Friday, 28 October 2011

Wish You Could Hear

Anyone who has the temerity to call themselves a music writer without having heard The Dark Side Of The Moon needs a good excuse. I don’t have one.

I’m by no means a classic album refusenik and I don’t automatically assume new music is better than old. In fact, I grew up in a family where there was a copy of this album in the house. So I haven’t gone out of my way to avoid it and yet it has somehow eluded me. Until this week, that is.

When Pink Floyd recorded what is widely regarded as a masterpiece, between 1972 and 1973, they probably imagined the work would be obsessively examined, with ardent fans drinking in every note. It may be a stereotype, but its reputation means it’s always struck me as the kind of record you’d listen to in a candle-lit room, sitting on a beanbag, repeatedly reading the liner notes while a plume of oddly sweet cigarette smoke hung just above eye level. What Waters and co. probably didn’t envisage is that nearly forty years after its creation, their album would be the accompaniment to a journey on the 22:45 from London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour.

The way we consume music has changed immeasurably since the seventies. For better or worse, the ubiquity and instant accessibility of music mean it’s often background noise or competes with other ambient sounds for your full attention.

A corollary of having music on-demand at any time is a rapidly shrinking attention span. I pressed play on ‘DSOTM’ for the first time and two minutes in, where my 1973 compatriot would have fully immersed themselves in the thrill of hearing virgin music, I was logging into Twitter to tell people what I was listening to. This isn’t to say I didn’t give the album a fair hearing; that was only the first of several listens this week.

A waning of attention means ‘DSOTM’ comes across as a very anachronistic piece. You’d be unlikely to find a 2011 release stuffed so full of “mood pieces” which mean it takes a considerable time to progress from song to song. I was shocked to discover that, in a ten-track record, there are only five you’d call ‘songs’. You may say I’m wilfully missing the point; I’d argue that it’s short changing the listener. Some of the interludes are perfectly pleasant, but they’re not natural links between tracks and mostly appear to be one good idea stretched over three or four minutes. As a general rule, any music which sounds as though it would be more fun to play than to hear is best avoided.

This isn’t intended as a Floyd bashing exercise though; ‘DSOTM’ contains some wonderful, transcendental moments. The opening couple of minutes of ‘Breathe (In The Air)’ are utterly gorgeous, giving the feeling of floating peacefully in another world entirely, and Us And Them is simply stunning. It’s bizarre, given the volume of filler, that ‘Us And Them’ sees Pink Floyd give the perfect demonstration of how to write a seven minute epic that doesn’t get boring and makes full use of every second.

Elsewhere, the overriding feeling is that the album just hasn’t dated particularly well. ‘On The Run’ may have sounded impossibly futuristic at the time, but it’s nothing remarkable now, while the liberal use of sound effects throughout is less than appealing. ‘Money’, for example, is a great track with wonderful sax and choppy guitar stabs, but the sound of cash registers and the literal lyrics hammer the point home so aggressively you feel you’ve been preached to. And, with the benefit of hindsight, to hear Pink Floyd grumbling about the evils of capitalism is really quite amusing.

So, am I a convert? Not exactly, but I’m certainly glad I gave it a chance. Maybe too much time has lapsed between the present and its release, for it to resonate with me in the same way it touched the generation that grew up with it. That said, I’ve never had that problem with Forever Changes or Abbey Road. It has certainly been a useful exercise in history; there were several times where it became clear where Radiohead gleaned many of their ideas. However, like Radiohead, I found myself wishing they’d break off from the indulgent noodling and really unlock their guitars.

For now, I’ll resist the lure of the other re-mastered Floyd albums, recently released. Maybe I’m just more of a Piper At The Gates Of Dawn kind of guy.

Welcome to Condale

Summer Camp - Welcome To Condale
released 31 August 2011 on Apricot Recording

The phrase, “summer camp,” means different things to different people. To some, it brings back hazy memories of halcyon days; vacations that seemed to last forever, meeting new people, independence, fun and laughter. To others – namely me – it’s synonymous with damp, concrete floors, terrible buskers playing 'Wonderwall' into the early hours and sharing a tent with Welsh brothers who have a peculiar affinity for discussing bizarre and possibly illegal sexual practices in stomach-churning detail. Anyway, maybe Welcome to Condale can shake us out of our collective reveries and take us back to another place altogether: 1981.

Like a great deal of bands coming to prominence this year, Summer Camp seek to firmly channel the spirit of two decades ago. They marry sweet melodies and vocals with lo-fi, scuzzy arrangements before drowning the whole package in a sea of swirling reverb. Producer Steve Mackie (yes, him from Pulp) often does the whole album something of a disservice, because it takes a few listens before the better songs can break free of the stranglehold and reveal their subtleties to the listener.

