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Album Review: The Drums – Portamento

By on Tuesday, 13th September 2011 at 12:00 pm

There must be something in the water in New York. Most, if not all, of the dramas set in that widescreen, moviescape city are either stories of love, or dramas of destruction. Or both, which is what Jonathan Pierce and the Drums have unveiled with Portamento. Plainly recorded, with an almost toy-like approach to instrumentation – drums are tinnily programmed, guitars are clean and muted – the themes are anything but childlike. Kicking straight into existential philosophy, ‘Book of Revelation’ spares no time in setting the tone for the rest of the album. Apparently with little time for creationism, despite its religious references, Pierce is quite clear on his point of view: statements such as ”when we die, we die”, or ”there’s no heaven, and no hell” indicative of the nihilistic stance of the album.

Having established his mindset, the next task is to decipher how this influences the narrator’s attitude to life and love. The answer is a singular mixture of superiority and self-flagellating regret. The former is evident in ‘Days’’ cocksure statement of intent: “days go by / and I never needed you”. Oh really? Except you had to write a song about it? A similar blame transference occurs in ‘Hard to Love’, where the backhanded compliment is king: “I would never leave you / but you’re hard to love” leaves the listener just as confused as the real-life recipient presumably was.

Suddenly, about halfway through, our protagonist is overcome with an attack of self-doubt, and the tone changes from one of blame to reflection. A detailed description of the lyrical content is unnecessary – with blunt song titles such as ‘I Don’t Know How to Love’, ‘Please Don’t Leave’, and ‘I Need a Doctor’, the bipolar nature of the album is clear from a brief perusal of its sleeve. There’s a lovely choral segue into the Tomitaesque synths of ‘Searching for Heaven’, which matches its spiritual theme beautifully, as if our narrator was despondent before St Peter, unable to accept the existence of something beyond the material, even as it is proven before his very eyes.

‘I Need A Doctor’ actually provides some light relief with its uptempo lightweight beats but continues the disturbing lyrical tone, with talk of loving someone because they’re childlike and stupid, and thus being able to refrain from killing them. ‘How It Ended’ appropriately closes the album, and is arguably the only positive, uplifting song to be found here, with its shiny, happy façade of longing for an unrequited love to return: it’s a much-needed ray of sunshine in an altogether darkly-drawn set.

Musically, this could be the sunnier, faster cousin of Joy Division, with its abstract synths and Hookian bass. Whether by design or coincidence, there’s hints of contemporaries Futureheads and the xx in there too. The sound is defined by its architectural simplicity; however there’s one too many major to relative minor shifts and use of semitone intervals to achieve the depth across twelve tracks that the band surely aspire to. This isn’t, frankly, a masterpiece, especially from a musical point of view. Perhaps the departure of guitarist Adam Kessler has affected their breadth more than the band care to admit. However, there are some astonishingly candid lyrics, especially the polarisation between externalised angst and internalised self-doubt. A cautionary tale for those still learning about matters of the heart: don’t try this at home, folks!


‘Portamento’, the sophomore album from the Drums, is available now from Moshi Moshi / Island.


Album Review: The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love

By on Monday, 12th September 2011 at 2:00 pm

‘In the Grace of Your Love’ is a bizarre album, to say the least. Call it experimentation, or a clashing of genres all you like, but in my opinion the Rapture are just a bit weird. Weird though: it’s something they pull off with relative ease.

In between their last release and this record bassist Mattie Safer left the band, but the band say it was all on peaceful terms, and nothing in the album sticks out as any feelings of resentment. No, the overlying theme to this record is loss, mainly the loss that was suffered by frontman Luke Jenner in the form of his mother taking her own life. ‘Never Die Again’ is difficult to listen to when you know this fact but it does indicate that Jenner is learning to deal with the terrible loss in a more positive way. ‘Come Back To Me’ is scarily reminiscent of early Fatboy Slim and has one of those toe-tapping beats throughout that will stick in your head. The synths are calm and build slowly to nothing like a traditional crescendo, but instead to a euphoric plateau.

