RADIOHEAD LIVE REVIEW
A MOON SHAPED POOL WORLD TOUR
01/06/16 - Nuits de Fourvière, Lyon, FR
Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool world tour is now in full swing and yours truly has had the luck of having a sister who’s willing to listen to her older (and much uglier) brother. Advice given: bypass digital queues and instead physically stand in line for hours in order to secure tickets. Verdict?
Technology = 0. The Good Old Fashioned Ways = 1.
After two dates in Amsterdam and Paris, as well as three-show residency at London’s Roundhouse, the Oxford quintet made a much appreciated pit stop at Lyon’s Roman amphitheatre, thereby kicking off 2016’s Les Nuits de Fourvière festival.
Some queued since 9am that morning and others travelled from as far as Chile for the concert. The tickets for most of the European leg of the tour went faster than a toupee in a hurricane, thereby assuring that a sizeable morsel of the crowd was made up of uber fans.
(What a sad realisation it is to witness to what extent the tangerine nightmare - Donald Trump - continues to permeate the collective consciousness... I apologise for that toupee simile.)
The fans are fun, if exceedingly passionate about which B-side on 2011’s lesser known remix album TKOL RMX 1234567 is best. Queuing for 5 hours on the day was an interesting experience, revealing an almighty sense of entitlement these wonderful nerds have. This is common in fandom but this level of protection and conversational one-upmanship rapidly became grating after a while... Thankfully, no one got bludgeoned - despite some butchering of the English language (“Planeteu Telexeuuu izz beteur zan Fak Plaztiq Treaz”) - and the overlong procession assured a great spot for the gig.
Following a rather baffling opening set from electro experimentalist Holly Herndon, Radiohead took to the stage to rapturous applause from an overstuffed amphitheatre. The band opened the show by performing the first five songs of their new album, before dipping in and out of their back catalogue. It seems that the modus operandi for their limited A Moon Shaped Pool tour is to keep mixing things up, impressively altering each setlist to avoid any copy-pasting. The new songs from A Moon Shaped Pool were stripped of their lush film orchestrations and replaced by a rearranged instrumentation, featuring more guitars and prominent drums. With this in mind, the band have bolstered their line-up with a sixth member, Portishead’s drummer Clive Deamer; his presence made a lot of tracks feel more muscular, including a significantly more bombastic ‘Burn The Witch’. ‘Ful Stop’ live came off as a lighter ‘Idioteque’, with Thom Yorke shaking about the stage like Elvis’ possessed leg, while ‘Daydreaming’ retained its gorgeous shimmering soundscapes via the use of synths, culminating in a powerfully melancholic climax.
The six screens behind the band filmed them throughout and occasionally lit up, making Hail To The Thief’s The Gloaming feel more kinetic, The King Of Limbs’ Lotus Flower adopt a funkier persona, and even served to give 'Glass Eyes' a dreamily melancholic quality.
Evenly distributed though it was, the evening’s set leaned heavily towards 1997’s OK Computer, with 'No Surprises' getting one of the evening’s biggest responses and 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' getting its first play since 2007. Special mention for The Bends B-side 'Talk Show Host', the tour debut of 'Optimistic', from 2000’s masterpiece Kid A, and 'Identikit' which struck the right balance between oneiric delicacy and progressive urgency.
Johnny Greenwood remains the band’s MVP, showing off his luscious bowl cut and his skills as a multi-instrumentalist: whether he’s hunched over the piano, taking a bow to the guitar, à la Sigur Ros, or dabbling on the Ondes Martineau, he remains Radiohead’s biggest asset. As for frontman Yorke, he seems happy and not as despondent or angsty as he previously has been on stage. Like a pony-tailed child fully jacked up on sugar, his perfectly calibrated voice was married with the dancing of an epileptic ragdoll: he showed the extent of his frenzied moves on 'Idioteque' and 'Lotus Flower'. His good-natured temperament even saw him joking with crowd about being rusty on the keyboard for 'Subterreanean Homesick Alien' and having a billboard time for 'Paranoid Android'... Gone are the moody Radiohead who refused to play past anthems because they’ve moved on; they’ve chilled out, lost none of their verve and reached the peak of their powers by embracing every facet of their lengthy career. They now project the image of a band fully at ease with themselves and their oldies-but-goodies.
The main set was closed by a brilliant double-bill of the restlessly itchy 'Idioteque' and a devilishly eerie 'Climbing Up The Walls', one of OK Computer’s most atmospheric tracks. Both remain some of Radiohead’s strongest songs and what a joy is was to hear them performed with such potent energy.
Their first encore included an unrecognisable ‘Myxomatosis’ and a moving ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’. The latter was accompanied by a weighty hush, making it one of the evening’s most moving moments, managing to hit nostalgic notes in a passionate way, especially with the gentle-yet-venomous repetition of the lyric “we hope that you choke”.
The band closed the show with a second encore, featuring ‘Bodysnatchers’ - which benefitted from a 'Hunting Bears' outro - and a fantastic rendition of ‘You And Whose Army?’, from the oft misunderstood and vastly underappreciated Amnesiac. It was an inspired choice to finish, with the lyrics “We ride tonight” echoing beautifully around the heavenly outdoor surroundings.
