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Album Review: The Magic – Ragged Gold

 
By on Monday, 16th July 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s rare one comes across a genuinely ground-breaking album. Most collections owe something to that which has gone before; indeed, the theory that all modern popular music can trace its roots back to Deep South blues is as widely accepted as social theory can be. But it’s just as uncommon to find one that wears its influences quite blatantly on its sleeve, or in the case of ‘Ragged Gold’ by Canadians The Magic, as metaphorical sewn-on band patches on the back of a bleached denim jacket.

Lead-off single ‘Mr. Hollywood’, with its bleeps, bangles and glossy harmonies, has a backing track straight out of a DX-7 demo ROM, overlaid with that kind of clean, palm-muted guitar that sold so many chorus pedals thirty years ago. Effortlessly evoking bright white yachts cutting through sparkling Mediterranean water, populated by men and women in skimpy Speedos, who end up in a glossy, chromed nightclub with a neon-lit dance floor; references to Coupes de Ville and pink champagne only serve to amplify the general ambience of glamorous excess. There’s stunning sequenced bleeps behind the main arrangement – overall, a masterclass in styling and justly chosen as ambassador for the album.

Continuing the ’80s theme, opening track ‘Lightning Strikes’ leaves the listener in no doubt as to what is to come, with its enormous, mid-tempo chorus, primarily arranged with synth washes, synth bass, and – yes, you guessed it – wailing synth lead notes. Only a pair of pulsing rhythm guitars saves the track from being entirely electronically-arranged. ‘Night School’ is a more threatening, uptempo white-funk workout, which wears its flyaway bleached blonde fringe unashamedly, stuttering across the stage with peacock pride. Vocal duties are shared between brothers Geordie and Evan Gordon, with the silky vocals of Sylvie Smith as a counterpoint. In fact, Sylvie’s voice is just as important as the boys’, taking lead duties on the jaunty, be-saxophoned ‘Call Me Up’, and providing useful harmonic balance. Indeed, the saxophones are an important part of the latter half of the album, which moves away from the 80s and opens up a whole new cupboard of influences, this time primarily of the previous decade. Like a fine wine, there’s a conflation of a number of individually delicious flavours into one congruent whole – one can spot Chic, 10cc, Quincy Jones, Pet Shop Boys; deeper down even New Order and contemporary revivalists like Chromeo and College. Quite a melting pot, but due to the careful rein on arrangements, nothing feels overblown. The game of spot-the-influence can actually be a hindrance to the music itself – a fun distraction from enjoying the resulting blend.

This is a record that’s supremely self-confident in its source material, refreshingly honest about its stylistic influences, yet simultaneously deeply original – all the pieces are arranged in new ways, whilst still sounding comfortingly familiar. Heavy retro influences abound without descending into parody. There’s disco in the square-wave synths, ’70s AOR in the electric piano and saxophones, shedloads of funk in the bass, early ’80s flouncing pop in the cheap drum machines and archly-delivered male vocals, with the occasional flash of contemporary hip-hop sensibility. Arrangements are architecturally precise, modernist constructs – music by which to ascend the lift in a van der Rohe skyscraper, marvelling at the clean lines and glossy surfaces.

The Magic have done a good job on their debut. Whether they can transcend their influences and develop their sound into something more personally reflective remains to be seen. But to make a debut record that works as both a historical reference point and enjoyably contemporary listen is no mean feat… it’s The Magic.

8/10

‘Ragged Gold’ is available now as a digital download from Half Machine records, and a delectable 180 g vinyl is available to pre-order here.

 

Album Review: The Crookes – Hold Fast

 
By on Friday, 13th July 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

I remember when I first queued up the Crookes’ 2011 debut ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ with baited breath after the brilliance of ‘Backstreet Lovers’ on their ‘Dreaming of Another Day’ EP. They haven’t changed their sound so much to the point of unrecognisable from their previous releases; what they have done is started playing and writing smarter, both instrumentally and lyrically, and made by my job as a blog editor infinitely better. I’ll be honest, I don’t commend bands lyrically unless they go above and beyond the call of duty, but I think given the band’s campaign to bring “NEW POP” to every corner of the globe and to do it in such an accessible way that allows them to still convey their message through words that actually mean something (what a concept!) deserves a special commendation.