Jenner’s vocals are perfect for their unique blend of psychedelic acid house, with the frantic guitars of Gabriel Andruzzi meshing subtly in the background of most tracks. The guitars subtle brilliance is at its best eccentric best in ‘Never Die Again’ where the suspense is drawn out by the continuous riffage. Luke Jenner has also spoken about how becoming a father influenced the album’s formation, so some of the darker overlays of the album are only touched on briefly.

Overall, this is a pleasing album, no two songs are the same, and the changes of pace are exciting and give the record a sense of vibrancy without making it seem frantic. While the strongest part of it may come in the middle, it’s not to say that this isn’t a solid album throughout. ‘Children’ is a wild ride dripping with the kind of dance hooks that the Rapture are known for, while ‘Can You Find a Way’s constant rhetoric lyrics are catchy. This may not be an album which the band are remembered for, but on merit it is a good effort.


‘In the Grace of Your Love’ is available now from DFA Records. You can download the Rapture’s track ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ from the DFA Web site here.


Album Review: Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix

By on Tuesday, 6th September 2011 at 12:00 pm

The prolific and seemingly inexhaustible Bombay Bicycle Club have come out with their third album, this one called ‘A Different Kind of Fix’. An interesting title, since after listening to this new effort a couple times, I’ve come to the conclusion the quartet wanted to come up with something that took the best of their first two albums (2009’s ‘I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose’ and 2010’s acoustic ‘Flaws’ [review here]) successful. Where ‘Flaws’ left me feeling cheated, wondering when their follow-up to the incredibly fun single ‘Magnet’ was going to materialise, if ever. Yet ‘A Different Kind of Fix’ presses all the right buttons, showing the band’s maturity of talent and indicates the band is not going anywhere any time soon.

The album begins with ‘How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep’, likely the best example on here of how the London band managed to marry the rock sensibility of ‘I Had the Blues…’ with the softer side of ‘Flaws’. Great lead vocals from Jack Steadman gently lead you into the tune that speeds up to a perfect tempo, with joyful guitars and drumming. The next track, ‘Bad Timing’, is no ‘Magnet’, but it’s an admirable return to form. This one, along with ‘Take the Right One’, rock harder and are certainly welcome to folks like me who didn’t take to the acoustic Bombay Bicycle of last year. The beginning of ‘Beggars’ certainly sounds like it could have been on ‘Flaws’, but thankfully the chorus and overall prevailing feeling is, dare I say it, nearly Mumford and Sons in slap-happiness.

What I definitely did not expect from these blokes: ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’. It’s like pulling back the curtains on the ‘80s, reminding me of Culture Club. Don’t run from this review. Stay with me here, please. Listen to it on Spotify, it’s like a 21st century ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’. It’s genius. I don’t think any other band would even try this. What a risk. But it sounds fabulous. Even ‘Leave It’ and ‘What You Want’ sound like the band have been stuck in a time warp (early Noughties U2), but I won’t complain too much, because they have sweeping choruses. And remember what I said earlier, that this album was a crossroads between their first two albums? The acoustic stylings of ‘Flaws’ come through in ‘Fracture’ and album closer ‘Still’, though neither of which is particularly noteworthy.

‘Shuffle’, which was trotted out earlier in the summer as a taster of the new album, is in hindsight a strange choice for a single. Dissonant piano banging and the start and throughout, along with a really annoying chorus, can easily get your goat. It’s the only major disappointment I find on ‘A Different Kind of Fix’ and unfortunately the only reason why I didn’t give it a higher rating than 8 out of 10. I can’t with a good conscience give an album a stellar rating if the band (and/or their people) can’t make the right decision when it comes to choosing singles. Love it or hate it, you have to accept the fact that bands have to put their best foot forward when promoting new albums, and that’s the lead single. It’d be a terrible shame if people didn’t give this a chance because ‘Shuffle’ grated on their nerves.