While it’s a shame that the opaque 'Feral' from The King Of Limbs wasn’t dropped for a The Bends track and that my sister had to be consoled for the absence of 'Karma Police', yours truly quickly got over it. It was also a shame that fan favourite 'True Love Waits' was left off the setlist and that French audiences still feel the irrepressible need to clap along at the strangest of times... Still, there was a distinct lack of ear-haemorrhaging crowd singalongs, a refreshing absence of telephone screens and when you have such a versatile set played by a band significantly more fulfilled and in full bloom, it’s hard to be bitter. This world tour sees Radiohead at their most eclectic and, dare I say it, delivering their best live shows. As ‘You And Whose Army?’ states: “Come on if you think you can take us all on.”
If that isn’t the sound of a gauntlet dropping, I don’t know what is. I pity the band who challenges Radiohead at the peak of their powers, as they currently hold the title of best band currently touring. Deny it if you can...
You and whose army, indeed.
Burn The Witch
Desert Island Disk
Talk Show Host
Subterranean Homesick Alien
Weird Fishes / Arpeggi
Climbing Up The Walls
Exit Music (For A film)
Bodysnatchers (Hunting Bears Outro)
You And Whose Army
FOR THE REVIEW OF A MOON SHAPED POOL, SCROLL DOWN
FOR THE PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED PERSONAL RANKING OF RADIOHEAD’S ALBUMS, CLICK HERE
- D - 04/06/16
Radiohead’s ninth album is finally here and for their first release in five years, the Oxford quintet have taken a step back from the impenetrable cacophony that was The King Of Limbs in order to temper the experimental with the melodic.
Brass tacks: the results are stunning. We joyfully rediscover Thom Yorke’s unique timbre after 2011’s adventures in distortion, and listeners can applaud the reintroduction of memorable melodies to the mix. That being said, what makes A Moon Shaped Pool so special is that every time you hear it, there are more riches on offer. Quite a feat when you consider that most of the songs here have been left in limbo (a cheeky Kid A reference for you non-heathens out there) for some time now. In fact, only three of the songs on the alphabetical tracklist (‘Decks Dark’, ‘Glass Eyes’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’) haven’t previously been showcased in some way during live performances.
Not that this is an album of orphaned tracks: all songs have been reworked and gel beautifully together and one of the reasons this coalescence happens is album MVP guitarist Johnny Greenwood. His experience of scoring multiple soundtracks can be felt throughout: from the stabbing string section on the sweetly disturbing and Hail To The Thief-reminiscent opener ‘Burn The Witch’ to the orchestral flourishes of ‘Glass Eyes’, via the bold strings that pierce ‘Daydreaming’s shimmering dreamscape, his arrangements are essential. Add some choirs on the disarmingly catchy ‘Decks Dark’ and the icily urgent atmospherics of ‘Ful Stop’ and you have a testament to Radiohead’s steadfast capacity to surprise the listener after all these years.
While the orchestral strings are the album’s most defining feature and allow the eerily mournful tone of these songs to truly permeate, the band also surprises by reintroducing guitars. They don’t overtake the electronics but have their day: the slightly soporific ‘Desert Island Disk’ starts off with a faintly Hispanic-sounding acoustic guitar line, while ‘Present Tense’ benefits from some gentle plucking.
Every track reveals new treasures with repeated listens, making it hard to pick out a favourite. The fact that A Moon Shaped Pool feels like one of the band’s most cohesive albums does not help. However, if pushed, the aforementioned ‘Daydreaming’, ‘Ful Stop’, ‘The Numbers’ (which opens with a recurring motif off of ‘Daydreaming’ and features some more lavish string compositions) and the mesmeric ‘Glass Eyes’ do stand out. Many will read the latter as a heart-breaking ballad from Yorke to his wife of 23 years, from whom he has recently separated. Gossip and ‘break-up song’ labels aside, this is one of Radiohead’s most potent attempts at tugging on the heartstrings.
The crowning jewel - and one which also ticks the heartbreak box - could be the closer, ‘True Love Waits’. A live favourite for fans since forever and previously released on 2001‘s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings EP, the song is given a reworking with the absence of some structural lines and the addition of a minor piano key. It is a powerfully emotional ending note, one which caps off a textured and ethereal journey with elegance.
A Moon Shaped Pool might not be as revolutionary as OK Computer or the sonic slap that was the peerless Kid A and its sister record Amnesiac; nevertheless, it stands as their most engaging album since these releases. It is more focused than the already stellar Hail To The Thief and just as ambitious as In Rainbows; its gently threatening ballads get under the skin and stay there. Rarely have their albums sounded so intimate, atmospherically coherent or cinematic, making this ninth LP one entrancing entity and 2016’s most compelling offering yet.
Key Tracks: ‘Daydreaming’, ‘Ful Stop’, ‘Glass Eyes’, ‘Identikit’, ‘The Numbers’, ‘True Love Waits’.
** FOR A PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED PERSONAL RANKING OF RADIOHEAD'S ALBUMS, CLICK HERE. **
- D - 12/05/16
Antony Hegarty’s last album was under the name Antony and the Johnsons. Sawnlights was six years ago and a lot has happened since then. The now openly transgender artist now goes by the name of ANOHNI and the chamber pop inflections of her previous offerings have been replaced by a luscious yet jittery electro pop sound, courtesy of co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never.
