Monday, 26 December 2011

Lioness: Hidden Treasures

Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
released 5 December 2011 on Island

In the weeks and months leading up to the tragically premature death of Amy Winehouse, speculation had begun to grow about a potential third album. It had been five years since the award-winning, multi-platinum Back To Black, and the public was hungry for more. Indeed, Winehouse herself had promised an interviewer in 2010 that the wait for a new record would be “six months at the most”, while goddaughter Dionne Bromfield even told entertainment website Digital Spy that she’d heard the album and that it was “very good”.

Since the announcement of the release of the compilation album, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, talk of an album’s worth of all-new material seems to have been largely forgotten. So, instead of a proper follow-up to one of the most popular and loved records of the 21st Century, we’re left to feed off mere scraps.

To get the obvious question out of the way early, Lioness: Hidden Treasures is not a good album, nor is it a fitting tribute to one of the modern era’s most talented performers. Throughout its dozen tracks, you can’t help but imagine how many – or rather, how few – of the songs Winehouse would have been happy to put out on an album. It seems hastily-assembled and slapdash, with little thought given to sequencing or flow. That’s especially galling given the carefully considered storytelling and cohesiveness that came from Winehouse’s two studio albums: Frank and the aforementioned Back To Black.

Production duties on Lioness are primarily handled by the two men who gave Back To Black its signature, retro sound: Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. However, perhaps mindful of the enormity of the no-win situation they found themselves in, they sadly play it safe. Though it seems likely that album #3 would have seen no radical shift in sound from the previous record, Remi and Ronson set out to effectively create Back To Black II. However, by not taking many risks, the songs have a lightweight quality to them and much of the music sounds oddly carefree. This means that on the original songs, Winehouse’s lyrics don’t pack quite the emotional punch they should. That said, dialled-down production is infinitely preferable to Ronson’s extraordinarily heavy-handed work on a cover of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? It appears as if he’s completely lost his abilities, turning a beautiful song into a lumpen, awkward mess.

Elsewhere, the hidden treasures that the album title promises do exist and though they’re small in number, it’s the Winehouse-penned songs that provide them. Between The Cheats is a breezy soul track that’s fit to stand alongside her previous work and the witty put-downs and chronicling of a car-crash relationship on Best Friends, Right? are Amy Winehouse at her usual lyrical high standard. Half Time is better still; the disarming chord changes and shades of both nu-soul and hip-hop mark it out as the most Frank-like of the twelve songs.

But, despite them being provided here in abundance, cover versions and alternate recordings of existing Amy Winehouse tracks were not what anyone was curious for. The re-reading of Tears Dry On Their Own (here, just titled Tears Dry) is more sedate than the original, letting the fragility and vulnerability of the lyric break through the surface, yet it’s still little more than a curio. Yet another version of Valerie, plus covers of Our Day Will Come and The Girl From Ipanema don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

There are also two duets on Lioness, and they couldn’t be with more disparate performers. Nas provides a couple of verses on Like Smoke, which shows promise but seems half-baked, and Winehouse sings with Tony Bennett on Body and Soul – a track which would fit comfortably on a Tony Bennett album, yet sticks out like a sore thumb on an Amy Winehouse one.

Listening to Lioness: Hidden Treasures is not a particularly enjoyable experience. Only three tracks are of sufficient quality to have seen the light of day and it means you can’t help but question the motives behind the release of such an inessential collection. Thanks to the music world’s macabre obsession and glamorising of the dead, the posthumous album is now a common fixture in the release schedule. Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker famously declared, “This changes nothing,” upon learning of his client’s death. However, it would be nice to think that – unless there really was a bevy of unheard classics lurking in the recording studio cupboards – artists could be allowed to rest in peace. The quality of Frank and Back To Black ensure the legacy of Amy Winehouse will live on; let’s all just pretend this compilation album didn’t happen, shall we?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Top singles of 2011

Inspired by some friends making a Spotify playlist of the top tracks of the year, I've come up with my Top 10. So here's the run-down, with absolutely no explanations, but lots of nice YouTube videos instead.

10. Kreayshawn - Gucci Gucci

9. Toro Y Moi - New Beat

8. Metronomy - The Look

7. Three Trapped Tigers - Cramm

6. Azealia Banks - 212

5. Cults - Go Outside

4. Nicola Roberts - Beat Of My Drum

3. Metronomy - The Bay

2. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat - Glasgow Jubilee

1. Beyoncé - Countdown

The Singles Bar - 19/12/11

It’s last orders at The Singles Bar for 2011, and it’s a Christmas special. So, charge your glasses, get some eggnog or mulled wine, help yourself to a mince pie and prepare for a selection of festive – and not so festive – offerings.

On Sunday, the official Christmas Number 1 single will be announced. Currently, X Factor winners Little Mix hold the top spot with their cover of Damien Rice’s Cannonball, but they’re facing competition from some unlikely corners…

Radiohead – The Daily Mail / Staircase

Fresh from successfully overthrowing capitalism at Occupy LSX (oh, what do you mean capitalism’s still doing quite well?), everybody’s favourite festive elves return with a double single just in time for the holidays – hooray! The Daily Mail is instantly better than anything on recent album, The King Of Limbs; it begins as a Kid A-style plaintive piano ballad before ratcheting up the bile and crunching guitars around the 3-minute mark. Staircase is a lot more like a KoL track, with twitchy, spasmodic beats, though it almost sounds like something you could actually dance to (should you wish). However, it also has the warmth that was missing from so much of that record. After 2011 looked to be a year of mis-steps for Radiohead, it looks like they’re back on form, and not before time. 9/10

Stacey Solomon – Driving Home For Christmas

An important thing to mention here: Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas is actually my favourite Christmas record of all-time. Also, former X Factor contestant and Queen of the Jungle Stacey Solomon is an incredibly likeable personality. She’s a breath of fresh air whenever she’s on TV or radio, and has a fantastic sense of humour. All of which goes to make this reworking all the more disappointing. Solomon’s voice is so devoid of the character she clearly has, that this sounds like one of the dodgy, karaoke rip-offs of songs you can’t find the original of on Spotify. She’s also not helped by the fact this is soundtracking the festive adverts of £1 doner kebab pizza-peddlers, Iceland – who’d want to drive anywhere for that? 3/10

Spector – Grey Shirt & Tie

BBC Sound of 2012 hopefuls, Spector, haven’t actually released a Christmas single, but there are a few East 17 style church bells as a nod to the time of year. Grey Shirt & Tie is reminiscent of a boyband song that’s been dragged through the mud – the production is sludgy and uninspiring, and there’s a grating, cheap-sounding accompaniment in the chorus. However, throw some strings around it, chuck in a key change and it could be another Westlife enormo-ballad (NB: this is not a good thing). Spector aren’t a particularly bad group, but the fact they’ve been earmarked as one to watch in the coming year doesn’t do much to fill me with seasonal cheer. 5/10

Emmy The Great & Tim Wheeler – Home For The Holidays

Emma Lee Moss and her beau, Tim Wheeler of Ash, have actually recorded an entire Christmas album. And – shock horror – they’ve done what no-one seems to do any more, and have written a brand new song that celebrates the sheer joy of Christmas (unless I’m wrong and this is a cover, in which case, oops). Home For The Holidays is a gorgeous, rich tune with sweet vocals and sleigh bells that – despite chucking the kitchen sink in – stays just the right side of cheesy. Try listening to this without a massive smile on your face – you will fail. As an addendum, Emmy and Tim also cover Darlene Love’s Marshmallow World on their album – AMAZING. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

The Only Way Is Essex – Last Christmas

In years to come, what will scientists decide was the point in which it all went wrong for humankind? Will it be the global financial meltdown? Will it be the Watergate scandal? Will it be the moment Countdown by Beyoncé failed to break the Top 30? It’ll probably be the moment during this song when Sam from the TOWIE gang remarks, “I can’t wait to get my Christmas vajazzle,” and a man (no idea who; I couldn’t care less) replies, “Go on, Sam, let’s have a look.” Because, of course, what says Christmas more than applying diamantes to your public area and a leering creep attempting to peek in your underwear? You really get the feeling it’s what Jesus would have wanted. For the uninitiated, this is a cover of the Wham! classic interspersed with catchphrases from the titular televisual abomination and probably represents the nadir of all human accomplishment. I grew up about 20 miles from Essex, and this song makes me want to go and live on a raft in the middle of the Pacific ocean and hack off my own ears with a rusty butter knife. 0/10

