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Album Review: Friends – Manifest!

 
By on Tuesday, 12th June 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s hard not to re-read the album cover of ‘Manifest!’ to check that you’re not listening to a new record from The Go! Team. But don’t worry, your eyes do not deceive you. Percussion-centric and bassline-heavy, Friends‘ debut album is a distorted guitar or two away from being straight from The Go! Team cutting room floor.

The New York-based 5-piece band have already gathered significant praise for their indie/funk/punk/disco/pop music, the variety in genre reflective of how different the band members’ backgrounds are; born in different parts of the United States, they came together in an apartment in Brooklyn. ‘Manifest!’ is made up of indie vocals, funk percussion, punk distortion, disco synths and the catchiness of a pop track. It’s a mix that works surprisingly well, carefully avoiding sounding like several musicians have rehearsed separately then come together for the day to record an album.

Throughout the 12 tracks, one think that becomes apparent is the talents of Connecticut-born singer Samantha Urbani. Her vocals are the thing that sets the group apart from The Go! Team. With instrumentals as strong as they are on ‘Manifest!’, Urbani does a fantastic job of keeping up with the rest of the band and doesn’t once seem overwhelmed by the percussion. I would liken her voice to Katie White’s vocals in The Tings Tings but, you know… good.

All the tracks on the album blend well together too, rather than coming across as an album of singles. Friends’ debut has definitely lived up to the massive hype that the band has accumulated in the previous months, including the lead-out track on ‘Manifest!,’ ‘Mind Control’ (previous Video of the Moment here), being named ‘The Hottest Record In The World’ by Zane Lowe. It’s a deserved title for what I believe to be the stand-out track on the album. Curiously placed at the end of the record, at nearly 5 minutes long, it is the longest song of all 12. With plenty of hand claps, “yeahs” and a beautifully repetitive bassline, ‘Mind Control’ takes its influences from ’70s funk, and it’s just a brilliant end to a great album.

‘Manifest!’ is a wonderful debut from Friends, one that lives up to the hype, and more. Listening to it gives me the same sensation I got back in 2008 when I was obsessed with Vampire Weekend‘s debut. Overall, an album full of interesting bass lines, refreshing vocals and not to mention more percussion than you can shake a vibra-slap at.

9/10

Friends’ debut ‘Manifest!’ is out now on Lucky Number.

 

Album Review: The Hundred in the Hands – Red Light

 
By on Monday, 11th June 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

It feels like I saw The Hundred in the Hands open for the Temper Trap lifetimes ago in Philly and Boston, when in actuality, it has been less than 2 years. Given the change in musical climate, I think I could be forgiven for my mind being deceived. While there are some acts that have flourished by using electronics in an obvious and knowing way (Grimes, James Blake), it seems to me that there seems to be a bit of a backlash, reminiscent of disco being booed off the baseball field in the early ‘80s: Ladyhawke’s ‘Anxiety’ (review here) is Pip Brown’s way of trying to extricate herself from the electropop label, and Little Boots’ new singles ‘Every Time I Say a Prayer’ and ‘Headphones’ are garnering mixed response. Their 2010 self-titled debut (reviewed here) relied on Eleanore Everdell’s voice, dreamy at times but always rising to the occasion above relatively clean instrumentation, such as catchy synth melodies and Jason Friedman’s crashing guitar riffs. On their second go around, the real life couple from Brooklyn appear to be taking a darker approach with the new release ‘Red Light’.

You can tell things have changed straight away as the album opens with ‘Empty Stations’. It’s a slow build towards the 1-minute mark, with melancholy guitar allowed a couple spare notes before the driving beats lay into you. Everdell’s voice comes in, sounding as great as she did on ‘The Hundred in the Hands’, before the song builds to a climax into minute 2. Whoa. I need to take a step back. The assault on your ears feels like war has been waged, and I’m not sure if the cacophony is what the doctor ordered: the overall effect is too much. Frankly, the song leaves me frightened. Maybe the ‘Red Light’ album name is a warning?