The double-barrelled opening salvo of 'Better Off Without You' and 'Brian Krakow' are a promising start, with the latter possibly a riposte to the former. The defiant 'Better Off Without You' recalls the sassy post-punk of Blondie or even The B-52s, before 'Brian Krakow' adds a male lead vocal to the mix and carries the surf-pop vibe in another direction. At this point, you could be fooled into thinking there’s a thread linking the songs together as parts of a cohesive whole, but aside from snatches of film dialogue cropping up throughout, there’s little to suggest a grand theme.

The track 'Summer Camp' is probably the most symptomatic of the reverence to the past, with no element left untouched by heavy-handed production, but it overcomes this to be one of the better tracks with a fantastic chorus that manages to be simultaneously triumphant and nostalgic (“Searching for someone just like you, now I’ve found you”).

However, all the tracks tend to pale into insignificance when compared to the mastery of the title track. It’s a pitch-perfect look at small-town syndrome and looking to escape your place of birth which will be immediately familiar to anyone who felt trapped by parochialism in their teenage years (“It’s a great place to raise kids but they never will grow up”). Despite this frustration, the track reaches the same conclusion we all get to eventually: you can check out any time you like but you can never leave (here voiced as “coming home, but you never went away”).

Sadly, Summer Camp too often feel like a decent pop band attempting to ride a bandwagon with their swampy, a la mode arrangements. At its worst, on the forgettable 'Nobody Knows You', the balance of the drums feels completely wrong and the entire song is lost in the mix. Ultimately, it’s the occasional moments of clarity that make Welcome To Condale feel more thrilling than it really is and while the album is liable to grow on you over time, there are limits to the affection you can feel for such a record. It contains poignant, bittersweet tales of heartbreak and loss but is mature enough to recognise that these are mere trifles in the grand scheme of things. In the end, that’s Welcome To Condale in a nutshell – arresting in the moment, but lacking in long-term fulfilment.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Tom Hibbert and the nature of writing

The November 2011 edition of The Word Magazine features the obituary of music writer Tom Hibbert by his friend and colleague Mark Ellen. I’d heartily recommend you read it; it’s a warm and funny account of Hibbert’s life, full of genuine fondness and respect. It made me quite emotional to read it, despite the fact I’ve never knowingly read a word of Hibbert’s work.

This admission may seem heresy to those who grew up on his articles, but I’ve only seriously been a fan of music – and by extension, writing on music – for about a decade, meaning the era of Hibbert had already passed when I started to buy inkies (as no-one’s called them for yonks) in earnest.

What I hadn’t realised, however, is how much of an influence Hibbert has had on many of the writers who I love today and also, me. Not even just my writing either, when I’m feeling particularly eloquent (it’s roughly as frequent as an appearance from Halley’s comet), my speech is peppered with over-elaborate references and jovial descriptions. It all tends to follow on from the John Peel maxim of “why use one word when twenty-three would be perfectly adequate?”

Chief exponents of the Hibbert vocabulary are The Word Magazine writers, such as David Hepworth and, in particular, Mark Ellen. This really comes across in the weekly podcasts, where phrases from generation-old Smash Hits articles (“fruity drinks”, anyone?) are liberally used throughout. Even when I used to read Smash Hits, a long time after Hibbert had left, it would appear the love of words and mischievous spirit still remained.

What this all reminded me is how much I love words. There are few better feelings than selecting a seemingly unconnected series of words and joining them together to make a beautiful phrase, one which is a pleasure to read and to say aloud, with just the right cadence and mixture of sounds. Around once a month, I look back at a particular sentence I’ve written and think to myself, “you know what? That couldn’t be improved upon.” Clearly, the trick is to replicate that over an entire article on a regular basis.

I’d imagine the Hibbert habit (there’s a lovely coupling of words right there) for disarming questions and unnecessarily complex nicknames comes from the limits of the music writer’s lexicon. There are only so many words for “album”, only so many times you can say “debut”, or “track”. People complain about music writers using words like “eponymous”, but it’s just to add a bit of spice to an informative sentence you’ve written variants of a hundred times before.

Overall, the article really gave me something to aspire to (I’d love a compendium of Hibbert’s work if anyone can recommend one). I’d adore it if I could come up with something as memorable and evocative as “Wacky-Macca-Thumbs-Aloft” or be able to describe someone as “my caber-tossing chum from chilly Jockland” without coming across as a pretentious fool, but I fear it’s a way off yet. I try to inject humour into my writing but, being unfit to even clean the dust from the keyboards of Hibbert or, say, Charlie Brooker, my barbs are often easy targets, or perhaps more cruel than I intend. I started writing singles reviews for No Ripcord in an attempt to fashion some of that fun, pop spirit into the website, but they too often tailspin into rants that demonstrate little of the love for music that got me into writing in the first place.

