2012 was one hell of a year for Emeli Sandé: not only did her bestselling debut album Our Version Of Events spend over 10 weeks at No 1 and over 63 weeks in the UK Top 10, thereby beating a record held by The Beatles, but she also won three MOBO Awards, two Brit Awards and performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics.
Not too shabby for the then-26 year old former medical student.
Her many successes also meant that the pressure was on for her follow-up album, and instead of rushing to the recording studio, Sandé disappeared from the spotlight following some extensive touring.
The good news is that, 4 years later, the songstress has not lost her impressive voice: she has returned with a soulful and frequently cinematic second album.
The not-so-good news is that while Long Live The Angels features some terrific ballads and rousing moments courtesy of gospel choirs and impassioned crescendos, it doesn’t feel as tight or even as captivating her debut effort. The main issue is a bloated tracklisting, which should have been whittled down from its current 15. Most of these tracks address one specific autobiographical aspect: her marriage to her childhood sweetheart sadly broke down during her 4 years of absence. The lyrics reflect this heartbreak and are saturated in sadness, with lead single ‘Hurts’ acting as the lovelorn counterpart to her 2012 gospel-pop single ‘Next To Me’. As polished and emotionally sincere as they all sound, the lyrical content of the songs tends to get repetitive and often veers towards the saccharine. This frustration is never more potent than on the string-laden ‘Breathing Underwater’, which sounds excellent but is let down by its very mainstream lyrics.
The standout tracks are the ones which break rank, showing that sadness can take other forms than ballad-by-numbers: ‘Garden’ shines due to the finger-clicking rhythms, as well as the inclusion of rapper Jay Electronica and Aine Zion, ‘Tenderly’ celebrates the singer’s Zambian heritage, while opener ‘Selah’ features some fascinating echoes to Sandé’s medical studies, with the mention of ‘ligaments’ and ‘diaphragms’. A shame that this avenue wasn’t explored more in the rest of the album or that ‘Garden’ wasn’t the stepping off point... There are also some joys to be found in the significantly more upbeat ‘Highs & Lows’ and ‘Babe’: both these chart-tailored singles hit the right notes and don’t come off as overtly radio-friendly as ‘Every Single Little Piece’, nor as corny as ‘Right Now’ and ‘Sweet Architect’.
All in all, Love Live The Angels is a compelling listen but one which could have benefitted from a much leaner runtime: the necessary sacrifice of a handful of tracks could have avoided the impression that many of the songs feel interchangeable, at worse monotonous. As it stands, it’s a sincere effort that is needlessly uneven.
Key Tracks: ‘Selah’, ‘Garden’, ‘Tenderly’, ‘Highs & Lows’.
- D - 21/11/16
The cover of Swedish singer Tove Lo’s sophomore album is not only a cheeky homage to Madonna’s Like A Prayer cover but lets you know from the get-go that you’re going to be faced with scenes of a sexual nature.
And if there was ever any doubt that Lady Wood would dare to go much further than anything Britney Spears, Ariana Grande or Demi Lovato could deliver in the raunchy department, have a double-take on the shape of the ‘O’s.
There that is.
Not that this is wholly unexpected: after all, the album title refers to arousal and her 2014 debut Queen of the Clouds also tackled themes of sex (‘Talking Body’) and the sweet release drugs can procure when dealing with heartbreak (‘Habits (Stay High)’).
