Monday, 31 January 2011

2011 Music Chart - January

A new chart for a new year and a new month. January has been a slow start but three good albums to kick off. On opposite sides of the emotion fence, the second album from London's White Lies and a the more sunny disposition of New Zealand's The Phoenix Foundation. Also right at the start of the year, and technically an album from 2010, Warpaint's The Fool heads the trio.
  1. The Fool by Warpaint
  2. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  3. Ritual by White Lies
Looking forward to the next few months.

John Barry RIP

John Barry RIP 1933-2011
John Barry, the multi-award winning film composer, has died aged 77. Best know for his Bond soundtracks including Diamonds Are Forever, You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger, he also write the scores for Born Free, Midnight Cowboy and Out of Africa. Barry won 5 Oscars for his music and a Bafta Fellowship in 2005. A true genius.

The BBC website obituary.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Phoenix Foundation - Buffalo Album Review (2011)

The Phoenix Foundation, a six-piece from New Zealand, makes the kind of music that is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. So it is strange that they chose a January date for a UK release; when the sun is shining the band’s hometown of Wellington, the grim gloomy cold winter grinds on in the UK. Fronted by Samuel Scott and Luke Buda, The Phoenix Foundation’s fourth album (not counting the two soundtrack albums credited to them) Buffalo, for the most part, builds perfectly upon 2007’s Happy Ending.

From the outset, Buffalo is a pleasing luxurious ride through a consciousness of stories and ideas. There are few obvious themes, people or direct references and the album is blended together into a continuous holiday, cruising the waves, stopping off to walk on white sands and pick fruit from exotic trees, and it does this through textures and sublime emotive song writing. Opener Eventually sets things off perfectly and immediately conjures images of sun-kissed waters in a sleepy harbour: “ships are yawning in their moorings…’. And on the title track, we dive into the warm waters to swim amongst the wildlife: “I’m on the sea floor…Through the ocean I do roam’. The pace builds in the second half, whirling guitars and more frantic earnest vocals right to the end.

But Flock of Hearts and Pot are easily the highlights of the first half. The former blends slick guitar-work with tinkling xylophonic keys and crooning vocals. It is one of many times the album shows signs of late Blur, when Albarn had one eye, and ear, on his future project Gorrilaz. Again the song writing is superb. Lines such as “falling asleep at the wheel of fortune’ sit effortlessly with the buzzing guitar-break. In come the handclaps for the mumbling, often wordless, vocals of Pot (a recent UK single release) that moves slowly into a swirling mass of instrumentation and electronics for the close.

In the second half, Bailey’s Beach is a sleek stylish Richard Hawley style ballad complete with stylophone-esque keyboards and delicious vocal harmonies. Wonton is more brilliance with a rolling electronic piano melody and a hedonistic theme: “It’s what you want on top of everything else you’ve got…Until your heart stops…”. And it is the closer Golden Ships, the slow dreamy arrangement and more harmonies leading into a superb outro, that steals the show. The phrase: “… fill our veins with syrup of the stars” summing things up perfectly and exquisitely completing the trip (pun intended).

If there is a downside to Buffalo it is that the things that make the rest of the album great, the music that simply glides from the record, are replaced by a misplaced trilogy at the centre. Bitte Bitte is a poor Anglo-German pun with odd hard-edged vocals and an annoying chorus. Skeleton is the album’s weakest song and completely devoid of the lyrics that are such a tour-de-force elsewhere (coupling burning with yeaning for instance). And Orange & Mango lays on the kooky charm a little too much but recovers in the second half, in spite of “…I ate the walrus… I ate ancient Grecian chorus” dropping into the mix, to deliver a wonderful looping instrumental finale. But these are minor discretions as even at their most weird The Phoenix Foundation come up with the goods.  

