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London dance pop quartet CYMBALS are set to release their third album ‘The Age of Fracture’ next week, ahead of a short list of winter tour dates and an appearance at SXSW this spring. The album is at once centrifugal (“center-fleeing”) and centripetal (“center-seeking”) in nature, with visceral rhythms and pulsating bass providing the foundation for its cerebral lyrics and slick, sophisticated production by Dreamtrak (Oli Horton).
The album title is borrowed from a 2011 book by Princeton scholar Daniel T. Rodgers called ‘Age of Fracture’, which deals with the fragmentation of twentieth-century intellectualism and the increasingly uncertain concept of a collective societal identity. Singer and guitarist Jack Cleverly wrote in the press release for the album, “It hit me that I often feel paralysed by the feeling that everything is ‘too complicated’, and that many people I know feel that paralysis. I realised that this way of thinking can be traced through these songs.” Cleverly addresses that paralysis directly in ‘The 5%’, singing, “time can be erased / you’re stupid if you try to stay in place”. The track defies the overriding idea of deconstruction by merging directly to the following subordinate track, ‘The Fracture of Age’.
The interpretation of such weighty subject matter is demanding for an album that is intended for club play, but despite the oppressive academic influence, Cleverly says the band strove for a lighter musical approach. “With this album I really wanted to get away from that and make music that makes people want to dance and feel joy. Neil’s kick drum is the most important thing we have to say as a band. Is this all ‘fun’? Yes, of course, but at the same time, not just that.”
‘The Natural World’, released as a single back in January 2013, plays more into that effortless pop feeling. Its nimble rhythms and light texture highlight the catchy chorus, “I don’t know enough about you / to be kind, to be kind to you / don’t you even think about me / just forget what you did, you see”. The accompanying video features the interpretation of French dancer Jaime Flor, with whom Cleverly became acquainted while growing up in Paris.
The sensual French influence is felt throughout the album, with lyrics en français on opening track ‘Winter ‘98’ and penultimate track ‘The End’. ‘Winter ‘98’ is a glacial synth-driven track which slowly expands into a crisp dance beat, immediately defining this album’s cleaner, brighter sound, as compared to CYMBALS’ previous LP’s ‘Sideways, Sometimes’ (2012) and ‘Unlearn’ (2011).
Standout track ‘This City’ returns somewhat to that earlier sound, depending more on guitars and organic percussion as it ponders “the whole ‘serious earnest-singer-songwriter thing’” that Cleverly has deliberately tried to avoid on ‘The Age of Fracture’. His boredom with the idea has, ironically, inspired some of the best lyrics on the album, including the opening hook, “ink-covered fingers, you’ve been hiding at your desk too long / hand over mouth, brandy in your tea / the afternoon’s all emptiness, the morning possibility.”
In what could have been the album’s final track, ‘The End’, CYMBALS come back around to the disco feel. Despite the purposefully detached lyric, “I don’t know the first thing about you / I don’t really know you that way / I just get this feeling from dancing / I don’t care about the display”, the track is followed by an plaintive instrumental plea entitled ‘Call Me.’
‘The Age of Fracture’ is, both lyrically and musically, centered around contradiction and fragmentation, but it manages to hold together as a cohesive and thought-provoking unit. The physical sensuality of the dance element is balanced by the “elegance and love in the language” of the vocal lines. (Have a listen below to the carnal pièce de résistance ‘Like An Animal’ for that lyrical gem.)
‘The Age of Fracture’, CYMBALS’ new album on Tough Love Records, will be out next Monday, the 27th of January. They have a short English/Irish tour lined up for February; all the details are here. The band will also be showcasing this year’s SXSW.
The difficulty with New Desert Blues I’m facing is how five boys, with such youth about them, are able to weave such mesmerising tapestries through their songs. At their age, I was firmly focussed on exploits of chasing girls and seeing how many alcopops I could pilfer before my parents found out. However, at such young ages they’re already showing a maturity far beyond their years.