With complaints far and wide that guitar rock is dead, ‘Hold Fast’ flies in the face of these ill-begotten rumours and grins widely. But what’s behind that Cheshire cat smile? I alluded to this paradox in my single review of ‘Maybe in the Dark’, the second single released from the album, and maybe this says something about the parentage of ‘Hold Fast’. While I liked ‘Chasing After Ghosts’, there was a wintry chill in the air when you listened to the tracks that made you ache inside, full of emotion, when you listened to it; I remember crying to the words “you and me / were fated to be / so damn blue” from ‘Chorus of Fools’. Coupled with a late March release, the album was a sleeper if there ever was one. The underlying sadness of many of the songs reminded me of the grittiness of the North and how the struggles of life there makes one hard. A lot of gloom, despair, unfair situations and death pervaded the previous album. As if to counter those feelings, ‘Hold Fast’ is filled with sunlight and can be viewed as the Crookes’ summertime album, an album that as I mentioned is more accessible than their last. Hopefully this will finally break them into the big time.

Instead of the doom and gloom of ‘Chasing…’, this album is more about relationships and sex. I must have been giving the theme of this review too much thought, because after a while, even the title of song ‘Afterglow’ started to take on sexual overtones. But, to my relief and frankly, to lyricist Daniel Hopewell’s credit, it’s tastefully done and might mean something else entirely: while using the word “afterglow” to mean a whole lot of different things, I’ve teased out that the song plays on the fact that we all have memories we keep of the people who have left for one reason or another, and we should cherish those memories. “Lose yourself in lights and we’ll always have tonight” and I’m taken back to every single gig I’ve covered as a blogger, and I would imagine many TGTF readers will similarly relate to both the song and the driving melody, echoing the excitement of witnessing a live concert. This, along with ‘Maybe in the Dark’ and the title track, are fast paced corkers sure to get dancing feet all festival season long, as well as providing drummer Russell Bates a workout.

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But let’s go back to wistfulness in the lyrics of ‘Afterglow’: “when did my friends slip right through my fingers / and you, you were all I ever knew”. This echoed later in ‘Sofie’, when singer George Waite begs, “I’m thinking of you, Sofie, it’s you…promise me you’ll try and stay happy / and I’ll promise I’ll do the same / promise me you’ll try”. Yearning and innocence. You were expecting something else, weren’t you? Forget salaciousness. It’s just not here. Starry-eyed lovers framed in idealised relationships and those have lost them (‘Where Did Our Love Go?’), yes; I have trouble detecting even borderline offensiveness with the way the Crookes are talking about relationships. With the popularity of the groanworthy Fifty Shades of Grey ‘book’, manufactured bands singing about sex and rappers who beat up their girlfriends and still storm the charts, this is a refreshing change. I’d also like to note that in this day and age of overblown production, the songs on ‘Hold Fast’ are as simple as a guitar band can record them under a young indie band’s budget. There is a price to this forced frugality, however: there is an overdone echoey quality to both ‘American Girls’ and ‘The Cooler King’, though I suppose one could argue maybe these two numbers were recorded lo-fi specifically to match the early recordings of the Beatles? I do wonder.

The echo effect sounds fab on album closer ‘The I Love You Bridge’. However, the star of this show is third track ‘Stars’, with the lyrics taking a page from Oscar Wilde’s famous quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, speaking of being penniless, yet still completely happy together. Waite says in the chorus, “tell me how the stars still smile on us / and make the world disappear? / tell me in the darkness / stars still smile on us / tell me that you’re dancing just because / and whispered softly in my ear / tell me in the darkness / stars still smile on us”. Mark my words, this will be the most beautiful note progression and chorus released the year. The guitars, by Tom Dakin and lyricist Daniel Hopewell, sing to me in a way no other album has since Sam Halliday’s in ‘Tourist History’.

I’m a hopeless romantic, so I didn’t need much help getting to a state of enlightenment with help from this album. Waite’s voice and a single guitar, recorded with raw, banged chords, couldn’t sound any better if they tried. The echoes don’t bother me as much when a verse of “I love you, will you marry me? / It’s a magic trick, an escape from this” beckons. Stick a fork in me, I’m done. There is a reference to Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On the Road (‘Sal Paradise’) but I’m too blinded by love to fully understand its meaning. Which brings me back to the point I was trying to get to all along. Romantic or not, ‘Hold Fast’ is so damn catchy that even if you’re just listening to it for the Crookes sound, songs will stay with you and make you smile. If it happens that you venture deeper into Daniel Hopewell’s lyrics, then I think you will be rewarded that much further.