So Buffalo is not a complete triumph but it is the sound of a band – in spite of replacing a band member during recording – making music as a coherent cohesive unit, all pulling in the same direction. The album is often evocative and stirring and the slightly loose mid-point aside, The Phoenix Foundation prove yet again that indie-pop can be liberated, exert freedom and remain accessible. And backing up the album’s release with a European tour, The Phoenix Foundation is bringing a thick slice of Kiwi sun to an otherwise gloomy world.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

White Lies - Ritual Album Review (2011)

There is nothing worse than a band being pigeon-holed. But every time you read an article, feature or review about London’s White Lies, the name Joy Division is never far away. Thankfully they have shrugged off these shackles with a new, more dynamic sound; and the same label is often added to bands that embrace the darker side of life. The trio quickly followed-up success in the BBC Sound of 2009 with a tremendous début album: To Lose My Life, backed up by solid singles, the ‘best new band’ at the Q Awards and fine festival appearances. Two years later a second album: Ritual is the result of building on this work.

As you would expect, Ritual continues the band’s obsession with the macabre and the twisted. Front man Harry McVeigh still has the perfect voice for this and his vocal has definitely matured on the second coming. If anything, the themes have become darker mainly thanks to the ambiguous references and metaphors littered throughout the songs; it is less obvious, adding to the intrigue – and in between the gloom and doom is real hope, or at least a hope of hope. But it is musically that White Lies have really improved, and combined with producer Alan Moulder, a fuller, deeper and more intricate sound helps the compositions rise above normality. In come electronic arrangements, 80s bass loops and layered synths transforming Ritual into early New Order or Depeche Mode, rather than the morbid depression of Ian Curtis.

With the exception of opener Is Love – from ominous start building into a vibrant combination of distinctive vocals, electro-dance, 70s wakka-wakka guitars and big beats – Ritual is built from shaky foundations. Strangers takes an age to get to a chorus that fails to pack a punch and only the last minute provides a lift. Likewise Bigger Than Us is a bizarre dual-paced verse-chorus-verse format that quickly gets repetitive. And the laboured Streetlights is one of few songs to suffer from trite lyrics: “Where I’m going I couldn’t care. I’m bored, I’m afraid, I’m falling like rain for you”. White Lies can do much better than this.

Thankfully it’s not all bad news. The brilliant Peace & Quiet is the first real sign that White Lies have moved on in a good way. A slow build-up leads into a gorgeous vocal blend complete with layered harmonies then a slick slice of pulsing bass. McVeigh croons: “I lay like a carcass, your lips never letting the blood dry”. The second half is swathed in strings before slow echo, an explosive outro and finally descending into post-radiation fizz. Holy Ghost is another wonderful swirl of rampant ideas, hard and dark as prostitution meets religion head on. The last minute is mesmerising.

Ritual moves into top gear in the second half with the impressive Turn The Bells, a bleak apocalyptic war zone of textures: “…Protectors unveiled for the first time in months…” and “You find best friends and we’ll hold each other” is excellent storytelling. The Power & The Glory continues the brilliant instrumentation, building vocally around a central theme formed within a simple idea. Moving past the out-dated and clunky lyrics of Bad Love, closer Come Down is the big emotional ballad – what it lacks in melody it makes up for with thoughtful emotion.

So ultimately Ritual is a fine effort packed with ideas and variation – all within a strict formula. Production, as you would expect from Moulder, is perfectly balanced with the strengths exploited and weaknesses (mostly) hidden; nothing is over-used or under-played. That said, the quality of the songs is a big weakness. Sometimes Ritual sounds huge but really isn’t; never style over substance or thinly veiled, and the weak parts are unashamedly on display – a problem as the band and the album has so many positives. McVeigh, Cave and Brown weave characters and stories together into a spellbinding concoction that compliments the real world of oppressive, gloomy post-new year winter recession.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Kills new album - Blood Pressures

Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, aka the Kills release new album Blood Pressures on 4th April 2011. The track listing for the album is:

