“We’re in a different kind of thing now”, The National frontman Matt Berninger croons on lead single ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’. In many ways, this is a statement of intent, a way of heralding the band’s newest, possibly darkest turn they’ve taken, four years since their last and - in hindsight - far more radio friendly-sounding album Trouble Will Find Me.
Sleep Well Beast is indeed a departure of sorts and the songs in this seventh album can be crudely divided into three categories: the beautifully morose numbers that prove how no one writes a ballad quite like The National, the more experimental fare dominated by synths and electronic beats, and the guitar-centric rock compositions that merrily let the Dessner brothers off their leach.
Stunning opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ has a moodier ‘Fake Empire’ feel to it, while both the 'Pink Rabbits'-evoking waltz ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ and ‘Dark Side Of The Gym’ lull the listener into heart-aching wooziness. Some feature some electronic flickers, making coldly claustrophobic tracks like ‘Empire Line’ sound indebted to Joy Division’s doomed romanticism, a sentiment that bleeds into numbers like ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, ‘Guilty Party’ and the titular track. These sound like a band experimenting with their established sound, with electro inflections and Radiohead-like glitches that echo the Oxford quintet’s Amnesiac. ‘Walk It Back’ is a standout when it comes to the band taking risks: the synths take centre stage and the lyrics are sung like a spoken-word mood piece, a surprisingly ominous and effective addition to the tracklist.
Elsewhere, more rock-orientated numbers include album highlights ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ and ‘Turtleneck’. The former is an energised and heady track that stands out as one of the band’s most essential since ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, while the latter is the brashest tune they’ve written since Alligator’s ‘Abel’ and ‘Mr November’.
Regardless of this rather reductive song division, the album sounds incredibly coherent. The electronic experimentalism subtly creeps into the comfortable-sounding slow-burners, and the distorted guitars burst into calmer sonic landscapes. Its homogeneity, however, is mostly due to Sleep Well Beast’s thematic spine, dealing with struggling relationships, specifically marriage. This allows the band to whip out their ever-faithful calling card: superbly introspective and ornately crafted lyrics about self-doubt and uncertainty. Berninger co-wrote the songs with his wife Carin Besser, and while lyrics like “You said we’re not so tied together / What did you mean?”, “I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with” or “Maybe I listen more than you think / And I can tell that somebody sold you / We said we’d never let anyone in / We said we’d only die of lonely secrets” hint at defeated hopes and loss, the album feels more like a therapy session, as if exorcising demons in a public sphere could pre-emptively salvage a relationship.
Autobiographical or not, needless to say that Sleep Well Beast is not the cheeriest of albums, even by The National’s standards. It immerses itself in a profoundly sorrowful tone and rarely puts a foot wrong, except on the less memorable ‘Born To Beg’ and the up-tempo and tad-too-bland ‘Day I Die’. But even if these get better with repeated listens.
While the description of this bleak beast may sound like a band wallowing in self-pity, there is also a blood-thirsty, political subtext to several songs, like in many of The National’s lyrics. ‘Walk It Back’ samples a scarily prescient Karl Rove quote, and ‘Turtleneck’ joins the aforementioned ‘Mr November’ as an overtly engaged piece. Written after last November’s election, the song is the scathing counterpart to the hope-filled ‘Fake Empire’, an indictment of propaganda and demagoguery. It’s no stretch to imagine who was the inspiration behind the lines: “Another man in shitty suits everybody’s cheering for / This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for / Oh no.”
Sleep Well Beast doesn’t have the same immediate impact as the back-to-back highwater marks Alligator or Boxer, nor does it reach the same polished heights of High Violet or Trouble Will Find Me. It is a complex achievement nonetheless, arguably their most conceptually cohesive and textured album, one which reveals its layers with each listen. Above all, it is the sound of a band experimenting with their style, adding musical layers to their expansive emotional range, and embracing the total darkness to better fight it.
Key Tracks: ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’, ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, ‘Turtleneck’, ‘Empire Line’, ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, ‘Guilty Party’.
- D - 14/09/17
For her third record, Nadine Shah has decided to tackle things head-on and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Her previous albums - the wonderful Love Your Dum And Mad and her excellent follow-up Fast Food - graced the listener with candid and immersive stories about anxiety, death, toxic relationships and heartbreak; Holiday Destination focuses less on these, and takes its inspiration from current events. Topics such as the refugee crisis, the rise of hate-fuelled rhetoric, as well as the fractured nature of identity are all addressed throughout, and while a post-punk album about the turmoil of the modern world may sound like a wearily righteous endeavour, the results are immensely listenable, without a trace of pontification.
