Thursday, 30 May 2013

This Week - The National, Laura Marling, Alice In Chains

Few bands make a trio of really great albums and The National have now made it four in a row. Alligator, Boxer, High Violet and now Trouble Will Find Me continues the impressive run from an American band at the top of their game. Unlike the immediacy of Alligator and High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me is a slow burner, an album of subtle complexity and hidden messages which have to be teased from the music on repeat listens. Vocalist Matt Berninger delivers his unique melancholy tones throughout, with a few pleasant surprises: Heavenfaced is excellent while Humiliation is a gloriously successful experiment of dark chamber pop. Don't Swallow The Cap is right up there with the best, as is opener I Should Live In Salt, and to finish Pink Rabbits is several ideas in one, transforming and evolving to make way for the wonderful Hard To Find. The National continue to enthral and beguile with wondrous effect.

In the same week as The National make it four from four, Laura Marling does the same. From tentative, charming début Alas, I Cannot Swim to the more confident duo I Speak Because I Can and A Creature I Don't Know, Marling has expanded her musical landscaping further with Once I Was An Eagle. The album magnificently builds through an introduction of connected songs (You Know into Breathe is especially slick) into the brilliant Master Hunter, with Marling in full flow. Devil's Resting Place concludes the first half before a more subdued collection: the lovely country waltz of Where Can I Go?, vocals, keyboards and guitars blending perfectly. Once is equally arresting, as Marling reminisces on her childhood, and the dark tones of When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been) brings in yet another character to the stage of a musician who is more of an actor than a singer. And while the album's encore is not as strong as its prelude and centrepiece, it is consistently compelling and utterly absorbing.

Veteran alt-metal legends Alice In Chains reunited in 2005 following the death of Layne Staley and their first album without their original singer was the heartfelt and beautiful Black Gives Way To Blue, an album of tribute and nostalgia. Given that there was a fourteen year break, and mainly due to the steerage of Jerry Cantrell and lead singer William DuVall, Alice In Chains sound remarkably familiar and refreshing. New album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is spirited and powerful, often lapsing into mournful dirge, while soaring above their muddy sound. The seven-minute Phantom Limb is an obvious highlight and the venomous Stone has echoes of Queens Of The Stone Age and Tool (puns intended?). Among the swampy metal, there are moments of clarity: Voices is uplifting and melodic and closer Choke is a mash of sounds and ideas echoing back to 1992's Dirt.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (Album Review 2013)

After enjoying huge success with the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, French dance duo Daft Punk realised that the approach to their next album was too much of a synthesiser overload. They set about making Random Access Memories, a celebration of the 1970s/80s US disco sound, and something of a rarity: a dance record with 'proper' instruments, singers and musicians, limiting the use of drum machines and performing live in a studio. That said, vocoders feature heavily  - Bangalter and de Homem-Christo sharing vocal duties - with mixed results and form a huge part of the album.

Random Access Memories features some notable guests and Nile Rodgers (Chic) provides guitars for several songs including opener Give Life Back To Music, a huge slice of smooth funk. But the big early highlight is the nine-minute genius that is Giorgio by Moroder, starting as spoken word, with Giorgio explaining his part in the early days of electronic music. He introduces himself and the cool vibrant electronica starts, moving from funky to classical, back to full-on beats and bass, driving drums and keyboards with a huge swathe of instrumentation, stuttering into a swirling mass of guitars. This is a wonderful tribute. Of the other collaborations, Pharrell Williams brings most to the party - his voice free of robotic production. Lose Yourself To Dance starts well but lapses into the predictable, while the excellent Get Lucky is perfect dance/pop again with Nile Rodgers adding his sparkling guitar work.

Elsewhere, Random Access Memories is a mix of brilliance and frustration. Touch is inspired (after an odd start), with Paul Williams adding a great vocal turn, some bouncy jazz/skiffle fusion before a choral/electronic arrangement. Williams provides the lyrics for Beyond, the smooth soundtrack opening and excellent outro are marred by clumsy vocals and a poor delivery. This and Instant Crush would work better as an instrumental, in spite of Julian Casablancas delivering a decent, if mashed up, vocal for the latter. Late on, Motherboard is a neat track and it's not every day you hear a cristal baschet in full flow, and the soulful Fragments Of Time (with Todd Edwards) is smart and uncluttered. Closing track Contact is a great idea, blending samples, the magnificent sound of a modular synthesiser (with DJ Falcon) and pounding drums into something old-school; it builds then builds again before ending in slightly underwhelming chaos.