Less expected however is that Tove Lo has essentially crafted something of a concept album around sex. The singer / songwriter has divided the record into two distinctive parts: the first deals with anticipation and the second with comedown. The symmetrical 6-track halves work together and are introduced by intros ‘Fairy Dust (Chapter I)’ and ‘Fire Fade (Chapter II)’, short soundscapes which are, with all the best will in the world, slightly bland interludes. Things do get better as, true to concept, the first 6 tracks feel like a lustful build-up: she goes from being “fine as fuck” (‘Influence’, which is faintly reminiscent of Spears, with added Wiz Khalifa), turned on (titular track ‘Lady Wood’), critical (the sultry and satirical ‘Cool Girl’) and wanting her partner to “lick (her) wounds” (the folky ‘Vibes’). The weaker second half does feature a welcome darkness to counteract the euphoria linked with the chase, especially on ‘Keep It Simple’ and Lorde-like ‘Flashes’. The sultriness takes a spacier and at times deeper turn in Part 2, even if opening track of this second chapter ‘Don’t Talk About It’ and ‘Imaginary Friend’ are a tad too hackneyed for comfort. Thankfully, redemption comes with the stellar closing duo of ‘Flashes’ and ‘WTF Love Is’.
There is no doubt that this is chart-friendly pop and Lady Wood is hardly what you would call sonically inventive, with EDM beats and modern club-dance tropes showing up left, right and centre; however, it’s hard not to admire the sheer talent of Tove Lo’s candidly blunt songwriting, which makes the overall concept stand up after several listens. The songs don’t all reach the same heights as ‘Habits (Stay High)’ but do make for a sleek, atmospherically enticing listen. The profanity works, the sexual content is celebrated and what you’re left with are intelligently handled pop numbers that show Tove Lo won’t leave you high and dry; rather, she continues to establish herself as one of modern pop’s most exciting assets.
Key Tracks: ‘Influence’, ‘True Disaster’, ‘Cool Girl’, ‘Vibes’, ‘Flashes’.
- D - 04/11/16
The opening track on Leonard Cohen’s 14th studio album begins with the lyrics “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game”, soon followed by the line “I’m ready my Lord”.
Considering the 82-year old lost his muse Marianne Ihlen this year, penning a letter to her saying that he would “follow very soon” and recently stating in an interview that he was ready to die, it’s hard to shake the feeling that You Want It Darker sounds like a farewell. That being said, the crooner’s lyrics have always dealt with death and the bonds that tie the sacred to the profane; they continue to do so here. The mournful tone that permeates this album is far from depressing however, and while the eerie chant of a male choir or the weeping strings may have an elegiac resonance, these nine tracks often dismiss morbidity and instead generate warmth.
The lyrics deal with Cohen-esque existential quandaries, and as his custom: they are witty (“I struggled with some demons / There were middle class and tame”), tender (“They ought to give my heart a medal / For letting go of you”) and fascinating (“They whisper still, the injured stones / The blunted mountains weep / As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make things cheap”), a dark poetry that resonates so much that you legitimately wonder why Bob Dylan’s use of language was favoured as opposed to Cohen’s for the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded only last week.
The spine-tingling, crepuscular title track stands out, as do the crisp strings and the clear piano line on the wonderful ‘Treaty’. As for the gentle guitar line on ‘Leaving the Table’ or the measured flamenco rhythms on ‘Traveling Light’, they show to what extent Adam Cohen’s lean production is perfect for these restrained yet rich songs.
You Want It Darker will be myopically dismissed by some as more of the same from the dapper gent, especially in a year that - as callous as this may read - has heard David Bowie’s swansong or Nick Cave’s beautifully bleak masterpiece Skeleton Tree. It seems albums dealing with mortality threaten a darkness overload for 2016, and that brightness is in short supply. However, while not quite as transcendent as Skeleton Tree or as inventive as Blackstar, this album’s songs have a deeply humane dimension and a consistency which Bowie’s final album lacks.
Cohen hasn’t sounded this urgent in a long time and even if he sings about being “out of the game”, he hasn’t lost his touch. If this is the last hand Cohen plays, it’s a winning one. All the same, he’s clarified his “I’m ready to die” comments by subsequently stating that he was “exaggerating”, and cheekily adding that “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever”. If he sounds this vital at 82, then a 15th studio album is worth waiting for.
Until then, yes Leonard, we want it darker.
Key Tracks: ‘You Want It Darker’, ‘Treaty’, ‘Travelling Light’, ‘Steer Your Way’.