The Black Keys – Lonely Boy

The latest track from the bluesome twosome features one of the filthiest riffs you’ll hear this side of legality and a chorus that seems to ascend infinitely. From their humble, lo-fi beginnings, The Black Keys have become adept at writing radio-friendly alternative hits. Unfortunately, this sheen means they’ve lost some of the rawness that – opening riff aside – set them apart when they first started attracting attention. There’s no real Christmas feel about Lonely Boy except for what may be a female choir in the background, but that’s clutching at straws. A perfectly passable effort, but nothing to make you run down to the shops, that is, if people actually bought singles at the shops any more. 6/10

Rizzle Kicks – Mama Do The Hump

It’s been a pretty astounding year for Rizzle Kicks. The BRIT-school graduates (yes, I know) have come from nowhere to have a run of hit singles. They’ve got something about them which is likely to make them go far – they’re the harmless, bubblegum face of hip-hop, and they certainly have a way with a catchy melody. However, they are on a run of releasing tracks which are worse than their predecessor, and their popularity means they’re about to reach saturation point. Mama Do The Hump has some quite bizarre Western-style banjos behind it but other than that, it’s a fairly forgettable mid-tempo track that doesn’t really go anywhere or say much. Nothing too offensive but nothing too great either. 5/10

Air – Parade

Rather appropriately given their previous efforts, Air seem to have drifted back into Planet Pop rather quietly. Parade is far from your typical Air track though; there are elements of prog and Kraftwerk here, as well as a haunting ghostly feel provided by the backdrop of strings. In fact, it’s something you’d be more likely to associate with their fellow Frenchmen, Daft Punk. But this is none the worse for it, and it’s heartening to see a group who have been around for over 15 years unafraid to try and break new ground. An odd choice for a single perhaps, and a little disjointed, but a welcome return for Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin all the same. 8/10

Cast – See That Girl

Hang on, is that the Cast? As in, briefly-inexplicably-popular-in-the-mid-to-late-90s Cast? Well, two seconds of guitar jangle tells you that it is indeed that Cast. Writer’s friend, Wikipedia, claims they’ve been back together since 2010, but it’s certainly news to me. With See That Girl, though, it’s as if they’ve never been away, as it has all the hallmarks of a typical Cast song. By which, I mean it sounds like an inferior version of the bands that begat Cast (i.e. The La’s and Shack). See That Girl causes a brief pang of Britpop nostalgia, but Cast were never one of the leading lights of the scene, and their return feels largely inessential. 5/10

Wurzels – Sleigh Ride / White Christmas

Now, this is more like it! If you’ve never heard of The Wurzels, I feel honoured that I’m the one who gets to explain them to you. They’re effectively a band of cider-guzzling musicians who sing in broad West Country accents and are the main exponents of a particularly niche genre known as Scrumpy n’ Western. These covers of the Christmas favourites are exactly what you’d expect from The Wurzels: ridiculously tongue-in-cheek, full of oo-arr’s and banjos, and regional pronunciation as ripe as the finest cider apples. A novelty? Oh, completely, but one that’s good fun and does no harm. The fact that the band had a #1 hit in 1976 – with Combine Harvester – does trouble me somewhat though. 7/10

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit

The thing is, yah, Christmas has become, like, soooo over-commercialised, right? And, it’s like, totally sticking it to the man, by, you know, getting a, like, revolutionary anthem to the top of the charts. And it’s completely in the spirit of Christmas and not at all pointless, right? So, the fact there’s a carefully orchestrated campaign every year to hijack the charts by a load of people with nothing better to do with their time is, like, well funny, yeah? ‘Cause, like, if you go on Facebook, yeah, there’s this page, and it’s, like, well anti-X Factor and that, ‘cause, like, Simon Cowell’s totally ruining music, and you should all like “proper” music, like, I don’t know, Kasabian and Kings of Leon or something. Anyway, as I was telling Johnny when we were on a massive lash, it’s well funny, and- OH FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE GO AND GET A JOB AND DO SOMETHING WORTHWHILE WITH YOUR PITIFUL EXISTENCE. 8/10 for the song; 0/10 for the idea and sentiment

Military Wives with Gareth Malone – Wherever You Are

Now, if you’ll excuse me, after that last attempt, I need to recalibrate my cynicismometer. The Military Wives (no Decemberists connection, sadly) are a choir comprised entirely of women whose partners are serving overseas in armed conflicts. They’ve recorded this track with ridiculously baby-faced choirmaster, housewives’ favourite and primetime TV botherer Gareth Malone and it’s the overwhelming favourite to top the charts this year. So, of course, it’s a saccharine effort that doesn’t sound remarkable in any particular way but hey, it’s Christmas and hey, it’s all for charidee and hey, they’ve all been through hard times and hey, I’d rather it got to number 1 than Little Mix. It’s a heartwarming tale and, despite the previous tracks suggesting maybe it’s about genital decoration or pseudo-rebellious grunge, it’s actually what Christmas is all about. Group hug, everyone! 7/10

Album of the Year - James Blake

Keeping up with - and listening to - large amounts of new music can sometimes be an arduous task. Sure, it has its upsides, and us writers make the effort because of the love and passion we have for the medium. But the path is littered with disappointments: albums that promised so much and failed to deliver, artists who go wayward and lose focus and, more often than not, tracks that are soporifically tedious.

However, all these missteps are worth it, because occasionally you hit gold. Nectar from the gods; manna from heaven. When a new artist enters the arena and is almost instantly laden with the weight of expectation from just about everyone but still perfects the secret of aural alchemy, that satisfaction is exponentially more acute.

At the start of 2011, 23-year-old producer and musician James Blake released an album worthy of such plaudits. The Londoner’s self-titled LP has all the hallmarks of a free-thinking maverick – it’s brave, challenging and experimental – but repeated listens reveal a keen ear for a pop song and writing nous which belie his limited experience.

The first time I listened to James Blake, I was drawn in by the trickery and cleverness. There’s a carefully shaped burst of white noise within a few seconds of the album starting, and it’s a good indication of what’s to come. Glitches, tempo changes, bizarre sounds and heavily treated vocals are the order of the day. I finished the record impressed, but thinking it a bit too pleased with itself to warrant classic status.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. On the very next listen, it all fell into place. Once you’re expecting the oddities, they’re not shocking, they’re perfect and lovingly arranged. Paying less attention to these elephants in the room allows the quality of the tracks to really shine through. Sure, some of them may not be songs in the traditional sense – more mood pieces – but they’re as emotionally affecting as the most heart-wrenching ballad or adrenalin-creating dance anthem. As soon as the record finished, I immediately put it back on and listened to it the whole way through again; I haven’t done that with another album since.

Despite its electronic body, James Blake truly has a beating heart. Its tracks are brittle, vulnerable creations, displaying the full extent of human fragility. Lyrics are minimal, Blake preferring to convey feeling through the intricate layering of textures, but rarely has an album so digital created such a connection. The Wilhelm Scream is a haunting elegy which completely envelops the listener with innovative use of stereo. I Never Learned To Share is a masterpiece in building tension which explodes into a cathartic, torrential downpour of electricity and magnetism. Limit To Your Love has a helicopter bassline so heavy it measures on the Richter scale. When Blake does commit to vocals, he prefers to bury them in a cloak of effects and auto-tune, but they still reveal a man baring his soul to the world.

With the possible exception of The xx, there’s nothing that sounds anything like it. The label of “post-dubstep” has floated around, but there’s no overriding set of influences to pin on the album. There’s soul, R&B, folk and dance music at its core, but it’s also an album of contrasts. James Blake is ultra-modern yet rejects the present day trend, an exercise in studied minimalism. It uses more auto-tune than a Black Eyed Peas record, but sounds less robotic and forced than nearly anything you’d hear on the radio.