9/10

The Crookes’ sophomore album ‘Hold Fast’ is out now on Fierce Panda.

 

Album Review: Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?

 
By on Thursday, 12th July 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

So you’ve seen that Jools Holland performance right? You know, the one in which Lianne La Havas, a relatively unknown singer/songwriter held her own in fine fashion in the same hour as Bon Iver and metal-masters Mastodon, attracting her around 500,000 views on those two songs alone (‘Age’ below, and ‘No Room for Doubt’ here) and igniting a bright path that’s led her through a brilliant EP and to playing Alexandra Palace with Bombay Bicycle Club? Well she’s gotten round to finishing her debut record. So is it just a flash in the one girl and a guitar pan or can we believe the moderate hype that’s been building around the most infectious smile in music?

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From the ‘Lost & Found’ EP, the first three tracks ‘No Room for Doubt’ (below), ‘Age’ and the title track have made it through. They’re bona fide pop with underground appeal. Radio1 and Radio2 hits that you’d be equally as happy hearing on Amazing Radio, come heatwave (looking at you, America) or flash floods (hello, England). None of them are the best on this record, but they fit in nicely.

From the off, there’s something that’s a bit different about La Havas. ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ opens with backing vocoders and computorised sounds that slowly blends to her one, lovely voice. “Well I know why I lost control of my heart and soul”, she begins. You beckon she tells more. Then it’s the title track (video at the end of this post), ‘Lost & Found’, and ‘Au Cinema’. They glow with pure sunshine and are catchy enough to have the likes of Latitude’s World Stage smiling with open arms all summer long.

Not only is the pop sheen spectacular, it’s the slow tracks that really draw the listener in. Its all very well being able to write radio friendly 3 minute 21 second types, but without the depth of slow tracks such as ‘Gone’, it means little. Yes, even here she challenges, especially with the line “the last time I checked, we had it all”. It’s probably not a nod to Adele, but it’s probably better crafted than most of the chart-busting ’19’.

Like with all debut records, there are flaws. There’s tracks clearly not destined for anything further than 2012. ‘Elusive’, ‘Everything Everything’ and the plain weird ‘Tease Me’ just bore as your attention fades to wondering why Willy Mason’s verse exists, or what happened to the quality brilliance of the first seven tracks. Still, there’s beauty to be found here and it’s the kind that doesn’t look like its going to go away for a while.

7.5/10

Lianna La Havas’ debut album ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’ is out now on Warner Brothers.

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Album Review: Paaniq – Heads in the Ditch EP

 
By on Wednesday, 11th July 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

I am reminded on almost a daily basis by all the demos, singles and albums we receive in our inboxes that there are a lot of dance music acts out there just itching to get featured on TGTF, but since I’m pretty much the only TGTF correspondent who thrives on dance (and likes writing tomes on it), those that make the cut for reviews are limited and I really can only devote space to those that stand out from the rest. I’ve started on a new feature called “What Makes a Good Dance Album?” sitting in my drafts, but it remains unfinished because I’ve been working on a bunch of Olympics-related posts and doing what I do best here as editor of TGTF. But make no mistake, dance is never far from my mind.

In June, I received correspondence regarding the resurrection of the Heya Hifi label from Stockholm, Sweden (which also has offices in London and Melbourne), and there is good reason to party. Good timing too, considering we just heard in late June of the untimely demise (or at least the stoppage of touring) of Swedish House Mafia. The reborn label’s second release is the debut offering from Stockholm based production duo / DJ tag team partnership Paaniq’s EP entitled ‘Heads in the Ditch’. Paaniq is Patricio Cabezas and Nicholas “Nic” Oja, who according to the press release met in autumn 2010 and set out to create their own recording ‘free zone’ in the southern island of Sodermalm and “set to work on ‘marrying synthesizers and other electronic noise boxes with the organic and multi-dimensional mother earth’”.