The legacy of Tom Hibbert lives on. There are some great writers around who can deploy a cheeky turn of phrase or saucily euphemistic line to great effect while still writing entertaining and informative articles. It seems though, from an outsider’s point of view, that a lot of what’s fun about music writing came from Tom Hibbert and, although I didn’t know it until now, he’s the inspiration for me even bothering in the first place.

The Singles Bar - 17/10/11

Now you can go and choose any track you like from iTunes or the digital music service of your choice, you could say we’ve re-entered the age of the single. Of course, albums will always be special, soundtrack our lives and provide a fascinating narrative arc in the way a single never can, but there’s something about a perfect three minute pop song that simply can’t be bested.
So, this week, why not forego albums for a bit, and maybe see what the singles market has to offer. Plus, if you’re in the UK, it appears that Steps are top of the albums chart, so that’s another good reason to steer clear of the long-player format for a little while.
The Joy Formidable – Cradle
The Joy Formidable seem to be one of those bands that a lot of your friends like, but you never really seem to get round to investigating properly (well, they do to me anyway). Cradle crackles with energy, and lead singer Ritzy Bryan has an arresting vocal style which makes this track difficult to ignore. However, it masks its lack of invention behind walls of guitars and provides a fairly forgettable experience. Cradle is quite joyful, and pretty formidable too, but nothing to write home about. Shame, my parents love my letters. 5/10
Nero – Crush On You
On-air, on-sale is a great idea and could go some way to reducing piracy. The plan is that as soon as tracks are available on the radio, they’re also available to purchase. However, not all acts and labels have signed up, and Nero must be amongst that number, because it feels like Crush On You has been on the airwaves for ages now. In his review for No Ripcord, Craig Stevens wrote that Crush On You’s parent album,Welcome Reality, struggles to find its identity between pop and underground dubstep. Here, it sounds like they’re having that problem all in the space of one track. The repeated vocals don’t sound too dissimilar to something by European trance-muppets Scooter, but there’s some real heavy bass, squeals and other indefinable sound effects to sate the appetite of your more discerning dance-head. Overall, a bit of a mess, but a rather enjoyable one at that. If only it had been available last month, we’d all be much happier. 7/10
Fanfarlo – Deconstruction
In an utterly shameless bid to win the coveted single of the week award, Fanfarlo have written something very much up my street. Deconstruction is wonderful, bouncy indie pop with boy/girl vocals that stays just the right side of twee. There’s also a bit of substance about the track, with squalls and echoes that are strangely reminiscent of Sigur Rós. Just when you think Deconstruction needs a bit of life injecting into it, the cavalry arrives. Think the energetic post-punk of The Futureheads mixed with a dash of electro and a smattering of Los Campesinos! A hearty congratulations to all involved in this track. I’m in a rather good mood now. 9/10
Niki & The Dove – The Drummer
Now that The Singles Bar has been going for a few weeks, trends are starting to emerge. One such pattern is the weekly appearance of an imaginative, idiosyncratic pop artist attempting to break new ground in an electronic/chart crossover (that, sadly, always seems to go precisely nowhere in the charts). Last week it was Icona Pop and today it’s the turn of Niki & The Dove, with the off-kilter, skittering The Drummer. Her oddly halting vocal tics bring Stina Nordenstam to mind, but imagine a Stina Nordenstam fronting insane,ravey, poppers o’ clock dance tracks. Sound odd? It is, but the world quite clearly needs more things like this. Yes, MORE PLEASE. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK
Metronomy – Everything Goes My Way
Metronomy appeared to sneak onto the Mercury Prize shortlist without anyone really noticing and after not winning, they look to have returned to relative anonymity. After having already released two cracking singles this year (The Look and The Bay), the Totnes foursome return with an altogether different beast. Everything Goes My Way is a chilled-out slice of wistful pop, which uses Latin rhythms and recalls Beck’s Deadweight. It’s understated, sure, but it’s lovely stuff that seeps under your pores and sets you at ease. Album The English Riviera may not be a world beater, but there’s a strong case to be made for Metronomy being the singles band of 2011. 8/10
Nicki Minaj – Fly (feat. Rihanna)
It would seem that, between them, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna are on a mission to dominate the entire charts. Everything Rihanna touches sells like hot cakes and this is the eighth (yes, eighth) single to be taken fromMinaj’s Pink Friday LP. It would be nice to start hearing some new material from Nicki Minaj, especially as the release of Fly means she’s now released every half-decent song from her album (and some less than half-decent ones too). Fly is a mid-tempo track which suits Rihanna’s style more than Minaj, who seems to struggle to rein herself in during the verses. The emergence of Nicki Minaj in the last eighteen months or so has been nothing short of remarkable, but perhaps we’d all be more impressed if she didn’t spread herself so thinly. 5/10
