Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Singles Bar: 05/03/12

Now we’re into the third month of the year, the biggest festivals are starting to reveal their line-ups. With no Glastonbury in 2012, there’s a chance for an act at one of the smaller events to make a late surge and soundtrack the summer. To do that, you need a good build-up, and perhaps by releasing a top quality single, you’ll win No Ripcord’s Single Of The Week award, and all your dreams will come true. Let’s see who’s aiming for the summit this week.

Turnpike Glow – 1986

We begin the first Singles Bar of the month with Anglo-Italians Turnpike Glow. Instantly, the keyboard riff brings MGMT to mind, particularly Kids, but from that point on it’s enjoyable, punchy indiepop with elements of shoegaze fuzz. Reportedly inspired by a Guardian headline, 1986 is a slick track that has the hooks of a band far more renowned and established. Turnpike Glow may not be tearing up the rule book, but who cares when the sugar-coated melodies are this strong and addictive? On the production side, it’s a bit too lo-fi for its own good at times, but that’s the only thing from stopping 1986 being a bona fide power-pop classic. Turnpike Glow are most certainly a band to watch. 8/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Dot Rotten – Are You Not Entertained?

It’s a joke that could get old fairly quick but, for the time being, I still find it pretty funny that an MC has named himself Dot Rotten. It’s a fairly aggressive lyrical attack that sounds like a turbo-charged, UK grime version of Mos Def’s Oh No. There’s a real edge to Are You Not Entertained? but Dot Rotten seems to have found the perfect meeting point between hard grime and chart-friendly pop and, as a result, the track manages to remain exciting while appealing to a wide audience. The buzzing bass propels things along and as Dot (or should that be Mr. Rotten?) half-sings the chorus, it’s difficult not to get swept along by the whole shebang. If someone like Labrinth can be hugely successful in the UK (though he is signed to Syco, admittedly), there’s no reason Dot Rotten can’t reap similar rewards. 8/10

Enter Shikari – Arguing With Thermometers

I was on the verge of pronouncing Arguing With Thermometers the most ridiculous song title of all-time, until I noticed there’s another track on the Enter Shikari album called Gandhi Mate, Gandhi. Arguing With Thermometers is a bizarre song, starting out as screaming hardcore before morphing into bouncy Latin-inspired rock and then a dubstep-influenced spoken word piece. If this all sounds like a complete mess, that’s because it is. It’s the Lostprophets meets Funeral For A Friend meets Hadouken! mash-up that the world didn’t really need. There are flashes of melody and a tune, but they seem accidental really. Overall, Arguing With Thermometers is messier than an Eton Mess that’s been dropped on a messy floor and then been trodden on by Lionel Messi. 3/10

Jakwob – Electrify

Fans of nominative determinism are sure to love Jakwob, as it appears to be the noise that’s synonymous with dubstep (go on, say it, “ja-KWWWWOOOOOOOOOBBBBBBBBBB!”). Actually, although there are dubstep elements to Electrify, it owes far more of a debt to the dance sound of the early 90s, particularly breakbeat and rave. It’s a fairly non-specific kind of track that doesn’t push the kind of extremes needed to make it anthemic, affecting or particularly memorable. It’s a 21st Century reading of an older sound, but if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing, you wouldn’t listen to Jakwob. No, you’d dig out your Baby D and Livin’ Joy records and have a whale of a time with those instead. 4/10

Black Stone Cherry – In My Blood

Oh, please no. It appears Black Stone Cherry are the kind of over-earnest, country-based rock that does well in America but, thankfully, rarely troubles the UK. Yes, Americans, in our wondrous land of plenty, hardly anyone’s even heard of Creed, and Lady Antebellum can barely get arrested. That said, the dull Southern rock of Black Stone Cherry did apparently reach the UK Top 20 album charts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so smug. This is still the first I’ve heard of them though and, hopefully, the last too. It’s a bit Nickleback, a bit Kid Rock, a bit Kings of Leon and is the kind of derivative, say-nothing music that can sap the life out of you at a rate of knots. Thanks, but no thanks. 1/10

Deaf Havana – Leeches

Quick check – are we still in 2012? I’m only asking because for Enter Shikari, Black Stone Cherry and now Deaf Havana, it’s like the last decade or so never happened. I never thought I’d be saying a track sounded like Funeral For A Friend twice in one week but here we are again. However, on the positive side, Deaf Havana clearly have a way with a tune that made some of FFAF’s earlier stuff genuinely great listening. I’m sure those cheeky ruffians with silly fringes and flesh tunnels you see hanging around precincts will lap this stuff up and fair play to them – there’s a professional quality to Leeches it’s hard to deny. Also, Deaf Havana are from King’s Lynn and, having been there, anybody who can make something of themselves coming from somewhere like that deserves a pat on the back. 6/10