Critics have a tendency to jump to conclusions in the race to be the first with the scoop on a ground-breaking record, and often look foolish after the event. With James Blake, we now have the benefit of nearly a year of hindsight, and the effect of the album hasn’t diminished with time. The hype machine surrounding him may have built up, reached critical mass and crept back from whence it came within that time, but we’re left with the crucial artefact. Listen to it now and it’ll blow you away; listen to it in five years’ time and it’ll still sound fresh and vital; listen to it a generation from now and you won’t believe it was a debut album made in 2011. The ephemera surrounding the industry is just that – transitory and unimportant – so focus and what’s important and let this extraordinary record see inside you and become part of your life.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Talk That Talk

Rihanna - Talk That Talk
released 21 November 2011 on Mercury

It always used to be said – often by the artist himself, as it happens – that James Brown was The Hardest Working Man In Show Business. Following Brown’s passing, that title is now presumably up for grabs, but there can be little argument as to who The Hardest Working Woman In Show Business is currently.

Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty released her fifth studio album, Loud, just over twelve months ago and is already back with another record of original material: Talk That Talk. As well as recording an entire LP in 2011, Rihanna has released four singles from Loud and two already from Talk That Talk. She’s on the new Coldplay album, Mylo Xyloto, and she provides guest vocals on the latest Drake single, Take Care. In her downtime, she’s also found time for a world tour, which doesn’t finish until three days before Christmas. Don’t worry though, she’s got another tour coming in 2012.

If you’re wondering how she does all this, you’re not alone. However, you don’t get to become one of the biggest singers in the world without a good deal of hard graft. Commercially, Loud was the zenith of her career thus far, cementing her place as a global superstar and making her the leading light of Caribbean-tinged dance pop.

Unsurprisingly, the eleven tracks that comprise Talk That Talk were recorded in a number of different studios, yet the album still feels like a cohesive whole. More often than not, the music Rihanna makes is thrilling and exciting; the kind of music in which you can lose yourself and fully focus on having a good time. There’s also a strong thread running throughout Talk That Talk, namely sex.

Rihanna has never exactly been a shrinking violet, but she has – or, more likely, a team of producers, managers and PR experts have – realised that she tends to be more successful the raunchier she is. S&M, the third official release from Loud, caused controversy with its allusions to whips and chains, but a good deal of the songs from Talk That Talk are even more likely to provoke outrage amongst the cosseted and fearful.

Almost from the off, you’re bombarded by a hyper-sexualised, extroverted character. Rihanna’s big book of euphemisms was clearly mined of all its goods a while ago, so she’s had to resort to the unsubtle and entirely unerotic. Roc Me Out informs the listener Rihanna has, “been a bad girl, Daddy”, and gives instructions to, “Get my head in the ground and my feet in the clouds”. In Watch n’ Learn, she’s only too keen to share that she’s going to, “do it, do it, do it on the floor”. The most laughable, however, is Cockiness (Love It), whose first line is, “Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion”. What could she possibly mean?

The end result is that 38 minutes of Talk That Talk can make sex seem like an arduous chore. Bizarrely, on Birthday Cake (sample lyric: “lick the icing off”), after only a minute, Rihanna sings, “I wanna fuck you right now”, and the track abruptly fades. It’s as if she thought she was being clever with her parade of “implied” horniness, yet vocalising it so explicitly is giving the game away, so the song has to end there and then. She’s fooling no-one though. Talk That Talk may as well have a track entitled Put Your Erect Penis Into My Lubricated Vagina and the sentiment would be signposted no clearer and the overall effect would be no less of a turn-off.

For all these outré displays, Talk That Talk does have some heart. Whereas Britney Spears’ recent album, Femme Fatale, was dead-eyed and a little chilling, Rihanna, like her Swedish namesake Robyn, reminds us that fembots have feelings too, even ones that are almost permanently on heat. We All Want Love puts an urban twist on some stadium indie that recalls Oracular Spectacular-era MGMT, and opener You Da One would be in danger of being perceived as fluffy if it weren’t for the hook-laden melodies and heavy, spluttering beats.

It’s easy to criticise Talk That Talk but it’s actually a fun and enjoyable record. Sure, it’s the aural equivalent of dry humping a little too often, but it’s an ultra-modern pop album that shows she’s ahead of the competition (especially considering Gaga’s disappointing Born This Way). There are a number of highlights, particularly the spacey atmospherics overlaid on The xx’s Intro to create Drunk On Love. Elsewhere, the fingerprints of Calvin Harris are all over the simple yet effective We Found Love, and the sleek, stylish title track – featuring Jay-Z – feels genetically engineered for chart success.

Overall, Rihanna seems to adhere to the mantra of “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” and more often than not, it stands her in good stead. Talk That Talk is also more interesting when she doesn’t come across as completely driven by sex, though it’s not difficult to see why the album would have such a focus (indeed, a large proportion of this review has spoken about that very topic). In the here and now though, Talk That Talk is a great record that’s sure to be everywhere until… well, until Rihanna releases her next album probably. See you here again same time next year?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

I'm With the Banned

“Pyjamas lyin’ side by side / Ladies’ nighties I have spied / I’ve often seen what goes inside / When I’m cleaning windows.” George Formby: When I’m Cleaning Windows (1937) – banned by the BBC

“Fuck what I said, it don’t mean shit now / Fuck the presents, might as well throw them out / Fuck all those kisses, it didn’t mean jack / Fuck you, you ho, I don’t want you back.” Eamon: Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back) (2003) – played (with swearing removed) on daytime BBC radio stations, helping the song to Number 1 in the UK singles chart.

Just after a decade ago, in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a number of songs were banned by a range of radio stations following what is known as the Clear Channel Memorandum. These included When Will I See You Again by The Three Degrees, Bullet With Butterfly Wings by The Smashing Pumpkins, and the entire recorded oeuvre of Rage Against The Machine. Some artists were forced into other action: Bush renamed single, Speed Kills, to The People That We Love, Jimmy Eat World similarly updated Bleed American to Salt, Sweat, Sugar, The Strokes pulled New York City Cops from all subsequent editions of debut album, Is This It, and hip-hop duo The Coup hastily removed copies of their recent LP, Party Mu$ic, from shops due to its eerily prescient cover art.

People’s capacity to be easily offended can never be under-estimated. One person’s harmless remark is another’s devastatingly cruel barb. However, at the time, I couldn’t help but think people would probably have more pressing concerns than reading too much into what was being played on the radio. Of course, it’s better to be on the safe side, but the eagerness to cover all bases and ensure no offence was caused was a little on the over-zealous side. The Strokes were being hailed as counter-cultural icons, the figureheads of a zeitgeist-capturing scene – was anybody really going to be horrifically offended by their proclamation that New York City Cops “ain’t too smart”?

Since then, taking offence and apologies have become more and more commonplace. Politicians and celebrities “mis-speak”, jokes are taken out of context, comedians argue the toss over whether words have transcended their original meaning or not. Meanwhile, Outraged Of Tunbridge Wells fires off an email to Ofcom if Katy Perry so much as glances salaciously at a television camera. However, there have been no blanket bans on songs in the UK in such a manner, temporary or otherwise, since 2001. In fact, the BBC now go as far as to say they have a policy to not ban songs on their radio stations, which are listened to millions of residents each day.

Is this a good thing or not? As British tabloid, the Sunday People, once asked: must we fling this filth at our pop kids?

The list of songs banned by the BBC is a fascinating historical document which shows changes in what is and isn’t deemed acceptable over time, as fashions, trends and culture develops. There’s an hilarious missive from the Dance Music Policy Committee, written in 1942, which states: “We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of war.” In its time, the BBC has banned A Day In The Life by The Beatles (which, technically, is still banned), Mack The Knife by Bobby Darin and Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday, amongst others. However, in more recent times, they’ve happily played Because I Got High by Afroman (practically a love letter to marijuana), Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back) by Eamon (and its reply, F.U.R.B. (Fuck You Right Back) by Frankee) and S&M by Rihanna (though it was referred to by the title, Come On, by DJs).

Ultimately, times have changed, but although censorship and regulatory bodies still loom large in everyday life, pop music now seems to be almost beyond such standards. Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand caused a national scandal by leaving an – admittedly, unprovoked and cruel – answer machine message for actor Andrew Sachs, yet it’s fine to play songs which glamorise the taking of illegal intoxicants. UK viewers complained in their thousands about the provocative performances of Rihanna and Christina Aguilera on The X Factor, but myriad hip-hop videos which demean women and portray them as scantily-clad objects of lust fulfilment raise little more than a shrug.