Bombay Bicycle Club – Lights Out Words Gone
You know how some tracks just instantly make you bob your head so that you look like a loon to anyone who can see you? Lights Out Words Gone is such a track, with gorgeous backing harmonies and a smooth, laid-back groove. If this all sounds a bit drive-time AOR, then you’d be mistaken, as Lights Out Words Gone is, like Everything Goes My Way above, liable to bury itself in your brain and spend the next 24 hours playing cards with your subconscious. It’s a real exercise in restraint and a perfect example of letting a track breathe. There’s an argument to say it’s possibly too laid-back for its own good, but it’s a perfect showcase of what a good band Bombay Bicycle Club have become. 8/10
Kelly Clarkson – Mr Know It All
It was all going uncharacteristically well. There had been seven tracks and none of them had scored less than 5/10. That was until Kelly Clarkson showed up with her comeback single; the over-sung, uninspired Mr Know It All. Over a tired, formulaic backing track, Kelly Clarkson provides searing insights such as, “Mr Bring-me-down, you like to bring me down” – great. The track is really just a vehicle for her voice, which isn’t particularly powerful or distinctive enough to carry it single-handedly. The track’s strangely pitched too – it’s too lacking in oomph for a pop banger, but devoid of the soaring choruses or emotional climax you’d expect from a ballad. Really, it’s just a bit forgettable. 3/10
Toddla T – Streets So Warm
I often find myself reading articles about Toddla T which make his music sound fantastic, then find the reality to be sadly lacking. Streets So Warm is no exception – in theory a collision of auto-tune, dancehall and politically-charged polemic sounds thrilling, but in practice it all falls a bit flat. The handclaps and buoyant synth are good touches, but Streets So Warm needs a shot of caffeine – or something stronger – to give it a kick up the backside and pique the interest of the listener. I’m sure I’ll read something great about Toddla T soon enough to make me give him another chance though. 4/10
The Japanese Popstars – Take Forever (featuring Robert Smith)
More head-nodding? Maybe I’m becoming one of those irritating toys you see in the back windows of cars. Anyway, there’s a menacing, ominous feel to Take Forever, which remains until the vocal completely spoils any mood that’s been created. Robert Smith’s voice isn’t always easy to love, but here he seems at his most whiny and petulant. It’s not until around two-thirds of the way through that the track builds sufficiently to erase the annoyance. Take Forever is an above-average, engrossing dance track that would probably have worked far better as an instrumental. 6/10
Baxter Dury – Trellic
He may not make music like his old man, but those unmistakeable Estuary vowels mean that when you hear Baxter, you hear Ian. Trellic is complimented by an extremely simple arrangement and a honeyed female vocal, allowing Dury’s insouciant singing style to come to the fore. Its strength is also its weakness, as all this simplicity means Trellic doesn’t really jump out of the speakers and is over almost as soon as it begins. There’s nothing much to say except for that it’s pleasant enough. 6/10
Alex Clare – Up All Night
Well, here’s a funny thing. Up All Night sounds like a mix of folk, dancehall, rock and genre-bending dance. The vocals are incredibly similar to Josh Kumra’s in Don’t Go by Wretch 32, which is slightly off-putting, but the clash of all these styles, along with breakbeats and sirens, is thrilling stuff. In fact, it provides the kind of excitement that you read about in Toddla T articles. It tries to fit a few too many ideas into under three minutes, but is still to be commended, even if it would benefit from a little refining. 6/10
Lana Del Rey – Video Games
You know there’s that stereotype of gaming nerds who have no idea how to deal with pretty girls? Well, it’s been pretty funny to watch the massed ranks of music journalists get themselves in a tizzy over Lana Del Rey and awkwardly put a cushion over their collective crotch at the mere mention of her name. After such hyperbole, anything less than an era-defining track would be a disappointment and Video Games certainly isn’t going to change the world. It is, however, an extremely competent and promising debut, if a little grandiose and over-done. Her voice sounds like she doesn’t quite open her mouth wide enough, but Video Games does well to be an emotional and powerful ballad without being too mawkish for the most part. The harp and marching drums are a bit much, but there’s a lot to like here. If only the fuss would die down so she could be primarily judged on the quality of her records. I can dream, can’t I? 7/10
Asa – Why Can’t We
There have been a number of relaxed tracks with more than a hint of summer about them this week, which seems odd as it’s the middle of October and damn freezing outside. Why Can’t We has a likeable reggae backing, liberal splashings of brass, euphoric backing vocals and a large dose of cowbell. There’s literally nothing not to like about it and although it’s hardly going to be your favourite song of 2011, there are far worse ways to spend three minutes. If you can listen to this and not feel happier afterwards, then I can only conclude that you, my friend, are dead inside. Sorry. 7/10