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Look Around

After the success (you’re right, I do have an odd way of defining success) of Florence + The Machine bingo a few weeks back, I’ve developed a Red Hot Chili Peppers version, so dobbers at the ready, everyone. Reasonably high-pitched, wah-wah style guitar accompaniment? Check. Needlessly complicated funk bassline? Check. Nonsense, semi-rapped vocals? Check. House? No, not quite because, surprisingly, there is not a single mention of the state of California in Look Around. Sorry, better luck next time. As for what it sounds like, well, you’ve heard a Red Hot Chili Peppers song before, right? It sounds like a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. There’s a bit more substance to this one than most though; it somehow burrows into your subconscious and sits there poking the bit of your brain that responds to musical stimuli. Yes, despite being opposed to all the elements of this track, I somehow quite like it. 6/10

Marcus Collins – Seven Nation Army

Somewhere in the world, there’s a person who thought, “You know what? That Joss Stone faux-soul cover of Fell In Love With A Girl worked really well. Her career’s gone from strength to strength, she’s a permanent fixture on end-of-year best-of lists. No-one at all think she’s a complete laughing stock. Let’s repeat this sure-fire trick to critical and commercial success.” Pity that person, because it’s probably not mathematically possible to be more wrong. Former X Factor contestant Collins has wrung all the good things out of the White Stripes’ original, replaced it with an oddly staccato rendition of the signature riff, borrowed Mark Ronson’s horn section and warbled all over it. Even if you didn’t like this song in the first place, you’d be hard pressed to argue this hasn’t made it worse in every conceivable way. Awful, awful stuff – I’d rather listen to a song by Justin Lee Collins than this. 0/10

Estelle – Thank You

Although according to music industry insiders (i.e. Wikipedia), Estelle’s been steadily releasing material for the past few years, she hasn’t really been on the radar since 2008’s fantastic, Kanye West-featuring American Boy. Thank You is a smooth, soulful ballad that’s a world away from the hip-hop MC we’ve seen in the past. However, it seems Estelle is that rarest of things – someone who can both rap and sing with considerable skill. Thank You isn’t the most dynamic or exhilarating of songs, but Estelle manages to place real emotion and depth into the vocals without feeling the need to resort to talent show histrionics. There’s the odd touch of autotune, which sadly dehumanises the track in parts, but overall, Estelle has shown real star quality to transform something merely average into something great. 7/10

Loverush UK! feat. Bryan Adams – Tonight In Babylon

Presumably, Loverush UK! (no, me neither) saw the success Chicane had when they teamed up with the Canadian AOR-peddler and thought they’d get in on the action (over a decade too late). The effect is largely the same: a forgettable Euro-trance song with the familiar blues-inflected vocal stylings of Bryan Adams over the top. They make for incongruous bedfellows and – Chicane precedent aside – it’s difficult to see why these artists have paired up. This might well sound “well amazing” when you’re “pilled up” in an Ibiza club but it’s March, it’s cold and dark outside, and this kind of music tends to bring me out in hives. So, while Adams might be spending, “to-naaaaat in Baaaabylowwwwwwwn”, I’m going to bid you adieu, eat my dinner and hopefully never be subjected to this song again. 1/10

The Singles Bar - 27/02/12

What with the Brits and the Oscars, it’s been a busy week in the world of entertainment. Therefore, it’s refreshing to get back to normality and what better way than with your weekly dose of ten new tracks at The Singles Bar?

On the 27th February 2012, these are the platters that matter.

The Magnetic Fields – Andrew In Drag

A welcome return for The Magnetic Fields and the exact kind of song title you’d expect. There’s a lo-fi, almost cheap feel to the verses, but when the chorus breaks and the harmonies hit you, it’s a thing of wonder. Lyrically, it’s a fruity number that does exactly what you’d think with a title like Andrew In Drag (“stick him in a dress and he’s the only boy I’d shag”). It doesn’t outstay its welcome either, clocking in at a little over two minutes. Basically, if you don’t like The Magnetic Fields, this won’t change your mind and if you do, it’s another classic. I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp, and Andrew In Drag is one of the best things Stephen Merritt’s come up with in the last decade or so. 8/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Ladyhawke – Black White & Blue

It must be welcome return week here at The Singles Bar. Four(!) years after her under-appreciated debut album, the woman known to her parents as Phillipa Brown is back on the scene. Her mixture of 80s-inspired electropop and new wave was very à la mode back in 2008, and you can’t help but wonder whether her comeback will be entirely triumphant. Most of the hallmarks of her sound are still there on Black White & Blue, but it’s just a little devoid of inspiration. The chorus doesn’t hook you in quite as much as it should, and Ladyhawke attempts to hide its deficiencies by bursts of scuzzy guitar, which are a bit too brash to go with the rest of the arrangement. She hasn’t lost what made her first record such a joy, but this isn’t quite Ladyhawke firing on all cylinders. 6/10