On their debut EP ‘Devil’s Rope’, we’re introduced to’ Zachary’, ‘Matthew’, ‘Christoph’ and ‘Eli’, four men I’m delighted to welcome into my life, along with their finely-woven stories of affliction and woe. If you’re lost, allow me to clarify: New Desert Blues name all of their songs with boys’ names. Why though? Well, after facing a bombardment of questions on the issue, the boys admitted the songs are named after characters in a story, in a world within which these stories intertwine. On their site they describe it as “creating the soundtrack to films yet to be written, each song a different tale named after the main characters and protagonists”.
This goes some way to showing the immense emphasis put by the band, on the process of creating a deep, spectacularly visual story. It’s a process in which the Hampshire-based five-piece succeed in wholeheartedly throughout the debut EP. The poppiest, most easily accesisble offering on the four-song EP is served up through opener ‘Zachary’, the second part of what began in ‘Adam’, which I reviewed last summer. In its video, stunningly shot and edited by the band themselves, we follow our wounded centrepoint stagger through the desert. Effectively, that’s what the song is about too: a struggle to move on, brought by the band by vessel their trademark five-piece harmonies, led by the soaring tones of James Cullen and underpinned by a powerful Coldplay-esque guitar twang.
‘Devil’s Rope’ transports you from the dry, dank setting in which the record was recorded in Britain, all the way to the loneliest stretch of American desert you can picture, while holding your hand as you stagger through a ghost town in New Mexico where these four characters are mourning their shattered, broken lives. ‘Matthew’ is an adventure through the Wild West, with Cullen almost screaming, “this is hallowed ground, my friend”, while ‘Christoph’ (video at the bottom of this post) conjures up images of a bank in the Old West with its mournful tale of a rogue being robbed by a reluctant scoundrel taking to crime as almost a form of escapism.
All these stories, these tales of woe and almost faux-misery are all played out in ‘Devil’s Rope’, brilliantly captured through Cullen’s warm, gripping lyrics. It’s no wonder ‘Zachary’ has seen big hitters Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens come sniffing around the deserted saloons of the old West for New Desert Blues. Through four songs, they’ve encapsulated images of majesty, of trauma on a scale that somehow feels exorbitant epic, without sounding pompous or over-egged.
In about 13 minutes, ‘Devils Rope’ does what many indie albums will fail to do in an hour. It transports you to an different time, a new setting, and leaves you thoroughly stricken with awe at the end.
‘Devil’s Rope’, the debut EP from New Desert Blues, will be released next Monday (the 20th of January) on their own label Whiteley Records.
Several months ago, I reviewed the teaser single from the eponymous sophomore effort from Los Angeles’s four ladies of Warpaint. ‘Love Is To Die’ is still a standout track on the album but the band has taken a self-proclaimed different direction, making the sound less full and more understated than what was found on 2011’s ‘The Fool’. The modification is subtle, and the casual listener may not detect a massive change. They have lost none of their subdued, throbbing melancholy and continue to weave interesting beats in with ethereal vocals. The whole thing has an eerie sexiness about it: Twin Peaks eerie sexiness.
The first track, the simply named instrumental ‘Intro’, does a great job of letting you into their world since it starts out fuzzy and friendly with a laughed “oh, sorry” before counting out the beat again. Right from the beginning you feel like these woman are singing with you in your living room. I don’t know where they recorded, but the room seemed a little dry (like my living room would be!) and I marveled that this trippy, psychedelic sound is probably not over produced and quite genuine and organic. And any band who claims Talking Heads as a major influence, ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ identified as ‘the perfect song’, is all right with me.