While the bit of press release I just shared with you makes it sound like they’re trying to be electronic Mother Theresas, it’s the title grabbed me first: what are heads doing in a ditch? Whose heads are these? Did someone just wipe out and total their car whilst drink driving? I never did find out, but what I am sure of is the sheer funkiness of this four-track EP. Things begin with handclaps and some wigged out trills in ‘Dictator’s Greatest Speech’. Ironically, the EP version of ‘…Speech’ doesn’t contain any words until the 4th minute. (The single version, which I’ve been given clearance to post below, does, and in that respect, I’d consider it more electropop than just the straight electro dance of the EP version.) The instrumental portion builds up to the 1 minute 30 second mark to a break down, then building back up to a section I’m calling ‘the birdwatcher’s bridge’ because I’m not sure what they’re using to make those bird sounds. (If you recall the bridge between verses 1 and 2 in Delphic’s ‘Counterpoint’, you will get the gist of what I’m talking about.) After the ‘birdwatching’ section, there is an incessant backbeat while gentle synth notes are played and then you get to the really dancey portion of this song. Let’s just say it got my chair dancing after the first listen and leave it at that. While I realise a lot of people do not like waiting around for the hook or the ‘everybody get up and dance!’ moment, I think ‘Dictator’s Greatest Speech’ is a great example of good things come to those who wait and are patient.

You might think action hero Chuck Norris is a strange topic for a dance song, but Paaniq’s ode to the man will make you think twice. It takes a while to get going; I imagine the compressed blips and blurps are what aborted spaceship launches sound like in outer space. (It is at this point that you start wondering exactly which “electronic noise boxes” Cabezas and Oja have in their studio. ‘Chuck Norris’ also contains the hilarious line “Chuck Norris is like gravity / don’t fuck with it!”, practically ensuring a novelty bump in its popularity, however small. The other two tracks on this album, ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Got Soul’, are more straight forward and are darker, more sinister. Do they sound cool and would I dance to them if I heard them playing in a club? Yes and yes. Do I find them as exciting as the other two songs on the EP? No.

It’s interesting that the duo credit a trip to Berlin for helping formulate the duo’s distinct methodology of “precise, mechanical Germanic sounds merging with a Swedish sense of melody – the Swedish Tiger dances with its Führer!” It never occurred to me that being Swedish automatically leads to being melodious; the only other Swedish acts we’ve written quite a lot about here on TGTF are Miike Snow and Lykke Li, who have both taken dance music and made it their own by appealing to both indie and pop sensibilities. Paaniq will never be confused with either act; this EP is squarely in the dance realm, both in content and in sheer length of tracks, which is both a blessing and a curse, I think.

Listening to this release as a whole, I am reminded how some people have trouble cuddling up to dance music and just don’t want to give it a chance. Don’t be like me, don’t overthink it: just listen to it and see if there are things about it that you like. While behind the scenes there are plenty of wizards and electronic maestros trying to break new ground, the most important thing about dance music is its ability to get you up on on to the dance floor. In that respect, Paaniq can consider their mission accomplished.

7.5/10

Paaniq’s debut EP ‘Heads in the Ditch’ is available now from Heya Hifi. Have a taste of their live show from this video from October 2011 below.

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Album Review: Metric – Synthetica

 
By on Tuesday, 10th July 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Leaping from a smattering of early season festival appearances, through the release of fourth studio album ‘Synthetica’ and on to their current UK tour, things have all of a sudden gotten hectic for Metric. It’s taken 3 years for this Canadian New Wave four-piece to follow on from the critically ambivalent ‘Fantasies’, leaving fans to question whether the turn of the Noughties had sounded their death knell. With ‘Synthetica’, a brooding and fathomless re-appraisal of band and self alike, that question no longer remains.

The opener, ‘Artificial Nocturne’, builds through a sinister synthscape, narrated by the ever present vocalist Emily Haines, into a rising cloud of static-like reverb, tied down by the driving crashes of drums and piano keys alone. The relentless industrial beat of lead single ‘Youth Without Youth’ (previous Video of the Moment here; live version from Montreal below) wouldn’t sound out of place on Nine Inch Nails 2005 release ‘With Teeth’, and the chorus lifts a key to create a blurry eyed energy that is enticingly danceable.