'Future Starts Slow'
'Heart Is A Beating Drum'
'Nail In My Coffin'
'Wild Charms'
'Baby Says'
'Last Goodbye'
'Damned If She Do'
'You Don't Own The Road'
'Pots And Pans'

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Bruce Springsteen - Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The Promise

I have never been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. That said, there is always one musician or band that makes one brilliant album. For me this album is Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Made in 1978, Springsteen’s fourth studio album is a masterpiece and, as a body of work, one he has never bettered. Yes, he has written great songs since, but only the more recent Devils & Dust has captured the same brilliance on a single coherent consistent collection. The two albums share a common theme. Springsteen, in spite of his commercial success and world-wide fame, all his record sales, huge stadium gigs and god-like status, has always held a metaphorical torch for the ‘common’ man. It would be easy to say that he has never lost touch of his working class roots but this is a theme that is revisited time after time in his music. And a perfect example of this is Darkness On The Edge of Town.

Recently Springsteen has now released a new box-set and companion album: The Promise and, along with a documentary describing the way in which the album was conceived, nurtured, worked, reworked, argued and finally realised, we now get a fascinating insight into the years surrounding the making of the album, the tracks that never made it and the people involved. At the time Springsteen was in a legal battle with producer Mike Appel but his appetite for song writing and music did not waver. He continued to write song after song and The Promise shows the problem that he and The E Street Band faced. Only ten songs made it onto the final album and The Promise is over twenty, including some that became famous hits for other musicians.

During the making of this music, Springsteen described everyone who played key parts as producers. Even though Jon Landau is named as the sole producer on the album, with E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt as assistant, production is more than just sitting in the studio and saying what is working and what is not. It is taking part. It is decision-making, arguments, debates, late-night jam sessions, ideas, commitment and involvement. Maybe it is just American culture, most prevalent in television, that there should be six cast-members and eight hundred producers. However you read it, this is a great compliment to all involved. Credit is also due to Chuck Plotkin, at the time a recording engineer who was drafted in to mix Darkness On The Edge Of Town. He did an incredible job and the sound is balanced and controlled.

The reason I like Darkness On The Edge Of Town is because it is different from Springsteen’s other albums. This may sound odd but it often happens. Blood On The Tracks, for example, is the only Dylan album I really like. It captures exactly what Dylan was trying to achieve in music. On one album. Early in Springsteen’s career, and most notably on one of his best-known albums Born To Run, he strived for the ‘big’ sound. At the time of its release, Springsteen was already being mentioned in the same breath as Dylan. He is reported to have described his approach for the album as wanting to sound like Roy Orbison singing Dylan as produced by Phil Spector. He certainly achieved this in terms of sound and personnel involved. But for me, even though there are moments of brilliance (Thunder Road, Jungleland and Born To Run – the latter is an example of how to make a perfect four minute pop song), there is too much packed into the eight songs. Not that his spirit was missing; the message is just not clear. To sum it up, I like The Ghost Of Tom Joad more than The Rising – even though they are both perfectly fine albums. I’ll take the intimate close poetry of the aforementioned Devils & Dust over the anthemic rock of Born In The USA every time. On Darkness On The Edge Of Town, even the mighty Streets Of Fire is made to sound like a delicate piano and guitar ballad.

In the years that followed this initial success, Springsteen was becoming a proficient songwriter. When it came to put Darkness On The Edge Of Town together, there were plenty of arguments, not just about the songs that were on the album, but deciding what was left out. This, for me, is the album’s brilliance. There was a clear vision, and that was to ask more questions than give answers. As the documentary explains, and as knowledge and familiarity with the album shows, this is the sound of a man questioning the world around him and his very existence. And people have said there is a noticeable absence of love songs. Badlands, Racing In the Street, The Promised Land, Factory and Prove It All Night are all great love songs – as they show, love takes many forms. But they all question the fabric of life: Society, Friendship, Work, God and Obsession. Recurring themes fill the songs – night and dark, driving and racing, working and dreaming – this is small-town American life on the big stage. And even though Springsteen sings each in the first person he often pulls in abstract nameless enemies as the hero’s antagonists.