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Singles Bar - 10/10/11

Recently, it’s become clear that Bajan pop songstress Rihanna reads No Ripcord and, in particular, The Singles Bar. It’s been discussed before how, ahem, influential these reviews are in terms of future chartplacings and before releasing We Found Love last week, she was clearly nervous. What other explanation could there possibly be for sidestepping tradition and releasing the track midweek, rather than on the standard UK release date of a Monday? It worked though, as We Found Love entered the charts at Number 1. Who knows where it would have ended up if it had gone through The Singles Bar treatment first?
Anyway, here are this week’s tracks.
Veronica Falls – Bad Feeling
Hooray for melodious, perky indie-pop! Bad Feeling has a charming, simple feel to it, like a less polished Blondie or – particularly in the intro – Martha and the Muffins. The vocals are perfectly understated; Veronica Falls appear to be doing their utmost to prove that you can still do great things with the guitar-bass-drums-vocals axis. It doesn’t particularly do anything new and over the course of a whole album, you’d want a touch more invention, but as far as three minutes of escapism in the form of a song goes, you couldn’t ask for a lot more. 8/10
Little Roy – Come As You Are
In case you weren’t aware, Little Roy has just released Battle For Seattle – a record made entirely of reggae versions of Nirvana songs. It’s an absolute delight and comes highly recommended. However, I can only imagine that this single has been picked by a record company employee who hasn’t heard the LP and has based their decision solely on the chart positions of Nirvana singles. While far from terrible, Come As You Are is the worst track on the album, with a cheap sounding replica of the main riff to start and none of the punch and anguish of the original. If you only heard this, you’d be within your rights to dismiss the whole project as a novelty and not investigate further. I implore you, ignore this track and delve into the good stuff that makes up the rest of the record. 5/10
Owl City – Dreams Don’t Turn To Dust
This isn’t FAIR! The first artist to get reviewed twice in the Singles Bar and it’s Adam Young and his horrific Owl City project. Like most of his songs, it sounds like Deathcab For Cutie for pre-schoolers, with a cavalcade of meaningless, trite, nausea-inducing lyrics. 2011 seems to be the year of insulting Owl City on No Ripcord, but it’s really not pre-meditated or organised. It’s just he’s incredibly irritating – with over half a century of popular music to draw from, assimilate and use as a basis for creation, why on earth anybody would choose to make something that sounds like this is utterly beyond me. 2/10
DZ Deathrays – Gebbie Street
Now, THIS is more like it. Within 20 seconds, I’d turned the volume up to full courtesy of a riff so intoxicatingly filthy it’s likely to increase your chances of pregnancy by at least 50%. Everything that follows that riff is bound to be a disappointment, and in a way it is, but that’s not to say Gebbie Street isn’t a great track. The vocals are a tad indistinctive and veer too close to lad-rock, but it has a crunching chorus and that riff (yes, I’m mentioning it again) underpins the whole track expertly. It also has an outrageous,NSFW video that probably violates numerous copyright laws that I couldn’t possibly recommend you seek out for yourself. 8/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK
Dionne Bromfield – Get Up Offa That Thing
This really is a mess and a dangerous lesson in what happens when you try to cover too many bases at once. Dionne Bromfield is clearly a talent with a marvellous voice and is possibly capable of great things in the future. However, she’s been thrust into the spotlight a little too quickly recently (she’s the goddaughter of Amy Winehouse) and this James Brown cover really is misjudged. Firstly, following James Brown is an arduous task for anyone, due to the sheer force of personality he put into his songs. Secondly, this version attempts to be urban and modern, and classic and funky at the same time. There are horn stabs and hand claps, breakbeats and sirens. In trying to appeal to everyone, it’s likely to appeal to no-one. It’s also vastly, vastly inferior to the original. Dionne Bromfield could have a great career ahead of her – let’s all just pretend this never happened. 3/10
Girls – Honey Bunny
It sounds like, on Honey Bunny, Girls are attempting to pull off a similar trick to Veronica Falls, but they don’t display the same kind of charm or melodic deftness. Honey Bunny is a little anaemic and sadly can’t be saved by a classic, 60s-inspired chorus. Nice harmonies, a slight surf feel and doesn’t outstay its welcome, but just lacking in a certain something. If you want to hear this kind of thing done better, you could do worse than listen to some Gruff Rhys or Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. 6/10
Joe Jonas – Just In Love
Joe Jonas has clearly been studying the Justin Timberlake route to success. He’s attempting to break out from a hugely successful boyband and go it alone with a more mature, R&B-flavoured sound. However, whereas Timberlake had some fantastic songs and the weight of The Neptunes’ production behind him forJustifiedJust In Love falls a little flat. This is no worse than a fair amount of the R&B/dance tracks around at the moment, but if he doesn’t buck his ideas up reasonably soon, Joe Jonas might find that his name alone isn’t enough to trade on. 4/10