In general, eschewing the traditional verse chorus verse structure, the individual tracks wander and drift. The album is lightly painted in distortion throughout, sometimes to better effect than others. There is much to enjoy, but little to dig your claws into. I think it is an interesting listen and I am happy to have it on in the background, but there really isn’t anything that could be considered a hit. ‘Hi’ gives us a high, floaty, wavering wail over an electronic beat providing a compelling juxtaposition and again highlights my pleasure with the percussion choices throughout the album. This song deepens and travels to a comfortable place. ‘Teese’ starts simpler, opening with an unassuming guitar line and a vocal that’s a bit wider to compensate. The one song I have a hard time accepting is ‘Disco//Very’. A little chant-like, a touch atonal and rounded out with squeaks and squeals, it’s just a little too cheerleader-like for my taste. It’s different and quite a chance for them, breaking up the flow of the album but perhaps that was their aim.
No wimpy eight-song, second effort from these ladies here. This is a juicy, hour-long trek through the glorious wanderings of Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal’s imaginations. Sharing both lead vocal and guitar duties, they are the origins of the band. Jenny Lee Lindberg fills in the sound on bass and I have to admit to a tiny girl crush on Stella Mozgawa since her drumming had me mesmerized throughout the album. ‘Warpaint’ will be available 21 January on Rough Trade.
Warpaint’s second and self-titled album is out today (the 20th of January) on Rough Trade.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 14th January 2014 at 12:00 pm
Anyone who’s been following The Crookes for any length (pardon the pun) of time is aware that the trademark of Crookes’ frontman George Waite has always been his long, floppy, ginger hair. But before they headed out to an isolated church in the mountains of Northern Italy to record their third album ‘Soapbox’, Waite’s locks were shorn and left forgotten on the floor, and away they went. This drastic event indicated to me that major changes were afoot. I have been pondering the motive for this haircut for a long time. My own brother, who is probably about George’s height, cuts his hair like that often because he’s simply too lazy to deal with it on a regular basis. And yes, my brother can be quite lazy.
Somehow though, I don’t think this radical new do of Waite’s came out of sheer laziness, nor was it simply cosmetic. Interestingly, the relative lack of hair on Waite’s head no doubt assisted in the filming of the band’s first video from the album, for brand new single ‘Play Dumb’. It’s the first single from the Sheffield band since the double A-sided ‘Bear’s Blood’ / ‘Dance in Colour’ single that was released in May 2013, the former of which represented a much harder, louder, uncompromising sound than had been previously proffered on their earlier releases. Post-‘Bear’s Blood’, I’d decided it was safe to say that their days of tracks with contemplative whistling were behind them, and the reveal of ‘Play Dumb’ supports this.
The first clue that ‘Play Dumb’ is something different shows up at the start of the video. Waite is sat at a table, looking at the camera, initially nervously so, playing with his hands, until the song begins with a discordant squeal of guitar and pounding drums. As the camera focuses in on him, you can sense something has changed. He’s ready for his close-up, and in this new close-up, he wants to show everyone he’s not the same boy we used to know. Even the half-smile he gives us isn’t 100% true, with what seems to me like a bit of an evil glint in his eye. And he is about to tell us a story.
The song begins with, “I’ve had my mid-life crisis by the age of 25 / you say my head ain’t right / I’m tired of myself but don’t know why”: the protagonist of the story is unhappy with the way his life is going but doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. The intriguing, important next line includes the song title, and the line is repeated later in the song: “I’m dirt under your thumb, not pretty enough to play dumb”. As the video goes on, we’re watching Waite being transformed with makeup, a dress, pearls and a wig into, dare I say it, a damn fine-looking woman. What this made me think of first is what terrible things us women go through, trying to make ourselves prettier to impress men. But the sentiment could also be applied to men too, if you consider that while women are supposed to be soft, pretty things, in contrast, men are supposed to be tough and hard as nails, and some men aren’t made to be like that. Either ideal created by our society is hard, sometimes impossible, to live up to.