‘A Different Kind of Fix’ is available now from Universal / Island.


Album Review: Baths – Pop Music / False B-Sides

By on Tuesday, 30th August 2011 at 2:00 pm

Anyone who got bored by the Flaming Lips‘ somewhat style-over-substance set on the opening night of this year’s Primavera Sound festival, and wandered off looking for something less indulgent, may have encountered Baths (aka 21-year-old Los Angelean Will Wiesenfeld) tearing the Pitchfork stage to shreds as the false dawn broke over the Mediterranean. An archetypal American college geek attired in terrible shorts, Baths nonetheless unleashed track after track of crunching, stuttering beats and subterranean, undulating bass, sauced with impenetrable vocals and swirling electronica. Just the ticket to keep the 5 am fatigue at bay.

‘Pop Music/False B-Sides’, as the name implies, is a collection of previously gig-only rarities, a stop-gap follow-up to the lauded ‘Cerulean’ debut. At its best, ‘Pop Music/False B-Sides’ can be described as more of the same, and when the same is eclectic, powerful electronica, couched in up-to-the-second production values but with classic songwriting touches, there’s no cause for complaint. With more space, and less need to impress with intensity than the live show, the material here has space to breathe, with touching, discernible vocal refrains and delicate instrumental touches, with even some acoustic instruments to broaden the palette. But never far away is the threat of Baths’ stock-in-trade jumpy, cut-up, pummelling beats.

However, the record can’t shake the impression that it comprises material not really up to being part of the majestic ‘Cerulean’. There’s a restriction of scope that falls short of Baths’ best; the arrangements are at times too linear to maintain interest across 3 or 4 minutes. The production values are unconvincing at times: it can sound as if it was made in a young man’s bedroom computer, which in most likelihood it was. Most songs are built around pumping compression artefacts (where the volume of the whole track is momentarily suppressed to moderate the volume of individual elements like bass kicks), which in any other context would be an unacceptable production mistake, but here are a deliberate part of the sound. This in itself isn’t a problem, but such is the extent of the effect’s use, it quickly becomes tiring to listen to.

There are some gems here, notably the stuttering ‘Flux’, with its seemingly random sound fragments coalescing in squelchy triumph, and the opening ‘Pop Song’, which in an alternative reality could be the sort of thing that troubles the charts instead of the dross we have in this world. Otherwise, if you’re not familiar with Baths but want to check him out, the obvious starting place is ‘Cerulean’, which is a proper album and a rewarding listen. If you loved ‘Cerulean’, certainly there’s plenty here to tide you over until the next album proper. And if you buy it, Wiesenfeld might be able to afford some nicer shorts.


Baths’ ‘Pop Music / False B-Sides’ album is out now on Anticon.


Album Review: Hyde & Beast – Slow Down

By on Friday, 26th August 2011 at 2:00 pm

Hyde & Beast‘s album ‘Slow Down’ is a collection of deceptively simple, dreamy psychedelic pieces. There are some obvious comparisons with Sgt. Pepper arrangements and vibe, with reverse tape loops, droning sitar, parping horns and dreamy, double-tracked vocals; an eagle ear might notice the Sunderland accents in place of Liverpudlian ones. The muted bass on lead single “Never Come Back” is an exact copy of Paul McCartney’s: impressive attention to detail.

‘(and the) Pictures In The Sky’, the album’s only cover, is an unashamed T. Rex rip-off in terms of structure and sound. Production is impressively up-front, without any digital affectations, even though it was made in a computer. You get the impression that the emphasis is on vibe, soul and dynamics rather than any particular instrumental proficiency – indeed on the short, ramshackle instrumental ‘Wolfman Blues’, the guitars are less played than dismissively twanged at no more than cursorily accurate pitch and rhythm. But in a strange way it all works as a cohesive whole.

