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Cat Power has been releasing albums since 1995, although this is her first collection of original material since 2006’s ‘The Greatest’ dished up a down tempo, soulful melange of alt-country-tinged female pop, overlaid with a trademark wondrous sultry vocal. Ms. Power’s bumpy personal history, drinking, and mental difficulties in the intervening period make it all the more surprising that ‘Sun’ comes across as quite the mainstream piece. There’s nothing offensive or particularly abstract here. Indeed, most songs adopt a linear structure of a handful of looped chords, with layered and occasionally cut-up vocal refrains atop.
‘Cherokee’ opens the scoring: a sampled hip-hop beat, and a prime example of the aforementioned looped descending chord sequence as described by electric guitar and piano. And lots, lots of overlaid vocals. Marshall’s voice is the hero here: unctuous yet mildly abrasive, more often than not phased, distorted, blissed-out by studio electronics into washes of swirling vowels. Four chords.
The title track opens with the line, “Here comes the sun” – haven’t we heard that somewhere before? Ethereal voices ponder the meaning of our nearest star. Two chords looped. ‘Ruin’ (video below) bemoans small-town small-mindedness whilst boasting a namecheck list of glamorous, mind-expanding travel destinations. Four chords looped. ‘3, 6, 9’ appropriates and corrupts the eponymous American nursery rhyme for its chorus effectively, whilst the verses make it clear that their bitterness is directed at a particular “abusive, elusive” character. Four chords looped.
‘Always On My Own’ introduces a three-song cycle of darker, more minimalist, introspective pieces. There’s abstract synth work, massive sub-bass throughout and the familiar overlaid vocals. Three chords alternating ABAC. We delve deeper into the true Cat: “Real life is ordinary / Sometimes you don’t want to live / Sometimes you gotta do what you don’t want to do / To get away with an un-ordinary life”. Four chords. ‘Human Being’ is all churning, portentious synth bass and darkly plucked guitars, Power really getting into her stride with a decent head of gothicity. Four chords looped. When we exit the electronica segment, the message is clear: real life human being always on my own… intriguing.
Emerging, blinking into ‘Manhattan’ – as dry as its cocktail namesake, with synth drums assisted by acoustic percussion. There’s something about the moon, but as with every cultural reference to the most glamorous of the five boroughs, it suffers in comparison to the real thing, although its rhythmic drive would suit a purposeful stride up 6th Avenue. One chord, three inversions looped.
By the time we’re in the final quarter of the record, ‘Silent Machine’ storms into the room, grabs the listener by the scruff of the neck and spits on the floor. A slug of electric guitar, a dirty-as-you-like groove, Power’s voice in full soulful swing, then (warning – spoiler alert) instead of a chorus, there’s some digital cut-up mechanism that makes the world reverse on its axis for a few seconds, fragments of sound replacing linearity, noise making a sudden, uninvited housecall. Perfect in every regard – I want an album of stuff like this, please. Three chords.
‘Nothin’ But Time’ is uplifting musically, but soul-destroying to listen to – eleven minutes of nauseating platitudes drone balefully – even the fully-insured grandad of shock punk, Iggy Pop, sounds like he’s just been interrupted carrying a cup of cocoa up to bed with his pipe and slippers. And it features the worst of all musical gimmicks, the false fade-out. As if the eight minutes endured up until that point were leaving us clamouring for more. Two chords. ‘Peace And Love’ – a jangly, attitudinal closer. One chord.
On the basis of much of the music here, Power is far more blissed-out than would be expected from a bald reading of her personal history. She’s either a hardened nut, washing off the stains of life in the next rain shower and keeping walking, or she’s been on the sauce, pills, or substances of a similar mind-altering bent again. Each to their own, but for long slices of this album one wishes she would simply let rip all the shit she’s been through in a few short, sharp, primal exclamations, rather than skirting around the periphery, indulging in vague new-age claptrap.
It isn’t fair to enumerate the worthiness of music simply by the number of chords employed – simple music can be just as important as the most complex symphony. However, if the musical structures are bare, other attributes need to be correspondingly stronger, and it’s debatable whether that really happens here. With an average of three chords per song, many of those simply looped from beginning to end, there’s a nagging feeling of underdevelopment, of some of these pieces being the embryonic sketches from which a masterwork is desperate to emerge. A song like ‘Silent Machine’ hints at Cat’s power, but there’s not enough exceptional work to really engage the emotions throughout. Despite this, ‘Sun’ does feel like a break into the mainstream. It strikes the right balance of kookiness, accessibility, and catchiness, to be enjoyed by those who like their music with a hint of melancholy, contemporary production chops, and an eleven-minute pep talk to wrap things up. Not quite the greatest yet, then, but there’s still time.