Random Access Memories feels more like an experiment than a well-crafted album but when they are brilliant, Daft Punk are truly inspired and enchanting. They have revitalised a vintage sound and with the help of Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams (among others), created something quite wonderful. But this is nowhere near perfect and the early emotional ballads (The Game Of Love and Within) are slow and lifeless - it's hard to convey power and generate empathy when fronted by Marvin, the Paranoid Android. You can't fault the approach however - more often than not Random Access Memories sounds real and relevant. An audacious celebration.
-- CS

Sunday, 19 May 2013

This Week - Primal Scream and Vampire Weekend

Primal Scream has never been a band to bow to convention, never staying in the same place for very long and frustrating fans and critics. Without question Bobby Gillespie and the band are at their best when they cut loose with psychedelic pop, none more so than the glorious timeless rhythms of Screamadelica and later the magnificent industrial stomp of XTRMNTR. But it's the disastrous forays into soft indie rock that has been Primal Scream's undoing: the hapless Give Out But Don't Give Up and the woeful Riot City Blues are huge blots on the landscape. So with new album More Light, the band (now without Mani who has returned to The Stone Roses) has returned to what they do best. This is weird and wonderful from the outset, a dark twisted and compelling album which opens with the nine minute monstrous epic 2013, sounding like an orchestra of which Jason Pierce would be proud. A great opening is let down by a weak first half: River Of Pain has sultry guitar work, Gillespie's breathless vocals and big strings, then the immense dark-funk bass and drums of Culturecide; both are impressive but Hit Void is a hopeless mess. A mixed bag leads to the brilliant stomp of Elimination Blues, all supreme guitars and drums, backing vocals and percussion. Only Invisible City, with guitar/trumpet combination works well after the spirited stirring ballad Tenement Kid. More Light shrugs off the inconsistencies and ends in style. Turn Each Other Inside Out is another fantastic bass line with pounding drums and guitars. Walking With The Beast, with echoes of Gillespie's ex-band The Jesus And Mary Chain, is a highlight - gorgeous guitars and vocals deliver throughout, before closer It's Alright, It's OK brings back the Screamadelica-era pop, all jangling guitars, hippie choral vocals and exquisite piano. Easily Primal Scream's best work since 2000 - ambitious, adventurous and wonderfully unique.

Vampire Weekend's third album has delivered the band's most interesting album to date, building on their auspicious eponymous début and adding focus to the pop rhythms of follow-up Contra. Modern Vampires Of The City is smart, precise and cool - exactly what Vampire Weekend should be. Up to now, they have always seemed more style over substance but, as opener Obvious Bicycle proves, the focused industrial acoustic sounds, wonderful songwriting and Fleet Foxes vocals are a winning combination. Unbelievers is an immediate pop-punk highlight while Step is an odd spiky piano-led Elizabethan waltz. Modern Vampires Of The City never quite revisits this opening but Hannah Hunt is a lovely mixed tale of road-trip and love-song with a big Dylan-esque outro and some of the best vocals from Ezra Koenig. Everlasting Arms is cool pleasant string-pop while Finger Back is completely different - punchy and fast, like following song Worship You, they take the album up a notch. Sadly, Ya Hey is a great song ruined by some grating vocal blending, the absurd chipmunk crooning a horror show - the album's only obviously bad move. Then Modern Vampires Of The City falls flat at the end with the spooky drawn-out mournful strings of Hudson followed by fragment closer Young Lion, this is a downbeat ending to an otherwise enjoyable work. Still unique and compelling, Vampire Weekend is full of character, intelligence and pointed observations, but the band still need more substance to dispel the often empty style.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Kurt Vile - Wakin On A Pretty Daze Album Review (2013)

When Kurt Vile left The War On Drugs in 2008, a great music collaboration ended. Vile was already a solo artist (of sorts) and his backing band The Violators continued with The War On Drugs co-founder and front-man Adam Granduciel still on board. Granduciel left The Violators in 2011 and went on make one of the finest albums in the last decade, Slave Ambient, as Vile blitzed through four solo albums, with mixed results. So now, on his fifth attempt to make a solid, coherent and engaging work, Kurt Vile and Wakin On A Pretty Daze have finally delivered.

Vile has always been a free and liberated musician, blending styles and moods with seemingly incoherent abandon but he has yet to do this with such elegance. Wakin On A Pretty Daze opens with the cool sublime nine-and-a-half minute, sleek, sun-kissed guitar-led epic Wakin On A Pretty Day, with Vile musing on thoughts and observations like a philosophical stoner. 'To be frank, I'm fried...but I...don't mind', he sings before drifting off into a series of uninspired, yet entirely appropriate, 'yeah yeah yeahs'. As the song enters a fourth minute it's difficult to know where it could go. One wonderful guitar solo later and Vile is back with more of the same with additional random empty lyrics. Yet the effect is mesmerising and sublime, as another swathe of swirling guitars drives the song on into its last minute like the eighteenth minute of a classic Neil Young And Crazy Horse adventure.