Not that her metamorphosis limits itself to a name change and a different musical style: it also sees a shift in substance. ANOHNI has moved away from introverted songs and now looks outwards, making her debut album essentially a protest record.
For a lot has happened since 2010... Not extensively and in no particular order: the Port-au-Prince earthquake, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Paris shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, the largest refugee crisis in decades, the Higgs Boson discovery and Michael Keaton’s renewed A-lister status. Plenty of food for thought and over the course of 11 tracks, ANOHNI tackles such topics as drone warfare (‘Drone Bomb Me’), ecocide (‘4 Degrees’), NSA surveillance (‘Watch Me’), the death penalty (‘Execution’), presidential shortcomings (‘Obama’) and even disease (‘Marrow’).
Many may cringe at this. It’s true that overtly political or militant albums can be a chore, with holier-than-thou posturing and grating unsubtlety hindering any musical enjoyment. However, nothing of the sort with Hopelessness. The titles might imply some well-meaning and rather obvious stances, but emotions run deep and at no point does one feel hectored or lectured by these finely written protest songs.
Unlike PJ Harvey, whose strong The Hope Six Demolition Project saw her blend journalism and rock, ANOHNI does not cast herself as a war correspondent but rather - and more potently - as an observer of the world. She creates something special and varied by channelling her palpable anger via intoxicating synths, perfectly judged stings and repeated beats, and that inimitable voice. Her celestial delivery forges a fascinating, oxymoronic dynamic, one that makes fury sound sweet. This beautiful vocal performance also enriches the dark irony of certain lyrics, especially on ‘Execution’, a scathing attack aimed at the US justice system containing the repeated lyrics “It’s an American dream!“
Standouts include the rather sarcastic ‘Watch Me’, the powerful lament ‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth’ and the devastatingly moving opener ‘Drone Bomb Me’. This goosebump-inducing track, written from the perspective of a child begging to be killed so that she can be reunited with her family, is strikingly brilliant. It is simultaneously potent as a moving testament and yet, oddly danceable. This ambitious song is emblematic of Hopelessness as a whole: an ethereal marriage between often venomous socio-political commentary and the truly heartfelt, without at any point sacrificing entrancing musical content.
It’s an impressive balancing act, one which occasionally has a few missteps. These occur when the lyrics are too on-the-nose, delivering a message with sledgehammer subtlety. ‘Obama’ and ‘Crisis’ lack the sophistication of other songs and show that a certain universality is lost. The former in particular is a minimalist recital that boasts a deeper pitch but gets bogged down in its specificity. It goes to show that protest songs thrive when they balance the topical with the universal, when the listener can choose with every listen to peel deeper or to remain on surface layers; to enjoy the musical content without being forced to embrace a particular agenda.
It’s hard to make a defiant stand without it being casually dismissed as wishful idealism. It's also very comfortable to fall back on easy cynicism. With this in mind and whatever preconceived ideas you may have about engaged music, don’t dismiss Hopelessness. For the most part, ANOHNI has succeeded in creating a challenging album and never has a visceral protest sounded so intimately uplifting.
Maybe there’s hope after all...
Key Tracks: ‘Drone Bomb Me’, ‘Watch Me’, ‘Violent Men’, ‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?’, ‘Marrow’.
- D - 10/05/16
The Lumineers’ self-titled debut album was an upbeat record that anchored itself in the trendy folk-pop revival wave led by the overhyped Mumford & Sons and the frequently overlooked Fleet Foxes. Their 2012 effort was hardly groundbreaking but did put them on the map, chiefly due to the foot-stompingly catchy ‘Ho Hey’. The rest of the album was overshadowed by their airwave-bothering anthem, and unfairly so: their witty brand of folk tunes didn’t limit itself to their earworm hit but… hey ho…
Now comes make or break time, that tricky second album which shows whether the band are in it for the long haul or only fit to remain one-hit-wonders. The trio had a difficult task ahead of them: release another radio-baiting single and people will accuse them of rehashing; deviate from their original sound, and they lose fans of the first hour. Wesley Schultz, Neyla Pekarek and Jeremiah Fraites decided to stick to their guns and delivered more of the same, but this time with the added sense gravitas and clearly wishing to further tap into a traditional gospel spirit. The result sounds less immediately commercial and is significantly less danceable than its predecessor, but feels more engaging and richer.
The album, as the song titles attest, focuses on women: Ophelia, Angela and of course, the titular Cleopatra, and these represent the album’s strongest tracks. The piano-lead ‘Ophelia’ boasts a poignantly catchy melody, ‘Angela’ gradually adds some trademark handclapping without making this Lumineer trope the centerpiece of the song, while ‘Cleopatra’ is the guitar-heavy blues stomper that anchors the proceedings. All three thrive for different reasons and show to what extent this band isn’t stuck in a Mumford-like rut: they have the ability to convincingly branch out, create a new ambiance without compromising their sound.
Other highlights include the catchy ‘In The Light’, ‘My Eyes’ (featuring Schultz‘s Jeff Buckley-esque delivery) and rousing Americana opener ‘Sleep On The Floor’, which sounds a lot like a Ryan Adams outtake from his Heartbreaker days.