Cat Power’s ‘Sun’ is out now on Matador Records. You can download ‘Ruin for free here from her label.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 3rd September 2012 at 12:00 pm
After about 2 and half year since their debut album ‘Tourist History’ slowly but surely led Two Door Cinema Club on a slow burning rocket to super stardom in Britain and then around the world, they are back with album #2. Already, lots of reviewers are already sniffing their disapproval, saying that this album ‘Beacon’ dares not to deviate from the formula that made the likes of ‘I Can Talk’ and ‘What You Know’ bona fide megahits and the band is merely staying in one place musically. However, I beg to differ.
They’ve tried to mix things up a little bit, trying to do some ballads and even a song that’s bordering on the all too popular r&b genre, but mixing it up lead to mixed results as well. What becomes very clear, even when you’re examining the lyrics on their own, is a feeling of measured maturity, one that is borne from their rise to meteoric popularity, coupled with a back-breaking touring schedule and having to grow up musically in this dog-eat-dog business.
I had the good fortune of meeting Alex, Sam and Kevin socially after their first appearance in Washington DC, when they were supporting Phoenix on a sold-out tour. Stood there in the hallways of Constitution Hall, they seemed to be so very chuffed to have been invited out to tour in the great country of America with Phoenix. It was a baptism by fire, a mixture of anxiety and excitement every night, yet it was easy to see even in DC that they were already gaining new fans, with young girls queueing up to get autographs and their photographs taken with them. I’m sure none of their girls were even thinking ahead to what would happen next for Two Door. As a music editor, I don’t have any illusions of completely understanding of the insanity of being in a touring indie band, away from my own bed and my family for extended periods of time. The only hint I have is when I’m running around at a festival like SXSW, the Great Escape or Liverpool Sound City, trying to get as many things done in a day as possible, but even so, that’s only for a couple days. Imagine trying to do that for more than two-thirds of a year, and you might have an idea of what Two Door, or any other of your favourite bands for that matter, has had to give up to realise their dream.
‘Beacon’ begins with ‘Next Year’, a wistful number that nearly made me cry hearing it, because I remember that time I first met them and how different their lives are now. The song begins jauntily with the words, “I don’t know where I going to rest my head tonight, so I don’t won’t promise that I won’t speak to you today”; with the kind of harried lifestyle they lead these days, it’s no wonder they don’t have a clue where they will lay their weary heads that night after a gig, or why they have no chance at real relationships (“maybe someday you’ll be somewhere / talking to me, as if you knew me”), because the rest of the world has been living and passing them by. The song is a realisation – and a mature one at that – that things have changed for them forever.
An almost ballad, ‘Settle’, is rescued with its militant drunks similar to those in ‘Something Good Can Work’, also maintains a reflective quality about being disconnected with reality with their newfound celebrity (“when I get home, when I get home / I want to feel less alone / I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t feel / anybody”). Title track ‘Beacon’ reinforces the motif of home, and it’s with this trifecta that I think they’ve succeeded in writing songs around this theme. If only they’d written the whole album this way. While it was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Jacknife Lee, it’s with some considerable relief that after listening to ‘Beacon’, you know the boys have not changed up their sound or style for the sake of being ‘California hip’.
‘Sleep Alone’, the lead single, sounds very ‘Tourist History’ in its up tempo rhythm and fun melodic vocal, but the words are much less filler and more food for thought than anything off their debut. I’ll admit I’ve thought about the words than probably anyone should, but I’ve wondered if the song is tackling mental illness, suicide, mortality, the horrors of war or a combination of them. Hardly lightweight subjects for a ‘mere pop band’. (I dunno, I don’t believe for a minute that it’s just about run of the mill nightmares, as the video would like you to think.) In ‘Handshake’, a hypnotic synth line buzzes along with a disco-ey bass from Kev Baird goes with the words of the chorus “she says ‘the devil will want you back’ / and you’ll never find love in an open hand / shut your eyes so you’ll see I’m there / and know you’ll have this if you see this man”, kind of sounding as nonsensical as the words in ‘I Can Talk’. What’s more important is that it’s completely danceable, as are bouncy ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Someday’, with great squealing guitars. ‘Sun’ is at close to r&b as Two Door ever gets on ‘Beacon’, with a sexy bass line and a horn section, but it doesn’t work too well with Trimble’s vocal: it’s just too clear and innocent to be believable. This isn’t a dig on Alex’s voice, I think it’s great. It’s the kind of voice you want the boy next door to have, the one you’re crushing over, to have. It’s just not appropriate for soul.