Her genuinely daring new album opens with ‘A Place Like This’, which boasts brooding percussions and a funky bassline, and is a call for empathy towards those in crisis. Like in many of the songs here, one would expect a more plaintive, heavy-sounding tone when dealing with the weighty topics, but the uplifting sounds meshed with desperate lyrics make this an initially destabilizing effort. This dichotomy between form and content thrillingly persists throughout the album, especially in the titular track, a catchy number that features some of the album’s most bracing lyrics, including the repeated “How are you going to sleep tonight?”.
The most evident touchstone when listening to Holiday Destination is PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, as the thematic spine of the album sees Shah casting herself as an observer of the world’s woes. The former travelled to Kosovo and Afghanistan for last year’s journalism-rock hybrid; here, the story goes that Shah was initially inspired by a documentary her brother made about the Gaziantep refugee camp on the Syrian border. This Al Jazeera documentary, as well as news reports, showed the xenophobia of holidaymakers and how tourists unashamedly complained about the sight of migrants ruining their picturesque holidays. Shah uses this as a springboard to comment on the sorry state of a world gradually losing its grasp on compassion, and how we get lost in the trivial.
However inescapable this PJ Harvey comparison may be, it shouldn’t diminish the impact of what Shah has accomplished here. As per usual, the album’s strength comes from Shah’s impeccable vocal performance but also from its careful tone. What could have been a patronizing protest album never once feels gratingly didactic or overly dependent on the lyrical content. It’s to Shah’s considerable credit that Holiday Destination never sacrifices listenability or genuine intimacy for the sake of easy hectoring; instead, the English-born singer - who has a stake in many of the topical issues addressed, as she identifies as a second-generation immigrant, her father being Pakistani and her English mother of Norwegian descent - manages to channel a sense of rage without ever stumbling into overly ripe territory, or forgetting that she’s accustomed her fans to a good tune.
Moreover, whether it’s lamenting about how 2016 was “the year that took our idols”, that we’re left “with fascists in the White House” or affirming that “the bad guys are winning”, at no point does this record feel sombre or catastrophist. In painting pictures of injustice and strife, she beautifully harmonizes some gorgeous instrumentation with her articulate lyrics. Even the more aggressive moments are laced with melodically catchy hooks, leaving the listener feeling wooed and oddly hopeful as opposed to lectured. For instance, the most Harvey-esque track ‘Out The Way’ sees surprisingly welcome saxophone outbursts after she passionately sings “Where would you have me go? I’m second generation don’t you know?”, and the nakedly confessional ‘Evil’, in which the singer tackles the subject of mental health and others’ perception of it, is a rhythmically upbeat affair that could be one of the album’s most intoxicating tracks. Shah sidesteps the obvious and creates clouds only to part them, thanks to a deftly handled tonal juggling act.
While there’s a slight dip towards the end of the second half, any niggles are quickly brushed aside by the closing duo, ‘Mother Fighter’ and ‘Jolly Sailor’. The first has an infectious post-punk tune whose rhythmic groove is faintly reminiscent of Interpol’s ‘Evil’, while the album closer is a brooding ballad that tackles identity as well as embrace the malaise post-Brexit attitudes have birthed. It’s a lament of sorts that smartly eschews finger-wagging and instead addresses stereotypes, calling for compassion and understanding. Once again, it’s head-on but never heavy-handed, and the song closes things in an empathetic and hopeful manner, embodying the best of what this superbly accomplished album has to offer. Above all though, what Holiday Destination proves once more is that Shah still manages to make the gloomy sound sublime, and that an uplifting-sounding song can temporarily diffuse even the bleakest of situations, protesting without alienating.
Key Tracks: ‘Holiday Destination’, ‘2016’, ‘Yes Men’, ‘Evil’, ‘Mother Fighter’, ‘Jolly Sailor’.
