partway into the 2010s. What had begun as a graceful and joyous resurrection gradually sank into a tiresome, drawn-out tease. There are only so many epic “last-chance” shows a band can play before a once-titanic return begins to whiff of nostalgia value, rather than an electrifying new lease of life. What were originally promising rumours and interviews soon evaporated into silence, and replaced by announcements of new solo records from Albarn and Coxon. No concrete news of a full-blooded return, only another wave of tour dates with little in the way of innovation.

As a result, I’m pretty elated that the band has suddenly publicised the release of The Magic Whip after several months of silence (although I’m a little unsure of that title, especially since the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is currently at the forefront of the public consciousness). It feels as if our patience has finally been rewarded, and because there have been no prior announcements about studio work or prospective releases, the surprise factor of this unveiling has allowed Blur to reclaim the raw sense of excitement which has been lacking during the past few years of activity.

This is perhaps because dramatic announcements are the name of the game this decade. Given that keen music fans are constantly bombasted with infinitesimal updates from a headspinning breadth of artists, it’s miraculously refreshing when an announcement arrives which packs in some genuine surprise value. I’m particularly pleased with how Blur handled the situation, when we could so easily have had a Chinese Democracy situation on our hands given the way things were going. What’s lovely is that – after years of increasingly weighted tour announcements – they’ve approached a proper album launch with stealth and precision.

It’s not quite the same for a band to casually announce the making of a record months before its details are even confirmed. A slow, steady drip-feed of up-to-the-minute news is all well and good, but there’s no matching the seismic clout of a sudden return. Of course, Radiohead began to utilise this tactic years ago, but for some reason it’s only within the past two years that this strategy has escalated to something more widespread. In my book, it was David Bowie’s The Next Day which truly signified the power of this method. We were suddenly blindsided by the re-emergence of a monumental icon, exploding back onto the scene with unparalleled mystique and the unthinkable: a new album of genuine greatness.

It’s these abrupt, blinking-in-disbelief unveilings which have brought a new vitality and spark of excitement to the industry. Naturally, there have been many ‘traditional’ build-ups which have led to magnificent payoffs in the past decade, but it’s only with surprise announcements of this magnitude that one realises just how fresh and giddy the musical world can be at its sharpened best. For better (Beyoncé) or worse (U2), it feels like mainstream artists have started to take note of this stealth tactic, and it’s these sudden deployments which get the heart really racing and the debates raging, much more so than steady snippets of minute details. In an age of information saturation and the desire for instant gratification, we are primed to appreciate genuine surprises again, and when they do arrive out of the blue, the exhilaration is hard to top.

Look Further:

Album Review: Atoms For Peace – Amok

Just to clarify for anybody who’s still unsure, the sounds Atoms For Peace lay down on Amok are nothing like Radiohead grappling with a Red Hot Chili Peppers riff.  Although the ‘supergroup’ does contain Thom Yorke and Flea as key players (alongside Nigel Godrich, and aided by percussion work from Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco), the jams which form Amok are much less loose-limbed than your average helping of slap-bass wankery.  Instead, Amok offers twitchy collages of electronic noise.  Live instrumentation has been chewed up, polished with a mechanical sheen, and snapped into place over clickety-clackety laptop beats.  It all sounds very manufactured and production-heavy, unsurprisingly so given the time that went into creating this record, and it’s certainly an interesting development when considered alongside Thom Yorke’s recent projects, from The Eraser‘s haunting apparitions to The King Of Limbs‘ enveloping ambience.

When taking stock of Amok in relation to these previous releases, many have praised the warmth and relative accessibility of this album, but personally, on a lot of the tracks here, I’m finding it difficult to really locate the heart beneath the beats.  There’s no denying the strength of the musicians in play here, and all bring their own cards to the table, but the compound that has ultimately been harvested is a difficult one to completely embrace on an emotional level.  It’s certainly an album to admire for its ambition and obtuse angles, and it never quite threatens to drown the listener completely, but Amok is a very tightly-wound creation, and its glassy intensity sometimes feels more intimidating than it does inviting.

That said, boy does it pack in some tunes, among which is first single Default, making an early bid for album high-point.  Yorke’s falsetto is pitched at its most refined, as he coos earwormy sentiments over slick, amorphous beats, before a distorted keyboard strain rises during the chorus like a slowly revolving disco ball.  It’s the closest thing the album gets to a properly danceable track, although there are plenty of other pitch-black bouncers up for grabs on here, too, from the muffled propulsion of Dropped to the slinky web of Judge, Jury And Executioner, with the latter adding a nice change in pace with its acoustic twangs.

In terms of quality, Amok is pretty consistent, although that’s possibly because there’s very little variation in sonic palette spread across much of the album.  Each song is built from a skeleton of tinny polyrhythms and beefy bass runs, bedecked with smart, silvery guitar lines, or cold splashes of synthesiser.  The upside to such a focused template is that if you fall in love straight away with the ghostly textures of skittish opener Before Your Very Eyes, it’s probable that you’ll find much of Amok to your liking.  However, if you’re not quite sold, there’s little variation in here which will convert you, aside from the occasional flash of colour in a brief keyboard hook or a particularly potent groove.

