Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Singles Bar: 25/06/12

Well, boys and girls, it’s finally happened. The British population have experienced the inevitable, and Justin Bieber has his first ever #1 album in the UK. As we know, this is one of the signs of the inevitable apocalypse, so why not enjoy the impending cavalcade of natural disasters by reading this week’s Singles Bar?

Chris Brown – Don’t Wake Me Up

If I’m ever captured and held behind enemy lines, the baddies could probably glean any information they wished from me by subjecting me to repeated plays of Chris Brown records (apart from Run It!, which is reasonably listenable). I’m not entirely sure what useful information I’d have though, and such torture wouldn’t be necessary; I’d sell my No Ripcord password for a drumstick lolly and a shiny sixpence (Note to editors: I wouldn’t really). Anyway, Don’t Wake Me Up starts as a mid-tempo, Bruno Mars-alike ballad, before turning into the kind of Ibiza-friendly dance-pop that gave Brown such a mega-hit with Yeah 3x, except with more grating deployment of autotune. There’s less originality on show here than on an average night’s programming from UK Gold, and rarely will three minutes and 42 seconds have seemed so long. The most complimentary thing I can say about this track is that it’s not his worst ever song, but it doesn’t get any better than that. 0/10

Casiokids – Dresinen

Seeing as I was born in nineteen-eightysomething, I’ve got a pretty good claim to being a Casio kid. I certainly came up with some pretty righteous compositions in my high school music class on those bad boys. How they’ve not become underground blogosphere hits is beyond me. While it’s unclear whether Dresinen is actually being performed on a Casio or not, there’s certainly a plasticky, chintzy quality to some of the riffs and melody lines, which actually suits the jaunty feel of the track quite well. Like Singles Bar favourites Katzenjammer, Casiokids are also a Norwegian group, and they share something of their fellow countrymen’s way with a hook and a fondness for all things twee. It’s a catchy number with lyrics about… well, I don’t know because the lyrics aren’t in English. 7/10

Animal Collective – Honeycomb

Sometimes you feel like you’re ploughing a lonely furrow and the whole world is against you. That’s how I felt when Merriweather Post Pavilion came out in early 2009, because while pretty much everybody – especially the online music press – fell head-over-heels for its psychedelic charms, I thought it was unlistenable claptrap. Honeycomb may well be more style over substance, but at least it’s pretty interesting. It’s a quirky, upbeat track with massively distorted drums, Eastern-sounding squelches and blips, and a hypnotic, repeated vocal line. The verse and chorus appear to be in different keys altogether, yet somehow the whole thing hangs together and works. Repeated listens could potentially make Honeycomb sound gimmicky and irritating, but there’s something oddly thrilling about the chaotic, thrown-together nature of the track. Word of advice though: don’t listen to the B-side, Gotham. It’s even less enjoyable to the ears than the sound of someone repeatedly clicking their pen. 8/10

Benga feat. Bebe Black – Icon

Before we get started, if you haven’t seen the video for Benga’s last single, I Will Never Change, you simply have to go and watch it RIGHT NOW because it’s one of the cleverest and most original promos you will see this year. The little I know of dubstep producer Benga suggests that he’s much better when he keeps it raw and frenetic rather than when he aims for the mainstream, often with a guest vocalist, and loses a little bit of edge. Sadly, Icon falls into the latter category, and while this is an entirely passable slice of radio-friendly crossover dubstep-pop, there’s really something lacking about it. The whole way through, the track is screaming out for a huge bass drop, a regulation dubstep wobble, or just something to give it a much-needed boot up the derriere. It seems a lot of dubstep producers on the cusp of a breakthrough are caught in two minds, and Benga is simply following where many have before him. Not his best work. 4/10

Justice – New Lands

One of the most fun things about French dance act Justice is saying their name out loud. Go on; do it. It’s not, “juss-tiss”, it’s “juss-steess”, which is much more pleasing to roll around the tongue. Now, this may just be me, but the beginning of New Lands sounds an awful lot like an electro version of Don’t Stop Believing… or perhaps the song the Jack Black-led student group take to Battle of the Bands in School Of Rock. Justice have clearly been taking inspiration from fellow Gallic twosome Daft Punk, because the guitar solo in this track is pure Digital Love. Also, New Lands takes its fondness for 80s AOR beyond belief. There are shades of hair metal, synthesised pop, and soft-rock groups like Cutting Crew. It’s difficult to think of a song that could be more out-of-step with what’s trendy in 2012 (especially having just listened to Benga). The longer the song goes on, the more you realise what an audacious move this is and, ultimately, against all the odds, it actually works. 7/10

Dan Le Sac feat. Sarah Williams White – Play Along

Dan Le Sac, as well as being one of the worst stage names of recent years, is also the non-vocal half of socially-conscious Brit hip-hoppers Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip. The two of them have been releasing material away from their partnership throughout their recording career, and presumably this is Le Sac’s outlet for breaking away from his more hectoring bandmate and making the kind of beats he wants. While Play Along starts promisingly enough, it ends up sounding like a sterilised version of a Le Sac vs. Pip song, and is largely forgettable. Unfortunately for Dan Le Sac, it looks like he hasn’t quite pulled it out of the bag. Do you get it? Pulled it out of the bag! You see, because he’s called Dan Le Sac and… ah, forget it. “Just-steess” would’ve loved that joke. 4/10

Macy Gray  - Sail

Music’s answer to a drunk Marge Simpson keeps on plugging away, seemingly forever destined to live in the shadow of her hugely successful On How Life Is album (which was thirteen years ago… THIRTEEN!). Sail hasn’t got much of a chorus (it’s just the word, “sail”, repeated a few times) but it’s got a decent arrangement; haunting, distant strings in the verse make way for crashing cymbals, a plaintive, repeated piano note and epic strings. Gray’s voice is instantly distinctive, but she seems stuck making the kind of nu-soul that was briefly popular around the turn of the century. There’s an encouraging turn of pace before the last chorus with some hip-hop beats, but they’re swiftly dispatched from whence they came and we’re back on rather safer, more innocuous ground. Sail has its moments, but it’s not going to change the fortunes of Macy Gray. 5/10

R. Kelly – Share My Love

Today sees the release of Kelly’s umpteenth studio album, Write Me Back, but like most right-thinking people, unless he’s doing an update to his peerless hip-hopera, Trapped In The Closet, it’s going to be hard to pique my interest. Maybe it’s a sign of his advancing years, but R. Kelly seems to have ditched his sexually-charged R&B and moved towards the music which inspired him in the first place. That means funk, soul, the sounds of Philadelphia and, on Share My Love, 1970s disco. Consider my interest piqued. The result is… well, I’m lost for words – it’s utterly fantastic. It’s such a well-produced and faithful adaptation of the classic disco sound that I was certain that it had to be a cover version of a popular hit. It isn’t though, it’s an R. Kelly original, and it sounds like a cross between McFadden and Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now and Hall & Oates. This track will likely get no airplay or attention, it will sell next to nothing and your parents would probably love it if they heard it, but that’s not the point. Somehow, out of nowhere, R. Kelly has made one of the most catchy, uplifting and downright wonderful songs of recent times. I definitely didn’t see that one coming. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Taio Cruz – There She Goes

While we’re talking cover versions, or more accurately, not cover versions, I pressed Play on this in the vain hope that British R&B poppet Taio Cruz had inexplicably decided to take on The La’s paean to “the brown”. It’s not the case (unlike, hilariously, simpering Christian “rock” band Sixpence None The Richer, who missed the point entirely), but it’s certainly got some bizarre lyrics. Apparently, the object of Mr Cruz’s affections has a “body shaped like a rock guitar”. Is this a good thing? Surely this means she’s got an abnormally long neck? And what’s the difference between a rock guitar and any other kind of guitar? Does he just mean an electric guitar? Musically, this is by-numbers hotties-in-the-club-I’m-in-the-VIP-lounge music that bears more than a passing resemblance to J-Lo’s On The Floor (but doesn’t sample The Lambada). I’d much rather have heard him tackling the line, “I just can’t contai-ee-ain this feeling that remai-ee-ai-ee-ains”. 1/10 feat. Eva Simons – This Is Love

Fresh from his career highlight, running the Olympic torch through the Somerset town of Taunton *turns to camera, does a “no, me neither” shrug*, is back to assault the world’s eardrums and pop charts. This Is Love has a badly bolted together verse and chorus, and vocally, Eva Simons appears to be a dead ringer for Fergie. In fact, this song is so much like various components of a number of Black Eyed Peas songs that it’s almost like a BEP megamix (I’d advise you now to pray to the deity of your choice that such a thing doesn’t exist). So, the ridiculously-dressed entrepreneur adds yet another stinker to his never-ending list, dancing around like a reject from Glee, singing about the club and telling people how to sing properly even though he’s as tone deaf as a hammer. William James Adam, Jr. is 37 years of age. 0/10

Yet more self-promotion

A piece I wrote a few months back has been kindly published by the people at feminist blog, The Vagenda, so why not have a read?

Please note that I did NOT choose the title that the article is published under... :)

Monday, 18 June 2012

Different Colours

My review of the new Marconi Union record, Different Colours, is now available on the Clash Magazine website. It actually forms the second half of a two-part review on similarly-themed albums, the first of which is Ghosting Season's The Very Last Of The Saints.

Both of those reviews, plus my thoughts on Passion, the latest album by French producer Para One, are published in the 75th edition of Clash, which has already hit the shops.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

No Love At Lovebox

Last week, like many people, I read Eve Barlow’s blog on crowd behaviour at the Download Festival, the thrust of which was her disappointment and surprise at girls being pressured into flashing their chests on the main stage’s big screen. It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind as I went to the first day of this year’s Lovebox Festival in Victoria Park, but after a few hours, that situation had certainly changed.

I tend to stand on the periphery at any live music event, and thanks to the incredibly loud and frequent bass drops on show at Lovebox (24 hours later I’ve only just recovered), I was doing my usual killjoy impersonation. However, the planets seemed to align for some reason during Madeon’s DJ set. I’m not sure why really; it wasn’t particularly better than anything else I saw that day, and, when you’re my age, there’s something a little odd about raving your face off to someone who looks young enough to be your son.

This is Madeon. No, really, it is.