Icona Pop – Nights Like This
Commercial-oriented pop music is usually big, slick and immaculately produced. However, Nights Like Thissounds like it was recorded in a biscuit tin using a Nintendo Game Boy in place of a backing band. However, the real quality of the track shines through the questionable arrangement and the more accustomed you grow to the song’s idiosyncrasies, the more likely you are to break out into a great big grin. This is the sort of quirky pop that should be rocketing up the charts, yet it's sadly probably a little too odd to be a big hit. 7/10
Timbaland – Pass At Me (featuring Pitbull)
James Brown was known as the hardest working man in showbusiness, but that was before Pitbull started guesting on tracks at a rate of roughly one every half hour. He clearly doesn’t spend too much time on his lyrics; here he follows up Give Me Everything’s memorable rhyme of “Kodak” and “Kodak” by rhyming “cover girls” with “cover girls”. Genius. Pitbull’s sticking to his lecherous, sexually aggressive persona (he raps about a girl who “does what I please so she lives on her knees”) while Timbaland’s former glories seem an awfully long time ago. Pass At Me is a confused, mish-mash of a song, haphazardly combining autotune, Latin rhythms, olé-olé chanting and oodles of misogyny. Spare a thought for the poor, unfortunate people of the world who think this is actually worth purchasing with their hard-earned money. 0/10
Jamie N Commons – The Preacher
There’s more than a touch of Nick Cave in Jamie N Common’s dusty tale of religion and murder. However, he doesn’t possess Cave’s way with words or melodic alchemy, preferring instead insipid acoustic guitar motifs and a great deal of bluster. The Preacher sounds like the kind of thing real music bores would try and convince you was the future, when in reality it’s about as interesting as an evening spent reading the back of a jar of pasta sauce. Jamie N Commons will tick the box marked “authenticity” until the cows come home, but The Preacher is a worthy and dull record. 3/10
All The Young – Quiet Night In
There’s only so much of this you can write without beginning to feel a little jaded, so apologies for the prospect of an indie-rock quartet from Stoke-on-Trent not exactly filling me with glee. I believed we were over the worst of landfill indie, that we’d held tight, weathered the storm, and together, emerged out the other side relatively unscathed. No-one told All The Young, with their say-nothing lad-rock that’s totally devoid of wit and inspiration. Quiet Night In is the kind of lumpen, stadium-rock “anthem” that’s best suited to accompanying a sporting montage or a shopping trip to Foot Locker. 3/10
Matt Cardle – Run For Your Life
The team behind Matt Cardle must be tearing their hair out. Despite being primarily known as an X Factor winner, he seems to be intent on marketing himself as a serious, credible artist. This approach is likely to lead him nowhere, as he’ll fall between the cracks – too mainstream for indie and too indie for the mainstream. Run For Your Life is a typical power ballad: heartfelt first verse, epic chorus, second verse as before but with drums, and so on. It’s difficult to know who’d listen to this sorry exercise – the world’s already got one James Morrison and this isn’t the kind of thing the public tend to enjoy from their talent show winners, especially male ones. Hey, I’ve just noticed this single release coincides with the return of the X Factor live shows on Saturday nights. Now, there’s a coincidence. 1/10
Gym Class Heroes – Stereo Hearts (featuring Adam Levine)
In his famous experiment, Ivan Pavlov caused a dog to create an unconscious relationship between ringing a bell and food, so that the dog would salivate whenever a bell was rung, regardless of whether there was food available. I have been classically conditioned to create a similar link between the voice of Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and imagining going on a murderous rage armed with an axe (I only said “imagining” – fret not). You don’t expect much from a man who thinks having “moves like Jagger” is somehow a good thing andStereo Hearts doesn’t (or does, depending on how you look at it) disappoint. Gym Class Heroes do their pathetic, b-boy rapping over the top and the whole thing sounds like a pretty convincing argument against the entire concept of music. 0/10
Kate Bush – Wild Man
Will I get lynched if I say I don’t think this is particularly good? It has its moments of intrigue, like any Kate Bush song, but the overall feeling is that the unexpected twists and turns are papering over the cracks where a song should be. The verses have Eastern inflections and half-whispered vocals before giving way to a soaring chorus. Clearly it’s a good thing that someone who has been releasing music (albeit sporadically) for so long is still prepared to take risks and refuse to rest on their laurels, but this track just isn’t quite there. The music world could do with more people like Kate Bush, but fewer songs like Wild Man5/10