Cleopatra’s brisk running time keeps things ticking along nicely and means lesser tracks are more easily dismissed in favour of stronger fare; ‘The Gun Song’s obvious ‘lalalalas’ takes the ‘good-ol’ boys from the South’ vibe a tad too far, and the bland ‘Gale Song’ - which was previously released on 2013's Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack - is a lazy inclusion.
So, are The Lumineers in it for the long haul? Cleopatra seems to suggest so. The cheery indie folk revival has been milked dry and the band knows it: they’ve reacted by making their second album a more mature and introspective affair, one which feels like a melancholic comedown to their debut album’s celebratory tone. Cleopatra might not convert many sceptics of the genre and is hardly essential listening, but it does see the band avoiding the sophomore slump and proves there’s more to them than a catchy single.
Key Tracks: ‘Sleep On The Floor’, ‘Ophelia’, ‘Cleopatra’, ‘In The Light’, ‘White Lie’ (bonus track on Deluxe edition).
- D - 12/04/16
As much as appearances can be deceiving and nothing should be judged by its cover etcetera etcetera, M83’s seventh album ultimately comes down to its cover.
Are you mesmerized by the bright colours and filled with giddy excitement by the dorky mop dolls? Or are you cringing so hard your spleen might rupture?
If it’s the former, chances are Junk is for you.
If it’s the latter, you’ll most likely be disappointed by the lack of rousing and sweeping pop atmospherics that made Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts and 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming so uniquely wonderful.
Junk sees frontman Anthony Gonzalez boldly wiping the slate clean and indulging in his love for vintage TV soundtracks and 80s kitsch. An ambitious move that should always be applauded. The tone is set from the opening number ‘Do It, Try It’: Junk dives straight into Pet Shop Boys-indebted synth-pop and fully embraces the cheesiness that comes with the sonic territory. Hardly surprising, since some of the band’s most catchy songs (‘Midnight City’, ‘Steve McQueen’) featured their fair share of 80s saxophones and unapologetically bombastic pop hooks.
The opening track is fun and thrives on the strength of its chorus. The same could be said of the following song, the excellent ‘Go!’: it tones down the cheese, introduces some of ‘Midnight City’s saxophones, a few screeching guitars and Mai Lan’s perfectly judged vocals. It’s colourful, brazen fun that promises much.
The fun ends here however, as the rest of the album never lives up to the opening duo and devolves into an uninspired collection that ranges from forgettable throwaways (‘Walkaway Blues’, ‘Bibi The Dog’), syrupy ballads (the cloying ‘For The Kids’, featuring Susanne Sundfor), all the way to TV theme song parodies (‘Moon Crystal’). Worst of all, it utterly squanders the opportunity to make Beck shine on ‘Time Wind’, a song which, like most of the overlong album, sounds hollow.
The nicest thing you can say about Junk is that its tone is cohesive throughout. However, this unwittingly results in the songs from track 3 onwards broadly blending into one samey, monotone mess; only ‘Solitude’s dream pop and the more energetic ‘Laser Gun’ manage to stand out. Sadly, even these tracks are lost amidst the schmaltzy filler.
Junk sounds like M83 trying a bit too hard to play the Daft Punk card, ie: create a nostalgia-fuelled blast from the past. Those who unconditionally loved Random Access Memories might find more homage-shaped rewards here; however, even the most hardened fan will admit that the lack of variety on show makes Junk a superficial ride that lacks the joie de vivre of Daft Punk’s latest or the rousing playfulness of M83’s strongest numbers.
While M83’s previous albums were exhilarating listening experiences, this frequently soulless collection of overly self-aware tracks isn’t as fun or as essential as the opening songs will have you believe. Junk is the sound Gonzalez' pet project gone stale and another disappointing case of nominative determinism.
Key Tracks: ‘Do It, Try It’, ‘Go!’, ‘Solitude’.
- D - 10/04/16
These are troubling times.
As if our laissez-faire attitude towards the well-being of Attenborough’s Blue Planet and the looming threat of terrorism weren’t enough, we live in an age where a portion of humanity believes that a bequiffed billionaire buffoon should be elected leader of the free world and thereby be just a mere button push away from condemning humanity to go the way of the dodo if someone offhandedly dismisses the size of his hands.
Bleak, n’est-ce pas?
Thankfully, amidst this depressing shitshow prevails a glimmer of hope: while REM previously sang about the end of the world as we know it (and they felt fine), we now have the full soundtrack for the atomic apocalypse, courtesy of Mogwai.
Indeed, the Scottish post-rock outfit have devised their third soundtrack and offered an album of reworked songs they provided for Mark Cousin’s 2015 BBC documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. The film addresses the origins and realities of the nuclear age, from Hiroshima to Fukushima, via the Cold War; the band have done the same by lending their cinematic mood pieces to create a stunning OST that fully works as a standalone Mogwai LP in its own right.
Atomic chronicles the creation and use of nuclear weapons: it covers a broad spectrum of moods and never fails to astound. It starts in a surprising way with the delicate ‘Ether’: the track is more uplifting than the album title suggests and the gradual, horn-led crescendo is delicately rousing. The mood soon darkens, a change marked by the song titles: ‘SCRAM’ and ‘Bitterness Centrifuge’ hardly scream blissful insouciance. The first doesn’t plunge the listener straight into the abyss but does start to become unnerving, chiefly due to looped sounds; the second is a glacial number that edges us closer towards the brink, as if mirroring the transformation of the initial hope that human inventiveness would further mankind, into the sinister realization that Man has created “the destroyer of worlds”, to paraphrase Oppenheimer.
