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?