So what makes Darkness On The Edge Of Town amazing is further revealed on the companion album The Promise. In other words, what is not on the album. Famously the two big omissions are Because The Night and Fire (this is possibly where the ‘no love songs’ line came from, as these are two obvious tracks that fit the tag). The album’s name is taken from ‘the best Springsteen song never released’ which would have fitted in fine among the other songs – remember this was the days of vinyl and limited recording space. But the first thing you notice The Promise is that much of it is trying too hard to sound like Born To Run. The songs that do not made it onto Springsteen’s next album The River. This shows the breadth and depth of the music and creativity at the time.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Brit Awards 2011 - Nominations

I don't usually bother talking about the Brit Awards on account of the nominations being mainly commercial, mainstream, middle-of-road, Radio 1, bland-pop fair but there are a few interesting nominations for 2011.

The fantastic Laura Marling is up for best female solo artists laughingly alongside Cheryl Cole. Ellie Goulding could win this ahead of Paloma Faith but they are both strong candidates.

Mumford & Sons are again up for a breakthrough act award - they have been around for a while now but still are breaking-through which makes little sense. The band is also up for album of the year even though it came out 2 years ago.

Biffy Clyro are in the British Group category with Mumford & Sons (again) but also Take That and Gorillaz. Odd mix but the mainstream should take that one too (pun intended).

British Single is predictably a horrid mix of pop nonsense.

The best award for lack-of-awareness is International Breakthrough Act. The National!?! Good old Brits with their fingers on the world-wide pulse then. And Arcade Fire should get International Group and Album.

It's good to see great bands in the nominations but they don;t stand much chance against the mainstream flow.

The nominees in full are:

British Male Solo Artist:

  • Mark Ronson
  • Paul Weller
  • Plan B
  • Robert Plant
  • Tinie Tempah

British Female Solo Artist:

  • Cheryl Cole
  • Ellie Goulding
  • Laura Marling
  • Paloma Faith
  • Rumer

British Breakthrough Act:

  • Ellie Goulding
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Rumer
  • Tinie Tempah
  • The XX

British Group:

  • Biffy Clyro
  • Gorillaz
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Take That
  • The XX

British Single

  • Alexandra Burke ft Pitbull - All Night Long
  • Cheryl Cole - Parachute
  • Florence & The Machine - You’ve Got The Love
  • Matt Cardle - When We Collide
  • Olly Murs - Please Don’t Let Me Go
  • Plan B - She Said
  • Scouting For Girls - This Ain’t A Love Song
  • Taio Cruz - Dynamite
  • Tinie Tempah - Pass Out
  • The Wanted - All Time Low

MasterCard British Album of the Year

  • Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More
  • Plan B - The Defamation of Strickland Banks
  • Take That - Progress
  • Tinie Tempah Disc - Overy
  • The XX - XX

International Male Solo Artist

  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Cee Lo Green
  • David Guetta
  • Eminem
  • Kanye West

International Female Solo Artist

  • Alicia Keys
  • Katy Perry
  • Kylie Minogue
  • Rihanna
  • Robyn

International Breakthrough Act

  • Bruno Mars
  • Glee Cast
  • Justin Bieber
  • The National
  • Temper Trap

International Group

  • Arcade Fire
  • Black Eyed Peas
  • Kings of Leon
  • Script
  • Vampire Weekend

International Album

  • Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
  • Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer
  • Eminem - Recovery
  • Katy Perry - Teenage Dream
  • Kings Of Leon - Come Around Sundown