So it was with much relief that ‘Recognise’, the next song, shows much more restraint. Dreamy vocals, even dreamier synths and gentle passes of a guitar = the electronic world’s definition of sexy. ‘Faded’ is even more dreamier, if it’s even possible. Now this is more like the Hundred in the Hands I used to know. ‘Keep It Low’, which we gave away in April, feels both New Order and Depeche Mode in its industrial clanking but with its dance beats, it pulls me in, completely mesmerising in its rhythms and Everdell’s ever expansive voice. ‘Tunnels’ is Bananarama and an ‘80s vibe, combined with a menacing, thudding beat. It’s like ketchup and mashed potato together: it shouldn’t be good, but it is. (Yes, I do eat my mashed potatoes with ketchup. Don’t judge.)

‘Come With Me’, while showing signs of bleakness and hardness akin to ‘Empty Stations’, has more focus than the first track and comes across well in an epic rock way, almost Muse-like. ‘SF Summer’ does this also, but to a lesser extent. (I do pray the Hundred and the Hands won’t be compared with Amy Lee and the American band Evanescence, which I’m guessing the lazier of music journalists will compare this album to on the basis of one or two songs on here.) In 2010, three out of my top five albums were made by bands with a dance bent (Delphic, Two Door Cinema Club, then the Hundred in the Hands). From my perspective, Delphic came out and did well out of the gate in January 2010 because they offered an alternative to either straight dance or straight rock, melding a combination of the two that worked and gave respect to the two genres from which their new sound was forged. There are clearly some tracks on ‘Red Light’ that sound like they went through a similar thought process, and I’m guessing these are the ones that will prove more popular and have a better shot at mainstream success, or at least what passes for mainstream success in the indie world. Not completely a dance album or a rock album, ‘Red Light’ shows maturity in direction. Or at least the realisation that a dance album, when taking the right kind of cues from rock, can offer something great to people who might not otherwise check them out.

8/10

‘Red Light’, the second album from The Hundred in the Hands, is out today on Warp.

 

Album Review: Gossip – A Joyful Noise

 
By on Friday, 8th June 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

I owe the Gossip big time. Firstly, they provided the backdrop to my travels around London the previous weekend and however miserable, cold, rainy and generally crap it was Beth Ditto’s lively bubbliness kept me smiling and my head pointing in the right direction. Secondly, they provided me with one of my (least/most) favourite London tube memories: a full length advertisement for their second album where Beth raised her arms to the heavens and revealed her completely unshaven armpits. Gross and hilarious at the same time.

But on to the album.‘A Joyful Noise’ is what it says on the tin, a collection of ‘Joyful Noise.’ Pop music with a great bounce to it. With Beth Ditto in the front you have a lovable, or if not extremely likeable frontwoman with a fantastic set of pipes. Track ‘Move in the Right Direction’ (previous Video of the Moment here) has great pace but does itself no favours with a thoroughly vulgar fadeout at the end. But as with most songs I like, it redeems itself with a lovely catchy chorus that manages to get stuck in the sticky part of your brain. ‘Get a Job’ evolves in a Hot Chip-y kind of way more than anything, and you can expect to hear it at a Propaganda dance night extremely soon. “You better get a job” is the line and with Beth, it’s delivered with a beautiful kind of harshness. The guitars are cool as a cucumber and aid to the pure head-bobbiness of the tune.

There are tracks on the album like ‘Get Lost’ that are in all honesty instantly forgettable, which I don’t like to say about something somebody has worked on. But hey, I’m being truthful. Another of these is ‘Perfect World.’ The album ends on a high note though with corking slow burner ‘Melody Emergency’, an obvious highlight in the album. Not in the way ‘Heavy Cross’ builds, but in the same fashion, just with less of that Radio1 playability and charm.

‘A Joyful Noise’ is far from the Gossip’s best effort. However, it’s an album which from start to finish is filled with some real bounce and vigour and if it doesn’t put a smile on your face, well then I refer you to my earlier story on the underground… It may help.

7/10

‘A Joyful Noise’, the Gossip’s latest album, is available now from Columbia.

 

Album Review: Ladyhawke – Anxiety

 
By on Wednesday, 6th June 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

I’ve been having a difficult time with second albums. This, unfortunately, includes the new one from Ladyhawke, called ‘Anxiety’. Couldn’t have a more appropriate title, as I came of age in the blogging world with her self-titled debut album, buying it from a Fopp’s in Nottingham, on the relaxing day before I had a baptism by fire covering her, Patrick Wolf and Dot to Dot headliners Friendly Fires at Rock City. What I loved about ‘Ladyhawke’ was the dance floor-ready tracks, heavy with synths but not in a heavy-handed way. This was an album to be sung along to, to be danced along to, to enjoy again and again and drunk up like the summer of 2009 from whence it became popular.