- D - 27/08/17
If there’s one thing you can’t deny about Arcade Fire’s disappointing new record is that they’ve tried. Over the course of five albums, the Montreal band have laudably taken risks and explored new sonic terrains. However, Everything Now is unavoidably their weakest effort to date and, much like their admittedly very lively live shows, they are starting to come off as committee-driven, exuding a manufactured spirit that doesn’t sit well with certain fans, this reviewer included. It’s not about desperately clinging onto a past sound; experimentation is always welcome. It’s just that Arcade Fire seem to have devolved into being a band more interested in posturing with uninspired or wearingly ‘woke’ lyrics aiming at social critique rather than delivering a memorable collection of songs.
Not that they can’t do concept albums; their previous efforts have - and, for the most part, successfully - addressed various social ills, from the empty nature of capitalism to the nefarious effects of technology. It’s just that the songs served the concept, not the other way around. Here, it seems like Win Butler and his merry band were so hell-bent on telling you how much the world we live in is brimming with too much information, injustice and angst that the songwriting was backbenched. And subtlety was jettisoned into the sun.
What’s more infuriating is that they build up some goodwill only to undo it throughout Everything Now, making it a very uneven listen. Case and point: the insufferably twee lead single ‘Everything Now’ is an ABBA-indebted anthem that makes me tachycardic in all the wrong ways, but it’s followed by the superior ‘Signs Of Life’, which could have been a Reflektor outtake. ‘Creature Comfort’ manages the impressive feat of creating a genuinely catchy “God, make me famous / If you can’t, just make it painless” refrain and destroying any of its potency when Régine Chassagne’s starts screeching the line, sounding like a molested banshee.
The rest of the songs are forgettable (‘Peter Pan’ and its mawkish lyrics) when they’re not just painful (‘Chemistry’), and only the swaggerific ‘Electric Blue’ and more ambitious ‘We Don’t Deserve Your Love’ stand out in the second half of the album.
Sadly, they’ve also perfected particularly infuriating out-of-studio antics for the release of this album: just when you think that they’re in on the joke and that the matching logoed jackets they proudly wear on stage are a huge meta effort to match their overwrought promotional campaign, they release statements implementing dress codes. Indeed, for certain shows, the band told ticket holders to refrain from wearing “shorts, large logos, tank tops, crop tops, solid white or red clothing”, adding they “reserve the right to deny entry to anyone dressed inappropriately” (statement they rapidly nixed when faced with a backlash).
Still giving them the benefit of the doubt? What if I told you that the band posted a fake review of their album online, a failed attempt at humour in which they claim that Everything Now “will eventually be evaluated as one of the best (albums) of the year”.
Not reeking of wrongheaded desperation enough? Try this: Arcade Fire have released a USB fidget spinner which contains a digital version of the album, available for the batshit crazy price of $109 / €92 / £83.
Sure, they might be trolling us with their performance art / marketing, but in trying to knowingly comment on unbridled consumerism and be in on the joke, they’ve unwittingly become the punchline. Pity they don’t have the songs to back up these ‘humorous’ shenanigans; and yet again, the band have provided the stick to beat them with, with their aforementioned penultimate track, the aptly titled ‘We Don’t Deserve Your Love’. It’s one of Everything Now’s more inspired offerings but still sums things up nicely: they’re testing our limits and my affection levels are seriously dwindling.
Key Tracks: ‘Signs Of Life’, ‘Electric Blue’, ‘We Don’t Deserve Your Love’.
If you're looking for another review of the album, check out The Rabbit Hearted Girl's take here:
- D - 02/08/17
Three sisters from California confidently made 2013 their own with their debut album, Days Are Gone. Haim’s smart fusion of 70s-indebted pop and retro R&B sensuality impressed both on record and live, making them sound like a soft-rock orgy featuring Stevie Nicks, Shania Twain and Joni Mitchell. The trio took their brand of infectiously catchy hooks on the road, and four years later, the long awaited sophomore album is finally here.
Recorded with long-time producer / collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, the spectre of Fleetwood Mac still pleasantly looms over their percussion-heavy and immaculately crafted pop but gone are the immediately accessible shoulder-shimmying and dance-inducing tunes, replaced here by a less exuberant and more melancholic counterpart. Indeed, if Days Are Gone had an all-out swagger to it, Something To Tell You sees Alana, Danielle and Este delivering 11 songs that boast what they do best while embarking on an album decidedly about relationships. They’ve avoided the age-old Difficult Second Album curse, but ultimately not by much, and one hopes that further listens will reveal more treasures. After a few, however, it’s plain to see that something is amiss here: as carefully crafted and sleek though Something To Tell You may be, the band has lost some of Days Are Gone’s contagious sense of fun. There’s a more laidback maturity and melancholy to the sound of these songs about heartbreak and regret, even if some tracks do retain that sun-kissed pop vibe that made their previous album so addictive: amazing lead single and album opener ‘I Want You Back’ and the upbeat ‘Little Of Your Love’ both hit the mark, while the more mellow titular track and the sultry ‘Walking Away’ both stun due to the impeccable rhythms and heartfelt delivery.