Earlier this year, The British Board of Film Classification refused to grant a certificate to The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) due to its content, the first time this had happened for over two years (it was subsequently given an 18 certificate following the removal of several scenes). It makes you think what a song would have to do to cause similar consternation because it now seems – profanity before the watershed aside – anything goes. One thing’s for sure, we’ve certainly come a long way since Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was deemed too offensive for the public’s sensitive ears.

Content is free

Last week, people from The Guardian revamped the sport section of their website and officially launched The Guardian Sport Network. According to the blurb, they’ve “partnered with a range of sites to diversify [their] content and promote an open model of journalism.” This means they’ve identified some of their favourite amateur bloggers, and will be running their contributions on The Guardian website alongside articles  commissioned  from their professional, paid staff and freelances.

For the casual reader, it’s a win-win situation. The Guardian is handpicking  contributors, thus ensuring a degree of quality, and because they’re getting more content at no extra cost, there’s more chance The Guardian website can stay free for longer. Since its launch, I’ve read interesting, thought-provoking, well-researched articles about the decline of FC Porto, the lack of team harmony at Paris Saint-Germain and the race for the title in the top division of Brazil – all subjects unlikely to be published in a national newspaper due to their lack of British appeal. However, there’s a strong feeling that The Guardian is treating its new contributors unfairly; if their work is of a sufficient standard to make it onto the website of a national newspaper, surely they deserve remuneration.

Of course, The Guardian’s argument will be that it's offering talented writers exposure and giving them the platform to go on to bigger (paid) things. They do have a point; an article on The Guardian website is a fairly strong seal of approval and it has been known for amateur journalists to be offered work elsewhere as a result.

There’s a similar thing going on over at the music section too. “Seen any good gigs recently?” the website asks, inviting the readers to “tell us about any live music you’ve seen”. 2011 has also seen the introduction of a section for readers of The Guardian to review any of the 3 million or so albums they have in their database. So, if you’re fed up with the smorgasbord of reviews by professional journalists or highly-experienced amateurs, a few clicks will give you the musings on Lou Reed & Metallica’s “Lulu” by such luminaries as ‘Kalyr’, ‘JezebelDulac’ and ‘thesliurge’.

A touch of uncharitable jealousy? Quite possibly, and it’s probably time to show my hand. I’m a writer, I’ve had over a hundred articles published on websites and in print, but I’ve never been paid a penny for my work. I’m trying to forge a path in an industry where there’s incredible competition for every position, and poor pay, exploitation and nepotism are rife. A large percentage of the UK’s unpaid internships are in the media; I once asked someone what the best way to make it in journalism was, they replied, “have a parent who owns a newspaper”.

I have my scruples though, and I’ve never knowingly taken a job from a professional by writing a piece for free that would normally be paid. This conscientious attitude may end up being my undoing and clambering over rivals could be the only way to the top. If that’s the case, I want no part in it.

However, this debate is nothing new, and the growth of the internet has led to a rise in ‘citizen journalism’ already. You can now leave your comments on any major news story, television programmes invite us to text in, tweet our photos and have our say. This tends to reach its annual nadir when national news programs show pictures of snowmen and viewers’ gardens to illustrate how cold it is, rather than carry important news.

Quality content cannot continue to be free everywhere; it’s a completely unrealistic business model. The Times, The Daily Mirror and The Independent operate behind paywalls already, and The Sun is considering a similar move. It would appear The Guardian is opposed to such measures, and maybe the only way to give people content for free is to obtain it for free. Don’t expect everybody to be happy about it though; as good writing and journalism become under valued, a new generation of writers may have to see exposure and kudos as a worthy alternative to cold, hard cash. There’s a danger that journalism could become an exclusive club for the well-off, rather than an honest profession. It would seem that an “open model of journalism” roughly equates to “anything goes”.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Tumble Bee

Laura Veirs - Tumble Bee
released 7 November 2011 on Bella Union

One of the joys of music is the thrill of discovery. Whether it’s on the recommendation of a friend, prompted by a well-written review, or completely by chance, there’s a sense of satisfaction that accompanies finding a really great song or album of which you had no prior familiarity.

Before you reach that stage, however, you’re likely to listen to whatever your parents play and, in recent years, a sub-genre of adult-friendly kiddie music has been steadily growing. Presumably, the aim of such an exercise is to tempt children away from the babbling nonsense they find so appealing and get them to listen to something that doesn’t make Mummy and Daddy want to stove their own heads in. However, there’s something about it that somehow smacks of snobbery, and there’s a nagging feeling that particularly opinionated parents will use such albums to condition their children into listening to music they “should” enjoy.

Tumble Bee, Laura Veirs' album of folk songs for children, doesn’t particularly buck this trend and unfortunately falls awkwardly between the cracks. Much of the instrumentation and production is beautiful and light, but it’s difficult to believe a child will be engrossed in this when they could be listening to Rihanna or playing Angry Birds.

Veirs has maybe been slightly naïve - though this does suit the innocent, nostalgic feel of the record. The majority of the songs here are covers, several are traditional folk tunes, and they are handled in a delicate and expert fashion. All The Pretty Horses is a plaintive ballad, gorgeously framed by sweeping strings - more of a lullaby than anything - and the jaunty, slightly out-of-tune piano makes Jack Can I Rider? utterly charming. The songs most likely to appeal to children tap into their inquisitive nature or feature repetition. Why Oh Why asks, “Why can’t a bird eat an elephant?” and “Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?” and King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O features a nonsense chant the under-5s are sure to lap up.

Elsewhere, you wonder what Veirs believes will particularly tap into the child psyche. Lyrics aside, Little Lap-Dog Lullaby wouldn’t sound out of place on a Fleet Foxes record, and as good a song as it is, the title track’s verse is in 9/8 time – it doesn’t exactly scream “one for the kids”, does it?

Ultimately, it seems Veirs has tried to do two things at once and has ended up doing neither particularly well. Despite this, it’s actually a rather enjoyable record, though it’s difficult to imagine when you’d ever play it. If you’re in the mood for something with a touch of pedal steel, you’re not going to reach for an album whose opening line is “Come up, horsey, hey hey”. Similarly, if Junior’s looking for kicks, finger-picked folk meditations are unlikely to be on the menu. Perhaps it’s a compromise album – put it on during a long car journey with the family to pass half an hour and no one’s likely to kick up a fuss.

The Singles Bar - 21/11/11

The British public are often referred to as, “The Great British Public”. However, this cannot be in relation to their record-buying habits. After declaring the genius of Nicola Roberts (see Singles Bar passim), Lucky Day limped to number 40 in the charts. That was bad enough, but after granting the first ever perfect score to über-star Beyoncé, a woman whose voicemail greeting message could probably break the Top 20, the song in question (Countdown) only reached number 35. People of Britain, I ask: what is wrong with you?

On that cheery note, here are this week’s reviews which wield no influence whatsoever, despite my best efforts.

