Tuesday, 13 January 2009

White Lies - To Lose My Life Album Review (2009)

After I heard that White Lies were second place in the BBC Sound Of 2009, I was glad to get this review. My first for The Music Magazine of the new year.

Another band giving it a second go under a different name, White Lies are a youthful three-piece from London destined for big things. Clearly influenced by the new resurgence of 80s influenced band (or maybe just new victims of the old adage 'What goes around, comes around'), White Lies release the debut album To Lose My Life. Vocalist (and guitarist) Harry McVeigh and lyricist (and bassist) Charles Cave (real name?) combine to breathtaking effect as they deliver tales of love and loss, punishment and redemption, despair and hope. To Lose My Life is darkness and light in equal measures.

Opener Death sets the scene in typical macabre style with thundering bass captured within layers of synths. McVeigh is in atypical upbeat mood, singing much higher than most of the songs. The second verse is greeted with a higher pitch and sharp blasts of guitar, adding the drama. After this monumental build-up, the chorus sounds like stumbling on the final step and falling down the stairs. Thankfully the band has another go and the second attempt is much better as McVeigh sings (then screams) "This fear's got a hold on me...". The guitars and drums come crashing in to bring the final minute of startling contrast - vibrant buzzing guitars, squealing synths and edgy vocals. To fade. The album's title track is just as gripping. Anyone who can make "Lets grow old together and die at the same time" into punchy three minute pop is worthy of some praise. The whole arrangement owes much to The Killers' Somebody Told Me but it is more a desperate homage - the band describe themselves as an 'undead Killers' in their PR, albeit referencing a different song.

From here, To Lose My Life does everything it possibly can to live up to the promise of the great start. On A Place To Hide McVeigh is a boy putting on a deep voice to ward off the school bully; credibility removed and comedy added. Maybe he had a heavy cold when it was recorded. Once you get past this issue, a half decent song emerges - not quite as good as it thinks it is with Embrace does Depeche Mode theatrics veering into Coldplay pomp. An overblown drawn out ending does not help. By now, it is clear how White Lies will play the rest of the album with a distinct formula driving each song: start quiet and serious, build up using bass, drums and keyboards, add a dramatic chorus, back off a bit then bring everything else in for the second half, etc, etc. Ok so this is generalising but not far from the truth. Fifty On Our Foreheads does exactly this with dense buzzing instrumentation. The effect is very like Glasvegas without the treacle. Right up to the finish, the song sparkles.

Unfinished Business (Editors meets Arcade Fire church organs) is also excellent. McVeigh provides his best vocal, splitting in two for both sides of the horror story soundtrack. E.S.T. (Electric Shock Therapy) is another slice of personal, creepy and often disturbing ("I'll leave my memoirs in blood on the floor and my fears with the nurse on the stairs" storytelling, quickly drawing the listener into another world. Again the guitars and synths buzz with energy against the despair created by McVeigh and Cave. If anything, the song outstays its welcome, repeating the same arrangement at least once too often. Saying that, the dense guitar outro is superb. From The Stars opens with the line "I saw a friend that I once knew at a funeral...He took the time out to be seen" and immediately you are hooked. McVeigh is magnificent, keeping his voice controlled and focused. Things get messy for the second verse, with rampant guitars and drums a sudden distraction, and then it is back to normality. This is the sign of a band not quite getting everything right yet. Likewise Farewell To The Fairground is banal clumsy pseudo-pop. At least it attempts to break the formula with a gorgeous mid-section vocal build up (complete with stutter for added retro effect) but then nothing happens.

Into the final two tracks on To Lose My Life and Nothing To Give tries to be the 'big ballad', free of the formula and giving McVeigh space to breath. Unfortunately his Andy Williams meets Julian Cope ramble gets way too shouty, instead of staying brooding and menacing. It is an impressive vocal performance but could benefit from a little less power. And the final stretch is swamped with drums and wavering synths. Too much over-thinking. The Price Of Love is much better and a fitting closing song. Everything builds to a not quite over-the-top chorus and the only real moment of self-indulgence, before the album comes to a shuddering halt in a swathe of shimmering strings.

White Lies are second in the BBC Sound Of 2009 and on the evidence of To Lose My Life, it is clear why. Winner Little Boots now has a lot to live up to. One important thing which has made the album so engaging is the production. No one band member is credited with synthesizer, piano or organ duty yet there it is, underpinning and washing through everything. Praise is also due to Alan Moulder who is a master of his art. The overall sound is fresh and dark at the same time, sometimes too clean and crisp but always clear and precise. Everything in its right place is the key. Lyrically, bassist Cave is at his best when he is storytelling. At times the songs are truly compelling and the listener is drawn into the dark world of ghosts, lost love and tragedy. At times the wording does stray off into Chris Martin territory ("I wonder what keeps us high up? Could there be love beneath these wings?" etc). But these vague swipes at world-weariness are few and far between. For the most part, Cave and McVeigh combine to create something very special. They are theatre without the pomposity, staying on the right side of the 80s influenced 'big hair and shoulders' fence. The big question is: In December when everyone is talking about albums and bands of 2009, will White Lies get a mention? On the strengths of To Lose My Life, it is a certainty.
- CS (for The Music Magazine 2009)

Friday, 9 January 2009

BBC Sound Of 2009

The BBC Sound Of 2009 Top Ten has been revealed. And surprise, there are two young female singers in the top 5. Adele and Duffy anyone? Not to start the new year on a cynical note but it's hard to get enthused about this years line-up.

Little Boots has topped the list, AKA Victoria Hesketh. She is certainly an exciting performer; a one woman band as her performance of Middle on Later...with Jools Holland shows. White Lies is this years Glasvegas and Empire Of The Sun is MGMT. Florence And The Machine are great - she (Florence Welch) performed for George Lamb this week in the BBC 6music Hub. La Roux who complete the list sound like The Ting Tings from 1984. So it's a bit like last year then.

Everyone is quoting Kate Bush as a major influence. So nothing changes...