However, I found myself near the front, jumping around, limbs flailing and generally having a jolly old time.
As is often the case, a selection of girls (and some boys) were spending time sitting on their friends’ shoulders. The cameras would then focus in on these totem-people, display their image on the big screen, and the person on top would realise a split second too late to wave frantically at themselves. So far, so normal.

However, around 40 minutes in, a girl on her friend’s shoulders was subject to chanting from a group of lads in front of me (I think it’s fair to call them ‘lads’ here). First came a single, repeated word, “Boobs! Boobs! Boobs!”, before they decided to embark upon a chorus of, “Get your tits out for the lads” (see, they even self-identify as ‘lads’). The fact their singing was out-of-time with the pulsating beats of Madeon was far from the worst part; this girl looked genuinely distressed by what was happening. She started by just shaking her head at them but the longer the ordeal went on, the more sheepish she became, before she eventually got down from the shoulders of her friend. After another five minutes, she was gone, and I didn’t see her in the crowd again. The boys in front of me carried on dancing regardless, unaware the girl was even upset in the first place, let alone the fact she had left.

At this point, I was feeling pretty ashamed of my whole gender, but then the ‘lads’ turned their attention to another girl-on-shoulders. However, this girl seemed delighted to be the object of such attention, and lifted her top up to cheers and hoots of approval. This wasn’t enough for these people though, as she was wearing a bikini top. The chant of, “Boobs! Boobs!”, started up again, but this girl didn’t seem too bothered by it, and just descended and carried on dancing. Again, the boys lost interest.

I was genuinely baffled by this point. It’s fair to assume that many people in the crowd – me included – had had a few drinks by this point and, of course, that can lead to a loss of inhibition. Plus, many men change their behaviour when they’re exclusively in the company of other men (I’m not immune to this, my expletive rate certainly goes up when there’s an abundance of testosterone). But it didn’t stop me being amazed that men would be so blatant in their desire to see a woman take her top off and that there were women who didn’t see this as a problem. In fact, later in the set, a woman appeared on the big screen who had written the word, “TITS”, on her chest in red paint. Unsurprisingly, this won the much-coveted seal of approval from our good friends in front of me. What ‘legends’, eh?

However, the worst was yet to come. Near the end of Madeon’s set, one of the bantersauruses broke cover to go it alone and turn his attentions to another 11 foot female. His chat-up technique was extremely efficient. No timewasting with niceties such as conversation for our protagonist, no – he simply walked up the open-shirted girl, pointed at her chest and then grabbed one of her breasts. I expected him to get slapped, or at the very least a glower from the girl in question, but no, this didn’t seem to faze her one iota. Presumably buoyed by his previous ‘success’, he then proceeded to do it again. If you’re now thinking, “well, at least he wasn’t so lust-driven that he attempted to ‘motorboat’ her”, I’ve got news for you – he did that too. Following this, she climbed down from her friend’s shoulders, approached him, and they proceeded to happily bump and grind throughout the rest of the show.

Clearly, something’s wrong with this picture. Music festivals are, sadly, not renowned for being the safest places in the world. Even the Latitude Festival, an event whose USP is effectively family-friendliness – has been the setting for a sexual assault in its relatively short history. At a festival, you’re in a big crowd and most people are inebriated in some way – mostly through alcohol but Lovebox was also awash with drugs. I’ve led a pretty sheltered existence, so I was a little flummoxed by being offered drugs on six separate occasions during the course of the day.

Obviously this kind of male behaviour is deplorable, but I think I was more shocked and disheartened by the acceptance and even encouragement from the female side that I witnessed. The fact that, to some women, suggestive remarks and even blatant groping are taken in good humour or, in the most extreme example I was part to, are regarded as a substitute to an introduction, was an eye-opener to say the least.

There are a great number of brilliant feminist blogs and writers online, and in the media-centric, liberal bubble of the little corner of the internet I – and probably you – inhabit, it’s tempting to think we’re all well-balanced people with tolerant attitudes. But, as the popularity of sites such as UniLad have showed, there’s a huge following and lots of encouragement for this kind of thing and, scarily, it looks as if people are increasingly starting to see this as part of normal society.

Saturday, 16 June 2012


This blog's been a little neglected of late. So, for a round-up, here's what I've had published on the Clash Magazine and NME websites over the last couple of weeks.



There, lovely.

The Singles Bar: 11/05/12

As the late Roy Castle of Record Breakers once said, “Dedication’s what you need”. He could well have been talking about this week’s Singles Bar column. Because while the rest of England were watching the national football team stagger their way to a creditable draw against the French in the European Championships, I spent a good portion of my evening slaving away over a hot laptop. One day I’ll get my reward, I’m sure, but in the meantime, here’s this week’s pick of the pops.

Azealia Banks – 1991

Miss Banks stokes the fire of excitement ahead of the release of her debut album yet more with the release of 1991, the title track from her EP of the same name. 1991 may be the year she was born, but it’s also the year from which this track takes most of its musical inspiration. There’s a definite nod to house, a style of music that Banks’ hometown of New York was quick to adopt, and she’s equally quick to acknowledge the influence of her birthplace in developing her sound (“NY rose me”). The cheeky, witty, foul-mouthed flow that the world fell in love with on 212 is still very much there, and her rhymes are clever as well as providing fantastic soundbites – on both 1991 and another track from the EP, Liquorice, she tells us, “I make hits, motherfucker”. Often when an artist is hyped to such a degree, all subsequent output can’t help but be a disappointment, but on the evidence of her body of work thus far, Azealia Banks could well be the most exciting and vital MC of a generation. 9/10 – JOINT SINGLE OF THE WEEK

The Murder Barn – America

There’s something rather wonderful about songs that take unexpected turns. America, the debut single from London sextet The Murder Barn, begins quite unspectacularly – just simple piano chords and a lone voice – but there’s a hint of what’s to come before the minute mark with what sounds like a distant Theremin. From then on, the track builds superbly, with layers and layers of atmospheric strings creating a landscape that’s dramatic and grandiose. The voice of frontwoman Chesca Dolecka is marvellous too, swooping and soaring as the arrangement reaches ever more dizzying heights. For a first single, America is ridiculously assured, and The Murder Barn’s ambitious orchestral pop could take them great places. 8/10

Stooshe – Black Heart

Mouthy girl-group trio Stooshe have divided opinion this year; you either found their breakthrough hit, Love Me, a much needed breath of fresh air or exceptionally irritating. It’s the kind of schtick that could easily make them a one-hit wonder, so they’re likely to be plugging Black Heart like they’re a mythical Dutch boy faced with a leaky dike. What separates Stooshe from any number of identikit girlbands is their big personalities and idiosyncrasies, and Black Heart does its best to hide them entirely. It’s a bit of an enormo-ballad, with warbling aplenty, and the only clue it’s Stooshe at all is the odd glottal stop. Black Heart is the kind of thing En Vogue at their peak wouldn’t have even recorded as a B-side, and whoever chose this for Stooshe’s second single needs to be imprisoned in a darkened room and forced to listen to the sound of polystyrene packaging being taken out of cardboard boxes for all eternity. 2/10

Cheryl – Call My Name

Celebrity raci[STOP IT – Legal Ed.] Cheryl Cole has ditched her surname for this stage of her solo career. Call My Name is a pretty infectious slice of Calvin Harris-produced Eurodance-pop, but I can’t review it quite as well as Cheekymonkey12312, who was the most recent commenter when I watched the video for this song on YouTube. Cheekymonkey12312, over to you:

“I have never come across such an inspiring women [sic] ever. I was watching the Graham Nortan [sic] show and she came across with an amazing humour. It made me instantly feel that she is caring inside and out. She is so talented and everything she does is for her soldiers. I love her because she is amazing and real and if most of you dont [sic] already know she is the nicest and most down to earth celebrity ever. I love how she is able to put her feelings into songs in an amazing way, I love her for who she is :)”

Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it? I might get Cheekymonkey12312 to review all the singles in the future. With such insightful comment and masterful command of the English language, that would surely be a treat for all of us. 4/10

Chew Lips – Do You Chew?

Cheekymonkey12312 is sadly reticent on the subject of Chew Lips’ Do You Chew?, so it looks like I may have to review this one myself. Do You Chew? has an icy, 80s electro feel but doesn’t particularly do much to bring that sound into the 21st Century. In fact, Chew Lips seem so keen on wearing their bleeding-edge influences on their sleeve, they’ve neglected to write a memorable tune or include a decent hook. It’s certainly stylish, and the kind of track you could imagine being played at an über-cool European fashion show, but it doesn’t really go anywhere and has little that’s memorable about it. Oh, and apart from that time I nearly choked to death while swallowing a jam doughnut whole (I wish I were making that story up), yes, I do chew. 3/10

Jake Bugg – Lightning Bolt

Nottingham teenager Jake Bugg seems to have come out of nowhere in the last few months, generating huge buzz wherever he goes and even bagging a national UK television appearance to boot. Bizarrely, for someone so young, his music owes an enormous debt to the sounds of the 1950s, particularly skiffle. Props to him for going against the grain, and Lightning Bolt is a pleasant enough ditty, but it’s practically a direct copy of a style that was at its most popular over half a century ago and, like Chew Lips above, he’s bringing  absolutely nothing new to the table. In a similar way to CW Stoneking, he’s resurrecting an oft-neglected genre, but it just comes across as a curious affectation and, like nearly all facsimile records, you have to wonder why anyone would listen to this when the original recordings which perfected this style are still available. Rebooting the 50s can be done, just check out Willy Moon’s thrilling collision of old-time rock n’ roll with compressed beats, but Jake Bugg’s simply living in the past. 3/10

Emeli Sandé – My Kind Of Love

Stooshe’s Black Heart sounded like a bad En Vogue song, and there’s a 90s R&B ballad feel to My Kind Of Love too. After the exciting, fractured beats that featured early in her career, Sandé has shown herself to be more traditional and vanilla than we might have expected, and My Kind Of Love is the kind of track you can imagine reality show hopefuls belting out in an attempt to “make the song their own”. It’s a post-Adele world though, so big voice ballads are likely to be a dime a dozen, and while this is hardly the worst example of the form, it’s not particularly going to get you singing into your hairbrush either. If you’d ever heard my singing or lived in close proximity to me though, you’d probably see that as a plus point. 3/10