And then comes the sleepier second half of the album. Compared to the rest of the album, neither ‘The World is Watching’, with the backing vocals of Valentina, nor ‘Spring’ go down completely well either. I give them much credit for trying to write ballads, but it just doesn’t sit right with me for some reason. Wait, I got it: they’re trying too hard to be Bombay Bicycle Club, and it’s not a metamorphosis I’m happy with. What is ‘Pyramid’? An existentialist history lesson, exploring “what lies beneath the earth / everything that has ever been and will become”. Zzz. So the final verdict? The album is about two-thirds fun and one-third snooze. Will their fans buy it in droves? Of course. But will others? I’m less sure about that. One thing that I do know though, ‘Next Year’ and ‘Sleep Alone’ will go down as Two Door classics, beloved by all because of all 11 tracks, these are the best examples of something the mainstream media don’t want to say: they might be awfully young, but those chaps in Two Door Cinema Club are pretty good songwriters.
‘Beacon’, the new album from Two Door Cinema Club, is out today on Kitsune. The cover of the album is a mystery to me and if I see the boys on this tour, I’m going to go up to them and say, “the cover, guys? LADS!” The album trailer is below.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 31st August 2012 at 12:00 pm
‘North’ is American band Matchbox Twenty’s first full studio album since 2000’s ‘More Than You Think You Are’. Rob Thomas can’t even rest on the laurels of his Santana collaboration and megahit ‘Smooth’ because – wait for it – that was 13 years ago. You read that right. Thirteen years. I have wondered how many of the original ‘mb20’ fans are still with the band, but at the same time, I’m equally as interested in how this album is going to do, because let’s face it, they have a lot to prove in this post-Bieber / Gaga / Perry era.
The one review I saw online when doing research for my piece here took great glee in trashing this album by comparing it to 1996’s ‘Yourself or Someone Like You’, but the writer doesn’t seem to understand something very important that has become increasingly obvious in nearly all the new music I’ve heard this year from ‘returning bands’: in order to stay valid, you can’t stay in one place musically and not considering the current musical landscape when writing and recording a new album. The quartet – singer Rob Thomas, lead guitarist Kyle Cook, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette – are as familiar and comfortable to me as granny’s knitted sweater, but let’s see about this album’s merits (or downfalls), shall we?
It begins on an uplifting note with ‘Parade’, which feels like Thomas’ self-help leaflet to someone down on their luck who was withdrawn from society: “there is so much more than you can see, if you just stick around /all the streetlight’s secrets are whispering for you to come back out / oh no, there’s so much more that you need to work out / you don’t want that parade to leave you now”. I’m left wondering what this “parade” is; maybe it’s celebrity and the associated paranoia? That’s my best guess right now, but I think it’s a worthy question to ask the band if I ever am presented with the opportunity.
The album will no doubt be remembered for first single and American adult top 10 hit ‘She’s So Mean’ (single review here). It’s testament both to the tightness of this band and Rob Thomas’ songwriting that this is such a corker. Lyrically, it’s humourous, which appeals to both men and women. (Watch the interactive 360 video for the song below.) So does the infectious riff that pervades the whole song. It is now impossible to get it out of my head. It’s really brilliant. ‘Our Song’ is another exceedingly happy, poppy, peppy tune, extolling the virtues of being in – surprise! – a satisfying relationship, thanking your partner in being the person who’s been your rock and promising to be there for him/her forever.
‘Put Your Hands Up’ sees Matchbox Twenty trying to be the Script in its hip hoppy delivered lyrics, but with a dance beat. If this sounds absolutely crazy to you, I’ll assure you it’s not. To be fair, it’s a smart move – how else will the band get played on Radio1, right? Of all the songs on here, this has the best chance of having crossover appeal to the kids of the dads and mums around my age who are going to buy this album. Legally. Another track that has a similar chance? ‘Radio’, where the band channels the John Mellencamp brand of American rock ‘n’ roll. It has horns. What? (‘The Way’, featuring refreshingly different lead vocals from Kyle Cook, also feels very Mellencamp, but doesn’t feel completely right in the delivery.) An unfortunate title befalls ‘Like Sugar’; it’s not sweet and sounds like a stalker’s manifesto. But, again, this is the sound that the kids are eating up these days. It’s forgivable.