So the news from NME that the new album ‘Anxiety’ was in a more rock-oriented fashion, in what seems to be an early move in an overall backlash towards the dance synth sound of the last 3 years, I was crestfallen. However, because of my love for her debut album, I was determined to give Pip Brown’s latest a chance. The title comes from Brown’s own diagnosis and coping with Asperger’s syndrome, which she has described as making it impossible for her to deal with real life unless she takes her anti-anxiety medication; this is explained specifically in the lyrics of the title track.

The first indication things would not be the same came in the form of Zane Lowe debuting first single ‘Black, White and Blue’ (review here). The guitars are more prominent and with gratuitious reverb, and yes, there are no dance synths, but that’s to be expected. The gamer in her probably likes the computer bleeps and blips, but I’m no fan. Along with several others, including like ‘Girl Like Me’, it’s the drums are nearly made obsolete, with tambourines and other percussive flourishes taking over the beat role. Lyrically, she has gone the simple route, which will probably make this album more popular in a widespread, as it will be easy to sing along to festivals. She implores, “please don’t go / I need your love”, in the chorus of ‘Sunday Drive’ (Watch it here; listen to it in the widget below.) Trite. Cringe-inducing. It’s stompy in the Nancy Sinatra fashion but instead a stalkerish one. “I can’t pretend to hate you / ‘cos I will always love you / And when you try to leave me / I run insane”: wait, what? I think I can safely say that all women reading this have been through some bad relationship patches, but the last thing I want to do is hear a winched up, faux-power pop song telling me – or maybe enabling me is the better sentiment? – and that’s it okay to be all moony over a guy who is trying to leave me? That’s for the film at 8, not what I really want again and again in an album. Also, what is going on with these random effects? Lyrically, the content isn’t forward-thinking; putting in spaceship sounds doesn’t automatically put the song into forward-thinking mode either.

Returning to album opener ‘Girl Like Me’, you want to root for the protagonist who is playing a game with a man who “between the devil and the deep sea / I saw you dancing / with a girl like me”, but the song is just too simplistic, you can’t expect it to be memorable. At first, I was thinking this album was her way to getting a lover out of her system. ‘Cellophane’ is a slower, oozier ‘80s-style number with an overused guitar key change, wondering if “if all those years we spent running away / we never knew / that it was meant to be”; I guess that one is for the nostalgic types.

But on second thought, this album sounds like a collection of Brown’s inner demons: “what will people think of me?” in ‘Vaccine’, being the other woman in ‘Girl Like Me’, “take me for a ride / show me how to hide / the voice in my head” in ‘Anxiety’, “I see them coming for me in the middle of the night” in ‘The Quick and the Dead’, “save your advice for another girl” in ‘Gone Gone Gone’. This wouldn’t be the first album to showcase someone’s internal battles and it won’t be the last, but is it done well? It makes sense that she couldn’t use the same kind of musical backing as her first record to soundtrack such heavy stuff. But do we want to hear it like this? Or at all?

I had a look at the lyrics to ‘Magic’, one of my favourites from ‘Ladyhawke’, and while they’re not going to win a Pulitzer, I liked them and think I gave her more free rein because of the dance beats. When you’re dancing, nothing really matters except if you can sing along to the chorus and the beats are good. The beats here are okay but nothing special, because mostly they’re not the focal point. Actually, that’s the main problem here. There doesn’t seem to be a thread tying any of these together. Songs sound circus influenced (see ‘Vanity’, with a melody and twinkly xylophone notes more appropriate for a fairground ride), like a downright sleazy stompathon (‘The Quick and the Dead’) or ‘, and

Perhaps the songs that sounds the most like ‘Ladyhawke’ are album closer ‘Gone Gone Gone’ and ‘Blue Eyes’. The former sounds like a far too late acknowledgement that hey, I’ve got problems, but I would have realised this eventually and broken things off, but instead you’re the one who chose to leave. (Passive-aggressive much?) ‘Blue Eyes’ would have been great, if only it didn’t have a “nah nah nah” chorus. Ugh. Then again, ask the My Chemical Romance fans, they’ve got no problem with that at all. Maybe I’m just being picky with lyrics? Readers, you tell me.

