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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.

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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.

 

Album Review: Sigur Ros – Valtari

 
By on Monday, 28th May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Imagine this: Sigur Rós get back into the studio for the first time in 4 years after taking a hiatus. They pick up their instruments and start to record the first few notes of their sixth record. Their only real decision to make is which direction to take their eclectic career as a unit. With the likes of ‘Hoppipolla’ gaining them an accelerated curve of fame from their near perfect ‘Takk’ and most recent record ‘Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust’ even breaking into the top 5 of the UK album charts, the knowledge that your work will be heard regardless of its merit is something that could’ve made many acts lazy. Not Sigur Rós.

What they’ve actually done is write their least accessible record yet.  It’s expansive and rich in its tapestry, but there’s much less structure to it. Gone are the jumpy lines found in 2008’s ‘Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust’. They’re replaced by full sounds of choral lines and orchestral fills.

Opener ‘Ég Anda’ (Video of the Moment here)is a prime example of this as its string lines glisten in the background of Jonsi’s trademark gobbledygook lyrics. As a record, its much less approachable than any of their music before. ‘Valtari’ feels much more difficult to listen to than past efforts as there’s nothing really to draw the listener in. The most approachable it gets is listening to ‘Varúð’ in which it’s near impossible not to get snowballed into its incredible build. On its own, it’s probably one of the best tracks the group have ever written. It’s pretty much an artist’s impression of heaven in 6 and a half minutes. Without it, ‘Valtari’ really suffers.

It’s hard to say though whether these changes are a good thing. Whilst there’s so much beauty to be found within ‘Valtari’, you really have to dedicate your ears to it. The whole record demands attention as if in some way a little more regal than anything the band have created before. As a standalone record though, it never really lives up to those demands. In many ways, it’s the England football team of Sigur Ros records. There’s a lot of good tracks to be found, but it never really shines when the time comes. It’s fantastic in so many ways, but there’s no big finish. The comparison may be cheap, but the boot fits I’m afraid.

It’ll probably fit in to add depth to their already perfect live set, but as either tracks adding up to over 50 minutes, it just doesn’t quite match expectations.

6.5/10

Sigur Ros’s ‘Valtari’ is out today.

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Album Review: Escapists – Burial EP

 
By on Tuesday, 22nd May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

There have always been echoes of Bon Iver and the Temper Trap about this group, but – for better or for worse – ‘Burial’ sees a calibration of influences on this alt-indie four-piece. Having released their first single ‘Post Gospel Blues’ back in 2011, Escapists have honed the gothic concept on their debut EP following months of touring the capital, culminating in lead track ‘Burial’ getting airplay on on Huw Stephens’ Radio1 programme this month.

It pains me to say, but it is evident right from the haunting vocal melodies and Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit’-like drone of opening track ‘Ghost in Your Bedroom’ that since their last offering the guys haven’t got much further than an NVQ in ‘Atmospheric Music 101’. There’s a certain simplicity to the lyrics that allow them to float like a sinister lullaby throughout the verses, before being tied – with vocal melodies that Chris Martin wants back – to the minor key meander of the chorus. The track lifts with a notably organic piece of call and response between the vocals and the cello, but is sadly cut short.

Title track ‘Burial’ (video below) appears to pay homage to alt-indie forefathers Arcade Fire and their seminal album ‘Funeral’, with a marching paradiddle on a reverb soaked snare and guitars that focus more on rhythm than notes. There’s something uplifting about this number: a lyrical suggestion of contentment away from the cruelty of nature and the over arching realisation of time as both creator and destroyer of everything. The drums are the most free reigning instrument and lift this track to a satisfying crescendo that begs for some kind of slow-mo ‘got the girl’ kiss.

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In ‘Witching Hour’, Escapists explore further how their spiritual wanderings can have tangible relevance to expectations of age and love. The choral line “you’re a ghost in my head now / you’re a spirit I can’t get out” is made old by the classical Spanish guitar trills, while the final track ‘Northern Lights’ sees the band freed from their mechanical structure with a swinging beat and chorus with such a hook that it overshadows the lack of a proper end to this track.

What is unavoidable about ‘Burial’ is that placing too much onus on one concept has left it restricted. While they fit the same mould as many bands who have forged their careers on the festival scene – and could easily sell – without some drive and originality to their instrumentation Escapists tread a path so worn by their predecessors that they risk becoming trapped in a landslide of mediocrity.

6/10

The new EP from Escapists, ‘Burial’, will be released next week (the 28th of May) on Euphonios Records.

 

Album Review: Apparatjik – Square Peg in a Round Hole

 
By on Thursday, 10th May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Worry sets in when I’m sent an album by a band I know nothing about; I become most anxious about not representing the band appropriately when I review the release. Often it is even worse when there is little to read up on the band that’s either for or against them, because you don’t really know what you’re getting into (big band vs. indie) and the wind (it’s hard to tell with what Patrick Wolf calls “the fickle press”) doesn’t seem to be blowing one way or another.