Critics’ Choice

  • Jessie J (Winner)
  • James Blake
  • The Vaccines

British Producer

  • Ethan Johns
  • John Leckie
  • Markus Dravs
  • Mike Pela
  • Stuart Price

Monday, 10 January 2011

Band Of Horses

At the end of last year I bought the album Infinite Arms. And so began my current obsession with Band Of Horses. In recent weeks I have bought the band’s first two albums: Everything All The Time and Cease To Begin – thanks to HMV, the best ten pounds I have spent. The three records are an impressive trilogy that by rights should not exist. Band Of Horses has more ex-members than the current quintet but original founder and vocalist Ben Bridwell has remained at the helm ensuring the band’s consistent sound. In 2007 he moved from Seattle back to his native South Carolina to make the second album Cease To Begin with new addition Tyler Ramsey as part of a six-piece line-up. This makes the album Band Of Horses’ most commercially successful – this and the successful singles Is There A Ghost and the wonderful No One’s Gonna Love You; both enjoyed regular airplay on UK radio in spite of the band’s lack of success.

Fans regard the band’s debut as their finest moment and this is hard to contest. Not only do you get the singles The Funeral and The Great Salt Lake but Monsters is one of the best songs the band has delivered. Likewise The First Song is exquisite song writing and with swirling guitars combined with Bridwell’s distinctive vocals rivals Mercury Rev at their most majestic. Weed Party shows the band’s ability to kick it up a notch and have some fun while St. Augustine is a delicate heart-wrenching ballad (“I know you tried, I know you’re cursed; I know your best was still your worst” – one of the finest lyrics ever written).

Cease To Begin continues the band’s great form. Not as consistent as the debut, the fine singles are set apart with the sublime Window Blues and supreme instrumentation on Detlef Schrempf coupled with the beguiling Ode To LRC and the stomping The General Specific propping up a fine collection of songs. It is clear to hear the fuller sound of the new line-up with more variation, greater freedom and thicker production. All good.

Which brings us to Infinite Arms – the album that started it all for me. I have no shame in admitting that I missed Band Of Horses the first time around and even though I heard a lot of Cease To Begin back in 2007, I chose other bands and other albums ahead of it. Factory is a great song and much neglected as a single. That said, Laredo is a more appropriate pop song. Neighbor is another masterpiece as is the mighty Compliments. And the album is home to the band’s finest example of a love song: For Annabelle is an instant tearjerker.

When a band is as great as Band Of Horses, it is a pleasure to listen to music and write about it. I’m now looking forward to the next album and seeing the band live.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Trent Reznor - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Fragile re-release and How To Destroy Angels news

Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor has big plans for 2011. First off he has agreed to score the next David Fincher film: a remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Unlike the last score for The Social Network, this will be more conventional with a 'live' performance feel and 'strings'. Not sure if this is a good thing or not as TSN was a great follow-up to the instrumental Ghosts project. Reznor is again working with Atticus Ross on the soundtrack.

Reznor's current side project How To Destroy Angels (again with Ross and Reznor's wife Mariqueen Maandig) is set to release a full-length debug this year. Again, the follow-up to the band's great EP will be different and more 'beat and rhythm oriented' and a complete contrast to the TSN soundtrack.

As for Nine Inch Nails obligations, Reznor has talked about having to compile a 'greatest hits' album but also a 'deluxe' edition of the much maligned The Fragile. The exact form of this new version is unknown but producer Alan Moulder is in charge of a new surround sound mix. And he has said that Nine Inch Nails is not over and even suggested a future NIN tour.

Warpaint - The Fool (Album Review)

Warpaint is not what you would expect from an all-female quartet from Los Angeles. And debut album The Fool is not a sun-filled jangling collection of punchy three-minute guitar surf-pop. Instead the band, who formed in 2004 and already have three ex-drummers, have opted for nine tracks of four, five and six minute odysseys. The Fool delivers a dark haunting chill from the outset and the music shimmers with the feel of an impending dusk after a day on a sun-kissed beach.

The first noticeable trait of Warpaint’s music is the gorgeous delicacy of the vocals, lead by Emily Kokal (baring a striking resemblance to Natasha Khan – at least in approach). From opener Set Your Arms Down, the ethereal voices pierce the prosaic guitars, forming the first early highlight. A wonderful choral arrangement bleeds into and increased urgency as the guitars build. From here, an instrumental and (mostly) wordless outro fills out the five minutes. Sublime.