KV Crimes opens with a blistering guitar riff before Vile starts the tale of self-analysis. The chorus, while not the most inspired, is wonderfully structured around a laid-back delivery: 'Well, right...what now? It's fine. I think I'm ready, to claim what's mine, rightfully, yeah...'. Vile's voice is not so much of a clear and concise storyteller but it's an incredible instrument, to compliment more supreme guitar work. To complete an impressive opening trio, Was All Talk is another highlight, with injected pace and energy. Vile, again, is examining his own life and achievements: 'There was a time in my life when they thought I was all talk' he claims dismissively and then later 'Making music is me!' before repeating the aforementioned accusation, all framed with psychedelic swampy guitars. Vile is not scared of letting the music run and go where he feels it should, as the outro hurtles into an eighth minute.

The mid-tempo Girl Called Alex rolls lazily through its six minutes, occasionally lifted by some neat guitar-work from Jesse Trbovich and organ from Vile. It's not quite a weak point but feels more like an interlude between the first part of the album and what is to come. This leads into Never Run Away and the closest Wakin On A Pretty Daze comes to producing a three-minute pop song while being utterly unique and odd. Vile simply fuses empty lyrics with repetitions of the song's title. Pure Pain echoes Pavement covering The Pixies, a modern proto-punk stomp, before changing completely, only to return later in the third minute. It's a brief re-visit as the song drifts again into a series of delicious guitar loops. And another huge eight minutes produces Too Hard, with Vile at his most heartfelt and honest: 'I will promise not to smoke too much. I will promise not to party...too hard...too hard...It's too hard', he sings before the profound 'Life is like a ball of beauty that makes you wanna just cry...then you die...'. Again, the guitars shine with added hope to Vile's inward, self-deflating lyrics. This is a great example of a song drawn thin with over-extended lyrics and wide-open instrumentation.

Shame Chamber is another brilliant pop song, more ego-bashing and catharsis set to a playful soundtrack, complete with maddening 'woops'. This begins an impressive end to a great album. Snowflakes Are Dancing is the late high-point with Vile on top form, the music blending perfectly into a swirling mass of guitars, percussion and voice. The quality continues with Air Bud, which could easily be The War On Drugs doing an acoustic set. And as if the album needed a big finish, Goldtone is a final ten minutes of icing on a massive cake. Opening lyrically with 'Sometimes when I get in my zone, you'd think I was stoned...but I never, as they say, touch the stuff. I might be adrift, but I'm still alert, concentrating my hurt into a gold tone...'. This is an album in one song, an autobiographical account of a musical journey, with more sublime musical moments: layers of guitars, sweet backing vocals and harmonies. Into the ninth minute and the music rises to a mini final crescendo.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is one of the most interesting albums of the year and is set to remain so. Vile's unique and unstructured approach and delivery makes it sound as if this is the product of a series of experimental, improvised and shambolic jam sessions. This may be the case but it captures Vile (and The Violators) at their most creative and consistent, yielding a huge album that drifts in and out of ideas and themes; at times drawn-out and threatening to lose focus, but rightfully so. The open spaces, protracted sequences of guitars and often thin lyrics add to the overall feel and charm and create the right atmosphere. This is Kurt Vile's most ambitious and ultimately rewarding album: huge, expansive and, above all, enjoyable.
-- CS

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell - Love Has Come For You (Album Review 2013)

The contrasting duo of comedian, actor, and now accomplished bluegrass banjo player, Steve Martin and singer, songwriter Edie Brickell might seem an unlikely combination for a new album but proves to be a perfect match. Martin's love of the banjo started in his teenage years and he has been playing ever since, while Brickell started her musical life as part of New Bohemians and made one of the finest pop albums of all time, Shooting Rubber Bands At The Stars, before briefly going solo. She is now part of The Heavy Circles and The Gaddabouts so another collaboration was always inevitable. This new project: Love Has Come For You follows Martin's Rare Bird Alert (with the Steep Canyon Rangers), and the Grammy winning The Crow: New Songs For The 5-string Banjo, and the inclusion of Brickell's vocals adds character and charm to his music.