Lest you forget that Matchbox Twenty was also the band that brought us the timeless torch songs ‘If You’re Gone’ and ‘Unwell’, there are ballads here. You are rewarded at the end with ‘Sleeping at the Wheel’, which will probably go down in history in the same kind of category as those two songs I just mentioned. ‘Overjoyed’, while also borderline cheesy, manages to not breach the too cloyingly sweet warning level (in a way that is broached by the somewhat irritating ‘How Long’). Watch the video. You’ll see what I mean. And if you are a bloke and feel the waterworks starting to churn as you watch it, do not worry. There’s a highly ranked comment on YouTube that reads “I’m a dude and I cried”. It’s not a smudge on your masculinity. ‘I Will’ is another great ballad, except it drops the energy level of the whole album and is oddly placed right before ‘English Town’, an almost bluesy number that sadly doesn’t conjure up any happy images of the blighty I know. Wait a minute. Why is this track making me think Keane could have written it? Time to wrap this one up, I think…
While it’s not groundbreaking, ‘North’ doesn’t need to be for a band that has been together for nearly 2 decades. What they’re looking for are hits they can play to fans, both old and new, in the huge venues that will play host to them. Thomas says in the bridge of ‘Parade’, “when the music’s over, but the song stays in your head”, to bring attention, as if asking the listener if ‘North’ is worthy for a stay in one’s head. The answer, for the most part, is a resounding yes.
‘North’, Matchbox Twenty’s first studio album in 12 years, is out Monday (3 September) on Atlantic. Before then, you can have a cheeky listen to a stream here on iTunes for a limited time.
Featured in our Bands to Watch section by Mary not long ago, the 1975 are a band that have been quite a while in the making. Having undergone a number of different monikers over the last few years, they’ve finally settled on their rather unGoogleable name and committed to Dirty Hit Records. Can I get a “hallelujah”?
The ‘Facedown’ EP is the first of two to be released this year before we finally receive an album from the Manchester act and from the off, like so much of this band’s history, it’s completely misleading. As if the name changes and constant playing around with fans and releases wasn’t already bad enough, any prior knowledge of this group will shout “deception!” at you.
The title and opening track ‘Facedown’ (video at the end of this post) is the kind of track that would be a stunning intro to any band’s arsenal; it sounds barely like the 1975 that created the second track ‘The City’. Bouncing straight out of the blocks with its huge drum line and almost romantic call to arms in “if you wanna find love / then you know where the city is”, ‘The City’ oozes the kind of “put us in a big field” vibe that you know the 1975 have. Any visit to a live show of theirs tells you that there’s so much more where this track comes from and that they’re not destined for the landfill.
Sounds great, right? Half of the EP in and no complaints? Sadly, that’s where the aforementioned deception comes in. The rest is borderline mush from a band that are by no means mushy. By all means write slow songs, take for example some of the highlights of Bloc Party’s career so far in ‘So Here We Are’ and ‘I Still Remember’, but filling three-fourths of your debut EP with it when that’s not the band that your fans know you are is nothing short of baffling. That’s not to say there’s not good parts to ‘Antichrist’ and ‘Woman’, but there’s a large part of me that wishes for their debut EP, they simply hadn’t bothered with them.
An unsettling start, but there’s plenty of promise here.
The 1975’s EP ‘Facedown’ is out now on Dirty Hit.
Artists that tread the line between pop and the underground these days do so with certain levels of danger involved. The choice for the artist seems to be whether to aim for the chart sitters or push for the more honest sound that comes from not being Katy Perry. Coming out of the more folk side of the pop spectrum in the last few years has been the likes of Laura Marling and emerging talent Lucy Rose but one that’s not been mentioned whilst quietly climbing up the venue sizes in the last few months has been Kyla La Grange.
The release of her debut album ‘Ashes’ last week sees La Grange finally show her hand and signals the directions she’s going to be pressing to in the next few months. Opening with single ‘Walk Through Walls’ signals to the very top as its pop chorus and build into one of the most promising opening tracks of the last year. This is then quickly pushed aside by the steady progression into darkness, leading the listener further into the web of La Grange’s emotions. In parts, she’s laid bare as her remarkable voice echoes through you: take ‘To Be Torn’ for example, which is an atmospheric backing track to an almost piercing vocal line. Her voice won’t be for everyone, but to those who will listen its something that toys with eeriness and beauty in equal measure.
After this comes the centre points of ‘Vampire Smile’ and ‘Been Better’. They’re the highlights of an album that starts to sound quite same-y after this. La Grange employs a variety of interesting lyrical and audible styles from the lyrics through to her wails and loops but they don’t quite add up to hugely entertaining music. From start to finish there’s something that keeps you listening though. Its catchy without having many hooks, its listenable in most situations regardless of mood set, and pending your mood you’ll notice something different about its layering. There’s something very enticing about this record but in equal measure, you could play any one track on shuffle and move on with your life. By almost all of her points of merit, La Grange lacks in the killer finish, and that’s why this record feels disappointing without ever being genuinely weak. From a first record, you expect more than that. We all do.