I’m likening this album to being in a haze, either on uppers or downers. It’s hard to focus on anything because without the rhythms to give you heart palpitations, ‘Anxiety’ plods along with no particular direction. I feel for Brown, I really do; it’s not easy being a public figure having been diagnosed with a mental illness, and I give her much credit for offering up her personal problems as fodder for pop songs. Problem is, I think she’s made an album that neither her ‘Ladyhawke’ fans will gravitate towards or will gain her new fans because come now, everyone knows how big ‘My Delirium’ was. I’m not sure how to class this album. Sadly, I was disappointed. Better luck next time, Pip. I will be waiting. Not sure if many others will be, though.

5/10

‘Anxiety’, the sophomore album from Ladyhawke, is out this week on Island.

 

Album Review: Paloma Faith – Fall to Grace

 
By on Thursday, 31st May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Musical disappointments can be life-changing. Imagine, after many formative years of studying Elton John’s seminal ’70s output, finally getting to see him live and discovering he who sounded so vital in those recordings was now an overweight old man, honking his way through syrupy ballads to the drunken delight of perma-tanned grannies. Ditto Ryan Adams, whose delicate songwriting prowess in his ‘Gold’ period had waned by the time I got to see him, replaced by endless electric guitar riffs and a personality emptier than Alex Ferguson’s whisky cabinet.

Although not quite on the same scale, Paloma Faith’s new album, ‘Fall to Grace’, is a similar letdown of reasonably-held expectations. Her 2009 debut, ‘Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful’, was a surprisingly engaging, rollicking ride of diva pop, which kicked off in assertive fashion with ‘Stone Cold Sober’, had a classy, world-class show tune in the title track, and a genuine, cleverly-realised smash hit in ‘New York’. It hung together well as a piece, and it still sounds fresh and listenable 3 years on. Her voice, whilst not quite in the same league as a Holiday or Winehouse, was distinctive and effective when partnered with carefully-chosen material.

It seemed as if she’d stepped straight off the stage of a musical production of ‘Oliver'; an ale-house girl, swinging her skirts and loving the limelight. Her 2010 performance at the Big Chill festival was a triumphant marriage of showmanship with a genuine, heartfelt, big-lunged vocal performance. Hence, the modest expectation of her new collection is to scrub off some of the rough vocal edges, de-cheese some of the arrangements, and supply a decent number of genuinely good pop songs. Unfortunately, none of these objectives are met.

The best song here, by quite some way, is lead-off single ‘Picking Up the Pieces’ (previous Video of the Moment here), a big, showy number in fine Paloma tradition. We’ve already discussed it here – worthy of a solid 6/10 of anyone’s money; add another couple of points if divas really are your thing. Sadly, the album never really matches its bombast, and it collapses heavily later on. ‘Black and Blue’ is a curious mid-tempo deconstruction of the vice contained within average lives (“She plays lady luck on scratch cards / with money lent to her by old friends”), but never gets our of second gear, and its maudlin tone can’t match the coy, seductive innocence of its fellow third track on the previous album. And where that collection then delivered its killer title song, this time Faith has decided to go with a dreary solo piano ballad with an unforgivable double negative (“Don’t say nothing / just sit next to me”); why, Paloma, why? Where are the tunes, girl?

Whether it’s because she’s trying too hard to force some emotion into the deadweight material, or maybe a case of over-tuition, her voice is less listenable than last time: vowels are mangled into unrecognisable shapes; high notes have an unfortunate habit of taking on a cheese-grater quality rather too often; it’s all just oversung. The absolute nadir of the whole affair is ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’, the moment when all good taste goes out the window, in the cynical interest of generating something “for the clubs”. Devoid of any melody to speak of, the nondescript lyrics cannot obscure the utterly heinous production levels. This cheaply synth-laden piece of unlistenable stodge would quite rightly be dismissed from the most half-baked, back-street, bargain-bin karaoke backing CD. The first 17 seconds of intro, with their off-the-shelf fake drums, half-hearted filtered synth line, and – unbelieveably – fake handbells – is the worst piece of “music” I’ve heard this year, no question. It would make Steps blush.