Jay Z and Kanye West feat. Frank Ocean – No Church In The Wild

The UK has gone Jay and Kanye crazy recently, with their recent Watch The Throne shows at the O2 Arena apparently being attended by every music journalist within a fifty mile radius of London (well, not quite every music journalist…). If nothing else, this track shows what a phenomenal eighteen months or so Frank Ocean has had, going from practically unknown to guesting on a track by rap’s two biggest names. The fluid bassline to this track even sounds like it could have come from Ocean’s Nostalgia, ULTRA. mixtape, and this is arguably the best cut to have been released from the Watch The Throne album. It still never quite achieves the lift-off that it threatens to and there are signs that Jay-Z and Kanye are sussing each other out here, both too nervous to take risks and do something truly innovative for fear of being shown up by the other. Hip-hop’s biggest stars being insecure egomaniacs, eh? Expect the next major news story to concern the favoured toilet habits of ursine creatures. 6/10

Baddies – Rewire

In the video to Rewire, Baddies do something that more bands should do; they all dress the same. If it’s good enough for The Beatles, then it’s certainly good enough for any other group. It’s all gone a bit 2005 on Rewire; it’s a frenetic burst of post-punk energy with deft one-bar time signature changes here and there. It also features a great synth line and a glorious melodic hook in the chorus. It’s all exciting stuff, though the verses get a little repetitive after a while. Rewire’s parent album, Build, has been produced by Sean Genockey, who has engineered tracks for The Futureheads and Reuben in the past, and that influence certainly shows here. If rock wasn’t quite so out of fashion right now, Rewire could be knocking on the door of the Top 40, and deservedly so. 8/10

AlunaGeorge – You Know You Like It

There’s a real buzz about AlunaGeorge at the moment, the R&B duo made of members Aluna and, yep, you’ve guessed it, George. You Know You Like It is a woozy, psychedelic track which bears hallmarks of the chopped and screwed movement. Add that to the slightly cutesy, Martina Topley-Birdesque vocals, and you’ve got a song that’s as addictive and enjoyable as it is inventive and confusing. There’s springy bass and percussion that lurches from bar to bar. It’s almost as if someone’s fed a traditional R&B track though a nightmarish, trippy filter, and the end result is like Odd Future offshoot, The Internet, but leaner and with more focus. Azealia Banks has already been mentioned, but with her, AlunaGeorge, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, THEESatisfaction and more, the future looks exceptionally bright for leftfield R&B and hip-hop. Put quite simply, this song is, and I don’t say this often, “the tits”. 9/10 – JOINT SINGLE OF THE WEEK

The Singles Bar: 04/06/12

Shops, streets and pubs have been going Diamond Jubilee mad this weekend. But not here at The Singles Bar, oh no. We’ve got no bunting up, no Union Flags and no cucumber sandwiches. Instead, we’ve spent the entire festivities sitting in near darkness, listening to Generation Terrorists and ordering several copies of "The Idiot’s Guide To Starting A Republic". While we wait for those to drop through our letterbox though, we found time to cast an eye over ten new tracks available to purchase from today.

Perfume Genius – Dark Parts

A simple idea, yet one executed extremely well. Perfume Genius’ Dark Parts is built around simple, two-note piano oscillations and fragile, haunting vocals, and it’s certainly effective. The way it builds up for the first two minutes gets at your emotions and is really quite majestic. The downside, however, is that the last minute or so is pretty superfluous, and all the momentum and feeling that had been previously built up is lost. It’s a real shame, because otherwise Dark Parts would be a wonderful track, reminiscent of Regina Spektor at her best. 7/10

Gotye – Eyes Wide Open

It seems that Gotye’s plan to take over the entire world continues apace. There’s a travelling, chugging quality to Eyes Wide Open, which was actually originally released in Australia over eighteen months ago. It’s not as irritating as Somebody That I Used To Know, but that’s hardly a recommendation. On Spotify, Gotye’s filed alongside Foster The People and Fun., which seems about right; groups who are just sort of there, don’t do much, and their music doesn’t really excite yet sells in industrial quantities. This probably wouldn’t be a hit if it were by an artist without much commercial success, but since it’s the STIUTK guy, this will sell regardless. 3/10

Maximo Park – Hips And Lips

It’s difficult to believe that Maximo Park’s debut album, A Certain Trigger, was released over seven years ago. Sadly, they haven’t managed to recapture that vital, engrossing feeling since, and Hips And Lips won’t be changing that. It’s a perfectly listenable track, but doesn’t have the wit and invention you’d expect from Maximo Park, and Paul Smith’s vocals sound positively disinterested for the most part. The refrain of, “You’re a puzzle to me / And you always will be”, harks back to better days for the band but like so many before them, it seems they said all they had to say with their first record. 5/10

Marcus Collins – Mercy

Recent X Factor runner-up, Marcus Collins, follows the formula set in place by his reworking of White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. Namely, a big voice, big horns and a kind of watered-down, gutless approximation of classic soul and the Motown sound. He’s clearly singing like his life depends on it and although that’s sounds extreme, on the evidence of this track, his career might well be hanging in the balance. A bizarre arrangement and style that’s completely out of kilter with everything in modern pop and a song that someone forgot to write a chorus for. Oh dear. 2/10

Hot Chip – Night And Day

With each passing year, musical trends seem to get closer and closer to what electronic group Hot Chip have been doing for ages. The vocals of frontman Alexis Taylor may be an acquired taste, but Night And Day should be thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. It has that elusive quality that leads you to the dancefloor, an urgent twitch, and a fantastic 80s-inspired breakdown after the chorus. Due to their appearance, Hot Chip are often written off as a merely academic proposition, but Night And Day just reaffirms what’s always been the case – they’re an under-the-radar treasure capable of writing phenomenal pop songs. 9/10

DJ Fresh feat. Dizzee Rascal – The Power

It really illustrates where the UK music industry is at the moment that a drum n’ bass producer, unheralded outside of his chosen field for a dozen years, can now be releasing a new single off the back of consecutive Number Ones. The inclusion of Dizzee Rascal makes me nervous though – commercial success has turned Dizzee from an era-defining MC with grit to a party-chasing pop star. However, the fact remains that Dizzee is enormously charismatic, and his rhymes transform an otherwise average-quality dance track into something much more memorable. He’s still only concerned with having a good time, and the fear remains that he’ll soon jump the shark, but for now, both Dizzee Rascal and DJ Fresh are on top of the world. 7/10

Coldplay feat. Rihanna – Princess Of China

Looking back at previous Singles Bars, it’s been a whole week since RiRi’s been involved in a new track, so it’s high time she was featured again. From the moment it was announced she was teaming up with Coldplay, the resulting track had ‘single’ written all over it, whatever the musical result. Like much of Mylo Xyloto, Princess Of China has a more electronic, experimental edge than Coldplay’s previous work. Cheap-sounding synths pulse in Princess Of China’s verses and the vocal hook has Coldplay’s trademark earworm quality. Despite being potentially a pointless exercise, having a distinct female vocal works well in a Coldplay track, and provides a welcome contrast to the sound of Chris Martin, who’s never the most appealing of singers. Between these two, they could keep the world powered just through the rage of their legions of haters, but they certainly do what they do very well. 7/10

Usher – Scream

After the failure (or at least, by his standards) of the lurching Climax, it’s interesting to see what Usher will do next. Unfortunately, after showing signs of breaking free of the dance/R&B template, it’s back to business as usual for Mr. Raymond with Scream. There’s a lot of “Woo! Baby, baby!”, big beats and allusions to that place where so much chart music is based: the club. Usher’s been making hits for over fifteen years now, but this could be any of the artists that followed in his wake (Ne-Yo, Chris Brown), and it’s disheartening to see him following rather than leading. If you find yourself enjoying this track, hit yourself in the head with a frying pan and go and listen to Climax instead. 1/10

Chris “Kammy” Kamara – Sing 4 England

England’s disastrous Euro 2012 campaign begins next week, and it appears this is the team’s official song. For the uninitiated, Chris Kamara is a former professional footballer who is now a commentator and, let’s be honest, figure of fun for his hugely enthusiastic style and uncanny knack of getting things wrong. So yes, he’s absolutely no business making a record. Despite his persona, this track is, bizarrely, played completely straight, which seems like a huge opportunity missed. Like the vast majority of football records, it’s insipid, lumpen and jingoistic, and it’s hard to believe anybody could be inspired by this turgid mess of a record. 1/10

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio

Is anything about this a good idea? Seminal band with mentally damaged genius at the helm put out new material for the first time in who-knows-how-long. You almost don’t want to listen to it because it could spoil so many memories but… it’s utterly fantastic. No, really, it is. It’s a little slow to get going, but once you’re at the first chorus, those harmonies come in and they sound just as heart-meltingly marvellous as they always have. Shameless nostalgia, perhaps, but there are few sounds on this earth as life-affirming and beautiful as The Beach Boys’ harmonies, and the relief that this song is so good is almost overwhelming. It’s no God Only Knows, or Good Vibrations, or Heroes And Villains. Hell, it’s not even In My Room or Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but against all the odds, it’s a triumphant return and the sound of the sun bursting through the clouds. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Words and Music by Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne
released 21 May 2012 on Commercial Marketing

A recent YouGov study has found that the most popular way for the public to discover new music is through the radio, that the place that people are most likely to look for album reviews is in a newspaper, and that going out and buying an album is still more popular than listening to a free stream. Despite living in the digital age, it appears the influx of technology hasn’t overtaken us just yet and, perhaps, many of us are simply traditionalists at heart.

In some ways, it’s easy to see why. For example, watching an iTunes progress bar inch its way to completion can never replicate the anticipation of waiting for a trip to the local store and cherishing your wares on the bus home, eager to hear the treasure within. Saint Etienne understand this love affair people have with music and over the course of the past two decades, have shown themselves to be fans and scholars of pop, as well as a fantastic group.