This is just as well, since the band in question, Apparatjik, had live appearances last year – including superimposing images of themselves on the side of a cube at an art installation in Berlin – that seem to be downplaying who exactly is in the band and instead embracing their oneness in their…weirdness. Which all seems a bit strange, given the principals, who need no introduction, as they’ve all been involved with megagroups of current or at least recent memory: – Magne Furuholmen of the now defunct a-ha; Guy Berryman, bassist for Coldplay; Jonas Bjerre of Mew; and producer Martin Terefe (who’s worked with the likes of Jason Mraz and KT Tunstall).

Their latest album length effort, ‘Square Peg in a Round Hole’, surprised me a lot– pleasantly, I might add – with its intriguing combination of electronic and urban elements. That said, this is an ‘experimental’ record in the sense that there are some unusual things at work here too, so don’t expect a tune by Apparatjik appearing on Radio1 anytime soon. I mean, come on, who writes a song called ‘(Don’t Eat the Whole) Banana’, expecting us to keep a straight face? (If you’re wondering, Bjerre is using some kind of autotune function on his voice, which makes the song all the more ridiculous. Or experimental, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.)

The kookiness continues with ‘Gzmo’, with the effects taking centre stage rather than the robotic words proferred, and ‘Combat Disco Music’, which has a chorus sounding exactly as the title suggests: the Village People in the military (“whoo, ha! / whoo, ha!) Yet throughout, it’s a mix of dance, hip hop and new wave on show here in ‘Square Peg in a Round Hole’. It sounds futuristic, and it’s probably not your cup of tea if standard rock ‘n’ roll is your usual poison. Just saying.

‘Do It Myself’ featuring Pharrell Williams (masquerading on this album as ‘Auto Goon’) comes across as a wonky, Gorillaz-styled jam and deserves to see the light of day. (Take back that comment I said earlier about this not having a chance with Radio1…) Opening track ‘Time Police’ (live video from Berlin below) also gets the Midas touch from Williams; it’s not as inherently catchy as ‘Do It Myself’ – it’s more of a new wave-y, slightly new age-y track with a hip hoppy poppy lyric – but still, a major surprise.

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Surprises continue with tracks like ‘Cervux Sequential’, in which Berryman takes the vocals but the surprise are synthesised baby voices; ‘Blastlocket’, sounding like a Nintendo game overlaid on top of a late ‘80s slow jam; and ‘Your Voice Needs Subtitles’, where a mesmerising beat, piano chords, and the stretched vocals lead to a dream. So it’s disappointing to hear tracks like ‘Signs of Waking Up’ and ‘Superpositions’ (despite having gorgeous a capella harmonies), which sound like a completely different band. A better representation is ‘Tell the Babes’ , a dance anthem standout clearly pointing out that the more overt – and dare I say it, even the weird – dance numbers are where this band shines.

7/10

‘Square Peg in a Round Hole’ by Apparatjik is available now from Metamerge. They have an appropriately weird Web site that reports on future gigs but the one that I’m aware of – since I’m on their festival mailing list – is an appearance at Roskilde, and the band have already requested that they want people’s faces and have invited people onstage with them.

 

Album Review: The Cribs – In the Belly of the Brazen Bull

 
By on Tuesday, 8th May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

The brothers Jarman have surged back onto the scene with their latest album, ‘In the Belly of the Brazen Bull’. This, the Cribs‘ fifth studio release, is an album full of the raw guitar and emotion you’ve come to expect from this punky, once again three piece rock band.

Arriving with 14 tracks, the Cribs deliver the goods too, none of that 10-track garbage. The West Yorkshire boys are known for their energetic live shows and you can hear the potential for such raucous showings in songs like lead track ‘Glitters Like Gold’ and ‘Jaded Youth’.

The first track made available to the public, ‘Chi-Town’, was a free download, and while it was not my favorite on the album, it gives a good taste of the whipping frenzy that the record is capable of. ‘Come On, Be a No-One’ (video below), a much better track, was released as the first single. However, I like the plodding distortion of ‘Back to the Bolthole’ and the thick sounds of ‘Uptight’ more.

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I have to say that I am pleased to hear that, despite the trend of more and more bands latching on to the notion of adding electronic bits and pieces, the Cribs have remained blissfully apart from this. It’s just the lads flailing away on their guitars and drums, no orchestration, no electronic keyboard peeking in. While I know it’s all the rage, it’s nice to get back to a good guitar band sound.

With former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s departure early last year, the Cribs worked hard to get back the feel they had pre-Marr, who was only with them for ‘Ignore the Ignorant’. Undoubtedly while that was a great album, it seems more like Marr was on for a few years just to give them a leg up (similar to what he did with Modest Mouse?), but it was something not really needed for a band that had already produced three albums at that point and had a loyal following before Marr’s addition. Marr should probably stick with guesting and not serially joining bands.

This time working with producer Steve Albini, Gary Jarman noted that “…we’re on our fifth record now, we’ve got the luxury of realizing when we’re that far in, maybe you don’t have to worry so much about pleasing everyone all of the time, and you have more freedom to sort of do what you want.” They spent just 3 days with Albini who was able to give them “how you guys sound” and nothing more. I think nothing more was needed.

8.5/10

Released this week, ‘In the Belly of the Brazen Bull’ is now available from Wichita Recordings.

 
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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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