What makes Love Has Come For You such a charming and engaging folk album is that no part of it is over-done. The ever-present banjo is a core instrument but it never overwhelms or consumes the storytelling. And Brickell's voice soars and shines throughout, a controlling presence but never upstaging the music. The title track, for instance, is an understated three-minutes of wonder, tinged with darkness from another time and driven by gorgeous vocal harmonies and subtle percussion. The duo are continuously respectful and honest to the genre as Sarah Jane And The Iron Mountain Baby shows - a superb tale of a baby thrown from a train in a suitcase, found unharmed and raised against adversity. Both Martin and Brickell are playful and bring a sense of fun and energy to the seemingly macabre subject matter - even the odd train impersonations work as the banjo echoes the frantic wheels of the runaway engine. As an introduction, Yes She Did is a stark, cold and honest account of suicide, delivered without emotion. Opener When You Get To Asheville breathes modern life into a classic sound as Brickell asks '...send me an email', while Siamese Cat is more like something from her New Bohemian days. Both work in their different ways. Martin's best performance is Shawnee, a master-class of string work, as Brickell tells the story, that of a love-lost girl trying to avoid the advances of her 'creepy cousin'. And the heartfelt ballad of King Of Boys is simply wonderful, if way too short, providing Brickell's finest vocal. As the album closes, Love Has Come For You leaves one of its finest moments for last. Remember Me This Way is another song washed with dark cold tones, perfectly judged and uncomplicated.

Love Has Come For You often feels like music from a different era while remaining current and timeless, bringing old stories and forgotten souls back to life. It runs hot and cold, musically, with vibrant rhythms and energy making way for a darker, colder side. As musical collaborations go, this is a triumph of songwriting and execution. The combination of Martin and Brickell is so natural that you wonder why they haven't done this before and Love Has Come For You sounds like a partnership that has been years in the making.
-- CS

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Music Chart - April 2013

The music chart for April features new music from The Strokes, British Sea Power, M83, Paramore, Killswitch Engage, Kurt Vile, Fall Out Boy, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Besnard Lakes, Bill Ryder-Jones, Frank Turner, No Joy, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell and William Tyler. This has definitely been a month for quality over quantity with some new albums breaking into the top ten and knocking Biffy from the number one spot.

  1. Wakin On A Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile
  2. Love Have Come For You by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
  3. Impossible Truth by William Tyler
  4. Opposites by Biffy Clyro 
  5. Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  6. Waiting For Something To Happen by Veronica Falls
  7. The Beast In Its Tracks by Josh Ritter 
  8. Welcome Oblivion by How To Destroy Angels
  9. Les Revenants Soundtrack by Mogwai
  10. Let It All In by I Am Kloot
  11. Spectre At The Feast by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club 
  12. Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner
  13. Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO by Besnard Lakes
  14. People, Hell & Angels by Jimi Hendrix
  15. Fade by Yo La Tengo
  16. Wolf's Law by The Joy Formidable
  17. Paramore by Paramore
  18. Tales From Terra Firma by Stornoway
  19. Electric by Richard Thompson 
  20. Oblivion OST by M83
  21. AMOK by Atoms For Peace
  22. Wonderful, Glorious by Eels
  23. A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart by Bill Ryder-Jones
  24. Heartthrob by Tegan And Sara
  25. Wait To Pleasure by No Joy
  26. A Long Way To Fall by Ulrich Schnauss 
  27. Machineries Of Joy by British Sea Power
  28. Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant
  29. All The Little Lights by Passenger
  30. Tooth & Nail by Billy Bragg
  31. Sound City - Real To Real by Sound City - Real To Real
  32. Disarm The Descent by Killswitch Engage
  33. The Messenger by Johnny Marr
  34. If You Leave by Daughter
  35. Pollen by Wave Machines
  36. Mosquito by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  37. Back Into The Woods by Ed Harcourt
  38. Clash The Truth by Beach Fossils
  39. Country Sleep by Night Beds 
  40. The Next Day by David Bowie
  41. Rules By Passion, Destroyed By Lust by Asphodells
  42. Blood Oaths Of The New Blues by Wooden Wand
  43. Centralia by Mountains
  44. In Love by Peace
  45. Ores & Minerals by Mazes
  46. Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit 
  47. The Invisible Way By Low
  48. Lysandre by Christopher Owens
  49. California X by California X
  50. Save Rock And Roll by Fall Out Boy
  51. 180 by Palma Violets
  52. News From Nowhere by Darkstar
  53. Almanac by Widowspeak 
  54. Bloodsports by Suede
  55. Graffiti On The Train by Stereophonics
  56. Wash The Sins Not Only The Face by Esben And The Witch 
  57. Comedown Machine by The Strokes
  58. The Moths Are Real by Serafina Steer
  59. {Awayland} by Villagers
  60. Out Of Touch In The Wild by Dutch Uncles
  61. Lost Sirens by New Order
  62. Girl Talk by Kate Nash
  63. Beta Love by Ra Ra Riot
  64. Early Rocking by Paul Simon
  65. Collections by Delphic

Sigur Rós to appear on The Simpsons

Sigur Rós are to star in an episode of The Simpsons on May 19th. Entitled 'The Saga of Carl', Homer heads to Iceland in pursuit of Carl and the band feature, provide new music for a score and have a go at the classic theme song.

Read more on Eighteen Seconds Before Sunrise.