The Stepkids

The Stepkids - The Stepkids
released 26 September 2011 on Stones Throw

So much music has been made over the past half-century or so that it’s impossible to create anything that is truly new in every sense. But at what point does an artist go from being “heavily influenced” by certain bands or movements and become just a glorified covers act? Originality and authenticity are grossly over-valued qualities in pop, but in recent years, both Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Eli “Paperboy” Reed have risen to prominence closely aping their favoured musical styles. This doesn’t make their albums any less enjoyable, but it’s hard not to suspect that their legacy won’t be a far-reaching one.

The Stepkids are a trio of Connecticut session musicians whose debut record is so indebted to the sound of '70s psych and West Coast harmonies it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn they’d been beamed here in a time machine from that very decade. Its rich seam of influences makes ‘The Stepkids’ intermittently sublime listening, but it can also be a frustrating experience.

After a haunting, chanted intro, the album explodes in a riot of funk bassline, wah-wah guitar and falsetto vocals called 'Brain Ninja'. The kaleidoscopic spectrum of sound recalls Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, and the whole track has a fuggy, hallucinogenic feel to it (potential baseless claim alert: illegal substances may well have been imbibed during the creation of this record). The main reference point, however, is New York sunshine pop group, The Free Design. In fact,The Stepkids sounds as if it could be a great “lost” Free Design album from the mid-70s.

Tracks alternate between loose, free and lazy, and uptempo, swaggering funk. 'Suburban Dream' buries its shimmering keys and organ stabs beneath swathes of reverb to an extent you can almost hear the velvet jackets and wide lapels. 'Shadows On Behalf' is comfortably the album highlight, making use of the focus other hazier tracks lack with soaring flute, gorgeous backing vocals and an addictive chorus. It’s also probably the first track in around 35 years to mention people dancing “to the boogaloo.”

Sadly, The Stepkids meanders a little too often, meaning it can often feel longer than it actually is. Nowhere is this better encapsulated than in 'La La' which – despite possessing a chorus whose melody could melt the stoniest of hearts – manages to sound messy, unfinished and in desperate need of a proper climax. Other songs suffer the same fate – 'Wonder Fox' drips with effortless cool, yet still somehow sounds oddly non-descript, while shades of classic Motown can’t save 'Legend In My Own Mind' from being altogether dull.

Ultimately, The Stepkids’ blatant pilfering wouldn’t be so jarring if they’d done something more worthwhile with their ill-gotten gains. As it is though, the listener leaves this record wanting to crate dig in a second-hand shop, hoping to find examples of this kind of thing being done a whole lot better. The Stepkids isn’t a particularly bad record, but why eat at McDonald’s when there’s fillet steak available?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


I don't really do tips for the top. The world of music moves so fast that even someone like me who listens to a great deal of new releases can't really keep up. With the Hype Machine, Soundcloud and myriad specialist blogs, there's actually more new music than there is time to listen to it.

That's why it can be particularly gratifying when you discover someone completely by chance, then later learn they're supposedly "the next big thing," which is what happened to me with Kreayshawn. Here's her new track, Gucci Gucci (NSFW due to some fruity language).

I didn't know much about Kreayshawn until this week when I read an interview with her in The Guardian. It seems she's tipped for the top, attracts her fair share of "haters" (to whom she responded by saying they were simply "jealous of her swag") and has had the obligatory naked photos leaked. It also looks as if she's stoked the ire of other rappers, particularly Rick Ross (aside: as someone who grew up in a household where late 80s AOR was played often, I find the idea of a gangsta rapper named Rick Ross consistently HILARIOUS).

I've been going through a "pop-iphany" for quite some time now, and records that are instant and disposable are extremely appealing. Gucci Gucci is brash, catchy and - as you can see above - has the most ridiculously earnest hipster in the video. It contains some genuinely funny lines too, she talks of "Barbies" who work at "Arbie's", being addressed as "your majesty" and how she's "got the swag and it's pumping out my ovaries." Yes, it seems like every other MC in 2011, Kreayshawn is preoccupied with the notion of "swag". Well, aren't we all?

There's a touch of novelty about it, and it's gathering enough attention that already it seems a follow-up will be less well received. Kreayshawn could well be a one-hit wonder and consigned to the bargain bin with the likes of Princess Superstar and J-Kwon. For now though, Kreayshawn is "young, rich and flashy," and Gucci Gucci is an addictive track that could be the start of something big.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Singles Bar - 03/10/11