In lyricist Daniel Hopewell’s world, where if you are very pretty (or handsome for a man), you have the option of acting or playing dumb, because your prettiness leads to you not to have to worry about the mundane things everyone else has to. Isn’t this what image-conscious Hollywood tells us? If you’re gorgeous, man or woman, you don’t necessarily need a brain, and your career is more or less made. However, if you aren’t pretty enough and rather the “dirt under your thumb”, forget it, you don’t get the same concessions. By the time we get to verse two, there is no question that Hopewell is talking about the band’s own “poster boys” image. Like it or not, the Crookes are a very good-looking group of guys, which I’m sure has had its advantages and disadvantages for their career trajectory. “I’d rather you despise my every move” is an aggressive line and not something I would have ever imagined Waite singing back in the ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ era or even the latest ‘Hold Fast’ one: it’s indicative of a self-informed realisation that it’s better to be feared (or hated) than loved. Judging from the reactions I’ve seen from the boys playing live, there are an awful lot of people out there who absolutely adore them, but maybe that adoration comes at a cost?
You’re probably wondering why I’ve avoided the chorus up until now. I’m not a fan of it. The subtext of the song appears to be that the voice of the song is not living up to his woman’s expectations. Something has gone awry in their relationship, because he doesn’t need her anymore, and he’s bored with her. He wants her to “wake up” and take stock of the situation, while at the same time he refuses and “won’t change to get you off”. The line comes across as a clumsy way of saying “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam” like Popeye, and it’s so crass – it wouldn’t be a surprise, since the song seems to be sung with such a sneer to the world – truth be told, it makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that was the point: the press release for the new single has Hopewell saying ‘Soapbox’ “…certainly isn’t a happy, carefree album”.
‘Play Dumb’ is catchy for sure, but its melody and hook aren’t as bright when stacked up against those of the first single of ‘Hold Fast’, ‘Afterglow’. The timing of this release seems particularly apt: the single drops the week before the band are due back in the States for SXSW, so we’ll have to see what the Americans make of it. Overall, this song seems to indicate the Crookes have taken off in a new direction, so the real question is, what will the rest of the album sound like? We shall be waiting.
The first single from the Crookes’ third album ‘Soapbox’, ‘Play Dumb’, will be released on the 3rd of March on Fierce Panda Records; ‘Soapbox’ will follow on the 14th of April. The band are scheduled to appear at SXSW 2014 in Austin in March.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 13th January 2014 at 12:00 pm
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from North West band City Reign, so here’s a quick recap. After releasing their album ‘Another Step’ in early 2013, the group are still based in Manchester. Good. They’ll be playing a hometown show at the Castle Hotel on the 21st of March, which I’ve been advised is close to selling out (well done, guys), so if you’re keen on going, you best get on that right away. Why all the excitement? Because there is a new City Reign single out in March, that’s why. Judging from their Instagram, the boys have been very busy recording in the studio, and to whet your appetite until the release next month, they’ve sent over the single’s b-side ‘Package It Up’ for us to listen to.
‘Package It Up’ begins very simply with just guitar chords and Chris Bull’s forlorn vocals; the chords continue throughout the song, with the addition of mournful strings coming into the song later. When I read the song title by itself, I wondered what “it” was, and I don’t think it’s meant to be a specific thing. Like many songs, this “it” can be interpreted and mean different things to different people. “Package it up and we’ll see what we have to / like there’s nothing we can do / package it up so we can all sleep at night / package it up because is not our fight”: there is a sad acceptance in whatever this song is referring to, it’s something that has been recognised as a problem. It feels to me that it’s something that cannot be or has become something that cannot be talked about.
In his last sweeping vocal gesture in the song, Bull’s voice soars with, “there’s nothing we can do”. Is it a secret that is killing you because you can’t tell anyone else? Is it about a situation that someone finds him/herself in that is so desperate, but he/she can’t say anything, for the risk of losing face? The fact that this song leaves the door open to interpretation and can have such universal application to each and every one of us makes it very intriguing indeed.