Mary J. Blige – 25/8

Now, here’s an interesting title to kick things off. Is the track in 25/8 time? Or maybe Mary’s decided to adopt the UK date format and sing a paean to the 25th August? A minute later, the truth reveals itself, and it’s a bit of a damp squib. Apparently, 24/7 isn’t enough for Mary to love her man, so she needs another hour and a day; hence 25/8. It would appear Ms. Blige hasn’t moved on a great deal since her heyday, and this song could easily have come from the mid-90s. It’s got some insubstantial backing and a few strings tossed on top, but it all just goes to showcase Blige’s rather large set of pipes. So, if you like vocal gymnastics, and are more impressed by melisma and hitting notes than actual songs, this will be right up your street. Otherwise, avoid. 3/10

Serenades – Come Home

A lot of bands are taking their cues from the eighties these days, but on Come Home – the lead track from an EP of the same name – Serenades have made a track that actually sounds like it was recorded in 1985. There’s a charming cheapness to their sound, which recalls the popular Scritti Politti singles of the era, without the divisive high-register vocals. The Scandinavian duo have tapped into a rich vein of classic pop songwriting and – get this – have actually attempted to craft a proper Christmas tune. Come Home is a plea for a companion to return for the festive period; it has some chiming bells, and it’s really rather lovely. It’ll make you want to put on a woolly jumper, pour a glass of mulled wine and cuddle up with the one you love. Unless you’re single, that is, whence you’ll be made bitter and resentful, but that’s your problem, not mine. 8/10

Will Young – Come On

If you look up Will Young on Spotify, the first four related artists are Daniel Merriweather, The Lighthouse Family, Simply Red and Susan Boyle, which I feel is a little bit harsh on our Will. Sure, he’s unlikely to be pioneering a new offshoot of chillwave any time soon, but he’s fronted some reasonable singles in his time. Like the Serenades track above, there’s a distinct retro feel to the accompaniment, but here it seems a little more of an afterthought than a stylistic choice. While you don’t go to Will Young records looking to be surprised, it could do with a bit more of the gusto that characterised his better songs. So, while it’s crying out for a dance remix, the radio edit falls a little flat. Still, it’s a darn sight better than any of those related artists. Sort it out, Spotify. 5/10

Britney Spears – Criminal

Poor old Britters. Forever the girl in the school uniform to an unforgiving public, her desire to maintain a pop career has resulted in personal problems left, right and centre. Is she happy? I hope so, but can’t see it myself, and her latest LP, Femme Fatale, is a collection of dead-eyed sexbot tracks that could have been fronted by anyone. Criminal sounds like the bubblegum pop of her earlier work – it’s a little rushed and tinny – but the producers have attempted to inject a touch of modernity with the beat. It’s not up to the quality of recent singles Till The World Ends or Hold It Against Me, but Femme Fatale also features the execrable Big Fat Bass (featuring, so perhaps we should just be grateful she’s not releasing that. By anyone’s standards, this is a disappointment, but coming from the woman who gave us Toxic, it’s… you ready?… it’s coming full circle… it’s obvious… you must have guessed… it’s CRIMINAL! Do you see?! It’s the name of the song! That’s why it’s funny! 2/10

Big Deal – Distant Neighbourhood

Sometimes, you can take a dislike to a band without hearing a note of their music. Looking up Big Deal’s album, Lights Out, I discover it contains a song called Cool Like Kurt, and my heart sinks. However, I put on Distant Neighbourhood, and my mood immediately changes. There’s a real sunshine, slacker charm to this song, reminiscent of a more shoegaze-indebted Lemonheads, that’s difficult to dislike. Sugar-sweet boy/girl vocals propel the song along, plus a generous helping of reverb and distortion. Oddly, there’s no percussion at all in Distant Neighbourhood, which is a brave choice but one that ultimately backfires, because the listener is left with a feeling of incompleteness, like the song never quite delivers on its promise. They certainly know how to craft a tunethough. 7/10

The Duke Spirit – Don’t Wait

Despite them being completely different acts, I’m forever getting The Duke Spirit and Duke Special confused. Not to look at, obviously, but I heard of them both around the same time and their names are too similar for my simple brain to process. It’s clearly my loss, as Don’t Wait instantly draws you in to the intriguing and intricate world of The Duke Spirit. The vocals are full of longing, and a wall of guitars introduces the chorus exactly when the song is crying out for it. It’s a good track, and there’s little to complain about, but it does seem The Duke Spirit aren’t firing on all cylinders, and that they’ve got better tracks up their collective sleeve. Also, the longer the track wears on, the more it reminds me of Feeder, which can’t be good, can it? 7/10

Chase & Status and Sub Focus – Flashing Lights

Chase & Status are the chart-friendly arm of dubstep, and quite possibly victims of their own success. Due to their ubiquity, and that of similar artists, their songs are often indistinguishable from tracks by Example, Nero, Pendulum et al. Flashing Lights repeats their winning formula: guest vocals over a slow track with some heavy beats, flashes of Ibiza dance and house, and a feeling of strength-sapping familiarity. If you’re wondering where the “HUGE” bit comes in, it’s at the two-minute mark. There, now you don’t have to sit through the preceding 120 seconds of superfluous build-up. Actually, the “HUGE” bit isn’t even that huge. Four years ago, dubstep was the thrilling sound of the unknown. Flashing Lights just makes me want to put a Pentangle record on… and I don’t even own any Pentangle records. 2/10

The King Blues – The Future’s Not What It Used To Be

I actually saw The King Blues at a festival earlier this year, and I endured about ten minutes of their clichéd, tired, sixth-form, anti-establishment ranting before giving up and wandering off to get a burger. The Future’s Not What It Used To Be has an enticing mix of jaunty ska and haunting, Eastern horns, but the everything’s-gone-to-shit moaning in the lyrics is just so wearing, you want to give them a clip round the ear and tell them to go and get a proper job. There’s also an ill-advised, rap section in the middle – not good. I’m no political expert, but when people describe themselves as “anarchists”, as The King Blues do, I want to get away from them as quickly as possible before I’m bored to death. 3/10

Enrique Iglesias – I Like How It Feels (feat. Pitbull and The WAV.s)

Pop fact of the day: if you got all the songs from 2011 Pitbull has guested on and laid them end-to-end, they’d stretch round the world’s circumference three and a half times. I Like How It Feels comes from the deluxe edition (try to contain your excitement) of Enrique’s album, Euphoria, and follows such family-friendly, singalong ditties as Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You). To the amazement and surprise of precisely no-one, this track is a dancefloor-focussed Latin-flavoured bore-fest that presumably requires a decent degree of intoxication before it becomes remotely interesting. Pitbull comes in for his obligatory cameo towards the end, brags a lot, compares himself to global warming, and then leaves. When historians look back at the music of 2011, this kind of thing will be depressingly prevalent. 1/10

Grouplove – Lovely Cup

If someone asks you, “what do you think of Lovely Cup by Grouplove?” you’d be well within your rights to report them for sexual harassment for daring to utter such a filthily suggestive phrase. However, rather than an arrestable offence, Lovely Cup by Grouplove is actually an addictive, jaunty, bounce-along of a track which deserves to be played loud on radios up and down the land. There are elements of new wave, slacker-rock, power pop and classic songwriting shimmering through this track, which really should have been released six months ago when it didn’t get dark sometime around 4.30pm. Sounding like the lovechild of The Rapture and Guillemots, Lovely Cup is the kind of track you could listen to again and again without getting bored. I’m going to try and spread the word about this song, though I’ll be sure to choose my conversational opener extra carefully. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

EMA – Marked

Well, it looks like we’re getting political. I was outraged when this government dropped the EMA; it was a fantastic scheme designed to keep young people in education, and if they think for one minute that… oh, the EMA in question here isn’t the Educational Maintenance Allowance, but Erika Anderson, formerly of West Coast band, Gowns. Marked is a bizarre, experimental song that’s so scratchy – in both music and voice – it makes for quite uncomfortable listening. However, there is some beauty beneath that rough surface, and persevere with Marked and you find a track reminiscent of the salad days of Stina Nordenstam. It’s still a harrowing experience in places, but never anything less than beguiling. 7/10

Kasabian – Re-Wired

Lad-rock peddling, sports-casual wearing, derivate, dumb, Oasis-worshipping, drug-glamorising, tedious, devoid of invention, own-hype believing, image-obsessed, deluded, melodically deficient, abominable, blight on society, beloved by idiots, laughable indie band Kasabian return with Re-Wired, a track that shows all the progress and intelligence of the Pope’s views on contraception. Like everything Kasabian have ever put their name to, it’s uniformly awful and has absolutely no redeeming features. It also sounds like everything else they’ve ever done, which was already a facsimile of what so many other bands had done before them to such an extent they were effectively photocopying a blank sheet of paper anyway. I’m normally quite good at seeing the positives in records and accounting for everyone’s tastes. However, Kasabian are terrible, I don’t like anything about this record or them, and if you like it, I will immediately think less of you. 0/10

Bleeding Knees Club – Teenage Girls

I can’t work out whether this band name/song title combo is slightly alluring or just a little pervy. Perhaps it’s meant to be both. Anyway, it fizzes with the kind of lo-fi, bubblegum energy that bands can only have at the very start of their career. It’s unrefined, trashy, and all the better for it. It’s also just over two minutes, which is the perfect length for such a track. Shades of Los Campesinos!, Those Dancing Days and The Ramones are in abundance and while it doesn’t exactly rewrite the rule book, it’s damn good fun while it lasts. A blast to blow away the cobwebs of your day, extremely welcome if you’ve just been listening to, let’s say, Kasabian, for example. 8/10