The darkly entrancing beats of ‘U-235’ (the chemical formula for uranium) creates even more unease, while the brooding ‘Pripyat’ (the name of an abandoned city near Chernobyl) stands as the darkest track on the album. Stuart Braithwaite and his lot create a sinister soundscape that lets you know you’re no longer staring at the darkness from a distance but are now fully submerged.
‘Weak Force’ is synth-heavy and, like ‘U-235’, could have been at home on their previous album Rave Tapes. Its hypnotic pulses moodily segue into ‘Little Boy’ (the bomb detonated over Hiroshima), a chillingly euphoric track that works due to its sparseness. The string-laden and melancholic ‘Are You A Dancer?’ recalls some of the band’s earlier works and ‘Tzar’ is one of Atomic’s best surprises: there are moments of blissful tranquillity that take a sudden turn for the energetic, creating a sonic wave that shakes your bones. The atmospheric album closer ‘Fat Man’ (the bomb dropped on Nagasaki) winds things down with a superbly creepy piano melody that manages to be simultaneously beautiful and understatedly violent.
Sonically, many compositions here are a continuation from 2014's Rave Tapes: the electro inclinations are fully embraced, the guitars are noticeably less present and the synths are given front stage. It works but the album’s main strength remains its ability to transport: much like their work on the score of TV show Les Revenants (The Returned), the songs are always evocative, whether or not you’ve seen the documentary. Unlike Les Revenants OST however, Atomic feels more varied and less predictable: the moodiness can become sinister but is often allowed to usher in a feeling of elevated peacefulness, as if we’re meant to helplessly understand that no matter what we do, we will always cede to our darker impulses, fating ourselves to ultimately be the architects of our downfall.
Granted, these are troubling - and not very cheery - times, but at least we’ve got a soundtrack for the end of days. Every (mushroom) cloud...
Key Tracks: ‘SCRAM’, ‘U-235’, ‘Are You A Dancer?’, ‘Tzar’, ‘Fat Man’.
- D - 04/04/16
Channelling the spirit of the British indie and the post-punk revival of the mid-00s, Berlin-based Cardboard Hearts have released their eponymous debut EP. The young trio tick some nostalgia boxes, transporting this reviewer back to the heyday Razorlight and The Futureheads; however, the obvious tonal touchstone on this minor indie gem is The Kooks, with singer Jacob Eisenach‘s vocal intonations indebted to frontman Luke Pritchard.
The band also successfully ticks the immediately gratifying indie box. Out of the five tracks, the handclappy opener ‘Velvet Parade’ stands out thanks to its bouncy melody while ‘Outta My Head’ shines brightest of all: its infectious opening guitar riff and the subtle but inspired addition of strings, courtesy of part-time band member Darya Guettler, work wonders. The song not only belies the band members’ tender years, but could have happily been at home on Inside In / Inside Out, The Kooks’ first (and undeniably strongest) LP.
Not bad for three cheeky scamps under the legal drinking age, I think you’ll agree.
Other songs like the mellow ‘Day’s Content’ and the downtempo ballad ‘15’ are decent but can’t quite reach the same heights as the second track, especially with some occasionally creaky lyrics: the “Take me out for dinner / Don’t be such a sinner” line is about as subtle as a triple portion of Kartoffelsalat.
That being said, the only truly noticeable weak link is the overly preppy ‘How Does It Feel?’, which undoes some of the other tracks’ more mature sounds. It’s live rendition dampens the sickly sweet but the nicest thing you can say about the recorded version is that the strings save the day once more. Its radio-friendly hook is hard to shake, but ‘Outta My Head’ remains proof they don’t need to try so hard to dance to Radio One’s tune.
Provided Cardboard Hearts tone down the early millennial sound of elongated vowels, make Guettler a permanent fixture and, crucially, inject some of the energetic verve they display in their live performances (especially during their excellent cover of Cage The Elephant’s ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’), promising things lie ahead.
Key Tracks: ‘Velvet Parade’, ‘Outta My Head’.
- D - 29/03/16
2015 was one hell of a year for the Jack Garratt: his second EP, Synesthesiac, was a minor marvel and the bearded wunderkind not only won the BRITS Critics’ Choice Award but his efforts were also rewarded when he topped the BBC’s Sound of 2016 poll.
Without trying to adopt a nauseating hipster attitude, this reviewer took much delight in the fact that, having been singing Garratt’s praises for some time now and having had the pleasure of seeing him live on several occasions, the Buckinghamshire lad was finally getting the attention he deserved.
The question now is: does his debut album, Phase, convert the try?
Mostly yes, because several tracks from his two EPs have made the final cut and continue to stand out, not least ‘The Love You’re Given’. This moodily enticing and nocturnal song remains one of Garratt’s strongest, boasting what the multi-instrumentalist can accomplish with a few synths, sparse piano chords, a dysrhythmic beat or two and some eerie loops. His beautiful (at times Justin Vernon-esque) falsetto works with the lyrics centring on unrequited love, and each subtle musical layer on this finely produced track showcases his unique merge of soulful dubstep laced with pop hooks. From its lovelorn start to its empowered finish, ‘The Love You’re Given’ is his high watermark, proof that he can promisingly push the envelope.