- D - 23/10/16
Justin Vernon’s third album under the Bon Iver name - his first since 2011’s Bon Iver Bon Iver - has been long-awaited. In fact, before 22, A Million was announced, there was serious speculation as to whether Bon Iver would ever release another album.
Fans will be delighted by his return but aficionados of the first hour may be confused: for those who still consider Bon Iver as the cabin-based lovelorn singer-songwriter of his debut For Emma, Forever Ago, you have another think coming...
22, A Million is a strange and unpredictable album, one which sees Vernon break new ground by fully embracing more electronic avenues and merging disorientating sonic landscapes to his trademark oblique lyrics. It stands as his most wilfully experimental album to date and you can hear the influence his frequent collaborators have had on this album. Kanye West in particular stands out as a reference, due to the presence of vocal distortions, the sampling of gospel singers, distorted loops and the sheer creative chutzpah on show.
And then there’s the pronunciation minefield / cryptologist’s wet dream that are the song titles. Indeed, among the strongest tracks of the album are ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, ‘33 “GOD”’ and ‘21 M♢♢N WATER’.
Shouting out requests at live shows is going to be a doozy...
Thankfully, for all its sonic innovations, 22, A Million never forgets to be a Bon Iver album, with confessional lyrics (“It might be over soon”; “I’m unorphaned in our northern lights”), some very potent melodies and above all, a pervading sense of tenderness. Just listening to the mesmeric ‘33 “GOD”’ and its beautiful piano opening followed by spine-tingling crescendos, ‘29 #Strafford APTS’s quieter acoustic leanings and the haunting closer ‘00000 Million’ makes you realise that this new album isn’t as impenetrable as many will make it out to be. As for ‘666 ʇ’, ‘21 M♢♢N WATER’ and ‘8 (circle)’, they allow the listener to appreciate the full extent to which Vernon has managed to merge his gentle folk with a decidedly more urgent and digital direction.
Granted, tracks like ‘715 - CRΣΣKS’ and ‘____45_____’ do tend to take the Auto-Tune one step too far; the former in particular is challenging, as it is exclusively sung acapella with a vocoder and renders a lot of the lyrics utterly incomprehensible. As for the latter, featuring saxophonist Mike Lewis and the sounds of an echoed banjo, Vernon’s dehumanized voice isn’t as striking but the contorted, threatening arrangements - much like on the excellent ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ - might alienate many a listener. Still, it’s hard not to admire the spirit of risky invention and the excitement generated by Vernon’s creative maelstrom.
Clocking in at just shy of 33 minutes, 22, A Million never outstays its welcome. Instead, much like the song titles, the numerology and symbols in the excellent album artwork / booklet, this album cultivates a certain cryptic-yet-heartfelt mystique, which amplifies and entices more with every listen. With this in mind, 22, A Million feels like the sound of Bon Iver’s Kid A or even, to hark back to Kayne, his My Dark Twisted Fantasy: a layered, expectation-defying, occasionally alienating but always richly ambitious work that deserves attention. It isn’t a record you would listen to casually, and even if reviews like this one may make the album sound pretentious, its complexity is tempered by genuine heart. More than that, it may well be Bon Iver’s strongest album, as well as one of this year’s very best.
More than worth the five-year wait, wouldn’t you say?
Key Tracks: ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, ‘33 “GOD”’, ‘21 M♢♢N WATER’, ‘8 (circle)’, ‘____45_____’.
- D - 02/10/16
It’s hard not to approach Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 16th album without mentioning the elephant in the room: tragedy struck the singer-songwriter in July of last year, when his 15 year old son, Arthur, accidentally fell from a cliff in Brighton. Recordings for Skeleton Tree had already begun but instead of scrapping the project, Cave reacted by choosing creativity as an act of defiance over grief: the album was completed in the aftermath of his unimaginable loss and the spectre of death looms over the album. Indeed, whatever Skeleton Tree would have sounded like before July 2015, the end result is an intensely moving testament on mourning and loss.