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Sticks + Stones

Cher Lloyd - Sticks + Stones
released 7 November 2011 on Syco

In a recent interview, boy-band JLS revealed how devastated they were that, after finishing runners-up on 2008’s X Factor behind Alexandra Burke, Simon Cowell passed up the opportunity to sign them, despite the fact they practically begged him to. “As soon as the show finished, we asked him to give us a deal,” said the sensitive one; “he just point-blank refused,” cooed the non-threatening one, non-threateningly. “But,” pouted the pretty one, while simultaneously doing a backflip and lifting his t-shirt to show a sculpted six-pack, “it turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to us!” “…”, added the one who no-one outside of his immediate family realises exists.
Despite the fact all the quotes in the previous paragraph were entirely fabricated, the story JLS were alluding to very much did happen, and they could well have a point. Simon Cowell may make an obscene amount of money through his myriad entertainment enterprises, but the acts signed to his label, Syco, do tend to be of a certain type. The current buzz around Tinie Tempah acolyte, Labrinth, notwithstanding, most of his acts are bedroom balladeers, and very lucrative they prove for him too. Not all his protégés are overjoyed at this approach – witness the laughable struggle of Matt Cardle and his attempts to realign himself as a credible musician – and JLS have serendipitously avoided the same fate. They’re now free to work with Calvin Harris and Dev, and make chart-friendly dance-pop instead of being forced to become BoyzII Men II.
Which leaves us with the interesting conundrum: what do you do with a problem like Cher Lloyd? The teenage singer, fourth on last year’s X Factor behind implausibly fresh-faced One Direction, Rebecca Ferguson and “Credibility” Cardlepolarised opinion with her brash style and fondness for rapping. All four finalists are currently signed with Syco and of the quartet, it’s Cher who seems to be the least obvious fit. Push her towards lighters-aloft, supermarket-friendly balladry and you risk losing what made her different in the first place. Let her do her thing, and you’re letting an 18-year-old dictate her own career path while going against strongly entrenched Syco policy.
Lloyd’s debut album, Sticks + Stones, starts better than you’d ever dared imagine. Despite her misguided assumption that she’s “got a flow that will make your mother and your father call the cops,” opening track,Grow Up, is an incredibly fun slice of bratty, bubblegum dancehall. Her rap style is raw at best, and the cameo from Busta Rhymes is odd, but there’s plenty of room in the ongoing soap opera of pop for a pantomime, carefree, outspoken, anti-authority teen. She’s following the fine tradition set by artists such as Althea & Donna, Vanilla and Daphne & Celeste. This trend continues with following track, Want U Back, which is packed with hooks and has Cher’s personality stamped all over it.
Current single, With Ur Love, is another good, catchy song, save for a hateful Mike Posner guest spot, which paints him to be the kind of lecherous predator you pray doesn’t take your daughter to prom. However, the turning point of Sticks + Stones arrives with Swagger Jagger; comfortably the most bizarre song to reach the top of the UK charts in 2011. Swagger Jagger is a mess – a brain-melting mix of sirens,dubstep beats, shouty vocals, and the chorus to 19th Century folk ballad, Oh My Darling, Clementine. Lloyd is full of bravado and self-confidence, informing us that we can’t stop “tweetin’ ‘bout” and “YouTubin’” her, but then telling her “haters” (which are apparently legion) that it was “very, very, very nice to meet ya.”
Swagger Jagger will make your mind unravel and, fittingly, the album then begins to do the same. Beautiful People is the kind of syrupy, pointless ballad Syco-affiliated acts specialise in, and completely the wrong kind of song for Cher Lloyd now she’s not preoccupied with trying to win votes from suburban housewives on primetime television. Over The Moon repeats the same “trick” as Swagger Jagger, grafting an in-your-face verse to an ill-fitting, camp chorus to create a genetically-modified monster. And quite frankly, the less said about the 21st Century re-working of Buffalo Stance, here entitled Playa Boi, the better.
After a promising opening trio of tracks, Sticks + Stones wanes badly, and begins to sound more and more like it’s been focus-grouped by industry executives in pursuit of a quick buck until there’s barely any semblance of character left. It’s understandable really, Cher Lloyd is living the dream of millions of girls worldwide and isn’t likely to upset the applecart.
The sad fact is, Cher Lloyd may need a change of direction to achieve any kind of longevity. She’s positioned at the end of the market where her fans will soon grow up and move on and – depressing as this is – she could be on the pop scrapheap before she’s out of her teens. There is a glimmer of hope though; the penultimate song, Dub On The Track, shows the kind of sound she might be wise to pursue. It may sound like a cut-off from the Katy B album, and Cher may sound slightly overwhelmed by the production, but street-smart, urban-flavoured pop could be the way forward for her. Featuring Mic Righteous, Ghetts and Dot Rotten, Dub On The Track doesn’t forge a brave new way ahead for music, but it’s a sliver of hope from an otherwise dispiriting final two-thirds of the album.
It appears Cher Lloyd is signed to a label who have limited ideas of what best to do with her. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, Sticks + Stones bombing and Lloyd being dropped could be a blessing in disguise. Besides, she wouldn’t be the first X Factor alumnus to find success outside of the all-encompassing Cowell media empire.