The rub lies with the less adventurous tracks, which pale in comparison with more feverish compositions like opener ‘Coalesce (Synesthesia Pt. II)’ and the pulsating ‘Water’. The Ed Sheeran-reminiscent songs on show - like the slightly soppy ‘Weathered’, the stripped down ‘I Know All What I Do’ and the twee ‘Surprise Yourself’ - undercut the less mainstream material and dilute the album’s overall potential. It doesn’t help that some of the lyrics in these less audacious songs also stand out for all the wrong reasons: put bluntly, there’s a whiff of Chris “Life as short as the falling of snow” Martin in some of his texts. Case and point: “I’ve clothed my fears in the fabric of your dignity”, on the closing ballad ‘My House Is Your Home’.
Poetic, sure, but you’re one well-meaning MOR élan from a conscious uncoupling, Jack.
The right balance between the richly atmospheric and the safer fare hasn’t been completely struck, but Phase does remain a promising oscillation between the two, with ‘Breathe Life’ and ‘Worry’ serving as excellent bridges between the daring and the chart-tailored.
The prevailing positive is that while there are rather obvious comparisons to be made with James Blake, even when Garratt is at his most radio-friendly, his intentions never feel superficial or half-hearted... which is not something you can say about the former. It’s hard to argue with the energy on show with songs like ‘Fire’ or the heavily dubstep (erratically fun) ‘Chemical’; they have their flaws but are redeemed by Garratt’s chutzpah.
This debut album is not the most consistent of efforts and nor does it always reflect the mesmeric dynamism Garratt can conjure up on stage; however, Phase certainly proves that beyond the hype and the accolades is an artist that deserves your time. With a heavier nudge towards the Synesthesia-shaped bursts of experimentation and provided he ditches some of the folk balladry, don’t bet against him becoming the sound of not just 2016, but of many years to come.
NB: The Deluxe Edition is well worth seeking out, with seven additional songs on Disc 2, including ‘Water’ and ‘Synesthesia Pt.1’. Both of these tracks should have made the final cut of Phase: their inclusion, at the price of sacrificing ‘Surprise Yourself’ or ‘Weathered’, would have strengthened the final LP.
Key Tracks: ‘Coalesce (Synesthesia Pt. II), ‘Breathe Life’, ‘Worry’, ‘The Love You’re Given’, ‘Water’ (only on Deluxe Edition).
( For more information and reviews of Jack Garratt's live performances, click on the following links:
* Rock Werchter 2015 festival review
* Jack Garratt - Live review - Berlin, November 2015
* 2015 End of Year Music Review )
- D - 29/02/16
Six years since Heligoland, trip hop pioneers Massive Attack are paving the way for a full-length release with a four-track EP that is well worth your time. Founding member Robert Del Nadja has side-lined his more languorous mood pieces, brought on some new blood (and a familiar face) and made Ritual Spirit a strong statement.
The unsettling opening track brings back some of the claustrophobic trip hop sounds of the early nineties, when the band released the genre defining Blue Lines. ‘Dead Editors’ (hopefully they mean no ill will to Tom Smith and his lot), featuring the brilliant Roots Manuva, is a darkly dramatic song that pulses with mesmeric menace. Its prominent bassline and pulsing beats are followed by the titular song, which features newcomer Azekel on vocals. Less moody than its predecessor, the ballad’s gently haunting melody has a palpable anxiety to it that manages to hypnotise.
‘Voodoo in my Blood’ confirms what the first two have suggested: Massive Attack are bringing back the rap component that was at times lacking in the band’s recent releases. This look to past makes this EP something special but is by no means a nostalgic exercise: Del Naja brings on board the experimental Scottish outfit Young Fathers for this sinister-sounding song and the result is an edgier sound that feels exciting.
The final song is a particular treat for fans, since it sees former collaborator Tricky back on vocal duties. He hasn’t collaborated with Massive Attack since 1994’s Protection and ‘Take It There’ shows to what extent he has been missed. It’s mesmeric quality is galvanized by the eerie piano and pulsing beats; add Tricky’s raspy delivery and you’ve got a band that sound innovative and thrilling again.
Lasting a mere 17 minutes, Ritual Spirt is short, to the point and surprisingly textured. Listening to these four songs will do that most wondrous of things: create a disincarnating sensation, one which divorces the listener from reality, immerses them in a nocturnal and feverish vibe, and leaves them wanting more.
While everyone, yours truly included, has been on tenterhooks for the release of the new Radiohead album, Massive Attack have quietly sneaked in and delivered a strong statement of intent: while this sound suggests they are rekindling with their past, they don’t belong to it. They sound poised, relevant and could eclipse all the competition... Ritual Spirit suggests that 2016 could be theirs for the taking.
- D - 05/02/16
The premise for This Is Acting is quite fascinating: singer songwriter Sia has made an album composed of songs she wrote for other people. To be more precise, she’s made an album composed of songs rejected by A-listers, including Adele, Rihanna and Beyoncé.
Most artists wouldn’t think to publicize the fact that their material has been ditched by pop royalty, let alone compile the orphaned scraps. They’d bin the lot, focus on their own material and make sure to remind people they’ve written hits that Britney Spears and the aforementioned RiRi have welcomed with open arms.