But nowhere has this infatuation with music been better captured than on Words and Music’s opening track, Over The Border. Sarah Cracknell whispers the story of the children from her school that made a pilgrimage to Peter Gabriel’s house, before recalling how comforting music was to her in her formative years, as well as giving her a sense of belonging. The young Cracknell “used Top Of The Pops as [her] world atlas” and, upon finding herself in a teenage relationship, “knew he loved [her] because he made [her] a tape”. The reference points (Dexys Midnight Runners, Postcard Records, synthesisers) may not be common to everyone, but the song conjures such an evocative Proustian rush, you’ll find yourself subconsciously replacing Cracknell’s personal favourites with your own.

At this point, it becomes apparent that Words And Music is effectively Saint Etienne’s love letter to pop. Whereas most music about music consists of club-friendly dance tracks imploring a DJ to either turn up or not stop the music, Saint Etienne look to explore the sheer joy – both individual and collective – that music can bring to our lives. True, the album does feature a track called DJ, but it’s more about the restorative powers of dancing your troubles away than anything else. The only song in recent memory to transmit the intoxicating power of losing yourself to music as well as those on Words And Music is Katy B’s Lights On – these songs are about as far removed from the predatory, meat-market feel of Pitbull’s aggressive club tracks as it’s possible to be.

The wonderful thing about Saint Etienne singing of their love for unselfconscious ‘surrender to sound’ is that they’ve got the songs to back it up. Recent single, I’ve Got Your Music, has a huge chorus and tells us, “I feel love in digital stereo” (a nod to the Donna Summer classic, maybe). Last Days Of Disco bears the definite influence of, yes, disco, and comes across like a more dance-oriented latter-day Belle & Sebastian. Haunted Jukebox is a jaunty, airy number, which describes a blossoming teenage romance built upon a mutual love of records.

Musically, Words And Music is in the territory of Saint Etienne’s most popular singles, as well as recalling Pet Shop Boys and early 21st Century Kylie Minogue. There are always bound to be huge, poppers o’ clock efforts with Saint Etienne, and former single, Tonight, is the best of the bunch. The song beautifully describes the nerves and tension associated with getting ready to go to a gig (“Play the album, then play it all again, I can hardly wait”), talk of pre-show rumours, wondering about the set-list (“Maybe they’ll open with an album track / Or a Top 5 hit – no turning back”) and the euphoric release when it all comes together. Despite being part of a heaving, sweaty throng of bodies, an undefinable, personal relationship between fan and band always remains (“There’s a part of me / Only they can see”).

Everything that’s been written so far describes an album which is just about perfect but, unfortunately, there are lulls in Words And Music’s thirteen tracks. Several songs lack the spark of their counterparts, and end up being inferior versions of what’s already been covered elsewhere on the record. Occasionally, the feel is somewhat pedestrian and, although a pick-me-up is never far away, it’s certainly an album of peaks and troughs. Saint Etienne’s debut release, Foxbase Alpha, introduced a group full of wit and invention, willing to mix dance and house with trip-hop, heavy beats, and speech samples from television and film. Words And Music doesn’t do that. When it gets it right, it gets it absolutely spot on, but a little more variation wouldn’t go amiss.

However, the album’s highlights – and there are many – are just so fantastic that you can forgive it an awful lot. The method in which you purchase, listen to and digest this record are completely your choice, but if you’ve ever truly loved a band like they were your own and invested time and money in their words and music, you’ll find plenty to make you happy in Words And Music.

The Singles Bar: 21/05/12

If you were perusing the music blogosphere last week (fret not, I’ve just punched myself in the face for using the word, ‘blogosphere’), you may have chanced upon this impassioned diatribe from one Neil Kulkarni (warning: contains some choice language). While in parts unnecessarily mean-spirited and entirely unsympathetic to the concept of deadlines, it does raise some valid points about the nature of music writing.

Here at the Singles Bar, get this, we love music. We love listening to it, we love writing about it and – like Neil Kulkarni – we love all the ephemera that surrounds it. So, while this column isn’t always entirely polished, is prone to wild and unnecessary tangents, it truly is driven by love. The reason tracks often get a trashing is because it’s so disappointing to discover something that has no invention, no spirit and no desire to do something new or interesting. The Singles Bar is fixated on the Holy Grail of finding the perfect song and, to be perfectly honest, we hope we never get there.

After that, there had better be some good tracks this week. So, what’s first up? Oh dear…

Pitbull – Back In Time

DONK-A-DONK ADONKA DONK-A-DONK! &c. The appeal of Pitbull continues to elude me, especially as his lyrics are unremittingly predatory as to make the listener feel more than a little uncomfortable. Back In Time is the theme tune to the new Men In Black film (Why no Will Smith? WHY?!) and, considering the majority of his tunes concern being surrounded by nubile ladies in the VIP area of some unspecified club, it’s a little lacklustre. He still manages to be lecherous enough to make you think he should be on some sort of register though (the way he heavily breathes, “Let’s make a movie, baby”, makes me want to ensure my daughter never leaves the house again and that’s despite the fact she’s entirely fictional). A pretty insipid effort – including the regulation dubstep breakdown – containing nothing within to recommend it whatsoever. 1/10

Spector – Celestine

While searching for this track online, I was hoping – nay, praying – it would be an ode to Chelsea and Newcastle’s former Nigerian left-back, Celestine Babayaro. Unsurprisingly, it proved to be not the case but, stupid niche references aside, it’s got a bit more fizz to it than I’ve heard from previous Spector efforts. It offers entirely nothing new to the indie-rock genre, but then what does these days? There’s a slight 80s feel to the anthemic chorus, but the huge chords, chugging guitars and clear vocals see it just the right side of mediocre. It appears the band aren’t named after Birmingham City’s American defender Jonathan Spector either. I tell you what; it’s a sad day for fans of terrible, shoehorned jokes featuring semi-obscure footballers (i.e. me). 6/10

The Wanted – Chasing The Sun

Much like the Leveson Inquiry, popular beat combo The Wanted are Chasing The Sun. But unlike Rebekah Brooks and co., there’s no suggestion the boyband have any connection with hacking the voicemails of [BEST STOP THERE – Legal Ed.]. The Wanted seem to be ploughing a furrow along with JLS as practitioners of kiddie-friendly Ibiza dance-pop, and this track seems to be a facsimile of many chart hits that have gone before it. There’s even the ascending “oh-oh-oh” refrain that’s featured so frequently over the past couple of years. Given The Wanted’s attempt at a ‘bad boy’ image, Chasing The Sun is so tame and anaemic it’s laughable, but it does have a decent-ish hook, and doesn’t particularly outstay its welcome either. They’re going down a storm Stateside too, so it’s looking good for the 21st Century’s answer to East 17. 5/10

The Black Keys – Dead And Gone

The phenomenal success story that is The Black Keys seems to have taken everybody by surprise. Completely going against the music industry trend, they’ve cultivated a loyal fanbase, broadened their scope with each passing record and are now reaping the rewards. It fair warms the cockles. Although Dead And Gone – like all their recent songs – lacks the rawness that made earlier Black Keys work so thrilling, it’s an extremely professional effort that still has just enough edge to it. The real secret of the band’s success though, is that they know their way around a decent tune, and Dead And Gone is another one of those. It’s not going to make you want to tear your shirt off, whirl it above your head and dance around the room (which is good news for my neighbours, if nothing else), but it’s another solid effort from a band who rarely put a foot wrong. 7/10

This Many Boyfriends – (I Should Be A) Communist

In my university days, I was briefly in a band with a prodigiously talented guitarist who thought it great larks to use the word, ‘communist’, as a catch-all insult. It got old incredibly quickly, though he was an extremely lovely chap. It’s difficult not to hold a smidgen of affection for any song called (I Should Be A) Communist and this track is just as great as its title suggests. It’s a charming, ramshackle romp that’s equal parts funny, addictive and tuneful. This Many Boyfriends have created an indiepop gem, albeit a gem that’s extremely lo-fi and sounds as if it were recorded in a cardboard box. The kind of track everybody should enjoy, though you might have to be rather forgiving of twee, shambling indulgences if you’re to truly love it. 8/10

We Are Augustines – Juarez

Hey, my birthday’s in August, so that must make me an Augustine too! So, us Augustines are… oh, wait… apparently it’s something to do with monks. WAA’s lead vocalist sounds like he spends his days sitting on his porch, nursing his shotgun and gargling grits. But, crude stereotypes aside (I’m from the English countryside, I don’t even really know what grits are), it’s an extremely unusual voice and one that’s entirely at odds with the muddy yet haunting chords cascading from the guitars. Juarez is an atmospheric track that builds admirably but, seriously, that voice! Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh, but it sounds so mannered and deliberate it’s as if he’s trying to channel every singer who ever wore a Stetson and woke up one morning to find their dog had died. Perhaps there are environments where Juarez works, but I’m certainly not in one of them right now. 4/10

School Of Seven Bells – The Night

Despite having spent years cultivating a heady brew of post-rock, electronica and chillwave that couldn’t be more now if it were carrying the Olympic Torch, School Of Seven Bells seem to have slipped off the map somewhat of late. The Night is SOSB at their excellent best; vital, pulsing and with the kind of ethereal vocals and chiming, dreamy guitars that recall the Cocteau Twins at their finest. With Austra so feted and subsequently failing to deliver last year, the air is right for a School Of Seven Bells takeover, so why isn’t it happening? Don’t ask me, that was a rhetorical question, but you could do far worse than to give The Night a spin or twelve. It’s a hungry track that demands your attention, balances beauty and energy with a deftness rarely encountered, and creates a gorgeous, enveloping atmosphere to boot. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Rumer – P.F. Sloan

Rumer’s beautiful, soothing, Karen Carpenter-alike voice has won her many plaudits, not to mention record sales, but often the songs themselves are beyond soporific. P.F. Sloan, a cover of the much-reworked Jimmy Webb number, certainly falls into that category. Measured pedal steel and pretty, inconsequential backing ensure nothing ever gets too exciting, and Rumer’s smooth croon is given centre stage. It’s easy to be snobbish about this kind of MOR stuff and maybe call it “coffee table music” but I hate to be dismissive about songs just because they’re not bleeding edge or going to frighten your grandmother. However, it really is difficult to see what this is for. I can’t imagine it being particularly enjoyable to make or fun to play live and – at the risk of falling into my own trap – I struggle to see what kind of experience fans would really get from this song. So, since there’s not much to say about it, I’ll use the word you use when there’s not much to say – it’s nice. 4/10