The Drums – Days

After being hotly-tipped, it’s never quite taken off for The Drums. Maybe the world realised that the music didn’t quite match the hype. Whatever the reason, they’re still ploughing on, and Days is a bass-driven, understated melodious track that’s near impossible to dislike. It’s an exceptionally simple arrangement that barely gets out of second gear, but when you’ve got a song this strong, there’s no need to throw the kitchen sink at it. It’s a tale of defiance (“days go by and I never needed you”) that doesn’t quite match the laid-back tone of the accompaniment, but the song is none the worse for it. One-note riffs and warm bass carry Days through to its conclusion and while it’s not going to set the world alight, it’s never anything less than lovely. 7/10

Niki & The Dove – DJ Ease My Mind

Following last year’s The Drummer EP (which won Single of the Week at the time, no less), Niki & The Dove are now full of bombastic drums and melodramatic vocals. There’s a pounding feel to DJ Ease My Mind, helped in no small part by the snatches of dubstep wobble that sneak in around the edges. It’s dark and atmospheric, and Niki prowls the track like a panther, panting heavily before pouncing on a phrase and sinking her teeth into it. It’s another brilliant track from one of the most inventive and exciting pop acts of the current scene and although it’s probably missing a little something to flesh out some parts of the song, it stands up well to repeat listens. 8/10

Ed Sheeran – Drunk

And it was all going so well too. Four promising tracks followed up by the Brit Award-winning pioneer of The New Boring. Unlike his biggest hits, The A Team and Lego House, Drunk isn’t an acoustic ballad but more of a mid-tempo plodder. Sheeran croons his way through a building verse, but just when it seems like the big chorus is going to come in, the whole thing falls away and we’re just left with sparse beats. There’s something which is bit like rapping, but it’s tuneful enough that we’re not subjected to the wince-inducingly bad Sheeran “flow”. He also manages not to fall into the lyrical pitfalls that blight his other work too (“on cold days the cold plays like the band’s name” aside). It’s dull, of course, but it’s also nowhere near as offensively bad as his other singles and is comfortably the best thing he’s released to radio. A note of caution though; Ed Sheeran has been tipped for big things in the USA over the course of 2012. America, don’t say we didn’t warn you. 3/10

Alt-J – Matilda

Recent No Ripcord interviewees Alt-J are an interesting proposition. They’re named after a Mac shortcut (which I won’t demonstrate, as I’m writing on a PC) and their songs are intricate, tightly crafted affairs. Matilda is no different; the acoustic guitar lines and wire-brushed drums weave in and around the main melody line. The vocals are a little, idiosyncratic, shall we say? It’s a rich voice where the syllables tend to crash into one another and could take a little getting used to. Alt-J are making waves and, as predicted by us here at NR, could well do big things in 2012. They ought to have a word with Spotify though; at the time of writing the track cuts out about two minutes and 45 seconds, halfway through the word, “Matilda.” Techy gremlins at work or the most unlikely ending to a track I’ve ever heard. 7/10

Chiddy Bang – Ray Charles

The latest track from young Chidwell (I think it’s fair to assume that’s his full first name) is all about the legendary bluesman. However, as pointed out by many people, every time the name is mentioned it sounds a lot more like Craig Charles – DJ, soap actor and television personality – which makes it many times more hilarious. Comparing yourself to such a huge musical figure (Ray, not Craig) is always a dangerous game, and Chidwell doesn’t do himself any favours with some questionable vision-related lyrics (“I make the music with the soul of the blind man”; “You’re too blind to see it”). Musically it’s actually pretty good fun, and there’s more than a touch of Charles (again, Ray, not Craig) in the piano arrangement as well as hallmarks of old blues and Stax records. However, it’s all let down by Mr. Bang (ok, ok, it's a duo, not one person, I know), and what could have been a great homage comes across flat. 5/10

Dappy feat. Brian May – Rockstar

Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela? How about Einstein and Newton? No, the real double act the world has always wanted to see have finally come together: stupid-hat wearing, ersatz gangsta Dappy from N-Dubz and perma-permed, guitar-mangler Brian May. This appalling track starts with the words, “they say that I’m dangerous”, when the only danger Dappy’s really capable of causing is if the dangly bits of his daft headgear were to get caught in an escalator. Musically, it’s Pro-Tooled, autotuned R&B that sounds just like his previous musical abomination, No Regrets. Rockstar tells about – yawn – how complicated fame can be and how Dappy’s dealing with it like a real rockstar while still staying true to himself. There’s also a bizarre, two-second silent “tribute” to Amy Winehouse, presumably included to… no, I’ve no idea why it’s there. In case you’re wondering where May is in all this tomfoolery, he turns up thirty seconds from the end to play a completely unnecessary squealing guitar solo with his regulation sixpence. An absolutely sorry exercise; everybody involved in this should take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror… and then punch themselves in the face. 0/10