It’s heartening to see that the influence of No Ripcord, and in particular, The Singles Bar, spreads far and wide. The week after Nicola Roberts’ Lucky Day was made single of the week, the track went into the charts with a bullet at number 40. In the same week, Dappy’s No Regrets was rubbished, and that only went into the charts at number… er… 1.
In a further attempt to be increasingly influential in the music business, here’s the low-down on this week’s tracks.
Delilah – Go
Acts like Chase & Status, Nero and Pendulum have done much to smooth down the rough edges of drum & bass and make it more chart-friendly. Delilah, who featured on a Chase & Status track earlier this year, is attempting the same trick with Go, but apparently forgets to put any beats down until the track is about 75% finished. As a result, Go sounds like it’s forever building to a climax that never comes. This means we get more of Delilah’s irritating voice, which is annoyingly breathy, and contains lots of the melisma and emoting that X Factor contestants seem to think equal good singing. Go also samples a large chunk of melody and lyrics from Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody, which doesn’t add anything in particular, despite Delilah’s assertions in a recent interview that Chaka Khan thinks the track is “genius.” In a way, I’m glad this track isn’t up to much, because it allows me to trot out an obvious and atrocious pun… *clears throat* Why, why, why, Delilah? 4/10
Clock Opera – Lesson No. 7
If Delilah is wondering, this is how you build a track properly. For the first 90 seconds, Lesson No. 7 is the kind of insubstantial indie rock you’ve heard a thousand times before, but then the drums pulsate, guitars clang and keyboard stabs fill the air with electricity. It all comes to a head in the final minute, with frantic ascending riffs and siren-like squeals. It brings to mind a heady time when it really seemed like Hope Of The States would be the saviours of British music and rock had a bit of intelligence and substance behind it. As for comparisons with today, imagine Foals decided to stop being so intricate and went loco with some effects pedals. 7/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK
Cradle Of Filth – Lilith Immaculate
There’s no danger of this track taking too long to get going. I was sad to discover it doesn’t appear to be a tender paean to the purity and intellectual prowess of Frasier Crane’s ex-wife (or perhaps it is, and I wasn’t listening carefully enough). This is everything you’d expect from a Cradle Of Filth track – frighteningly quick bass drums, layers and layers of guitar, strings, outrageous melodrama and a worrying lack of self-awareness. Does this mean it’s any good? Of course not, it’s unlistenable claptrap. Cradle Of Filth have been making this music for two decades and nine albums; their lead singer, Dani Filth, is 38 – aren’t people supposed to grow out of this preposterous pantomime some time in their teens? In summary: not as good as Beyoncé1/10
Givers – Meantime
The trouble with a crowded marketplace is that it’s very difficult to stand out. On Meantime, Givers attempt to get noticed by wearing their “kookiness” on their sleeves and employing time changes liberally throughout the track. The overall effect is the same as an Architecture In Helsinki record, in that it’s difficult to warm to, and every time you settle into enjoyment of any kind, you’re completely uprooted. The advantage of this, of course, is that if you don’t like a certain section, don’t worry, there’ll be another one along in a minute. All this serves to make Meantime a confusing listen, with no central spine from which to build the hooks, which is a shame as it’s sublime in parts. There are shades of Best Coast, sunshine pop and even calypso. It doesn’t stop it being a largely unfathomable mess though. 5/10
Marina And The Diamonds – Radioactive
Although her debut LP, The Family Jewels, could probably be described as patchy at best, the return of Marina Diamandis – aka Marina And The Diamonds – is certainly welcome. There’ll always be room in pop music for outspoken, idiosyncratic stars. Radioactive is quite a departure from her previous work though; rather than the bolshy, take-no-prisoners style of before, this is more of a David Guetta-influenced straight-up dance record. Sadly, this means Marina’s lost some of the edge that made her special in the first place, and this is a rather tame comeback with a poor metaphor about love being, you’ve guessed it, radioactive. One listen to this, and you’ll be yearning to put Hollywood or Oh No! on instead. 4/10
Imelda May – Road Runner
I was hoping this would be a cover of the Jonathan Richman track or, better yet, the Junior Walker And The All Stars one. Sadly, it was not to be. Road Runner is a throwback to the 1950s rock n’ roll style, and seems bizarre and anachronistic in this day and age. It trundles along perfectly adequately without ever really going anywhere, leaving you wondering what is this music actually for. There’s nothing wrong with singers wearing their influences brazenly on their sleeve, but when you’re making inferior versions of half-century old songs, something’s up. Presumably there’s a market for this sort of thing, which goes to prove once and all for all that the older I get, the less I know about the world. 2/10
LMFAO – Sexy And I Know It
Does anybody else read this title and immediately suffix it with, “clap your hands”? Anyway, as irritating and it was (and still is), there’s something indefinably catchy about LMFAO’s monster hit, Party Rock Anthem. It was always tempting to write them off as one-hit wonders who hit lucky, and Sexy And I Know Itisn’t going to do anything to change that. It’s a repetitive, dull, bone-headed track, devoid of imagination, wit and charm, which informs the listener that, “I got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it / I’m sexy and I know it.” The kind of lowest denominator rubbish that, in a just society, would see its “creators” shipped off to a desert island with only the back catalogue of Alvin & The Chipmunks for company. 0/10
Evanescence – What You Want
If Evanescence truly were offering what I want, then they’d not have bothered making a comeback. Evanescence’s formula has not advanced one iota since they became inexplicably popular eight years ago with Bring Me To Life. In fact, What You Want sounds very similar to Bring Me To Life – crunching riffs, words being belted out with all the subtlety and guile of antique farmyard machinery, dramatic strings and a simple piano riff over the top. Life-sapping stuff; it makes you wonder why we bother really. 1/10