The self-titled Warpaint takes a while to get going before the opening guitars take shape, not too far from the sound Tool realised on their masterpiece Lateralus. The melody becomes more reminiscent of the Cure, circa 1983 and it is this blend of new style and old sounds that make The Fool such an engaging listen. The vocal production creates a new unique instrument to compliment the standard guitar, bass and drums set-up. Undertow is the most complete song on The Fool and again uses all members of the band vocally. “Why you wanna blame me for your troubles? …You better learn your lesson yourself”, they warn on the chorus. The song threatens a different direction at the three-minute point, transforming and injecting energy in the form of jangling guitars and pounding bass. Again it is this invention and the creation of songs within songs that oozes quality. The ending is beguiling tangle of music and vocals.

Bees is more industrial with clanking percussion, echoing vocals and a core guitar riff. It is an uneasy nerve-tingling tale of falling from grace: “All the time it took you to get yourself straight…it’s too late…” and then the mystical “And the full moon it taunts me…”. Shadows is another highlight, a claustrophobic journey through an oppressive city (“Now there’s nothing here for me”). Kokal delivers her finest vocal, filled with melody: “The things you once told me, the thoughts you once gave me; sound like the wind in my ears…” is exquisite. The stark military drums add the contrast as Kokal rises to a howl. Likewise Composure is a brilliant mix of school-room chant and piercing guitars taking a simple one-line idea and stretching it to the limits with everyone playing their part.

Into the last three songs, The Fool continues the ideas but if anything the songs get a bit too loose. Baby is the best of the three – a nursery rhyme lament about a doomed relationship. Cryptic lyrics are thrown around as the song plods slowly through its five minutes. Majesty, the longest song as just over six and half minutes, is an entire album in one song. Effects litter the otherwise usual landscape as Kokal recalls the love story with a monarchical tilt. And closer Lissie’s Heart Murmur is a poor end to an otherwise excellent debut.

Warpaint manage to be a girl band without sounding like one, in that they shun the usual clichés while still embracing their femininity. This is mainly due to the vocals but the beautiful gothic music washes through the songs with deft precision and carefully crafted control. Through the dark overtones of the music are continued consistent shafts of vocal light. The only criticism is that The Fool loses focus and discipline towards the end and melody is sacrificed for production. But there is enough to build on and Warpaint have shown that while they may not be your typical marketable female pop stars, they are an interesting and talented alternative.

Friday, 7 January 2011

BBC Sound of 2011 - Top 5

The winner of the BBC Sound of 2011 has been announced and it's Jesse J. In my opinion, the worst artist of the top 15. This continues the BBC's obsession with promoting new female talent, if they have any or not. Jesse J is more likely to make headlines than hit singles and already has a marketable back story that any X Factor contestant would think was tame. Yes she has had health problems and overcome obstacles to 'make it' but ultimately her image and music is woefully poor.

The top 5 is...

1. Jesse J
2. James Blake
3. The Vaccines
4. Jamie Woon
5. Clare Maguire

Favourite James Blake was beaten into second place with outsiders Jamie Woon and Clare Maguire (way better than J.) in a lowly fifth. Easily the best of the top 15 is US girl group Warpaint whose debut album is magnificent.

The only band to feature is The Vaccines, an indie four-piece combining the modern and the retro and not doing a great deal with a sound that fails to set them apart from their peers.

Wretch 32 misses out as the best urban act for a while and Nashville band Mona also didn't make the top 5.

I'm all for the BBC promoting new acts but seriously they need to recognise quality over image.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Monday, 3 January 2011

BBC 6music launch John Peel podcast

BBC 6music have made a John Peel podcast. I'm not sure if this is a one-off or part of a continuing series.

The podcast page is here.