Icona Pop – Top Rated

The latest single from Icona Pop starts with none-more-80s synth riffs and is fairly restrained until the chorus, at which point the vocals seem to double in volume and the buttons marked “brash” and “epic” are firmly pressed. However, the start of verse two removes any momentum the track had gathered, starting once again from barely any instrumentation. That synth riff that starts the track is a winner and it crops up at various points throughout the song, but it’s not so good it can carry Top Rated all by itself which is what it’s required to do at various points. It actually sounds quite a lot like an inferior version of the Niki & The Dove track above, and doesn’t hit the heights of last year’s Nights Like This. 5/10

Graham Coxon – What’ll It Take

Fresh from backing an atonal, yelping Damon at last week’s Brits ceremony, Graham returns with his first single release in almost three years. As with all his work, it’s not too flashy and it’s sung in his own, inimitable way. The verse simply repeats, “What’ll it take to make you people dance?” multiple times, almost as if it’s a threat. There’s scuzzy guitar, looping electro arpeggios, flashes of feedback and a chugging rhythm that underpins the whole thing. What’ll It Take is incredibly repetitive and blunt, but as with much of Coxon’s solo work, there’s an infectious enthusiasm about the whole thing that wins you over and makes you root for this underdog. It can’t match his best work circa Happiness In Magazines, but it’s certainly a damn sight more enjoyable to listen to than what he was involved in less than seven days ago. 7/10

Mr. M

Lambchop - Mr. M
released 20 February 2012 on City Slang

Lambchop have now been a going concern for quarter of a century. Therefore, it would seem ridiculous that they’d find themselves in the position of having to follow up a career-best album. Yet, here we are. Four years after releasing OH (Ohio), a record where Nashville’s finest perfected their timeless blend of whiskey-drenched alt. country, smoky bar-room jazz and plaintive, delicate soul, Lambchop return with Mr. M, and it’s business as usual.

Mr. M does not represent a step forward for Lambchop. In fact, if anything, it’s a step backwards. Whereas OH (Ohio) had shifts in dynamic, mood and tempo (albeit subtle ones), Mr. M seems content to tread water in chugging, medium tempos.

However, this does not mean Mr. M is a bad record. Since taking steps away from traditional country tropes (a trend they continue here), they’ve become a band who do “gorgeous” better than probably anybody else. Sumptuous strings swoop and soar, Kurt Wagner’s brittle voice cracks yet never strains, drums are lightly brushed, and the supporting cast of pianos and guitars are used sparingly and to great effect.

There’s little to report as far as individual tracks go. Even if it can sometimes veer towards what lazy people like to term “coffee table music”, Mr. M works better as a whole when setting and maintaining a mood. Actually, the main surprises can be found in the opening ten minutes of the record: the fifth word of the entire album is “fuck”, which can’t help but sound incongruous, and the odd, slightly-delayed double-tracking of vocals in 2B2 is disorienting and awkward. After that, Lambchop are your comforting pilots on a ride that’s anything but bumpy.

The main issue with Mr. M is that, while it’s beautiful on the surface, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and the best part of an hour of careful introspection with little to sink your teeth into is likely to test even the most patient. Tracks with female vocals in the mix, like the flute-adorned, album highlight Gar, offer an extra dimension, but it’s largely non-descript.

This adds to the feeling that Mr. M is an album made entirely of album tracks. There’s no National Talk Like A Pirate Day, no Up With People, nothing to snap you out of the pleasant somnambulant reverie Lambchop have created. A couple of hooks or catchy melodies, a little jeopardy, the kind of emotion that led to the guitar attack before the chorus of Radiohead’s Creep could transform this record. As it is, Lambchop are staid in their musical dotage, and presumably there’s no incentive for them to rip up the rule book and set their phasers to “avant-garde”.

That’s not to say Lambchop need to make an experimental record to be relevant again; criticising Mr. M for not being Trout Mask Replica is like saying you don’t like tennis because you prefer the taste of ice cream. However, the relative disappointment of Mr. M does suggest that Lambchop have become a little too comfortable. Hopefully the future does bring brighter things, otherwise we could be witnessing the beginning of the end for one of the most consistent and under-valued bands of the past two decades.