Over 16 albums, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have not been strangers to such material, embracing dark themes at every turn. This is after all a band with a song called ‘The Weeping Song’ and an album entitled Murder Ballads. However, even when the album is divorced from its tragic circumstances, Skeleton Tree stands as their most emotionally devastating record thus far, as it manages to tease out beauty from sorrow.
Over the course of its eight tracks, Arthur’s death is never directly addressed but the tragedy echoes throughout, making the album drenched to the core in sadness. The lyrics of the powerful opener ‘Jesus Alone’ - written before July 2015 - feature the harrowingly prophetic opening line “You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the river Adur”, followed by a repeated lament and plea of “With my voice I am calling you”. The song features droning ambient sounds and restrained arrangements, warning of the album’s sparse arrangements. Gone are the gospel influences heard on Push The Sky Away and the theatrics of the unequalled Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus; the tone here is uniformly stripped back and raw.
Throughout, the bleak undercurrent is counterbalanced by moments of genuine beauty, creating a destabilizing effect: ‘Rings of Saturn’ sounds delicate but the line about “a black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything” marries the listener to the darkness, while the nocturnal ‘Girl in Amber’ features a welcoming piano but also Cave’s breathlessly tortured vocals and heart-wrenching lyrics “I knew the world would stop spinning since you’ve been gone / I used to think that when you died you wandered the world (...) / Well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more.”
All eight tracks are magnificent, with the intense ‘Magneto’ sounding like a stream of consciousness made lighter by a discreet piano, clashing with a more percussive and restless ‘Anthrocene’. The duet ‘Distant Sky’ sounds like a lush lullaby in which Else Torp’s distinct delivery contrasts with Cave’s plaintive tones, the latter breaking the sense of weightlessness with his lyric “They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.”
‘I Need You’ stands out as a gorgeous-yet-devastating window into Cave’s grief: it is a nihilistic song about absence and the necessity of creating a memory following bereavement. It’s arguably Skeleton Tree’s most powerful number, alongside the closing titular track, which sounds richer and strangely uplifting. It ends the album with the repeated line “And it’s all right now”, a heartbreaking farewell that unsettles as much as it reassures.
It may be hard to dismiss Skeleton Tree's context, but even without the painful backstory, it’s plain to hear that it is Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ most profoundly immersive album. It is uncomfortably beautiful and one of the most devastating records you’ll get the chance to hear this year. Or any year for that matter.
Key Tracks: ‘Rings Of Saturn’, ‘Girl In Amber’, ‘Magneto’, ‘I Need You’, ‘Skeleton Tree’.
- D - 14/09/16
The title-echoing liner notes on this album are sparse. They simply say: “We move. Or we don’t. We change. Or we stay the same.”
On evidence of his third studio offering, James Vincent McMorrow has moved, further than ever before.
It was already a stretch to accuse the Irish singer songwriter of staying put: his second album was a sizeable leap forward from his acoustic-heavy debut, 2011’s Early In The Morning. It saw him leave the guitars behind and letting the pianos, harps, atmospheric samples and the occasional cymbal rush have their day. This gave us the ethereal Post Tropical, a stunning, spine-tingling collection of songs that was nothing less than 2014‘s album of the year.
This year’s follow-up sees McMorrow take yet another risk and push his sound even further into new sonic territories, his soulful delivery now coming with stripped down, yet more defined RnB sensibilities. His glorious falsetto and knack for creating outstanding melodies remains, but the result is a more radical departure, a less obviously melancholic hybrid of soulful folk, married with a sleek electro pop production on several tracks from Nineteen85, who usually handles the likes of Drake and Jessie Ware.