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The ominous trill Spanish guitar trill on ‘Speed the Collapse’ opens in to a manic corridor of a prechorus, before being chased out in to the sanctuary of the choral hook. ‘Breathing Underwater’ has that mythical, triumphant sound of Angels and Airwaves or Take That’s comeback album; conjuring images of a band on a rooftop – hands aloft – bathed in an urban sunset. By ‘Dreams So Real’, this release hits an unfortunate mid-album lull, and the criticism of religiously repeated lyrics “aA scream becomes a yawn/I shut up and carry on” is one that was levelled, in part, to their 2009 album ‘Fantasies’. ‘Lost Kitten’ is bizarrely childish, while ‘The Void’ is a gratingly repetitive amalgam of their new wave roots.

Title track ‘Synthetica’ is an artsy, garage rock take on disenfranchisement and disillusion that sounds a little like an up tempo version of The Strokes’ ’12:51’, but with a bombastic finish that fires in to the sunny Californian r &b of ‘Clone’. ‘The Wanderlust’, with its cavernous call and response vocals (for some reason it’s Lou Reed responding), simple melody and tumultuous crescendo professes a level of vulnerability, really should be the last track of this album; the layered vocal and trance-like Arabic synth give closing track ‘Nothing But Time’ a sense of brevity that should really have been used to plug the gap earlier on.

What’s glaringly obvious from even the most fleeting of appraisals of ‘Synthetica’ is that it acts as an infinitely versatile scaffold from which to persuade fans of all eras back for a fresh take. There is a return to the originality of debut album ‘Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?’ – when Metric were almost as well known for being Yeah Yeah Yeah’s roomies – without in the commercial airs of ‘Fantasies’. It lands somewhere alongside the interstellar indie of the Big Pink, and goes far towards accomplishing Haines mission statement of representing “the original in a long line of reproductions”.

7/10

Metric’s fourth studio album ‘Synthetica’ is out now on the band’s own Metric Music International label.

 

Album Review: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

 
By on Monday, 9th July 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s rare that experimental music, or at least guitar-led music with such an interesting style is taken in at such a level that Dirty Projectors experienced with ‘Bitte Orca’ over 3 years ago. With a Pitchfork rating of 9.2 and a general consensus little short of impeccable, the group rose out of relative obscurity to indie champions faster than you can say ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’.

So now we’ve made it to 2012 and there’s a whole host of bands doing their best to be unique in the same way as the Brooklyn collective, which whilst in itself an ironically futile objective has produced some of the most interesting music of the last few years. Most recently for example, one of this year’s most critically acclaimed records is alt-J’s debut ‘An Awesome Wave’, which it could be argued takes plenty of influence from Dave Longstreth’s creations.

Of course, Dirty Projectors are hardly the forefathers of this sort of music, but there’s just something in the blend that makes the collective such an interesting listen time and time again. It’s within that niche that ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ falls into.  From the off there’s instantly a quality in the sound that draws you in. It’s the opening page to what sounds like a story that unfolds via so many acts that have tread a similar path. In the calmer moments you could be listening to Elbow, in the frenzied sections you could easily be listening to The Flaming Lips or David Bowie. The craft that’s gone into the all round audible feel of this record feels like a conscious decision to ignore anyone that sounds similar and to just make something that can keep a Dirty Projectors name without any contamination.

Therein lays both the genius and the problem. Whilst tracks like ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ (I dare you not to enjoy the brilliance of the vocal lines in ‘About to Die’) push the vocal strengths of Longstreth, you drift away in the middle as if you’ve heard it before; and that’s because you have. You’ve heard previous Dirty Projectors and you’ve heard all of the other bands that push for a similar sound. It’s only in tracks like ‘Unto Caesar’ where you feel that they’re aware of this and whilst they remain in their comfort zone there’s the jesting of “that doesn’t even make any sense”. It doesn’t.

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So what will you learn in the 42 minutes it takes to traverse ‘Swing Lo Magellan’? You’ll learn that they’re still the current daddies of this music and that their blend of measured insanity, expert harmonies and purely enjoyable songs that are both near impossible to recreate and simultaneously still easy to make noise along to, is still amongst the most infectious around.

8.5/10

‘Swing Lo Magellan’, the Dirty Projectors’ new album, is out today on Domino.

 
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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest tours, gigs, and music we love and think you should too.

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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