Hyde is an unassuming frontman. Whether or not his downbeat, almost somnambulant demeanour comes naturally, or is the consequence of a few hours in the pub between soundcheck and performance, is unclear. His voice will never trouble the judges on Opera Star, but suits the dreamy tone of the music, and is regularly bolstered by surprisingly accurate three- or four-part harmonies. He appears to know only one chord shape, the classic rock power fifth, but again it’s surprisingly effective in its deployment. Much like on the album, the guitar is approached as a means to creating sound appropriate to the mood of the song, rather than a melodic end in itself. An almost idiot savant approach, but it works.

The band offer a literal, if not sonic, wall of guitars – including the bassist, there are four vintage axes all in a line on stage. But each player knows their role – never is the sound cluttered by too much distortion; no two guitar tones are the same. The band have the all too rare virtue of knowing that the space in the arrangements is just as important as the notes. Bassett is a superb drummer, loose-limbed and deliberate, with an innate feel for the music. The balancing act between endearing imprecision and utter chaos would not be possible without him holding the highwire tight.

This project means very different things to the two men behind it. Hyde is filling time while the Futureheads sort themselves out, taking the opportunity to air his own material, knowing that the popularity of his other band is likely to transfer to this one. For Bassett, this is a great opportunity. Aside from anything else, this is an astute career move – not only does the clear, directional production on the H&B album demonstrate his ingenuity and effectiveness in the studio and will surely prove to be good for business in the longer term, he gets to have fun behind the drums in an act that is attracting a lot of attention.

Their respective characters complement each other well – the young Hyde bringing a sense of occasion, a dose of glamour and I daresay possibly excess to the party, whilst Bassett is the more mature, level-headed partner, essentially a businessman now, keeping tabs on things from behind the kit. Neither could do it without the other; an essential attribute for any successful partnership. What makes this rise above the level of vanity project is the simple fact that the songs have something special, a quality that transcends the vintage stylings; a psychedelic Indian summer of sound which rewards enthusiastic listening.

Drummers, then – maybe they’re more astute than they get credit for. After all, who wouldn’t want to get paid for just hitting stuff?


Hyde & Beast’s debut album ‘Slow Down’ is out now on Tail Feather.


Album Review: Keith Top of the Pops and His Minor UK Celebrity All-Star Backing Band – F*ck You, I’m Keith Top of the Pops

By on Monday, 15th August 2011 at 12:00 pm

A long time in the making, Keith Top of the Pops is releasing his debut album, ‘F*ck You, I’m Keith Top of the Pops’, on the 16th of August via the very excellent Corporate Records. I had my trepidations about this album at first: known to confuse and generally upset any soundman, Keith TOTP and His Minor UK Celebrity All-Star Backing Band are known to take the stage with a vast, eclectic array of instruments (4 to 6 guitars, flutes, musical saw, kitchen sinks, etc.) and I wasn’t sure if the album was going to be able to represent the generally wondrous cacophony of theirlive show.

I was wrong to ever have doubts. If anything, it’s a bit easier to appreciate the songs on the album. Keith TOTP’s songwriting style is simple, catchy, honest, occasionally acerbic but always clever, and the accompaniment of seemingly millions of instruments suits it well. I think my husband put it best, when I asked his opinion: “It sounds like someone took your record collection and played it all at once.” It really is, and in the absolute best way. It certainly helps that the album also features some of my favourite people in music. The haunting duet ‘What’s On Your Mind’ with Sarah Nixey (of Black Box Recorder, also a solo artist) is especially lovely.

I think ‘I Hate Your Band’ epitomizes the reason I love this album so much. More than the song itself (which is a great song nonetheless), but the very spirit of the song itself. After a seemingly constant barrage of buzzband after buzzband and conga-drums-are-the-new-Casio-Bossanova and just general overhyped stupidity, it’s just nice to hear a good, honest record without any pretentions. It’s been a while, honestly. You can watch an excerpt of the band’s performance at 2009′s Camden Crawl below to get a feel for what they are like live.

YouTube Preview Image


You can buy the various versions of the album (the special edition on CD or vinyl or digital download) from Corporate Records here but the press release we received said the release date is tomorrow.

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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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