The Singles Bar - 07/11/11

“Is there room for one more at the singles bar?” crooned Tracey Thorn on her 2010 track of the same name. She may well have been talking about this week’s reviews as we have – count ‘em – 14 of the little blighters for your perusal this week. Therefore, don’t waste your time reading this blurb, get on to the meat of the article below!
The Wombats – 1996
The European Football Championships, A Design for Life by Manic Street Preachers and Harry Enfield And Chums on VHS – it’s a well-known fact that 1996 was the best year in human existence. So, kudos to The Wombats for writing a song about it, though the fact it was 15 years ago makes me feel depressingly ancient. Head Wombat Matthew Murphy was born in 1984, and 1996 is a paean to how things were better and simpler in those times. Sadly, it’s fairly musically uninspired and the lyrics are exceptionally clunky at times (“We were cloning sheep in the 90s”). The track features the distorted guitars and synths that now seem to be The Wombats calling card and the whole thing is ultimately forgettable. Murphy also sings he“can’t forget those teenage kicks,” which, given his year of birth, suggests maths may not be his strong point. 4/10
Cage The Elephant – Aberdeen
There’s a challenge to answer here – is this track about the Scottish coastal city, or the constantly disappointing steak restaurant franchise? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I care, as Aberdeen (the song) is the kind of by-numbers alternative rock that you want to ignore. Furthermore, vocalist Matt Shultz has a VERY irritating, whiny voice which means you imagine all the lyrics to be about something he wants but can’t have, so he’ll probably be stomping up to his room to listen to LOUD GUITAR MUSIC because no-one understand him. Or something like that. Anyway, it’s depressingly derivative and a dangerous lesson in what happens when people who shouldn’t make music listen to Nirvana records. 2/10
Dennis Hopper Choppers – Girl Walked Out Of Town
There’s something of the spaghetti Western about Girl Walked Out Of Town, which is surprising when you consider Dennis Hopper Choppers (presumably the name Kathy Bates Roller Skates was taken) hail from the South Coast of England. There’s a real American desert feel to the sound, which is at odds with the rich, smooth vocals, yet the contrast seems to work perfectly despite itself. The organ melodies recall The Doors at their debut-album peak, and there’s an element of sleaze and punk just beneath the surface. Idiosyncratic, interesting music that deserves a wider audience. 8/10
Maverick Sabre – I Need
Maverick Sabre was born in Hackney, where presumably there was a consonant shortage in the early 90s. This is the only possible explanation for his frankly bizarre singing style where every vowel is stretched over several syllables, and the clarity and diction would make an elocution tutor book a one-way flight toDignitasI Need is actually a fairly dull song with an element of the overly tasteful sound that was the result of over-exposure to the Bristol trip-hop scene. However, that voice completely over-powers the track and any hope of rescuing it; it’s actually quite unpleasant to listen to. There’s a smattering of soul starting to creep back into the charts, which can only be a good thing, but you’d be best advised to stay away from Maverick Sabre1/10
The Kooks – Junk Of The Heart
While several years ago the sheer ubiquity of The Kooks made them irritating beyond belief, their contrasting fall from grace now makes you almost pity them. Junk Of The Heart is the kind of soaring, sunshine pop that’s unlikely to make them reconnect with a younger audience, but could perhaps win them a whole, new one. Of course, the vocals are grating and vowel-heavy (what is it with these London singers – weak jaws maybe?), and The Kooks seem to have misplaced the melodic alchemy that made tracks like Naïve and She Moves In Her Own Way such earworms. Not long ago, they seemed like they could have been the biggest band in Britain, now you’d struggle to tell this apart from a bunch of identikit songs by The Wombats, The Hoosiers et al. 4/10
Sunday Girl – Love U More
I wish solo artists wouldn’t have names that make them sound like they’re actually bands – it could confuse a stupid person. Anyway, Jade Williams – AKA Sunday Girl – must be well thought of, she’s worked with Diplo and has deals with both Geffen and Polydor. On the evidence of Love U More, it’s difficult to see why, as it’s the kind of dance track you’ve heard a hundred times before. The Balearic boom may have been a decade ago now, but Love U More aims to rekindle the relationship between slow, faceless vocals and anthemic, keyboard-heavy production. However, I don’t really recall anyone asking for that to come back, so let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, shall we? 2/10
Loick Essien – Me Without You
I’m quite upset to learn that Loick Essien doesn’t appear to be related to Chelsea footballer, Michael. He is, however, an R&B singer who’s worked with Bashy, N-Dubz and Chipmunk, which is the musical equivalent of having a CV that says you’ve worked with Sarah Palin, Kim Jong-Il and Anthea Turner. There’s no edge at all to this syrupy track, which would appear to be targeted towards young ladies (no doubt spelt, “laydeez”) as a romantic ballad. It actually sounds like the thing Simon Cowell might consider giving one of his X Factor protégés to record as a Christmas single and it makes the collected works of Luther Vandross look like the Aphex Twin. Seven songs down and only one that’s any good? I’m losing the will to live here.1/10
Tinchy Stryder – Off The Record
This has been remarked upon before, but Tinchy Stryder – along with Dizzee Rascal – heralds a generation of British grime MCs with names that sound like scruffy, lovable urchins from Victorian novels. Anyway, as our roguish hero strides tinchily through life, he’s sadly lost inspiration, as Off The Record lacks any of the zip and energy that made previous tracks hits. He appears to also just be rapping whatever comes into his head first, which is never good. The backing is the work of producer of the moment, Calvis Harris, but curiously, this sounds like people making a bad version of what a Calvin Harris and Tinchy Stryder record should sound like. Lawks, cor blimey, guv’nor etc. Not either gentleman’s finest work. 4/10
Chris Brown – She Ain’t You
The people who scheduled this week’s single releases clearly weren’t aware that I’m a man of finite patience. So, down to work then. She Ain’t You is the new single by violent misogynist Chris Brown and borrows heavily from Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and SWV’s Right Here. It’s also immeasurably worse than both those tracks. It sounds wan and weak, and Brown’s vocals have been auto-tuned a little too harshly. I’ve just found a review for this track’s video on the website of radio station 92.3Now FM, that suggests, “She Ain’t You is definitely a song for the ladies… maybe even for pop star Rihanna,” which is probably one of the most dispiriting and insensitive things I’ve ever read. So, before I go into a rant about celebrity “news” “journalists”, I’ll just list the redeeming features of this track instead: …oh. 0/10
JLS – Take A Chance On Me
They may be a boyband and X Factor alumni, but I’ll go out on a limb and say JLS have had a handful of cracking singles (Beat AgainEyes Wide Shut). However, this isn’t one of their better efforts. It’s a piano-led ballad; a bit of a downer really, as it’s the kind of style they’ve tended to avoid in the past. However, it’s harmless enough and – given the standard of what’s gone before it in this review – pretty listenable. It’s a little on the slick side and unlikely to progress their career too much further but there are worse crimes in this world, like for example, celebrity journalists who [That’s enough; let it GO! – Ed.]5/10
Manic Street Preachers – This Is The Day
Ah, we can always rely on The Manics, can’t we? Er, can’t we?! The initial signs aren’t good, with drum machine and over-elaborate piano fills, but soon the guitars come in and it’s unmistakeable MSP. However, the Manics haven’t really been at the peak of their powers, single-wise, for a while now, and This Is The Day sounds like they’re trying a bit too hard. In fact, it’s a little wet and lacking in substance. This track is the last song on their new, chronologically-ordered singles collection, and if you compare it to Slash N’ BurnLittle Baby Nothing and Faster amongst others, the prognosis is not good at all. However, it’s not terrible, even if it does seem to represent the MSP turning into the stadium indie band they swore they’d never become two decades ago. 6/10
Kele – What Did I Do?
In the rather pathetic fall-out around the reunion (or non-reunion) of Bloc Party, it’s kind of been forgotten that Kele’s been branching out in an entirely different direction, and making a pretty decent go of it, truth be told. What Did I Do? starts by sounding like it could be straight from the Katy B album, then a female vocal actually takes the lead. It’s rare someone can be so adept at two musical styles which are so contrasting. There’s some fairly heavy dubstep gubbins going on around the edges too, and Kele’s actual involvement seems to be fairly restricted. However, this doesn’t stop What Did I Do? being a pretty damn fine effort. It forms part of an EP called The Hunter, which on this evidence, is well worth investigation. 8/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK
Pixie Lott – What Do You Take Me For?
It’s a little-known fact that Pixie Lott has it written into her recording contract that at least 90% of each of her legs must be visible at any one time. Other interesting Pixie Lott facts include her not really being a pixie and… um, her love of mustard sandwiches (that one may be made up… and the first one as well).What Do You Take Me For? is the sound of Pixie Lott moving away from the sugary pop that’s served her well and into more urban territory. The production isn’t too bad at all; horns and descending bass give it a sensual, Latino feel, but Pixie Lott’s honking all over the top of it doesn’t really do it justice. I’d guess she’s trying to be sexy, but it comes off more desperate than anything. 4/10
Jessie J – Who You Are
Jessie J’s surname is actually Cornish, which means she should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act immediately. Who You Are is the title track from her inexplicably popular album and is – joy of joys – a self-empowerment ballad. It starts off inoffensively enough, but, that voice – what in the name of Godley and Creme is it?! Jessie J is at the forefront of a breed of singer who believes that power and melisma trump melody and control, and the result is truly ugly songs like this. In fact, of all the weeks of doing the Singles Bar, this is the first track I didn’t even make it to the end of. So, if the final two minutes ofWho You Are are a challenging look into the human psyche where Jessie J invents an entirely new, never-before-seen genre of music known as nu-post-oompah-gaze, then I apologise. However, I’m going to stick with my prejudices and assume it’s yet more drivel that would make even the deaf wince. 0/10