Paloma Faith – Picking Up The Pieces

Oh Jessie J, what have you done? While Paloma Faith always appeared she was always trying too hard to appear kooky on her debut album, Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? (Exhibit A: that title), her voice was always relatively reined in. However, post-J, we’re living in a world where The Voice is primetime entertainment and the cult of melisma demand the warbling is turned up to 11. Picking Up The Pieces is a piano ballad that Faith wrings every possible ounce of emotion and drama out of, while singing about seven times more notes than are strictly necessary. If I were a judge on a TV talent show, I’d be duty bound to say that Paloma Faith showed passion with this performance, and then I’d reiterate just how important passion is in popular music. However, I’m a music fan, and a writer, and passion doesn’t mean one jot when it comes down to actually producing a listenable track, and I’m extremely keen for Picking Up The Pieces to never invade my lugholes again. 1/10

Newton Faulkner – Write It On Your Skin

Dreadlocked twonk, spiritual predecessor to Ed Sheeran and the thinking man’s Swampy the Eco-Warrior, Newton Faulkner, is back with yet more acoustic, guitar tippy-tapping, hippy-dippy, henna-tattooed non-sequiturs for people who find the real world too tough to acknowledge. Seemingly mistakenly equating dreadlocks with talent, Faulkner is continuing his never-ending quest to record and release all the songs that buskers on gap years in Cambodia ditched for being too facile and patronising. With Faulkner, Sheeran, Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz and Ben Howard, we’re clearly entering a time when the charts are riddled with the kind of dreary, sexless man-children you’d normally find in Lisa Simpson’s copy of ‘Non-Threatening Boys Magazine.’ And for this, I blame the Radio 1 Live Lounge for encouraging acts to do ‘credible’ (i.e. acoustic) cover versions of pop songs and I blame Travis for their execrable cover of the sublime …Baby One More Time. In the time it’s taken me to write the preceding 145 words, I’ve entirely forgotten how the song goes. Says it all, really. 0/10

The Singles Bar: 14/05/12

Today sees the debut of the UK singles streaming chart, which seeks to give a more accurate view of what the good citizens of this fair isle are actually listening to on a regular basis. So, what’s number 1? Have the British public gone leftfield with their streaming choices, leading to a chart-topper that’s far removed from what’s being purchased? Um… it’s Carly Rae Jepsen.

It’s an interesting progression in the way the charts are created though, and it could well be that these streaming figures are amalgamated into the singles chart for real one day soon. What would be even better though, is if extra chart points were given for high scores on The Singles Bar. That, my friends, is the real dream.

The Saturdays – 30 Days

They’ve always seemed a bit Second Division and try-too-hard, but recently, The Saturdays have been racking up a number of impressive singles. 30 Days seems like a fairly decent track given an entirely unnecessary Calvin-Harris-in-Ibiza makeover, thus removing any semblance of subtlety it may have had. With Girls Aloud on hiatus, the crown of biggest girlband should really be The Saturdays’ for the taking, but they just can’t seem to make that final leap, and mis-steps like 30 Days aren’t particularly going to help. It also makes me feel hopelessly old every time I recall one of them used to be in S Club Juniors. 5/10

Katy B & Mark Ronson – Anywhere In The World

Anywhere In The World is the promotional anthem for Coca-Cola (other overpriced, teeth-rotting soft drinks manufactured by grotesquely rich multi-national corporations are available) during this year’s Summer Olympics. Of course, it was released in one particular country before any other territory, and that country was… um… Belgium, obviously (no, me neither). It doesn’t fill you with confidence when one of your favourite new artists signs up for an enormous advertising campaign and it shows nothing of what made On A Mission such an essential album. It doesn’t particularly sound much like a Ronson production either, unless he’s going to start putting fizzing and can-opening noises in all his records from now on. While selling-out may be an antiquated notion, this really is a horrible cash-in driven solely by shifting products rather than anything remotely artistic. It’s basically the 21st Century I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (ask your Dad), except worse. 0/10

Bruce Springsteen – Death To My Hometown

The latest single from Broooooce starts off with bass drum and handclaps, and for three or four awful seconds, it sounds like it’s going to turn into We Will Rock You. Instead, it’s another Springsteen tale of a hard-working man fighting against… oh, I don’t know, whatever. He may be a sacred cow, but to me all Springsteen songs sound the same and while I’m sure he’s a great showman, I can’t help but want to tell him to get over himself and listen to some disco music. The folky sounds (including – bleurgh – tin-whistle) sound a little jarring against the digital precision of the percussion, but if you’re a down-home good ol’ boy, I’m sure you’ll love this. 3/10

Madonna – Girl Gone Wild

Cor, she’s a rum ‘un, that Madonna, ain’t she? Look everyone, she’s (sort of) named her latest song after a controversial pornography franchise – how daring! The spoken-word bit at the beginning is a little similar to Like A Prayer, but then it goes very much camp and hi-NRG. What Madonna’s realised is that music about how great music is can be fantastic fun, and this sounds like it would be brilliant to dance to (“Here it comes, when I hear that 808 drum”). It’s incredibly slick and polished, yet it all serves the track exquisitely. The lyrics about being a ‘bad girl’ are a little tired but, if anything, the vocals are a little restrained, and Girl Gone Wild is a great end-of-the-night club track that shows Madge has still got it. Strange, I’ve never been a big Madonna fan but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the singles taken from MDNA. 8/10

Tom Jones – Hit Or Miss

What’s that? Tom Jones is a judge on a primetime BBC talent show and now he’s decided to release a new single – what a coincidence! There’s no denying Mr. Cuprinol has a phenomenal voice but the quality of his output has been severely lacking now for longer than anyone can remember. Interestingly, given he’s back in the public eye, Hit Or Miss isn’t some desperate grab at mainstream pop relevance, but a mid-tempo, country-tinged track which remains restrained (well, as much as a Tom Jones song can). Given the last thing I heard from Tom Jones was a wretched cover of U2’s Beautiful Day with Jessie J, and that fella from The Script who even his own mother can’t remember the name of, Hit Or Miss is a rather nice surprise. By no means essential, but a pretty decent effort nonetheless. 6/10

Gaz Coombes – Hot Fruit

If I were Gaz Coombes (which – spoiler alert – I’m not), I’d be feeling fairly aggrieved at the lack of success and recognition I’d had over the last fifteen years ago. Supergrass were always a consistent, inventive group, and subsequent projects haven’t captured the public imagination, so now he’s walking his own path. Hot Fruit races along on Bloc Party-like taut drumming and rumbling bass before exploding into a chorus that, while exhilarating, is never quite as raucous as it threatens to be. It has some interesting chord changes and haunting backing vocals, before providing a spooky bridge after the second chorus. After that, it’s full steam ahead and Coombes has created something fit to stand alongside the finest work of his alma mater. Two decades or so of making music and Gaz Coombes can still create something as good as Hot Fruit. I reiterate: the man should be much more revered than he is. 8/10

Scissor Sisters – Only The Horses

Seemingly unfinished song titles like this irritate me. Only The Horses what? Only The Horses trot? Only The Horses gallop? Only The Horses that don’t unseat their rider are classed as having finished in the 2.40 at Haydock? It’s right up there with Love’s Seven And Seven Is (the answer being ‘fourteen’, presumably). Anyway, this track becomes recommended mainly because the cover art is simply a zebra standing in a purple and orange sky. Rather than sounding like a quintessential Scissor Sisters track, it’s more like an AOR track that’s been given the Scissor Sisters treatment, and as such, it doesn’t quite fit together properly. Scissor Sisters are at their best when they’re so camp they’re beyond parody, and this plays it a little too straight (pardon the pun). Oh, and the answer to the question? Apparently, “only the horses can find us tonight”, and, “only the horses can bring us back home”. Some party that must have been. 4/10

The Enemy – Saturday


Kimbra – Settle Down

You know her as the woman on that Gotye track, but New Zealander Kimbra has actually been releasing singles since 2005. Settle Down has tribal rhythms, makes great use of backing vocals and sounds like the kind of thing Sia does when she’s not commandeering the charts with Flo Rida and David Guetta. It’s a bit Flying Pickets’ Only You, a bit Lykke Li, a bit Neneh Cherry, and exactly the sort of music that deserves a wider audience. A small criticism, perhaps, is that the chorus’s hook isn’t exactly the strongest, but there’s enough evidence here to suggest Kimbra could be successful for a good while yet. Who’d have thought? There IS a silver lining to Somebody That I Used To Know being the most ubiquitous song since The Rembrandts'. 8/10

Niki & The Dove – Tomorrow

The continued non-success of Niki & The Dove is just one of myriad reasons for making me want to see out my days in an air-raid shelter with only a lifetime’s supply of chocolate and an 80s synth-pop compilation for company. Tomorrow doesn’t sound as promising as previous N&TD singles initially, but then bursts into life at the chorus stage, with a euphoric release of vocals, drums and electronic magnificence. In a similar way to the Kimbra track, there’s something a little early 90s about the whole caboodle, and you get the impression Ms. Niki is no stranger to the works of Neneh Cherry either. It’s a shame the verses aren’t entirely up to scratch, but the chorus is such an incredible blast of amazingness, it’s impossible to see past this for that most coveted of awards… 8/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK


Allo Darlin' - Europe
released 7 May 2012 on Fortuna POP!

For any artist, the debut album is absolutely pivotal. It’s the culmination of all life experiences collected up to that point and a real statement of intent for a potential career. It’s a manifesto; a way of presenting to the world who you are and how you see things. It’s also a tremendously exciting time; countless are the artists who never made it to that first record stage, so it’s a kind of validation of your work and says what you do has some kind of intellectual merit.

Because of this, debut albums often contain the kind of hunger and naivety it’s near-impossible to replicate on subsequent releases. Allo Darlin’’s self-titled first record was such an album – at times, it seemed as though the band were subsisting on fizzy pop alone and then locked in a sweet shop when it came time to record. Allo Darlin’ had its contemplative moments too, but for the most part it was an album full of bounce and sheer joy, created by a group of people very much in love with life.