The opening track ‘Rising Water’ is a stunner, with its low-funk opening notes paving the way for some electronic drums and misdirecting emotional lyrics: “You make me feel alive in spite of rising waters”. The soulful ‘I Lie Awake Every Night’, and poppy ‘One Thousand Times’ follow, leading to the album’s centrepiece and arguably its strongest song: ‘Evil’. This powerful number is more electronic than its predecessors, boasting a truly memorable chorus and some danceable beats. It’s a terrific track that stands out without overshadowing what follows, specifically the soul-leaning ‘Get Low’ and its (gasp!) guitars and the rhythmic RnB of ‘Seek Another’.
Once again with McMorrow, there are bound to be some Bon Iver comparisons, especially when it comes to tracks like ‘Last Story’ and ‘Surreal’. However, at no point does the passing similarity hinder enjoyment, especially on the latter. The delicate closer ‘Lost Angles’ sounds - much like ‘Killer Whales’ - like a throwback to Post Tropical’s sound but the deftly positioned song ends the album what can only be the artist’s statement of intent: “Is it better to live your life in shallow water / Or drown at the deep end (...) Don’t let fear control you”.
We Move is clearly the sign of McMorrow confidently setting aside all fears, chancing the deep end and staying afloat - his generous, distinctive and aptly-named third proves that his ambitious leaps of faith continue to pay off.
Key Tracks: ‘Rising Water’, ‘One Thousand Times’, ‘Evil’, ‘Get Low’, ‘Surreal’.
- D - 03/09/16
Following their excellent 2014 debut, Glass Animals return this year with a concept album of sorts. For their sophomore effort, the Oxford quartet have created a collage of sorts, mirrored in the album’s artwork. Indeed, frontman David Bayley has not been idle since the release of ZABA, secretly recording on his phone some conversations with random people he met while touring. These life vignettes have been compiled in How To Be A Human Being: character-centric stories about unemployment, student life, drugs and suicide.
Some are bleak, some are funny, many are self-deprecating and all make up one of this year’s most inventively kaleidoscopic releases.
Sonically, the band have picked things up where their debut left off; however, this welcome consistency is met with a confident desire to evolve and not rest on laurels. The colourful indie and danceable psychedelia of ZABA remains and is carefully balanced with even more percussions, fully embraced hip-hop sensibilities and an extra dollop of RnB.
The opening track is nothing less than one of this year’s best singles: ‘Life Itself’ is a funky paradox, a tale about unemployment made danceable and humorous by tribal drums and kooky lyrics. Other obvious highlights include ‘Youth’ and its exotic rhythms and the closing ballad ‘Agnes’, a rousingly emotional song that truly showcases Bayley’s talents not only as a singer but as a mean songwriter.
More than anything else, How To Be A Human Being shows that the band aren’t afraid to take risks: ‘[Premade Sandwiches]’ is the sped-up equivalent of Radiohead’s ‘Fitter Happier’, all the way down to the critical social commentary; ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ sounds like Justin Timberlake and a Game Boy made a baby; the lo-fi ‘Take A Slice’ and the electro-heavy ‘Cane Shugar’ both show just how versatile and playful this band can be.
While not quite as immediately endearing as ZABA and missing some of the previous album’s tropical whimsy, this inventive second album nonetheless is a textbook example of how to dodge the dreaded sophomore slump. How To Be A Human Being proves once more why Glass Animals are to be considered one of the most exciting young bands around, making their post-pop experimentation unmissable.
Key Tracks: ‘Life Itself’, ‘Youth’, ‘Season 2 Episode 3’, ‘Take A Slice’, ‘Agnes’.
- D - 31/08/16
Wild Beasts have been one of the UK’s most interesting exports for a wee while now. Following 2014’s Present Tense, studio album n°5 confirms this and to what extent the Cumbrian quartet dare to take a left turn when necessary: Boy King sees them embrace a fully-fledged electro-pop direction with great confidence.
