Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Mark Ronson - Uptown Special

There was a brief time - around two weeks or so - back in 2013 when Get Lucky received its first play on radio and was uploaded to YouTube, where there was the (now laughable) concern that maybe this excellent comeback wouldn't be quite so warmly received by the single-buying public. There are hundreds of examples of falling addictively in love with a pop song that didn't quite turn out to be universally shared - I still get sleepless nights over the lack of chart success for Tegan and Sara's Closer - but, thankfully, Uptown Funk was not one of them. OK: it's now tipped over to the other side of the scale (like Get Lucky) and getting the eyeroll treatment that comes with every above-average anthem, but we'll always have that brief period between "Fleur East covers the song on the X Factor" and "Uptown Funk spends its third week at number one".

Because it did come as a bit of a surprise: Record Collection, Ronson's third album, didn't quite set the country alight, and if anything was a stuttered assembly of great tunes outnumbered by inconsequential ones, much like its predecessor Version. Where the hype and the success stories about that mid-noughties production era (that included considerable excellence with Lily Allen, Adele, Amy Winehouse and Christina Aguilera) began to die, out came a Ronson that was trying to hone one particular style of production, rather than grab big names quickly and try to cover something as a bit of fun. Uptown Special does still have its star names - Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars - but the majority of guest vocalists here aren't household names but indie darlings. Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker help create an album that doesn't feel too crowded or patchy, but rather flows smoothly.

Saving Stevie Wonder and his unmistakeable harmonica for the briefest of intros and outros may well have us all Living for the City but Uptown isn't quite the same. For starters: the resounding feeling of being a chillout record is unmissable - 'Summer Breaking' is the first of three Kevin Parker vocals and as such is perfectly suited to a bit of Isley Brothers-derived opulence, with a smattering of the Buena Vista Social Club's aesthetic thrown in for good measure. I'll grant you that it doesn't scream originality but what's the point in striving for that when you can resurrect the greats masterfully? Heck, even James Brown gets reincarnated in the body of Mystikal on 'Feel Right'. 2012's excellent Hit Me already established that comparison and it's a fantastic return to music from the man who used to tell us to shake our asses. Feel Right isn't too different: it's a screaming, rip-roaring piece that is the only song powerful enough to set up what's to follow. That would be 'Uptown Funk'. Again, the influences and soundalikes are endless (some have said Oops Up Side Your Head, others have said the Sugarhill Gang, more officially there's a bit of Trinidad James in there too) but the end result is a uniquely majestic phenomenon, and one that should last way into the summer of 2015.

Even the album's more forgettable moments pack a punch: 'I Can't Lose' takes the unknown Keyone Starr and turns her into a disco powerhouse vocalist, whilst 'In Case of Fire' is basically a Steely Dan hit that never was. 'Heavy and Rolling', too, doesn't quite fit - it comes across as an awkward vocal on a backing designed for a much clearer and resolutely emotional one. Much of the rest passes by with more of a shake to the system.

Anyone who's followed Tame Impala since Lonerism will have already formed a heavily romantic infatuation with their take on psychedelia and drug-use, and Parker's turn on 'Daffodils' will most likely have the same effect, even if it's missing those fuzzy glam-rock guitars we've come to love. In their place are a Kirin J Callinan funk riff and all sorts of synth detours and breakdowns keeping it from a total hallucination. 'Crack in the Pearl' is, oddly, the most startling resemblance to those classic Stevie Wonder records and blurs in and out of focus sublimely, whilst 'Leaving Los Feliz' is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ronson's feelings of outgrowing the hipster scene ("I cruise the room without attracting a glance/ My Ksubi jeans are more like armor than pants") set to a quirky, bouncy, almost Mott the Hoople standard.

The only real problem with Uptown Special is that it's over so quickly and could've done with just one more star performance. The brief time it's on, however, it's more than just a hit single - it's a hit album.

Rating: 8/10
Highlights: Uptown Funk; Feel Right; Summer Breaking; Leaving Los Feliz; Daffodils
Avoid: n/a

Artwork Watch: is that it?
Up next: Madonna  

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Purity Ring - Another Eternity

Purity Ring are probably second only to CHVRCHES in that list of bands that literally everyone I talk about music with - from the puritanical Smiths-fan best friend over short bursts of Facebook messages (evening, Admiral) to the swathes and swathes of monsters and beyhives and whatevers I encounter online - is super enthusiastic about. I mean sure, both acts have a super-cute voice accompanying each and every track, but that's probably where the similarities end.

The Canadian pair dazzled everyone in 2012 with Shrines, even managing to chart respectably on the Billboard 200 in the process. However, if you head over to any discussion page about the band (let's use this example) you'll find a mass of complaints that what made Shrines unique has since been reduced into a poppier format, as though accessible music is the devil and forever trying to make something unlike anyone else in the world is a fruitful endeavour. I'm reminded of last year's hilarious backlash at Grimes from entitled douchebags demanding that Go, and whatever material associated with it, be scrapped, only for her to reveal a return to the drawing board and be ridiculed for it. Push Pull had that same divided reaction of superfans screaming excitedly and grumpy fedoras, so I think we can all agree that hysterical reactions to perceived "sellings out" are henceforth nonsense and to be ignored.