Not Sia though.
Having been propelled to pop stardom in 2014 with her chart-bothering singles ‘Chandelier’ and ‘Elastic Heart’, making a follow-up to her sixth album 1,000 Forms of Fear was always going to be a challenge. All bets were off, since Sia had reinvented herself many times over during an impressive career. She’d waved goodbye to her lounge days with Zero 7 and sent her more atmospheric down-tempo material (see: the gorgeous ‘Breathe Me’, featured on Colour The Small One) downstream.
This Is Acting doesn’t see her subverting expectations; rather, she’s released what often sounds like a compilation of end-of-year chart toppers. It doesn’t sound like the hodgepodge of ragtag tracks it could have been; surprisingly, the concept pays off as a collection of uninterrupted earworms.
Formulaic earworms, granted, but earworms nonetheless.
Songs like the Rihanna-esque ‘Cheap Thrills’ and the excellent ‘One Million Bullets’ (which seems to be one of the rare tracks actually penned with herself in mind) stand out, while ‘Broken Glass’ shatters all balladesque formulas with its energizing key changes. Many are very by-the-numbers (‘House on Fire’, ‘Unstoppable’) and some do sound hugely tailor-made for the artists she wrote them for, to the extent she even adopts vocal mannerisms. It only becomes distracting on the Shakira-heavy ‘Move Your Body’, with Sia needlessly aping the Columbian songstress’ delivery. It’s ridiculous at times, but these party anthems are never less than solid.
For the most part, This Is Acting comes off as a versatile collection of pop bangers boasting not only Sia’s writing knowhow and melodic craft but also her capacity to convincingly belt out a tune. Its an entertaining listen, one which can be appreciated as a ‘what-if’ collection of pop songs. What if Beyoncé had snapped up the power ballad ‘Footprints’? What if Adele had made ‘Alive’ or ‘Bird Set Free’ as the first single of 25 instead of ‘Hello’? What if, in some parallel universe, Rihanna has ditched the underwhelming sounds of the recently released Anti and instead chosen to sing ‘Reaper’? These speculations do somewhat detract from the fact that this is a Sia album and here’s hoping that she’ll focus a bit more on herself next time. In the meantime, this curiously cohesive collection of catchy oddities trumps a lot of efforts out there. It also playfully alerts us to the fact - as the title of the album self-deprecatingly suggests - that it’s ultimately all about acting the part: the pop landscape is often random, blindly selective and above all hugely dependent on backroom lyricists that don’t often get the credit they’re due.
This Is Acting doesn’t stray far from the radio-friendly formula - it almost makes a point of adhering to it - but at least it’s credit where credit’s due.
Key Tracks: ‘Alive’, ‘One Hundred Bullets’, ‘Cheap Thrills’.
- D - 02/02/16
A lot has happened since Bloc Party’s last record, 2012’s Four, chiefly the loss of two founding members. In order to celebrate their new line-up, Bloc Part Mk 2 have chosen a more introspective sound and much like the opening track / lead single ‘The Love Within’, Hymns is a mixed bag.
The single is both grating due to its awful and repetitive synth line and yet it stands as a satisfying disco pop hybrid, redeemed by Kele’s confident vocals. So it goes for the rest of the album, which has its high points (the Blur-like chorus of bluesy ‘The Good News’; the haunted electronics of ‘Different Drugs’; ‘Virtue’ and its radio-friendly dirge) and its frustrating lows (the innocuous ‘Only He Can Heal Me’ and the pleasant-but-uninspired ‘My True Name’).
The intertwining themes of faith and love are explored in the lyrics throughout with verve (“I used to find my answers / In the gospel of St. John / But now I find them at the bottom / Of this shot glass” on ‘The Good News’) and simple sensuality (“Now we’re running off the road / ‘Cause you’re asleep at the wheel / Which way do you choose? / ‘Cause right now I choose you” on ‘Different Drugs’) and for the most part it works. Yet, as much as the album sounds tonally consistent, there’s an awkwardness about Hymns, one that can leave the listener disincarnated from its dreamy charms. One of the causes of this is the lack of truly memorable hooks: ‘The Love Within’ is a decent pop song but it lacks the catchy tune of the frenetically exciting ‘Flux’; if ‘So Real’ is a romantic ballad with a twist, so was the far superior and edgier ‘One More Chance’...
And where, pray tell, is the live-favourite ‘Eden’? It outshines most of the tracks chosen for the final tracklist and its absence is felt. (You’ll find it on the deluxe album version, which is worth the extra pennies in this case, if only for that song.)
Thankfully, the album manages to redeem itself with its closing trio, making Hymns' hits just about outweigh its misses. The aforementioned ‘Virtue’ has a funkiness to it (and will doubtlessly be chosen as the album’s next single), while the mid-tempo ballad ‘Exes’ has a soulful gospel vibe that makes it stand out. The last track, ‘Living Lux’, is a lullaby whose tender electro pulse and prominent synths round off the album in a neat way. It does sadly leave the listener feeling that band have reached a dead end in the overly ambient avenue they’ve chosen.
All in all, Hymns functions as a cohesive whole and impresses because of how different it sounds when compared to their previous efforts. It is a more intimate and romantic effort and the band are taking risks, something which can only be applauded in a frequently risk-averse scene.