Alas, we all get older and, as anyone over the age of about 21 can attest, getting older is rubbish with very few redeeming features. Responsibilities accumulate, money becomes more and more of an issue, and moments of worry-free abandon are ever more scarce. This isn’t to say Allo Darlin’ have gone all Lou Reed on us, far from it in fact, but there’s certainly a more measured approach to Europe. It’s a record made by a band with one album obviously under their belt who are carrying the associated freedoms (studio time) and restrictions (pressure) that come with it.

The most disappointing thing about Europe is the failed attempt at a sonic leap forward. Whereas the debut record was often unadorned and gave prominence to the humble ukulele, the songs on show here have a much thicker sound. However, that’s all it is – thicker. The sound is largely the same but it appears the gaps have just been filled in, whether it be with reverb or other components. There are lovely flourishes interspersed throughout, but the climactic releases are that bit less effective and the entire record has something of a samey feel.

From its title downwards, Europe is an album preoccupied with travel and the concept of home. This is unsurprising as lead singer, Elizabeth Morris, is an Australian living in London. She appears to be reflecting on what she’s left behind, both people and places, and how she’s growing ever more accustomed to life in the UK. On Tallulah (a doppelgänger of the first record’s Heartbeat Chilli), an Australian road trip is recounted, listing place names such as St. Kilda and Bondi Beach, and she’s wondering about, “when I find you under Capricornia skies”, on lead single, Capricornia. On the other side of that coin, The Letter talks about finding, “solace in the shattered dreams of England”, and the zippy Northern Lights makes the couplet, “Jump feet-first through the snow / We’re never going home”, sound like the most appealing thing possible.

Morris’ vocals and lyrics are the strongest part of Europe. She projects a character that is adventurous and prone to whimsy, but displays enough vulnerability and humanity to ensure we don’t ever stray into twee or Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. In truth, her presence and dexterity transform an otherwise average indiepop record into something with depth which is tinged with melancholy and becomes an affecting look at life in your 20s.

It’s a shame the production doesn’t quite match up to the quality of the vocals and melodies. Strangely enough, the meandering nature of the instrumentation actually matches the rootless sentiments and feelings of wanderlust articulated in the lyrics, though that’s far from ideal. We can all relate to the ideas expressed in Europe: big cities are simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, we’re scared of losing touch with people we love while being excited to meet new friends, and we know our memories are among the most important things we have. The giddy enthusiasm of Allo Darlin’ has been replaced by something more substantial and grown-up, yet it’s still an optimistic LP at heart. It’s just a shame that the music can’t match this progression. Europe often finds itself lacking in ideas and sticking to de rigueur jangle and well-trodden indiepop tropes.

The Singles Bar: 07/05/12

We’ve got early 20s pop hopefuls, doom-mongering rock, MCs, chart-friendly dance, a track taken from an opera, and a Eurovision entry among the hopefuls on the agenda this time around. Each and every week, The Singles Bar provides a glance into the veritable melting pot that is popular music. Enjoy.

Mz Bratt feat. Khalaeliah – Falling Down

While men only have to worry about one title, women have Mrs, Miss and Ms to contend with. I didn’t realise there was a fourth, so thanks to Mz Bratt for educating me on that point. Although apparently a grime MC, there’s a very strong pop sound to Mz Bratt in both production and flow. Falling Down is the kind of track Ms Dynamite was doing about a decade ago, and doing better as well. The UK has arguably never really had a breakthrough female MC and while Falling Down is certainly a radio-friendly track, there’s not enough here to suggest that Mz Bratt will be able to buck that trend. 5/10

Serj Tankian – Figure It Out

Curiously, for an artist so politicised, System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian doesn’t appear to be in the public eye an awful lot these days. Or perhaps I just think that because I’m no longer a 15 year old SOAD fan. Figure It Out features intense riffing, breakneck speed and the idiosyncratic wailing of everybody’s favourite Lebanese-born, Armenian-American singer. Although it’s not too dissimilar to the work of his former band, there’s a sense of fun and adventure slightly missing here that SOAD often brought to the party. It’s certainly rousing, thrilling stuff, but if you’ve ever heard anything Serj Tankian’s put his name to before, it’s not going to particularly surprise you. 6/10

The Subways – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

A couple of decent singles off their first album looked to have got their career off to a flyer, but it’s never really happened for Welwyn Garden City’s finest. Like many bands, they seemed to be trying to be counter-cultural without ever standing for anything in particular. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is perfectly passable pop-punk (one for alliteration fans, there) but not much more than that. The lyrics seem trite and obvious, as if they’ve been dashed off in half an hour with a rhyming dictionary open on their laps. Also, whereas previous Subways tracks were enhanced by the backing vocals of bassist Charlotte Cooper, here she just seems shrill and yelpy. Safe to say, not their finest work. 5/10

Richard Hawley – Leave Your Body Behind You
On his entirely fantastic new album, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Richard Hawley has ditched the tender laments in favour of expansive, layered, guitar-led behemoths. It was a risky move, but it looks to have paid dividends, and Leave Your Body Behind You is representative of this new sonic experimentation. It’s a huge-sounding track, with tons of guitar behind it, quite reminiscent of the more spacey, psychedelic regions of Spiritualized’s back catalogue. It may be an overused term, but Richard Hawley really is a national treasure and this track – plus its parent album – could finally see him break through into the mainstream. Here’s hoping. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Far East Movement feat. Justin Bieber – Live My Life

Let’s be honest, we’ve all secretly been hoping those people who made Like A G6 would team up with the Bieber – it’s the meeting of minds the world’s been waiting for. It appears, as you may expect, Far East Movement are from the same reductive, dunce-dance scene that brought us the shining examples of humanity that are LMFAO (in case you’re wondering, Black Eyed Peas are the spiritual forefathers of this kind of music). As a result, Live My Life is basically just noise to gyrate and drink to in badly-lit underground clubs. It also represents another step in the project to move Bieber away from teen idol and into R&B superstar. Depressingly, it sounds like a billion other dance-pop records you’ve heard and, although I seem to say that about at least one track every week in this column, it doesn’t stop it being true. 1/10

Engelbert Humperdinck – Love Will Set You Free

Rejoice – it’s (nearly) Eurovision time! Humperdinck is the UK’s representative in the annual let’s-see-which-countries-hate-us-this-time extravaganza and he’s up against some stiff competition (Austria’s nominees are a hip-hop boyband called Trackshittaz, I kid you not). Humperdinck’s a legendary crooner, and Love Will Set You Free doesn’t stray too far from his usual template, though it’s pitched a bit more towards epic than normal. It’s adorned with Spanish guitar (going for the Continental vote there, Engelbert, like it) and he’s certainly got a decent set of pipes on him. Despite the odd rousing note though, it doesn’t particularly go anywhere. Will this win it for the UK? Of course not, but it’ll be interesting to see how it goes down in Baku. 5/10

Damon Albarn – The Marvellous Dream

During Britpop, you’d never have imagined the chirpy Cockney of Parklife would turn out to be the musical polymath of his generation. Cartoon bands, Malian music and Chinese opera have followed, and now Albarn’s released Dr. Dee, a record (and opera) about the titular Elizabethan scientist. We can safely say it’s got nothing to do with your vorsprung durch technik. The Marvellous Dream begins prettily enough, but it’s quite monotonous and never really gets out of first gear. The simple acoustic backing isn’t particularly thrilling and it’s unlikely to lead a stampede to the record shop any day of the week. 3/10

The Entrance Band – New Orleans

From what I can glean about The Entrance Band, they’re signed to Sunn O)))’s record label which, in all honesty, is enough to terrify me. New Orleans is the opening track from their Untitled EP and clocks in at over 11 minutes. You might think that guarantees a slow build-up, but there’s frenetic percussion and squealing riffs before we’ve even hit the one minute mark. This kind of sludgy, prog-influenced stoner-rock rarely appeals to me and, to be honest, if you’re creating something I don’t like, extending it over such a long time is only going to compound my misery. Epic and atmospheric, sure, but the sheer doomy weight of this track is hard to endure. Sorry, The Entrance Band, it’s not you, it’s me, but I’m relatively certain that this is an endurance test I won’t be repeating any time soon. 2/10

Rita Ora feat. Tinie Tempah – RIP

After enjoying a #1 hit as the vocalist on DJ Fresh’s Hot Right Now, Kosovan-born Rita Ora releases her debut solo single. The fact Tinie Tempah provides some guest verses gives you some indication of how seriously her label (Roc Nation) are taking her launch. RIP has an odd, lurching tempo, which means you’d struggle to dance to it, which is odd as it’s obviously styled as a dance-pop track. All the sounds and techniques of modern-day pop mega-hits have been thrown at it in an attempt to create something memorable, but ultimately the song itself just isn’t strong enough. Aside from the opening line to the chorus, there’s nothing particularly good about this track but hey, it’s being hammered on the radio and will probably race to the top of the charts. There’s no justice in this world at times. 2/10

Katzenjammer – Rock-Paper-Scissors

Norwegian quartet, Katzenjammer, set the Singles Bar alight a couple of months ago with I Will Dance When I Walk Away, and today sees the UK release of their album, A Kiss Before You Go: a bizarre yet exciting mix of folk, skiffle, sea shanties and ragtime. Rock-Paper-Scissors has a Mediaeval feel to it – it wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a Robin Hood film. It’s also a little like a twee Gogol Bordello, which isn’t a sound you hear every day. There’s accordion, fiddle… in fact, you could put a jug band in the background and it’d probably fit right in. Katzenjammer are an entirely incongruous and anachronistic band on this evidence, but this kind of going against the grain should be heartily encouraged. The lyrics may be meaningless twaddle but still, Rock-Paper-Scissors makes me want to raise a flagon of mead in salute to Katzenjammer. 8/10

The Singles Bar: 30/04/12

As you may or may not be aware, it’s recently been our birthday here at No Ripcord. We’re now 13 years old. This means we’re more liable to bouts of sarcasm, mood-swings and general misanthropy. What does this mean for The Singles Bar? Not much – after all, it’s always been that way in this corner of the website.

Here are this week’s ten top tunes.