As for the penultimate track and first song to be released for promotional purposes, it’s a slow-burning corker that promised so much more: ‘Right Now’ could have heralded a more ambitious direction for the band. It’s a deceptively complex number that sees them out of their comfort zone, one that gradually but bombastically unleashes holy hell. This stand-out is undeniably cluttered but still needed to be the launching pad for the rest of album’s tone. As it is, it only comparatively highlights the unavoidable Achilles’ heel: the album trails off quite quickly due to the rather bland lyrical content and a sporadic reliance on voice-modifying effects. The latter is misguided and ignorable, but the former is a genuine shame, as Haim have previously accustomed their listeners to some more whip-smart fare. Some broad and overly simplistic lines like “Tell me nothing’s wrong / It was good / Now it’s gone” or “I wanted an honest man / I thought I’d found one of them” fall on the wrong side of less-is-more. Album MVP Danielle manages to sell them for the most part, making the listen a pleasantly cohesive one (unlike the admittedly more disjointed-sounding first album), but not even she can hide the fact that Something To Tell You is an overall more monotone and, sadly, underwhelming listening experience.
Delaying their follow-up was an undeniably risky move in the first place, especially considering the rapidly shifting musical landscape in which today’s favourites are suddenly tomorrow’s has-beens. It’s to their credit they still make it work and this polished effort is to be applauded for deftly evoking the late 70s / early 80s without cheaply pastiching the sound. Haim maintain a singular identity and it’s yet again plain to hear how talented these multi-instrumentalists are, and how much confidence emanates from what is only their second LP. It leaves you wanting a more; not a bad feeling, all things considered, but you can’t help but feel this welcome return could have been significantly more memorable.
Here’s hoping third time’s a charm... and cross those digits so that the sisterly trio don’t keep us waiting another four years.
Key Tracks: ‘Want You Back’, ‘Little Of Your Love’, ‘Walking Away’, ‘Right Now’.
- D - 12/07/17
Gorillaz’ fifth album - their first in seven years - started off as a conceptual project focusing on the election of Donald Trump. Specifically, co-creator and Blur frontman Damon Albarn asked all artists featured on Humanz how they would react to a world in which Darth Fanta was president. Of course, this was months before the unimaginable scenario became a reality, and in the wake of the ominous initiative, all references to the brain-damaged demagogue and themes linked to the US election were retracted. Wise move, as the result could have pandered to the most insufferable and predictable uber-liberal leanings of those who genuinely think that a “political editorial” posted on your social media platform of choice or angry tweet could possibly make a blind bit of difference. Instead, only the bizarre and frequently upbeat-sounding mood survives, and the album’s variety of tones will surprise more than a few.
Indeed, Albarn and band co-founder Jamie Hewlett have assembled an eye-wateringly impressive and diverse array of guest stars to feature on this new opus: rapper Vince Staples, reggae up-and-comer Popcaan, gospel icon Mavis Staples, D.R.A.M., Grace Jones, Savages’ Jehnny Beth, Noel Gallagher... The list goes on until you realise that every song has a featuring credit, bar one (‘Busted And Blue’) and the amusing-but-largely-useless interludes peppered across the tracklist, narrated by Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn.
Brass tacks: Humanz is an odd beast. On one hand, it is not a satisfying Gorillaz album on the same level as Gorillaz or Demon Days, with the virtual-band multimedia concept having seemingly run its course. The band characters 2-D, Noodle, Murdoc and Russel are nowhere to be found here (apart from some sporadic and somewhat spiritless vocals from Albarn as 2-D), and while many may argue that the fictional quartet never actually sounded like anything, the fact is that they really did. Now, the images and the sounds don’t really coalesce anymore: the band name is a label used to sell Albarn’s heteroclite experiments, an umbrella term that demonstrably shows that the cartoon band are now being used as window-dressing for songs in which the guest vocalists aren’t guests so much as full-on performers. The album is theirs, not Gorillaz’s. This deviation wouldn’t be so grating if the initial high-concept idea hadn’t been developed so meticulously up until now. In effect, the four characters on the cover of the album aren’t really the centre anymore: Humanz is basically a huge get-together they’re hosting, as they watch from a distance.