In many ways, their sound is personified by the album’s cover artwork: a colossus figure reminiscent of Queen’s News Of The World cover figure, with an 80s neon font that suggests a certain kitsch energy. While retro synths did feature heavily on their previous LP, this newest effort adds a funky-strut and some bombastic grooves to the mix, with the songs sounding less reflective this time around. The 10 tracks also see the band delve deeper into unabashed sexuality. Granted, Wild Beasts’ art-pop has always contained sensual imagery but the mood here is significantly more lustful and much less romantic. The lyrics explore sex, hedonistic impulses, as well as the narcissistic pursuits linked to the masculine identity.
Tracks like the opening ‘Big Cat’ and ‘Get My Bang’ merge a funky, at times Prince-like swagger with a brooding sensuality that extends to some tongue-in-cheek fun on ‘Tough Guy’. ‘He The Colossus’, the breathy ‘Ponytail’ and the raw ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’ are much stronger tracks, filthy and thematically focused on the multiple facets of the male ego. These songs highlight that Boy King is an album of two halves: the first is more immediate and radio-friendly, while the second features richer, more layered elements. These songs entrance the listener and even throw a rope to fans of the first hour. The highlights belong to this second half, with the grimy-yet-sexy ‘2BU’, a nocturnal piece that throbs with menace; the other standout is the gentle closer ‘Dreamliner’, a more romantic piece that winds things down beautifully, as if the mirroring a petite mort comedown.
Coherent in its both 80s sounds and sultriness, Boy King is an album that struts its stuff without forgetting to create a palpable atmosphere. The flamboyant immediacy of the album’s first half gives the impression that, unlike their previous albums, this one won’t gradually unveil many hidden treasures: only its second half disproves this and makes you want to come back for more. A shame that it’s so identifiably and nakedly divided... but then again, there’s something for everyone. And who are we to complain when the results are this strangely enticing?
Key Tracks: ‘Alpha Female’, ‘2BU’, ‘He The Colossus’, ‘Eat Your Heart Out Adonis’, ‘Dreamliner’.
- D - 09/08/16
The wait is finally over.
Plunderphonics pioneers The Avalanches are back after a 16-year wait.
That’s right, 16 long years since their ground-breaking debut album, Since I Left You. Since then, two original members have left and their cut-and-paste antics have progressively gained a mystique that was always going to be a burden when it came to a follow-up... Indeed, the problem with waiting so long to release that difficult second album is that either people don’t care about your brand of sampling bricolage anymore or your album will collapse under the weight of unrealistic expectations.
After all, 16 years trumps the Chinese Democracy wait by one year...
Thankfully, the results are significantly better than Guns N’ Roses overblown sixth and Wildflower sounds very exciting. Much like DJ Shadow’s recent release, The Mountain Will Fall (scroll down for review), the Australian trio have shaken things up by adding some guests to their sampling shenanigans: the likes of Father John Misty, Toro Y Moi, Warren Ellis, Danny Brown and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue all make an appearance. However, unlike The Mountain Will Fall - and as the album title and cover suggests - there’s an undercurrent of catchy, Beach Boys-esque pop that makes it a buoyant, technicolour trip.
Wildflower has a stronger first half and is weakened by its last 5-song stretch. Understandable really, since it’s hard to top the Jackson 5 feel of ‘Because I’m Me’, the disco euphoria of ‘Subways’ and the psychedelic dirge delivered by ‘Colours’. All songs seamlessly segue into each other, adding to that feeling of a coherent and wonderfully nutty trip.
Certain tracks stand out, like comeback single ‘Frankie Sinatra’ and ‘The Noisy Eater’. Both songs show how brilliantly silly The Avalanches can be. The first merges calypso beats and electro swing with The Sound Of Music, while Danny Brown and MF DOOM do their thing. The second is the closest thing to ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ Wildflower has: it combines Tom Waits-sounding grunts with cartoonish lyrics and a primary school choir singing parts of ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles. It’s as hilariously demented as it sounds.
Wildflower is not the game-changing masterpiece that Since I Left You remains to this day; however, this long overdue sophomore effort works because of the joy and often tender moments it creates (hear the thundercloud interludes and the excellent ‘The Wozard of Iz’ for one of the album’s more bizarrely nostalgic songs). It is a cohesive musical patchwork that is deceptively complex in its construction and above all, fun.