S.C.U.M. – Amber Hands

It’s been mentioned on The Singles Bar before, but there are few ways of turning off potential listeners better than naming your band something as knowing as S.C.U.M.. Amber Hands is dramatic, atmospheric rock with little space to breathe, and is headed by a vocalist who doesn’t possess the necessary power or personality to match his surroundings. Because there are too many things going on at once, there’s a muddied, live feel to Amber Hands which doesn’t do it too many favours. Not a bad track, but not one to get over-excited about. You can’t help but think this has all been done before and it has, a decade ago, by The Cooper Temple Clause. 5/10

Feeder – Children Of The Sun

In my mid-teens, I ended up seeing Feeder with a girl who ignored me the whole way through and, even worse, I was violently sick in the car park just before the gig started (which, come to think of it, may go some way towards explaining the getting ignored). Suffice to say, my opinion of Feeder has been tainted since and, to be honest, I hadn’t even realised they were still a going concern. On the evidence of Children Of The Sun, I haven’t missed much though. It’s a mid-tempo, AOR plodder, which leaves your brain the moment it’s finished. Feeder used to be a sharp, exciting rock trio infused with the energy of punk. Now they just sound like a group of men in their 30s who don’t know what else to do. 2/10

Flux Pavillion feat. Example  – Daydreamer

Nothing quite like nearly 900,000 YouTube views in less than two months for a song you’ve never even heard of to make you feel out of touch with the modern world. Considering dubstep took so long to break into the mainstream, it’s astonishing just how quickly it’s become tired and formulaic. Of course, there’s still inventive stuff happening on the sidelines but as far as the big-selling tracks go, it’s all starting to melt into one huge sub-woofer boom. Daydreamer has short, sharp strings, which do give it a little bit of an edge, but this could just as easily be an Example solo track, or a Chase & Status tune, or anyone like that. One thing to say though, it steers well clear of the brostep of Skrillex, and for that we should be thankful. 3/10

Mindless Behavior – Girls Talkin’ ‘Bout

I’ve been blissfully oblivious to the oeuvre of Mindless Behavior (bah, American spelling) until now, but it appears they’re a manufactured pop/R&B group. Their vocals are so heavily auto-tuned and treated that you wonder why the Svengali behind them bothered with real people for the band at all. Real people can talk back, have their own opinions and could one day leave, so why not just get a load of cyborgs? Or, if you want them to have sex appeal, just have pretty dancers and put some pre-recorded vocals behind them. It’s a great idea and… oh, hang on… I’ve basically just invented Milli Vanilli, haven’t I? Anyway, Girls Talkin’ ‘Bout is shapeless R&B by numbers that sounds so digitised and compressed it will make you wince. It has the hallmarks of a Chris Brown song and mentions “swag” on more than one occasion; ergo, it’s beyond awful. 0/10

Frank Turner – I Still Believe

Brilliant! A new Frank Turner single! I’m so glad Frank Turner exists. Y’see, before Frank Turner, I didn’t have my own views about things. I found nuances and subtleties too much for my basic brain to handle, so I’m exceptionally lucky there’s some busker-chic folk no-mark who’s as reductive as Frank. Thanks to Frank, I now know corporations are bad (without exception) but it’s ok, because according to this piss-poor attempt at a call-to-arms, “rock n’ roll will save us all”. He doesn’t quite specify how (except to claim folk songs are “miracles for minimum wage”) or offer any solutions, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? He talks about Elvis and gramophones, so he’s obviously bursting with authenticity and who needs answers when you’ve got a simplistic, misguided belief? Some people pine for the glory days of Billy Bragg or wish there was a socially-conscious protest singer for the 21st Century who can actually string a sentence together, but not me. I’ve got Frank, so I can listen to his records, take absolutely no action, not really understand what’s wrong with the world or why, but still feel like I’m really making a difference, you know? I might put some of his half-baked, empty sloganeering lyrics as my Facebook status too, because that way, people will know what a really deep and conscientious guy I am. Because when it all comes down to it, acoustic guitars and a DIY ethos are good, and large organisations and working for a living are bad, and if you think otherwise, you’re a sell-out, aren’t you? Have I got that right? Anyway, I can’t wait for the next general election so I can purposely not vote and really get my voice heard. I’m so very pleased with myself. 0/10

Lianne La Havas – Lost And Found

La Havas released Lost And Found towards the end of last year and it was flagged up by a certain NR writer *cough* as a rare treat a few months back. Subsequent increased attention means it’s probably not a bad idea to give it another shot, and it’s lost none of its gorgeous potency. The name of Adele may jump to mind but there’s another dimension to Lianne La Havas on this track. Her voice has a real smoky beauty to it, and cracks with emotion. The arrangement, too, is near-perfect, framing the wondrous vocal rather than crowding or stifling it. To say it’s up there with the best work of Norah Jones may feel like damning with faint praise, but Lost And Found is a captivating and affecting song that deserves to be heard by a much wider audience. 9/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Keane – Silenced By The Night

What do you do when the world stops listening? For a while, Keane looked like they could take over the world, but each album has delivered ever diminishing returns. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, because they haven’t really changed at all, it’s just that the world moved on. And as for Silenced By The Night, yeah, sure, it’s completely fine. It sounds like a Keane track, as you’d expect: lots of piano, slick, nice chord changes, a pleasant chugging tempo and nothing to wake the neighbours with. It doesn’t have the catchiness of Everybody’s Changing or the heartstring-tugging qualities of Bedshaped though, and as such it’s just another song in the never-ending parade of popular music. So, to answer the question, when the world stops listening, you just ignore them and carry on regardless. 5/10

In Golden Tears – Underneath The Balance

German guitar-manglers In Golden Tears are about to hit the UK festivals to promote themselves and, on the evidence of Underneath The Balance, it looks as if they’ll be a popular draw. There’s nothing particularly new about this track, but there’s a real care and craftsmanship to it, and they create something vaster than their simple guitar/bass/drums/vocals set-up would suggest. Certain music works better in certain situations, and while Underneath The Balance is fine to listen to alone, bouncing with a festival crowd as the dusk draws in would transform it into something air-punchingly brilliant. Guitar groups are going through a bit of a fallow period, creatively speaking, and In Golden Tears certainly seem comfortably above average. 7/10

Me And My Drummer – You’re A Runner

It must be Deutscheday in The Singles Bar because next up, we’ve another German group – Me And My Drummer. You’re a Runner is some exciting-sounding electropop, but Me And My Drummer are adroit enough to give the track some space to breathe and, as a result, manage to use dynamics really well to build a mood gradually. There’s a touch of Feist to the vocals, and when the song really lets loose with a minute to go, it feels like a natural progression rather than a calculated attempt at something epic. Me And My Drummer have been compared to Florence + The Machine by critics, but that’s far too reductive. Unlike Florence (and her machine, of course), they understand light and shade, and know when to belt it out and when to exercise restraint. Wonderful stuff that you ought to lean your ears towards. 8/10

Tulisa – Young

I know pop marketing departments are pretty savvy, but I’m constantly amazed at the aligning of tabloid scandal and single release. Following her recent sex tape fall-out, N-Dubz singer and X Factor judge Tulisa puts out her debut track, which is all about how it’s ok to do silly things when you’re young, because… well, that bit’s not really covered, except say you can use being young as an excuse for everything. There’s more of an Ibiza dance influence than we’re used to from Tulisa’s thankfully-on-hiatus group but that’s not exactly surprising, given she’s the fun and glamorous side of N-Dubz. I’m still amazed she’s been so successful though – her voice is nothing distinctive and I’d guess there are plenty of Tulisas out there working dead-end jobs and dreaming of stardom. Young is harmless filler and is already looking like it will top the charts this Sunday, so it looks like the Tulisa bandwagon marches on. 3/10

The Singles Bar: 23/04/12

Happy St. George’s Day! Here at The Singles Bar we’ve spent the past few hours morris dancing, reading Chaucer and drinking warm beer. However, even if you’re not English (or Georgian, or Catalonian, or from the host of other regions he’s associated with) you can still enjoy this week’s singles reviews – hooray!

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves Of Destiny – Atlas

I will summon all my critical faculties to exclusively reveal this woman really does my swede in. And don’t even get me started on her “Hooves Of Destiny”. She seems to fall in with a bunch of artists who try too hard, and who have their ‘kookiness’ or ‘individuality’ seems carefully choreographed; her album’s called Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, for crying out loud. There are minor theatrics and histrionics, changes of pace, a spooky spoken-word section, unusual noises and soforth, but it’s all done to mask the fact there isn’t really a song here. Some may call Beth Jean Houghton (her real name, incidentally) a trailblazer or an exciting and inventive talent. I’d guess she was indulged far too often as a child and she should put the silly outfits and crayons away. You’re right, I’m not a fan. 2/10

The Cribs – Come On, Be A No-One

The Cribs arrived a few years too late, really, but their singles are usually worth a look. Men’s Needs and Our Bovine Public, for example, are mighty fine pop tunes, but they work because the band rattle through them like their lives depend on it. Come On, Be A No-One operates at more of a contemplative pace and, as a result, comes across as a little turgid. Also, Ryan Jarman has never been the greatest vocalist, so the fact he really gives it some wellie in the chorus isn’t going to be to the delight of many. It’s reasonably snappy though, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it doesn’t really suggest great things for The Cribs’ forthcoming album, unfortunately. 5/10

Sleigh Bells – Crush

It’s all gone a bit quiet on the Sleigh Bells front, hasn’t it? I find their combination of noise and sugar-sweet pop a little hit and miss, but Crush is certainly in the former category. Simple beats, handclaps, dense riffing and shoegazy, almost disinterested vocals combine to give a feeling unlike many others you’ll get from music. This bolting together of disparate elements really shouldn’t work, but there’s something thrilling about Crush, and it’s almost like a heavy rock cheerleader chant. It also hints at things which are forbidden, unobtainable, and just a little bit sexy. Mind you, the shouting does sound a bit like that pillock from The Automatic at times, so you get points docked for that in my book. 7/10

Foster The People – Don’t Stop (Color On The Walls)

NEWSFLASH: Foster The People have a song that isn’t Pumped Up Kicks! I know! I was surprised as well. It looks like they’ll join the likes of Plain White T’s and The Caesars on this showing though, as Don’t Stop (Color On The Walls) is a forgettable, mid-tempo, go-nowhere kind of song. If The OC was still on television, there may be a little bit of mileage in this track, but sadly for FTP, that ship has sailed. It’s looking more and more like Pumped Up Kicks was a happy accident, as this really is college-rock at its most insipid. Well done, Foster The People, you’re like OK Go without the good videos. You know the only thing people like about OK Go? That’s right; the videos. 2/10