Not that that means Humanz is a disappointment. Far from it. Albarn (and Hewlett, let’s hope, as his characters don’t really get much of a look in) have delivered an incongruous, ambitious and frankly bonkers compilation that could have buckled under the weight of a politically charged conceit, and instead embraced its status as a genre hybrid. It blends hip-hop with club bangers, soul with electro and funk with pop, all to a dizzying effect. The songs shift quite rapidly between disparate tempos, styles and moods, dealing with a rapid succession of engaged topics (racism, capitalism, the fate of the disenfranchised, you name it), and the result plays like Albarn’s intricately curated soundtrack to the end of the world. And it’s a pretty damn good playlist.
Standouts include the apocalyptic bangers ‘Ascension’ and ‘Andromeda’, which are bound to get adrenaline pumping on the dancefloor, as well as the silky sway of ‘Submission’, which features Danny Brown and Kelela. The energetic timbre is soon tempered with some genuinely inventive tracks like the furious ‘Let Me Out’, the haunting ‘Charger’, featuring Grace Jones laughing menacingly and whispering breathily, and the excellent ‘Hallelujah Money’. The latter, sung by Benjamin Clementine, brings a gospel tone to the mix, as well as a certain trippy poetry vibe.
It’s songs like these that ultimately make missteps easier to overlook, hook-less blemishes like the forgettable ‘Carnival’, ‘Sex Murder Party’ and the right-side-of-optimistically-sugary-but-far-too-short-to-leave-an-impression closing song ‘We Got The Power’. As for the ultimately underwhelming ‘Momentz’, it sees De La Soul return to the fold but unable to inject the same vibrancy into the track as they did on the excellent ‘Feel Good, Inc.’ in 2005. It could very well be the album’s biggest missed opportunity.
The overall listen is an uneven but bizarrely fascinating one. It’s just a shame this schizophrenic dance party album wasn’t sold as a side project, as the ‘Gorillaz’ label will disappoint some hoodwinked fans of the first hour, who enjoyed the ambitious conceit and ongoing narrative of four misfit band members with distinct personalities kicking tunes. And because this album has been effectively mislabelled, it will be far too easy release to dismiss.
Embrace the record for its ambitions and the fact that it’s densely packed and frequently inventive fun. Temper your Gorillaz expectations and listen to Humanz for what it really is: a rag-tag bunch of dystopian tunes to dance the nightmares away to, the mixtape from hell’s dancefloor that should have come under the heading ‘Damon Albarn Presents...’
Key Tracks: ‘Ascension (ft Vince Staples)’, ‘Submission (ft Danny Brown & Kelela)’, ‘Charger (ft Grace Jones)’, ‘Andromeda (ft D.R.A.M.)’, ‘Let Me Out (ft Mavis Staples & Pusha T)’, ‘Hallelujah Money (ft Benjamin Clementine)’.
- D - 01/05/17
How do you follow up your acclaimed 2015 epic and deal with the sky-high expectations your sophomore album has nurtured? In the case of Father John Misty, you double down and make your next album - Pure Comedy - a longer opus that flirts too often with self-parody. As for Kendrick Lamar, his shorter sequel to the incomparable To Pimp A Butterfly starts by addressing the expectations head-on on the opening track 'BLOOD.': “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide”.
The opening track also starts as the album means to go on, showing that lyricism and storytelling will be a major focus of the hip hop artist’s third official LP. It also becomes clear quite quickly that DAMN. is a tauter, more stripped back follow-up; a straight-laced rap record, as opposed to the sprawling, avant-garde To Pimp A Butterfly, which had its fair share of jazz influences and couldn’t be described as a traditional hip hop.
This by no means implies that DAMN. is a less ambitious record; it’s more musically stripped back and the immediate focus is more lyrical dexterity. The Compton rapper is in attack mode in the first half of the album, taking aim at the external nuisances (Fox News is taken to task on several tracks and there’s even an extract of the clip where we hear the pundits saying that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”); in the second half, Lamar seems to focus on the internal and addresses his self-doubt and anxieties.