Clocking in at barely 3 minutes, ‘Package It Up’ is winter melancholia at its best.
Watch for ‘Package It Up’ to be released on City Reign’s own Car Boot Records as the flipside to forthcoming live single ‘See What It’s Worth’ on the 24th of March.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 11th December 2013 at 1:00 pm
In case you were keeping score, the last real studio album by Kaiser Chiefs was in 2011. Their choose-your-own-tracks-and-order LP ‘The Future is Medieval’ proved to be less of a commercial boon than expected. The following year say the release of ‘Souvenir: The Singles 2004-2012′, the kind of collection that nostalgia bands like New Order release for their obsessive fans. Frankly, I thought the Kaisers were toast. Interestingly enough, some 8 months after its release, I saw them play before Keane at a Filter / American Rag showcase at SXSW 2012, during which frontman Ricky Wilson’s magnetism and performance nearly left me verklempt and the band brought it. On the basis of this one live performance, I thought, hmm, maybe the group entity known as Kaiser Chiefs still had legs.
Monday afternoon, Wilson stopped in to visit his old pal Steve Lamacq at Western House. While I find it hard to believe that Wilson just happened to be in the neighbourhood and was begged by BBC staff for a chat, it did give him the opportunity to spill what beans he could about Kaiser Chiefs’ new album ‘Education, Education, Education & War’, to be released in the new year. This will be the Kaisers’ album without chief songwriter, founding member and drummer Nick Hodgson, who left the band to pursue other projects in December 2012. Wilson related a funny anecdote about Hodgson’s replacement, Vijay Mistry of Yorks electronic band Club Smith, saying Mistry reminds them of how good their lives are as rock stars, as everything is so exciting to him being suddenly thrust into the big band’s touring life.
But back to the new material. Wilson divulged the album required them to trek out to the States, Atlanta specifically, to work with producer Ben Allen, who also co-produced Bombay Bicycle Club‘s ‘A Different Kind of Fix’ and Delphic‘s panned 2013 album ‘Collections’. Neither band are of the same genre as Kaiser Chiefs, which begs the question, what exactly is this new album going to sound like? Wilson insists that both them and Allen were “hungry” in the process of making the album, which I guess means they had massive appetites for success when working on it together. Can you hear the early days that Nick “Peanut” Baines says it sounds more like than their more recent efforts? Have a listen to ‘Misery Company’, whose song title Wilson explained was given to them as a bit of a joke by Jack White backstage at a festival in 2008.
From start to finish, there is a thudding backbeat throughout the whole track. That, unfortunately, is its most noticeable feature. And not wholly unlike the punishing, entirely memorable one of Franz Ferdinand‘s ‘Take Me Out’. What’s missing from the proceedings? The singalong chorus that made ‘Ruby’ such a fun song live, the frantic pace of ‘Never Miss a Beat’ or even the oddly charming drawls of Wilson such as those found in ‘Every Day I Love You Less and Less’. What you do get instead is a strange cackling sort of laugh from Wilson during the chorus, which frankly sounds creepy on record, as so the . I’m wondering what he’s laughing at.
Lyrically too, the verses are tough: the term “misery company” is used in this tune to describe being a social pariah with few friends (“it’s hard to believe that I smile in my sleep / everyone leaves me, it’s so hard to keep company / I’m misery company”. Probably the best thing about this song are Andrew “Whitey” White’s two – yes, two! – guitar solos, which Wilson explains why this track is White’s favourite off the album. Below is a video of the band performing it at Portuguese music festival Super Bock Super Rock back in July 2012, when the song was reportedly given its first airing. Maybe it’ll work out better live, but I’m not sold on the Hodgson-less Kaiser Chiefs just yet.
Kaiser Chiefs’ fifth album ‘Education, Education, Education & War’ is scheduled to be released on the 31st of March 2014. If you’re quick, you can have a listen to Lammo’s chat with Ricky Wilson on the BBC iPlayer here before next Monday.