However, even if the thematic whole and the musical sparseness can satisfy, it’s hard to shake the niggling feeling that an urgency has been lost. It lacks the buoyant creativity of 2008’s Intimacy or even the driving force of Four. Let’s just hope that Bloc Party Mk 2 can come back with a renewed sense of purpose next time, harnessing the heartbreak and merging it with more inspired melodies... Unless ‘Living Lux’s lyrics have a prophetic weight: “Raise your glass, my old friend / As we both know this is the end”...
Key Tracks: ‘The Good News’, ‘Different Drugs’, ‘Virtue’, ‘Exes’, 'Eden' (Deluxe version only).
- D - 31/01/15
To the surprise and sadness of many, it was announced today that David Bowie died from cancer, 2 days after his 69th birthday. His son, film director Duncan Jones, confirmed the news and stated that his father died “surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer”.
I had the pleasure of seeing one of the most influential musicians of his era live in 2003: it stays with me to this day. His music, talent and influence will continue to be felt far and wide for decades to come.
I started writing this review of his final album Blackstar on Sunday, planning to publish it today once I’d given it a final reread. I shall keep it as it is, without readjusting the content in light of recent events. Why? To preserve the critical integrity of the review, and so as not to fall into sentiment-based overpraisal. Also, as a fan, it would be tempting to revisit the album as a parting gift, asking oneself the question: was he saying goodbye with what he knew was going to be his swansong? Did he know that we would be singing these songs from beyond the grave? After all, this is an album whose most recent single ‘Lazarus’ contains the rather prophetic lyrics:
“Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama that can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now”.
Who knows? What is sure is that with time, Blackstar will become special because it is an iconic musician’s final bow. For now, here is my review, penned mere hours before I learned the news.
In 2013, David Bowie returned from a self-imposed, 10-year exile with The Next Day. His surprise return to the limelight was hailed as genius and his comeback album was considered as a masterpiece by many.
The truth is that the somewhat overrated album was Bowie playing it safe by looking back at his career and celebrating his work. It didn’t see him recreating himself or donning a new mask like he had done with most of his albums; its cover even rehashed his iconic 1977 Heroes image. As cliché as it is to describe Bowie as the almighty chameleon of pop, his strength has always resided in his versatility and musical pioneering and both were lacking on The Next Day, a minor rebirth.
However, three years later, ★ (written Blackstar) is the sound of a man taking risks, looking to the future and reinventing himself once more.
His 25th album, released on his 69th birthday, is the most inventive Bowie has been in a long while. As pretentious as this doubtlessly reads, Blackstar is an experimental work of art-rock that centres on Bowie’s instrument of choice: the saxophone. Indeed, while many might be bemused by the guitars and keyboards playing second fiddle to the sax on the majority of the album, fans will know that it was the first instrument Bowie learned to play and that this jazz influence isn’t new. From several tracks on Aladdin Sane and Young Americans to ‘Bring Me The Disco King’ on 2003‘s Reality, The Thin White Duke has always liked dabbling in the genre. Never quite like this though, to the extent no musicians from The Next Day appear on Blackstar; instead, an ensemble of New York jazz musicians (including saxophonist extraordinaire Donny McCaslin) accompany Bowie on this 7-song odyssey that is as unfathomable as it is hypnotic.
The opening title track is without a doubt one of his most cryptic: a near 10-minute space oddity, it is startling, fractured and downright bizarre. The first listen will make it sound like an intriguing but dysrhythmic mess. The second will mesmerize further. The third will reveal a melodramatic track laced with an apocalyptic grace that shows Bowie hasn’t thrown in the towel just yet. It is reminiscent of certain tracks on Heathen, with an added dose of experimental daring that makes it destabilizing and yet addictive.
What follows is a darkly cinematic album whose tracks include the haunting ‘Lazarus’, the gorgeous ballad ‘Dollar Days’, the brooding ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ and the menacing ‘Girl Loves Me’. The latter is a superb dosage of pop hooks and murkily enigmatic tones, sung in parts in Polari and the made up language of 'A Clockwork Orange'. The pulsing bass and Mark Guiliana‘s disjointed drumming contribute to making this song one of the album’s highlights.
Only the lackluster ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ and the cacophonously oblique ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ fail to incite much interest. Considering there are only seven songs, the fact that two pale compared to the others isn't great, but even these tracks manage to impress at times, specifically the former’s saxophone-based segments.
As a whole, Blackstar - superbly produced by Bowie’s frequent collaborator Tony Visconti - is hard to compare with his discography: it wasn’t created in a vacuum but certainly feels like it. The best reference points can be found in the Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) for its inventiveness, in the underrated 1995 album Outside for its startling obscurity and in 2002’s envelope-pushing Heathen for its atmospheric consistency. It might take a few listens to appreciate the richness of the album’s 42-minutes but it doesn't fail to impress: he is properly reborn this time (like Lazarus) and has offered a thrillingly inventive album that sees him creatively reenergized. As he sings on ‘Dollar Days’, he has rediscovered his strange ability to “push their backs against the grain / And fool them all again and again”.
It might not be his magnus opus or greatest album to date but if this is how he fools us, he can continue to do so for as long as he wants.
Welcome back. Missed you.
Key Tracks: 'Blackstar', 'Girl Loves Me', 'Dollar Days'.
- D - 11/01/16