This duality is present throughout the 14 CAPS LOCK-ed tracks, which are more pared-down and sound more like standalone songs. Thematically, these songs each deal with a unique and big concept, but all tackle the theme of duality, specifically how human nature is constantly battling between good and evil, pride and humility.
The back-to-back ‘DNA.’, ‘YAH.’, ‘ELEMENT.’ and ‘FEEL.’ are a homerun: the pace differs, the lyrics hit their mark and rap purists will find plenty to love here. The Rihanna-featuring ‘LOYALITY.’ grinds things to a halt; it doesn’t feel as essential and joins ‘LOVE.’ as one of the weakest tracks here. That isn’t saying much, as on any other album, these would be perfectly acceptable inclusions. The unflinching quality in songwriting is so strong here that these pop-flavoured tracks aren’t quite up to scratch.
‘PRIDE.’ boasts some slow-tempo introspection and sees sadness seeping through: “I don’t love people enough to put my faith in man (...) A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.” In fact, there is an anguish that permeates the songs in DAMN., a contemplative funk which wasn’t so evident in To Pimp A Butterfly, an album which drove away the feeling of hopelessness. This depression at the state of things, as well as his personal anxieties, is never more apparent than on ‘FEAR.’: “My biggest fear was being judged / How they look at me / Reflect on myself / My family, my city / What they say about me reveal / If my reputation would miss me.”
And then there’s ‘DUCKWORTH.’ which is arguably the strongest, most ambitious track on DAMN. It’s a pacey piece of storytelling that eerily loops the loop with album opener ‘BLOOD.’.
If you aren’t already convinced of Lamar’s skills, he even manages to make the collaboration with U2 work on ‘XXX.’, delivering a scathing attack on Trump’s America: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph / The great American flag / Is wrapped and dragged with explosives / Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters / Barricaded blocks and borders / Look what you taught us”. Mercifully, the Trump references are scarce: it would have been a bit too ‘woke’ and predictable to hear direct digs. Lamar is content to relegate the tangerine bag of dicks to the background, a presence that serves the album’s mood, one which seems to ask: how can it all go so wrong?
So, back to that opening query: how does one deal with vertiginous expectations in the wake of an envelope-pushing and complex masterwork? Sidestep the hype by digging deep, stripping the songs down to bare emotions, embrace darkness that leads to self-examination and deliver a pure rap album. Even go so far as to proclaim you’re the greatest and actually convince your listener you actually have a point, like on the lead single ‘HUMBLE.’. There’s no Kanye West-sounding braggadocio here, as the manner never falls to empty-posturing and always feels authentic.
While DAMN. may not be as immersive or essential as To Pimp A Butterfly (and has a far less impressive album cover), you get the impression that in the future, this is the album fans will gravitate towards and defend tooth and nail, much like Yeezus in the wake of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Watch out, Kanye. Last year’s Life of Pablo may have garnered knee-jerk plaudits, but Kendrick has the throne.
Key Tracks: ‘DNA.’, ‘YAH.’, ‘ELEMENT.’, ‘FEEL.’, ‘DUCKWORTH.’
- D - 28/04/17
For Hurray For The Riff Raff’s sixth LP, frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra has crafted a folk concept album of sorts that not only mirrors her own experiences via her alter ego Navita Milagros Negron, a street-smart Puerto Rican, but is also a timely protest record.
The 12 songs are separated into two acts - bookended by two superb songs ‘Entrance’ and ‘Finale’ - and chronicle Navita’s journey out of the oppressive urban landscape, how she is “ready for the world” and how she eventually comes to miss what she has lost. There’s a distinct PJ Harvey vibe to tracks like ‘Living In The City’ and ‘Hungry Ghost’, while fans of Fiona Apple and Lauren Hoffman will also be rewarded.
The ever-changing band has kept the troubadour style and bluesy sound but branched out and embraced the Puerto Rican roots so dear to Segarra. Throughout, she and her players deftly merge elements of American country with Puerto Rican salsa, Hispanic percussions with more romantic strings and even some spoken-word poetry meshed within the folk-rock. What could have been a smug hodgepodge ends up a coherent and wonderfully intersectional record, which boasts catchy tunes (‘Life to Save’), post-punk sensibilities (the aforementioned ‘Hungry Ghost’), gentler love songs (‘Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl’) and swooning ballads (‘The Navigator’).