After such an aural insult, there’s barely any motivation to carry on, even with half the album left. Those fearless travellers who make it past the next two mid-tempo whinges might find a crumb of interest in ‘Agony’, which portrays a dysfunctional, and quite probably violent, relationship from the point of view of the victim, who appears to be suffering from traumatic bonding. With its repeated refrain of “This is agony / this could end in tragedy”, a more sarcastic writer might suggest that this song sums up the album as a whole. I, of course, couldn’t possibly comment.

Because Sony provide reviewers with no cover notes, no physical product, and only an iPhone-incompatible stream from which to listen to the music (duh…), I know not who has written the music which Paloma is singing, nor who is responsible for the shambolic production beyond rumours that Nellee Hooper was involved with ‘Picking Up the Pieces’. I doubt he’ll be putting his name to the rest of the album. It’s all such a shame – Faith is capable of far better than this, as her debut proves. But too much of this is poorly written, mid-tempo blandness, and I pity her having to sing it every night. The sooner she finds some genuine talent to supply a few decent songs the better.

3/10

‘Fall to Grace’, Paloma Faith’s second album, is out now on Sony.

 

Album Review: alt-J – An Awesome Wave

 
By on Wednesday, 30th May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

“Remember, you heard it here first!” shouts the high and mighty publication. “Remember, they heard it here first!” sighs the blog in return. Can we be honest before I start writing this, as long as it was around the right time, I frankly don’t care. If you’ve switched me on to something new and great, thank you, but there’s a good chance I read it somewhere else first and just passed it by.  I’m glad I’ve got that out of my system, it feels good to release ‘buzz band’ anger from time to time. I suggest you try it next time someone tells you they heard of Django Django first and just check their last.fm to save us all the hassle.

So here we come to another ‘hype band’ and their 2012 effort of a debut record.

A little background perhaps, if you’re not tired by the monotony of press regurgitation. They met in Leeds at university whilst all forging out life paths. They messed around, they played shows under different names and then they got out. They’re ‘a Cambridge band’, having recorded the majority of this record in Cambridge and having lived there since leaving university. Their name makes no logical sense unless you know Mac keyboard shortcuts. They’re called alt-J and in the last 380 days (at time of writing) since their eponymous demo EP, everyone and their cat has laid claim to their folk-step chains.

So, the record. Yes! For music as difficult to describe, it’s surprisingly accessible. In not over-complicating time signatures and instead channelling into our desire to understand each and every layer of any given sonic cake, alt-J have found a formula which can crossover between the simple hip-hop feel of their ‘Intro’ track through to the jumping lines of ‘Breezeblocks’ (video below). Its playful nature crosses between wordplay and illegible wordsmithery as it pulses on. You feel though that even with this kind of atmosphere about their music, the refined madness destined for radio, alt-J are aware that they still exist in a sub-culture. As such, a few interludes appear throughout the record, breaking up the studio-sheened final products with a series of snippets of down time. They’re not exactly organised in the best of ways, but they’re a welcome getaway.

YouTube Preview Image

Just like that, you’re back in and it’s slowly but surely back to the layers. For a four-piece, its hard to place where each new layer actually forms from and dissolves away to again but in tracks such as ‘Something Good’, the multitude of ideas presented can seem a bit messy. It’s borderline bipolar as a series of logical yet strange lines are introduced and taken away again. In contrast, ‘Matilda’ is simple, relaxed and welcoming whilst “Ms” is just not very good.

The centrepiece of the record, though, is ‘Fitzpleasure’. It swirls around the pan with acapella vocal lines fused quickly with deeply powerful guitar and synth lines. It makes no sense, but all the same time, does. And that’s what this band do best. That’s the reason everyone wants to claim them. alt-J are the absent madness from modern music whilst also being the calm before the storm within the same record. They’re by no means the messiahs, but they’re onto something. In mixing African influences of complex lines that fit together with the ever-growing British electronic scene and a safe amount of guitar, they’ve created a formula that many are aiming for but few are achieving.

8.5/10

alt-J’s debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’ (whose triangles prove impossible to post properly through our Twitter feed so we’re not even bothering to insert them) is out now on Infectious Music.

 
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We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like idiots.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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