Kyla La Grange’s debut album ‘Ashes’ is out now on Sony Music.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 6th August 2012 at 12:00 pm
We’re in the eighth month of 2012, so it’s time to take stock, album-wise, of what has already been and what we might expect in the remainder of the year. Of everything I’ve listened to and reviewed up to this point, ‘Paused in the Moment’ from Van Susans is (and I suspect will be) the most diverse – and pleasantly so – album of the year. However, with diversity of tuneage comes more chances for you to be criticised, as you will read in a moment.
The debut album from Van Susans surprisingly doesn’t include any songs from their five-track EP ‘We Could Be Scenery’, which I reviewed last spring. I say ‘surprisingly’, because from my experience, even bands further along in their career will, predictably, pad their ‘new’ albums with EPs and singles already released to guarantee successful reception based on fan recognition. I am thinking there is one likely reason for Van Susans to not do this: they had moved so far away from ‘We Could Be Scenery’, maturing in their songwriting, and wanted to distance themselves from their previous release. Could be. Just conjecture, of course. It’s a calculated risk, but I think it’s one that paid off.
The obvious winners on this album are the two singles that start the album on a high note, ‘Bricks Not Sticks Nor Straw’ (video below) and ‘Fireworks’. The former has a humourous title, obviously taking its cue from the Three Little Pigs children’s story, but the song itself is nothing short of impressive. With a fab guitar solo by Ed Dullaway and Olly Andrew’s equally fab lyrics that could be interpreted either as a friends forever kind of anthem (as portrayed humourously in the promo video) or a “I’ll always be there for you” lover’s torch song. ‘Fireworks’ is a more conventional love song, with Rob Dullaway’s driving drums and the ivory tickling of Olly Groome.
Further investigation of ‘Paused in the Moment’ reveals more greatness. Although the word ‘pop’ usually prompts derision among most reviewers, I don’t think Van Susans’ brand of it is anything to turn your nose up at. Quite the contrary. This is pop that can be enjoyed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages. Anyone with an ear for a catchy melody, great lyrics and/or both is welcome here. The very short ‘What is To Lose’, with a staccato guitar line and show-stopping chords, is a bouncy, upbeat, poppy number. ‘Stepping Stones’ and ‘The Road’ see the band skirt the blurry lines between folk and pop, with jolly guitar and Andrews’ voice doing calisthenics up the scale. Seriously. He has what is not a falsetto but an upwards inflection that appears in the choruses, one that I first heard on ‘We Could Be Scenery’ and not only was totally okay with but actually found I loved.
Speaking of the EP, I’d say the closest one to that EP on here is ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’, which Andrews explained to me was a song from his and drummer Rob Dullaway’s former band. A good explanation why it sounds like it could have easily fit on the EP then. Something that might be forgotten in listening to ‘Paused in the Moment’, especially if you haven’t been on the Van Susans bandwagon since the EP, is that this is a band with a great piano player in Groome. He doesn’t really get an adequate chance to shine until ‘If I Succeed’, which is his piano-playing, Andrews’ vocals and Holly McLatchie’s fiddling.
There are only a few moments where the album loses steam or its brilliance. The start for ‘Disappear’, for one, which is saved by its lead up to a much more engaging chorus. It’s also one of the longest songs here, nearly 4 minutes long. Overall, it’s just not as strong as the rest of the album. ‘Notice Me’ also falls down a bit in the lyrics department. ‘Popo’, while bordering on annoying in the melody and chorus departments, is a chance to laugh, showing a lighter touch than the rest of this album. If Savoir Adore can get a mildly irritating song on a laundry detergent advert, then Van Susans have an equally good a chance at doing the same with his. ‘Rat Race’, which the band is giving away as a free download as their unofficial anthem for this year’s Olympics, has a positive message about having the courage to go for your dreams. But the feeling I get from it is sorrowful for some reason; it could be the fiddle and piano, which sound mournful? Not sure.
Now, getting back to that “most diverse – and pleasantly so” plaudit at the beginning of this review. It’s hard to call this an all pop album, all rock album or an all anything album. There’s upbeat pop, folk pop, and heck, there is even what the band themselves consider them in country/western mode, ‘Served Cold’. I like it, it reminds me of the early days of I Dream in Colour, but I realise there are some people who just don’t like that genre. However, if you’re the kind of person who’s appreciative of good pop songwriting, or at the very least some memorable melodies, give this a spin. There’s a lot of like here on Van Susans’ debut album, indicating much potential in their future.
‘Paused in the Moment’, the debut album from Van Susans, is out now on Beatnik Geek Records.