Themes of identity and emigration, and how these concepts can be threatened, are key here, especially on ‘Rican Beach’, The Navigator’s standout track. This rhythmic protest song could be about gentrification, the loss of identity or even an anti-Trump address, or all at the same time; however, it shows a musical and lyrical maturity that doesn’t limit itself to easy finger-pointing or angsty rumblings. When she sings: “Now all the politicians / They just squawk their mouths / They say: ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out’ / And all the poets were dying of a silence disease / So it happened quickly and with much ease”, she laments as much as she condemns, empowers as much as observes. It’s a wonderful number that is soon met with its stunning counterpart, ‘Fourteen Floors’, a gentle and very Fiona Apple-reminiscent ballad, which, like many tracks, finishes on a Latin note.
The penultimate track ‘Pa’lante’ could have been problematic: a raw confessional that sometimes threatens to go into Amanda Palmer levels of too-hyper-sincere-to-be-fully-believable. However, the heartfelt zest Segarra injects in this deeply personal song about resistance has honesty to spare. The last section feels like a rallying cry that Patti Smith would have given the thumbs up to. And therein lies Hurray For The Riff Raff’s strength: the capacity to make a statement without forgetting the overall concept, without dismissing authentic feelings. These songs tell a story, and are a vulnerable call to arms that never once lack heart. So, even if her vocal performance may not be the most original, the album itself remains a layered and beautiful beast.
And as Segarra (or is that Navita?) says on ‘Pa’lante’: “Do your best, but fuck the rest”.
Yes, ma’am. And thank you for not falling to that pesky “silence disease”.
Key Tracks: ‘Living In The City’, ‘Hungry Ghost’, ‘The Navigator’, ‘Rican Beach’, ‘Pa’lante’.
- D - 23/03/17
Elbow’s follow up to 2014’s stunning (and very underrated) The Take Off And Landing Of Everything could be casually dismissed as business as usual. Not so, dear reader and erudite listener, not so. Billed as ‘a band album’, the Mancunian quattro - following the recent departure of drummer and founding member Richard Jupp - have collaborated with the string players of The Halle Orchestra, as well as members of London Contemporary Voices, in order to create a lush, sunny-sounding affair that is deceptively layered. And bizarrely, for a band that lost its drummer, Little Fictions is very beat-orientated, with tracks like the gorgeous ‘Gentle Storm’ and rhythmic ‘Firebrand & Angel’ feeling like some of the grooviest songs they’ve put out in a while.
Indeed, if The Take Off And Landing Of Everything felt like a break-up album, Little Fictions sounds like its noticeably cheerier counterpart. Not so surprising, since Garvey ended his long-term relationship with his partner in 2014 (his 2015 solo album Courting The Squall was the sound of the frontman taking stock); he recently married actress Rachael Stirling. The result? This seventh album is Elbow’s most romantic and his domestic bliss is all over songs like ‘Trust The Sun’ and the gentle ‘Kindling’. It also serves to remind us that during all the years of playing together (their debut album Asleep In The Back was released in 2001), they haven’t revolutionized their sound, or undergone a radical change; nor have they ever dipped in quality, consistently delivering the goods. Many will have you believe that their peak was reached in 2008 with The Seldom Seen Kid, the moment they started to sell out stadiums with anthemic stunners like ‘Grounds For Divorce’ and ‘One Day Like This’. The truth of the matter is that they’ve built on their successes and confidently achieved greatness, especially with The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, which boasted some of Garvey’s strongest lyrics, proving once and for all that he is undeniably one of the greatest songwriters around.
Once again, he confirms this, as the songwriting here doesn’t disappoint. Whether it’s eloquently romantic (“We protect our little fictions when we bow to fear / Little wilderness mementos only you and me hear”) or playfully contemplative (“Hurt and baffled / I simmer and freeze / I’m squeezing my words / Like I’m icing a bomb”), Garvey has a gift for weaving the articulate with the heartfelt and the surreal into the poetic. The stirring opener ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ and ‘Montparnasse’ are this album’s highlights, especially the latter, which is a melodic standout that benefits from a minimalist piano that makes it simultaneously cosy and eerily melancholic.