Little Boots – Every Night I Say A Little Prayer

As she was built up and then knocked down far too quickly by the music press, I’ve been hoping 2012 sees a successful return for Little Boots. Every Night I Say A Little Prayer starts off as fairly unremarkable electro-pop, but the arrival of the chorus gives it the boost it sorely needs. The vocals sound crystal clear, but there’s a niggling feeling she’s struggling to get the balance between dance and pop just right. The Chicago house loops and handclaps sound fantastic and the more the chorus gets repeated, the better the track is. It’s just a bit of a shame it takes a little too long to really get motoring. It’s pretty low-key for a BBC Sound Of poll winner, but that’s no bad thing whatsoever. It looks like Little Boots may be back on track. 7/10

Maverick Sabre – I Used To Have It All

I was convinced this song came out last year but no, it just seems I can’t distinguish between Maverick Sabre tracks. The analogue, crackly feel to the backing strongly recalls Ed Harcourt’s Until Tomorrow Then, but that’s about as good as it gets for I Used To Have It All. Stylistically, he’s borrowing Adele’s vintage 60s ambience, but there’s also a touch of hip-hop in both the vocals and the beats. However, that voice, it drives me up the spout. There are some vocalists that can best be described as ‘distinctive’, and I’m afraid Maverick Sabre joins Rufus Wainwright in the list of singers that I just cannot get on with whatsoever. There’s some nice horn work around two-thirds of the way through, and the arrangement is actually really well put together. It’s just a shame his honking makes it so unpleasurable to listen to. 4/10

The Robbie Boyd Band – I Won’t Let You Go

According to none other than Simon Cowell, The Robbie Boyd Band are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The most surprising thing about that comparison is that Simon Cowell actually knows who CSN&Y are, but there’s certainly a touch of Laurel Canyon about I Won’t Let You Go. It’s more folk than alt. country though, and it’s a spritely number with some fantastic harmony work. It’s so expertly packaged that it actually comes across as kind of cheesy and a whole album of The Robbie Boyd Band would likely be something of an endurance test. However, three and a half minutes of them is really just the ticket, and the strength of the melody and vocals elevates this above your average Americana fodder. 7/10

Neil Young – Oh Susannah

And speaking of CSN&Y, here’s ol’ Shakey himself, popping up with a cover of the 19th century minstrel song. It’s part of Young’s forthcoming Americana LP, where he covers a whole bunch of folk classics and, er… The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. Anyway, while doing your best Woody Guthrie impression may have been just fine half a century ago, the world has moved on, and this sounds jaded now. It’s easy for a (relatively) young music critic to sneer at this kind of stuff, and I’m not dismissing it just because it’s old or anything like that, it’s just that the quality of this version is such that if it were by anyone other than Neil Young, it wouldn’t be getting the time of day. In fact, if you heard a busker doing this, you wouldn’t even be tempted to reach into your pocket. In short, it’s no Robbie Boyd Band. 2/10

Ren Harvieu – Open Up Your Arms

After being hotly tipped at the start of the year, Ren Harvieu is slowly building up a following, thus ensuring her debut album should make a few ripples upon its release next month. Open Up Your Arms is power ballad-tastic, and displays little of what made earlier single Through The Night so compelling. The longer it goes on, you realise we’re pitched firmly in AOR territory, where the Radio 2 playlist beckons and people who find the music of Adele a bit too abrasive might start to become interested. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of music, or indeed this song, it’s just exceptionally difficult to get excited about when it’s essentially well-styled background noise. It’s a shame, given the potential to go the Dusty Springfield/Mama Cass route that appeared available, but Ren Harvieu looks destined for success regardless. 3/10

Willy Moon – Yeah, Yeah

In case you’re wondering, it now appears you can make your mark in the music industry even if your name sounds like a depraved and possibly illegal sexual practice. For those unfamiliar with the music of Mr. Moon, it’s a bizarre clash of rockabilly, hip-hop and pop, which achieves an effect somewhat similar to that of Sleigh Bells. It’s a strange cut-and-paste approach and he goes from sounding like an Elvis Presley rip-off to Will Smith in Getting Jiggy Wit’ It in a matter of seconds. Most fantastically though, is the rhythm that propels the track, largely because it sounds like the beat from One Thing by Amerie. Yeah, Yeah is the kind of bizarre, head-spinning track that shows real invention and wit and will keep you coming back for more. I am publicly declaring myself a fan of Willy Moon, even if it does sound like something that will get me arrested. 8/10 – SINGLE OF THE WEEK

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
released 2 April 2012 on Universal/Island

It’s taken a little less than two years for Nicki Minaj to go from being a hotly-tipped MC championed by Lil Wayne to becoming a genre-straddling global megastar. However, Minaj’s debut studio album and breakthrough record, Pink Friday, asked more questions than it provided answers. Does she want to be the fierce, dextrous rapper who’s fit to go toe-to-toe with Eminem or the lightweight, homogeneous pop star who duets with Natasha Bedingfield? Does she represent a shift in power in the male-dominated world of hip-hop or has she played the female rap objectified archetype in an attempt to get to the top? And just why does she sometimes rap in an English accent?

You’d hope that Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded finally dropping would provide a little clarity around these issues. However, if anything, the waters are now muddied even further. 2012 has been a bizarre year for Nicki Minaj thus far, with an album campaign that’s been a misinformed mess. Originally due for release on Valentine’s Day, the record didn’t hit the shops until April. We’ve had a record-breaking video for a song that hasn’t even had an official release (Stupid Hoe) while another single (Starships) has been bouncing around the upper reaches of the charts for weeks while still not having a promotional video at the time of writing. In an era when release campaigns are choreographed to precision and you’ve got an infinitely marketable star like Minaj, such events seem like madness. That’s not to mention giving your album of entirely new material a name that makes it sound like some Katy Perry-style bonus-tracks-hastily-added cash-in to squeeze money out of fans who deserve better.

If Pink Friday’s main fault was that it tried to tick too many boxes, then Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded repeats that mistake and then some. In fact, if we take away the two bonkers tracks that bookend the record (Roman Holiday and Stupid Hoe) then Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded neatly breaks down into three disparate parts, which seem to be from different records entirely.

The first part of the record is the traditional, hip-hop side of things. Here, beats are sparse, and frills and instrumentation are minimal. It’s all geared up to make Minaj’s rhymes the focal point, and it gives the record something of a mixtape feel. It’s an interesting decision to front-load the record with perhaps its least commercial tracks, but it does provide the bulk of the quality. Come On A Cone features oppressive synths and is underpinned by a Flight Of The Bumblebee-like riff. I Am Your Leader and Beez In The Trap are similarly thrilling and make good use of cameos. You really get a sense of why Minaj is so popular; there’s something distinctive and utterly compelling about her style and flow. This is probably best displayed in the otherworldly and regal Champion. Her lyrics do fall into the pitfalls of hip-hop braggadocio a little too often though – many of her lines are about previous successes and haters, while one track (Roman Reloaded) includes sirens as well as the sounds of guns cocking and firing.

Once Minaj has finished with proving her gangsta credentials, she’s out to show that she likes partying ‘til dawn in a club as much as anyone else in the charts. The transition between the two styles begins with two of the record’s worst tracks: future single Right By My Side and the nauseating Sex In The Lounge. It’s difficult to believe any self-respecting woman would be willing to put her name to something as relentlessly misogynistic as Sex In The Lounge, with its crude 2010s slow jam style and highly objectionable lyrics.

However, if you can get past those, you’re rewarded with one of the singles of the year so far: Starships. It’s essentially a mish-mash of Super Bass and We Found Love, but none the worse for it, as it perfectly captures the hedonistic feeling the best dance music can provide. Lyrically we’re on pretty tame ground (“I’m on the floor, floor / I love to dance”), but as far as tracks go to forget your responsibilities and lose your inhibitions to, it’s right on the money and has the addictive quality and irresistible hooks that 99% of these type of tracks lack. Unfortunately, Minaj follows up Starships with a run of four songs which all sound like inferior re-treads. We’ve got references to Ibiza, over-produced radio-friendly backing tracks and the general feeling of a David Guetta B-sides collection.

By this point, Minaj’s desperation to be liked is becoming wearing, and this is before we get onto part three of the album: the R&B ballads. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with Minaj’s singing voice, it’s not particularly distinctive and while she continues to insist upon making tracks like this, she’ll never be anything more than a second-rate Rihanna or Beyoncé. It’s faceless, dispiriting stuff, and we get to witness the supposed outspoken queen of forward-thinking rap grumble about fame, compare herself to Marilyn Monroe and sing about how she really just wants to be a wife, all in the space of ten minutes.

Before the release of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, much talk centred around Minaj’s male, British alter-ego, Roman Zolanski, and how his character would be explored throughout the LP. However, he’s only really brought up at all on those aforementioned tracks that open and close the record. The title may lead you to believe it’s some kind of concept album, but if that’s its intention, that concept is quickly dropped before being picked up again right at the end as if you wouldn’t notice that there’s actually no common thread holding any of this together (this is a bit of a jump in logic, but it’s the same thing that happens in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

The two Roman Zolanski-featuring tracks, Roman Holiday and Stupid Hoe, are the most inventive songs on the record, and the two that pander the least to current musical trends and expectations. The melodrama may be a little irritating, but there’s no doubting that Minaj is a fabulous pop star who you simply can’t ignore. Due to the rest of the album, however, Roman Holiday promises more than Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded can deliver, and Stupid Hoe sticks out like a sore thumb after a quagmire of clichés and dullness.

As Stupid Hoe throbs to its conclusion, Minaj leaves us with five final words: “I am the female Weezy”. She’s got a decent claim to such a title, but it’s as if that’s not enough. If she’s the female Weezy, she’s just as much the female Drake, the female Akon, the female David Guetta, the female Bruno Mars and the female Usher. Hell, with her love of over-the-top make-up and multiple personas, you could make an argument for her being the female David Bowie or the female Adam Ant too. Would you want to listen to a record that sounded like all those people? Probably not, as it sounds like a recipe for disaster which tries to please everybody and ends up being enjoyed by nobody. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is.