Was it worth the 16-year wait? Absolutely. Now pass the “ethereal cereal” - I want more!
Key Tracks: ‘Because I’m Me’, ‘Frankie Sinatra’, ‘Subways’, ‘The Noisy Eater’, ‘The Wozard of Iz’.
- D - 09/07/16
A concept album called The Bride...
A celebration of Tarantino’s fictional character in Kill Bill? An ode to Brigit of Kildare perchance? Maybe a valiant attempt to reintroduce the godawful Sting-starring 1985 cinema adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' into the public consciousness?
Thankfully, none of the above... Especially not that misguided third option. For her fourth album as Bat For Lashes, Natasha Khan has crafted a moving thematic piece that tells the story of a woman whose fiancé dies on their wedding day.
It starts with a contrasting duo: the naive-sounding and gently airy ‘I Do’ is followed by ‘Joe’s Dream’, a darker and slightly Twin Peaks-reminiscent song centred on a death premonition. This Lynchian comparison can be felt throughout The Bride, especially with ‘Close Encounters’ and the wonderfully oneiric ‘Widow’s Peak’. The accident happens on the third song, ‘In God’s House’, when the bride is left at the altar with images of fire; from then on, the album theatrically explores the character’s travels (‘Honeymooning Alone’), grief (‘Never Forgive The Angels’) and the process she undergoes of picking up the pieces of her life (‘I Will Love Again’).
Sound trite? Granted, from that description, it appears hackneyed but Khan manages to address themes of doomed love and loss in a non-ironic, distinctively non-cynical way; she succeeds in tugging on the heartstrings, chiefly due to the emotionally rich and dreamily poetic lyrics. Her excellent vocal performance is often reminiscent of Kate Bush, but, like the instrumentation, understatedly takes the backseat to her lyrics: Khan prioritises the narrative, in order to create what is essentially the soundtrack to an imaginary film. Because they are so tightly woven together to create a bigger picture, few songs immediately stand out. That being said, the synthy ‘Sunday Love’, the aforementioned ‘Close Encounters’ and album closer ‘In Your Bed’ are respectively catchy, dreamily moving and heartbreaking.
If you go along with the inherently cinematic premise, there are many treasures to be found here. If you’re not so keen on the storytelling aspect, you may find your patience waning... Here’s hoping you’re in the former camp, as such an ambitious marriage of tragedy and beauty deserves your attention.
Key Tracks: ‘Joe’s Dream’, ‘Sunday Love’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Widow’s Peak’, ‘I Will Love Again’.
- D - 06/07/16
Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, has released his first album in five years, on the same year his landmark debut, Endtroducing, turns 20. To celebrate, he’s changed his modus operandi: The Mountain Will Fall is a progressive shift from his all-out cut-and-paste sampling formula and features live instrumentation (predominantly woodwind and horns) and a more original production. A mouth-watering premise which he manages to make good on but the electro pioneer never quite succeeds in fully enthralling the listener.
In fact, what makes The Mountain Will Fall work best are less the live instrumentations and more its collaborations, most notably with Run The Jewels on ‘Nobody Speak’ and the appropriately-named-considering-the-album’s-title ‘Bergschrund’, featuring the wonderful Nils Frahm. The first is a riotous ride which combines Spaghetti Western sounds with some frequently fouled-mouthed lyrics; the second is one of the album’s most ambitious tracks. It merges glitches and sputtering beats with Frahm’s masterful craft to create an apocalyptic number that makes you wish the duo could have collaborated on an entire LP.