Not that it’s all tickety-boo: ‘All Disco’ and ‘Head For Supplies’ feel a tad too radio-friendly, especially compared to subtler tracks like the aforementioned ‘Firebrand & Angel’ and the intricate ‘K2’. The latter sees Elbow dabbling in political commentary, much like on their third album Leaders Of The Free World: the lyrics paint a picture of post-Brexit Britain, those who “gambled the farm on a headline”, juxtaposed with places that aren’t “full of blood, snot, teeth and the glory of no one”.
Granted, Little Fictions does not reach the atmospheric and poetic heights of The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, nor does it reinvent the wheel for Elbow. However, it is the elegantly crafted and life-affirming sound of a band who have never lost their gift of delivering rich, soaring songs that don’t dip into Coldplay levels of twee. This is a band that manages to conclude their ambitious title track by repeating the line “Love is the original miracle” without it coming off as sickeningly overly-earnest. Don’t believe me? Just give it a listen... Who knows: with bands like Elbow, maybe 2017 might turn out to be less frightening than we thought?
Key Tracks: ‘Magnificent (She Says)’, ‘Gentle Storm’, ‘K2’, ‘Montparnasse’, ‘Little Fictions’.
- D - 04/02/17
It’s been half a decade since we heard from them, but now The xx are back with a third album, their first following band member Jamie xx’s solo project.
That last detail has its relevance, as The xx’s in-house producer Jamie Smith’s fantastic debut In Colour was far sunnier and more sonically buoyant than the minimalistic sounds of his band’s self-titled debut or their 2012 album Coexist. It’s therefore no surprise that I See You sounds less forcefully introspective and altogether warmer than anything they’ve done before. It’s also no surprise that this album’s front cover and booklet (for those of you who haven’t given up the good fight and still actually buy physical copies) are silver reflective surfaces: it’s as if the band have thus far awkwardly basked in moody introspection but have now grown up, happy to face up to their reflection and confidently move forwards. Moreover, and as the title suggests, they’re turning their gaze outwards.
The opening track testifies to this, with a trumpet call sound that repeats throughout, with Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim duetting once more. ‘Dangerous’ is the euphoric ‘start as you mean to go on’ manifesto and, like ‘Lips’ and ‘A Violent Noise’, could have featured on In Colour. The calypso sounds and looped percussions on ‘Lips’ sees the band embracing a tropical sultriness, while ‘A Violent Noise’ is a come-down club anthem that manages to be both vibrant and moodily textured.
The sunnier first half of the album is the sound of a band stepping out of their comfort zone, clearly led by Jamie Smith. The persistent risk was always going to be that his influence took over, but tracks like the intimate ballad ‘Performance’ and the touching ‘Brave For You’ prove otherwise and continue to show that I See You isn’t In Colour 2.0. Likewise, ‘Say Something Loving’ is another highlight, one which continues to establish Croft as this generation’s Tracey Thorn and which sees the band merging themes of relationships and self-doubt with a warmer sound. Even if Smith’s influence is undeniable, I See You is resolutely a The xx album: the band’s trademark confessional lyrics and deeply intimate mood permeate throughout.
The album not only shows The xx less stripped back, but also at their most confident and going off on a perfect high, with the triptych ‘On Hold’, ‘I Dare You’ and ‘Test Me’. Lead single ‘On Hold’, like ‘Replica’ before it, strikes a perfect balance: it is a danceable anthem, which surprisingly samples Hall & Oats, but nonetheless harks back to the familiarly haunting vibe of the band’s past efforts. The uptempo ‘I Dare You’ is arguably one of the band’s more poppy offerings here, joining ‘On Hold’ as the album’s catchiest tune, but also proof that the band have managed to marry their individual strengths on a more equal playing field.
The stark and slightly unsettling closer ‘Test Me’ is a brooding affair, with theramin sounds punctuating some gentle beats. The song stands out for its brutally honest lyrics, which deal with band relationships; a closing note purposefully positioned in order to remind that the London trio haven’t compromised their sound, but rather expanded it.
Many will moan about the more pronounced club vibe but fans of the first hour will just have to adjust; with repeated listens, it’s plain to see that I See You boasts some layers, and it’s these listens that will silence fears about an all-out Jamie Smith takeover. You can bet I’ll be catching my own reflection as I continue to pick up this album throughout the year... and if I See You sets the tone for 2017 releases, it’s going to be a good one.
Key Tracks: ‘Dangerous’, ‘Say Something Loving’, ‘Brave For You’, ‘On Hold’, ‘I Dare You’.
- D - 18/01/17