Ultimately, the sound of Amok is kind of reflected its artwork – a disconcerting, black-and-white depiction of Hollywood under apocalypse.  Accordingly, the music proffers drama and tension, but it’s rendered tightly within grey, rigid boundaries.  The textures on here are all impressively crafted, and the swirls of noise are hypnotic in their fluidity, but it is a shame that with its emotional foundry relatively untapped, Amok lacks the visceral power one might have hoped for.  I may be missing the point, of course: perhaps this album is intended to sound claustrophobic and dystopian.  But even if that is the case, it doesn’t make it any easier for me to dip into its slippery, amorphous swell.

7/10

“A penny for your thoughts, my love”

21/03/2013

Album Review: Everything Everything – Arc

A significant number of people – critics and everyday listeners alike – seem to be quite fond of likening hardened indie group Everything Everything to Radiohead.  It’s a comparison which has only increased in regularity since the arrival of Arc, the Manchester-based four-piece’s second album.  True, both bands are known for tinkering with the particulars of what rock music is capable of, and yes, an argument could be made over the notion that Arc shares musical and thematic DNA with the likes of OK Computer and In Rainbows.  For fresh evidence, check out the piano coda of new song ‘The House Is Dust’, or the smooth production gloss which graces much of what’s on offer here.

However, for me personally, in Everything Everything, I find a closer resemblance to Bloc Party.  Here we have another modern British group working to expand the musical template of the indie genre, similarly concerned with the state of modern life (and all the dislocation it engenders), and fronted by a singer prone to high-pitched fits of yelping.  (If only for levity’s sake, I’d like to paraphrase my sister here, who likened Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs’ voice to that of a turkey.)  To take these similarities further, Arc is cut from the same cloth as Silent Alarm: a jittery, panicked construct whose authors have taken a glimpse of what the future holds.  And they’ve decided that they don’t like the look of it all one bit.

It’s difficult to generalise Arc in terms of theme, given Higgs’ taste for eclectic lyrical leaps, but by and large, he’s become stricken with future terror.  What kind of state is our society in, and for that matter, what state will our children find themselves born into?  Cello-cradled ballad ‘Duet’ sets a precedent for the album as a whole, as Higgs is found genuinely helpless, crying “I don’t want my children in an endless race!”  Much of Arc is racked with worry and riddled with guilt, backed by colourful arrangements which can be as brooding as they are intoxicating.

It roars out of the stocks with the furiously strong one-two punch of ‘Cough Cough’ and ‘Kemosabe’.  The bruising thump of the former drops the listener nicely into the latter: one of the album’s highlights with its yelpy energy, sounds of shattering glass and its slashes of grinding guitar.  Through both cuts, it’s clear that Higgs is still a man on the edge: fidgety, fearful, yet also a very wry observer.  Clearly, his bizarre, dry sense of humour and chaotic imagery have carried over from the itchiness of 2010’s Man Alive.  The band themselves have tightened their sound, while also maintaining their inventive spark.  Michael Spearman’s headspinning drum patterns have become something of a driving force, able to mould the shapes and moods of the tunes they accompany.

Yet for all its intrigue, it must be said that this particular Arc is slightly inverted: it does sag in its midsection.  Not for any particularly weak songcraft, but simply for the fact that several tracks don’t quite maintain the oomph of the opening and closing stretches of the album.  After such a fiery opening salvo, Arc becomes a little too fixated with mid-tempo numbers, and it’s not until the stunning apex of ‘Radiant’ that the album receives a much-needed shot in the arm.  And indeed, while their left-field envelope-pushing is something to be cherished, there are moments when coherence does seem to suffer.  ‘Choice Mountain’, for instance, does flower at its climax, but it doesn’t quite piece itself together convincingly, with Higgs’ animal-based musings a little too barmy to fully resonate.  Compare it to ‘Torso Of The Week’, which is forged from what sounds like about six disparate segments.  By all logic, it should be groaning under its own mishmashed weight, but somehow it makes its own warped sense, with each of its components neatly gelling to form a strange – and pretty bloody good – compound.

Thankfully, the group do have a good handle on quality control, and for my money, the worst that can be levelled at Arc is that some songs aren’t as interesting as others.  Everything Everything remain fascinating figures with their strange alchemies: ‘Undrowned’ features a near-stream-of-consciousness drone over queasy ribbons of guitar, while ‘Armourland”s stop-start jitter peels away to reveal a blissed-out chorus of falsetto crooning.

But it’s when the group strip away all the intricacies that Arc properly finds its heartbeat.  ‘The Peaks’ achieves a transcendant poignancy with little more than a soft lead piano and Higgs’ most powerful vocal yet.  “I’ve seen more villages burn than animals born,” he croaks, genuinely sounding as if there are tears streaming from his sunken eyes.  The album could easily have ended here, with its most devastating (and arguably, its best) composition, but instead, the team deliver the ultimate curveball, capping everything off with ‘Don’t Try’: possibly the catchiest song they’ve yet recorded.  Its effervescent swell ends Arc on something of a bittersweet note, and while it’s hard to assess it in light of the twelve previous songs, it’s a rousing, beautiful article in itself, and sure to lodge itself in your brain for days afterwards.

So, where do Everything Everything find themselves in Arc‘s wake?  Still slightly distant: their bravura complexities are still more fascinating than they are affecting.  But they are opening themselves up; becoming more emotionally direct with each step they take.  Arc isn’t quite a masterstroke, but it definitely proves that Everything Everything are capable of realising one yet.  For now, we have a terrific and frequently touching sophomore record, and one which proves that these guys are here to stay.

8/10

“If it’s gonna happen let it happen now!”

02/02/2013