Elsewhere, the menacing ‘Three Ralphs’, the old-skool hip-hop throwback ‘The Sideshow’ (feat Ernie Fresh) and the free jazz inflections of ‘Ashes to Oceans’ (feat Matthew Halsall) all satisfy. However, it’s undeniable that the album progressively loses momentum around the halfway mark, with only the aforementioned ‘Ashes to Oceans’ and the previously released ‘Ghost Town’ standing out. Tracks like ‘Depth Change’ and ‘Mambo’ offer very little, ‘California’ sounds like self-parody, while ‘Pitter Patter’ (featuring G Jones and Bleep Bloop) never coalesces into something truly memorable.
All in all, The Mountain Will Fall is not as ground-breaking as Davis’ debut, nor as catchy as 2002’s The Private Press but does feel cohesive and textured enough to satisfy fans. It’s a welcome return from an artist trying to shake things up, but hardly a homecoming that will top end of the year lists.
It seems it’s up to cut-and-paste masters The Avalanches to steal the show and be 2016’s truly memorable electro comeback. Not long to wait now...
Key Tracks: ‘Nobody Speak’, ‘Bergschrund’, ‘Ashes to Oceans’, ‘Ghost Town’.
- D - 02/07/16
Editors + Mogwai + Slowdive.
As far as crossovers go, this one’s a big’un. It’s not quite The Avengers, but akin to Freddy Vs Jason... Only, you know... good.
Starting off as a pet project of Editors guitarist Justin Lockey and snowballing into a 10-tracked self-titled debut, Minor Victories combines the talents of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and Lockey’s filmmaker brother James, member of the Hand Held Cine Club. Together, they’ve crafted a post-rock gem of an album, one in which the influences of respective parent bands are discernible and add up to something that meets - and often surpasses - very high expectations.
The supergroup’s debut starts off with the darkly atmospheric ‘Give Up The Ghost’, a terrific opener whose sultry and heavily brooding sound are matched with lyrics denoting an undercurrent of simmering rage. It’s tempting to posit that Trent Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails would not have shied away from this material. The song neatly sets the tone, assuring that the rest of the album will follow broadly in the same vein.
The Mogwai connection can be felt on lead single ‘A Hundred Ropes’, with the retro Rave Tapes synths opening the track like it was a John Carpenter soundtrack. The cinematic feel is elevated by the inclusion of some sweeping strings, also found on the gentler ‘Breaking My Light’ and the luscious ‘Out To Sea’. ‘Cogs’ enlivens things once more around the halfway mark, with a powerful electric verve, while closing track ‘Higher Hopes’ could be at home on one of Mogwai’s soundtracks.
‘Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)’, ‘Folk Arp’ and ‘The Thief’ are the stand outs. The first due to its soaring hooks and the inclusion of Twilight Sad’s James Graham on vocals; the second because of how reminiscent it is to some of Mogwai’s best; and the third because of its euphoric culmination, as well as Goswell’s delicate timbre.
Only ‘For You Always’ doesn’t quite fit in. It’s a fine song in itself but guest vocalist Mark Kozelek’s trademark stream-of-consciousness vocals clash with the other tracks. A minor blemish.
The grandiloquence and overt dramatics of the album might be a hindrance for some; however, the slow burning melodic content and the towering elegance of Goswell’s voice will doubtlessly impress. It’s plain to hear that Minor Victories are more than just a haphazard collection of talented musicians having a jolly on a half-arsed side project: they’ve crafted an album that stands on its own two feet, as opposed to one banking solely on the goodwill of the line-up’s fans. This is doubly remarkable when you consider the band have openly stated in the album’s liner notes that they were unable to overcome contrasting schedules and therefore were never in the same place at any point during the recording (“We didn’t record in the same room, or at the same time”). Most bands can’t achieve Minor Victories when working together; imagine if the newly formed outfit actually shared a studio... The thought makes you hope that this debut isn’t a one-off.
For the time being though, this cinematic brew of shoegazing indie, synth rock, enlivened by some thrashing guitars and atmospheric string arrangements, is no small triumph.
Key Tracks: ‘Give Up The Ghost’, ‘Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)’, ‘Folk Arp’, ‘Cogs’, ‘The Thief’.
- D - 12/06/16