The Singles Bar - 31/10/11

The nights are getting darker, the days are getting colder and Christmas albums are already beginning to hit the shops (both Justin Beiber and She & Him released their festive efforts today). Luckily, you can still rely on the Singles Bar to give you a warm glow and put a spring in your step, as well as giving you the lowdown on all that’s going on this week in music. You lucky, lucky people.
Charlie Simpson – Cemetery
Six years is practically a lifetime in pop music and a lot has changed since Charlie Eyebrows left Busted in 2005. First, McFly took their crown as kiddie-friendly pop-punks du jour, and then children decided they wanted to listen to Rihanna and didn’t like guitars that much anyway. Simpson has made a pretty decent fist of his post-mainstream career, initially with hardcore quartet Fightstar and now solo. Cemetery is a jaunty, singalong strum-fest that meanders along quite harmlessly. It’s spoiled somewhat by young Charles’ insistence of injecting “emotion” into every syllable by growling and/or over-enunciating, but hey, it’s a decent three-minute pop song. Melodious, hummable and well-written, just stop trying to “keep it real”. 6/10
Beyoncé – Countdown
You’re never quite sure what to expect from the fragrant Ms. Knowles. Her album, 4, has already produced one stormer (Run The World (Girls)) and one clunker (Best Thing I Never Had) so a lot could hinge onCountdown. Luckily, it’s pure genius from start to finish. It races through its allotted time with frenzied percussion and genuinely thrilling horn stabs throughout. There’s also a – you’ve guessed it – countdown which samples Boyz II Men. Mixing dancehall, hip-hop, R&B and mariachiCountdown appears to be about everything and nothing all at once. It’s also had me walking round for the last week or so singing, “Grind up on it girl, show him how you ride it!” which is entirely inappropriate for a man in his mid-20s. It’s so strong that it’s fit to go toe-to-toe with the best R&B singles of the past decade: Kelis’ Millionaire, Janelle Monáe’sTightrope and, of course, Crazy In Love. So, is it Single of the Week? More like Single of the Year. 10/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK (AND POSSIBLY THE WHOLE YEAR)
Kelly Rowland – Down For Whatever
Cruel, cruel alphabet, making the title of the new Kelly Rowland track come immediately after that of her erstwhile bandmate. Whereas Beyoncé is pushing the boundaries, Kelly Rowland is following the tried and tested tropes of pop music in 2011. Down For Whatever is yet another example of the continuedGuettaisation of music which sounds like countless other anonymous house-inspired tracks. There’s also more than a passing resemblance to the music that backs Pitbull’s rap sections in Jennifer Lopez’s monster smash, On The Floor. Cynics may like to point out that Ms. Rowland is mostly devoid of clothing in the video for this song and is currently enjoying much prime-time exposure on British television as an X Factor judge. Well, I’m a cynic then. 3/10
Connan Mockasin – Faking Jazz Together
I wrote an opening sentence mocking (hur hurConnan for his ridiculous stage name, but did some research and, as far as I can make out, it’s his genuine name. Anyway, Faking Jazz Together is onetrippy, psychedelic mind-messer of a song; marginally discordant notes reveal themselves all the time and there are swimmy, reverb-soaked background vocals. The first three minutes or so sound like a chillwaveFlaming Lips backed by tribal percussion, but then it all fades away before starting up again. Faking Jazz Together is the kind of otherworldly track that completely transports you and is an utterly gorgeous, immersive experience. Highly recommended and a staggering piece of work. 9/10
Sean Paul – Got 2 Luv U (featuring Alexis Jordan)
Sean Paul records tend to be exceptionally irritating and Got 2 Luv U, from its text-speak title downwards, is no exception. It features his usual blend of dancehall and Caribbean rhythms, but it appears even he isn’t immune to the creeping influence of David Guetta, the man responsible for all that is homogenous is today’s pop music. Alexis Jordan’s voice is fairly indistinguishable from a handful of other female singers and the whole thing ends up sounding like a calculated attempt at staying relevant. Well, hats off and well done to these two for creating the mix of tired dancehall and ubiquitous early-90s house that precisely no-one was waiting for. 2/10
The Drums – How It Ended
It always seems like the amount of column inches dedicated to The Drums is inversely proportional to their popularity and the quality of music they actually make. How It Ended is a case in point, it’s nice enough but there’s nothing particularly of any note to report. It sounds a bit like something from Vampire Weekend’s cutting room floor spruced up with vibrato-heavy synths and annoying “eurgh eurgh eurgh”backing vocals. If this is a particularly short synopsis, then it’s because it represents the lack of interesting aspects of this track. How very post-modern of me. 5/10
Little Dragon – Little Man
Little Dragon released a rather fine album earlier this year, Ritual Union, whose title track was a thing of sheer delight. Little Man doesn’t quite reach those heights, but its icy synths and nonplussed percussion sure are compelling. In the chorus, the vocal line matches the keyboard melody effectively, and the track continues to build and add elements throughout its playing time. It also achieves the all-too-rare feat of not sounding over-crowded, and as such it shows admirable restraint. At less than three minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome either, so while it may not be a heart-stoppingly breathtaking piece of music, it’s a great listen and has that all-important go-back-and-play-again factor. 7/10
Doctor P – Neon
A quick bit of online research reveals that Doctor P is a dubstep producer known to his Mum as Shaun Brockhurst, and this is a new version of a track that’s been available for over a year. He’s also not a real doctor. Sounds like those on Neon would have seemed unusual a couple of years ago, but dubstep has infiltrated the mainstream to such an extent that this doesn’t seem like anything particularly new or refreshing. It’s fairly low BPM as dubstep goes, and would be better off soundtracking a video game or clips montage than being released as a stand-alone single. It’s a little faceless, and needs more ideas to justify its running time. Is dubstep in danger of jumping the shark? 3/10
Birdy – People Help The People
The Singles Bar can be a touch on the caustic side occasionally, but I’ll try and be nice here because Birdy – the nom de rock of Jasmine Van den Bogaerde – is a mere 15 years old. This is the third single from her forthcoming solo album, and they’ve all been piano-based cover versions (following Skinny Love andShelter). Originally, this was a hit for Cherry Ghost and it’s difficult to see what Birdy’s added to it. This trend for stripped-down reimaginings of songs is reaching critical mass, likely prompted by Radio 1’s Live Lounge cover version policy and television talent shows, and it’s completely baffling. Presumably, reducing a song to its elements displays some level of “authenticity” in the minds of the artist or arranger, but more often than not, it’s simply dull. Birdy has a fantastic voice that belies her tender years, but her career is unlikely to have any longevity if she continues to be marketed in this way. Her management will likely spend the next few months getting themselves in a flap trying to contact anyone who worked on the Adele album. 4/10
Toploader – She Said
Poor Toploader, they’ve become a byword for everything that was wrong with early 21st Century British indie. Dancing In The Moonlight was everywhere, Jamie Oliver liked them, and there was THAT hair. After several years away, they’ve made a low-key comeback and She Said is certainly rockier than ‘ver Loader were in their heyday. As expected, they’ve managed to crowbar in an anthemic chorus that’s signposted from a good few miles away; like a Jennifer Aniston film, you know everything that’s going to happen when you’re only 5% of the way through. They’ve had a rough time of it and are nowhere near as hateful as they’re made out to be, but She Said means they rank alongside Feeder, Athlete, Embrace et al as insipid stadium indie practitioners. 2/10
Gruff Rhys – Space Dust #2
Well this was a surprise. Super Furry Animals are generally known for their progressive, forward-thinking pop-rock, but frontman Gruff Rhys teams up here with Sarah Assbring (a.k.a. El Perro del Mar) for a beautiful slice of lounge music. It’s an old-fashioned duet with each singer replying to a line sung by the other and it’s beautifully adorned with sweeping strings. The drumming is jazzy and loose too; it’s not at all the kind of thing you expect to see released as a single in 2011 and it’s a real breath of fresh air. Gruff Rhys has been making music for nearly two decades now and is still producing inventive, interesting, vital work. How many people can you say that about? 8/10
Avril Lavigne – Wish You Were Here
Despite having seemingly been playing a stroppy teenager for around a decade, Sk8r G1®L Avril Lavigne is actually 27 years old. Once every few years, she stops with the bratty persona and releases a ballad to prove to everyone that she’s a real person with, y’know, feelings and stuff. Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, that time has come around again. Wish You Were Here is a drab mope-fest with as much get-up-and-go as a mortuary in the middle of a power cut. The chorus mainly consists of Lavigne wailing “Damn, damn, damn”; perhaps the nadir of this whole sorry exercise. At times, she can be good fun (like on Girlfriend) but this is the kind of insipid ballad even the Goo Goo Dolls would balk at. 1/10
Cher Lloyd – With Ur Love
Cher Lloyd has followed up the frankly bizarre Swagger Jagger with a much more restrained song. However she still can’t refrain from alluding to “swag” during the verses – extremely apt, as Cher hails from Malvern in Worcestershire which, as we all know, is the spiritual home of swag. Swagger Jagger was a mind-melting mix of heavy dubstep and nursery-rhyme pop and there’s a suspicion she may have put all her eggs in one basket, as With Ur Love contains none of the edge that propelled her to fame. In fact, it’s a relatively insubstantial R&B track with a grating cameo from Posner, although it does have an extremely catchy melody. Her album will certainly be an interesting listen, if nothing else. 5/10