I'll concede that the music here sounds a lot happier: there's a shiny, optimistic feel to the piano melody opening 'Heartsigh' and what follows is merely more excitable in its outlook. Drum machines kick about and a buzzsaw of a horn punctuates the serenity of it all, and the end result is a confusing, but cheery kick-off. It gets more heavenly: there are what sound like actual harps in 'Bodyache', and an easily karaoke chorus gives the whole thing a bit of a Florence + The Machine vibe, which is clearly a good thing. The same can essentially be said of first single 'Push Pull', where Megan James' vocals take on this relaxed lilt that's more typical of a Rihanna or FKA twigs single than her usual tales about cutting open her sternum. It's not a total reduction, though: you wouldn't find Rihanna singing "A fever billowed with the wind/ And I bade the sky therein".

Romance is abound on Another Eternity - on 'Repetition', James regales "Make your way through my tears and I'll relax/ If you're the truest one I'm gonna make you a season", whilst in 'Flood on the Floor' there's a sort-of sweet (in an Edgar Allen Poe way) bridge that vows "I'll take you out and up in light/ I'll bury you good and straight and right". Maybe there isn't that much difference after all; on 'Dust Hymn' too, James takes on the form of a spider imploring her prey to "lie still along my old web".

The production is the source of much of the complaints about Push Pull and the rest of the album and I guess there're obvious differences: 'Stranger than Earth' is essentially a Drake track with a bit of an eurodance breakdown around halfway in, whilst 'Begin Again' has a rich EDM hook that takes over and instantly becomes the album's most memorable remnant. Oh boy, what a song. Calling upon tarot readings and the moon's orbit to best illustrate this sense of boundless love, the track just oozes endearing qualities with its rhythm, the calm-before-the-storm chorus, and indeed those crashing synths straight after. 'Sea Castle' has much of the same structure, really, without perhaps quite as strong a melody, whilst album-closing 'Stillness in Woe' has the sort of looping melody that would normally be sped up and serving as the backing for a Wiz Khalifa banger.

Perhaps making great pop music isn't to be sniffed at. People can moan and mourn the ridiculous pedestals they set for Shrines (because it certainly wasn't this unique game changer some make it out to be), and that's fine, but they're missing out on a hugely talented and adorable growth.

Rating: 8/10
Highlights: Begin Again; Bodyache; Stillness in Woe; Push Pull; Sea Castle
Avoid: N/A

Artwork Watch: Very good. The Exorcist remade as a folksy ruminative film on our relationship with spirituality.
Up next: Mark Ronson    

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Charli XCX - Sucker

There was a brief period when the music video for Break the Rules emerged that I entered a fit of token hipster eye-rolling. Here was an excellent talisman of pop music reducing herself to the most banal of teenage, rebellious Americana and at the height of her crossover from indie darling to certified, chart-dominating success story. I understand how awful it always sounds.

I'm not quite so bitter as some (seriously, what a fucking douchey closing paragraph), though, and if I'm going to go forward with any gripes about this album it's the fear that its ridiculous pushbacks and rescheduled release dates might dent its chances of coming anywhere near the top of our charts. Atlantic's potential failure to strike whilst the iron is hot may of course be endemic to the many, many stars that I tend to take to my heart, and it shouldn't by any means change the fact that Charli XCX is enjoying a fantastic lifestyle right now, but I don't know. Sometimes the world of pop is an unjust place. Charli XCX brightens it a little.

A title track sounding suspiciously like the very few remnants of the discography of Republica (that band that still, perplexingly, soundtrack much of the Sky Sports News adverts, which if you think about it is as absurd as the idea of Elastica tunes still being used to adverise BT) hammers home the very quintessentially British, punchy theme that's to come from its namesake album. The undeniably catchy, aforementioned 'Break the Rules' seems to have translated, with its eye-poppingly simple lyrics, better elsewhere, but aside from an assured delivery and finely-polished instrumental it justs comes off as rather unimpressing. Similarly, the riffs and tempo of 'London Queen' are incendiary, but lyrically ("I never thought I'd be living in the USA, doing things the American way-ay-ay"; the British "oi!"s shouted like a shiny-faced YouTuber doing an impression of a Sex Pistols track) strikes me as pointlessly brash and obnoxious.

She allows for a less annoying singalong vibe on 'Breaking Up', a song that magically restores the idea that Aitchison is able to weave multiple hooks together into something with repeated-listen appeal, and - thank God - it can be said of the rest of the album. Indeed, I'm struggling to remember an album with a double-whammy of pop magnificence (I suppose it would have to be The Fame Monster, aka the New Testament) as good as singles 'Doing It' and 'Boom Clap': the former was the inescapable radio behemoth attributed to The Fault in Our Stars, and we're all thankful that mediocre teen movies exist if they're going to launch pop careers into the stratosphere like that. The latter has since been revamped with a part of the song sung (needlessly, but we'll let it slide) by Rita Ora, but it hasn't lost any of its effortless cool or dream-pop grandeur.

It's not all straightforward "pop punk" nonsense and surefire radio hits; there're actual glimpses of daring and unorthodox inclusions for your typical pop princess album. 'Body of My Own' is a love letter to the act of masturbation set to what sounds like the boss music from Street Fighter, there's casual drug use on the glorious 'Famous', and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij lends that band's particularly odd and endearing touches to closer 'Need Ur Luv', a tongue-in-cheek bit of emotional vulnerability. Unfortunately, there are those tracks that you might've expected and dreaded: 'Gold Coins' finds her with full bragging rights and the keys to her own fortress of money (again, not so punk, but shush), whilst 'Hanging Around' actually resurrects Weezer's Beverly Hills for no goddamn reason.

A lot of what disappoints about Sucker can probably be put down to the production credits: True Romance was helmed by the indomitable Ariel Rechtshaid and had passing influences from Gold Panda and Blood Diamonds, so it was always going to be a tough act to follow. The names here might be bigger, but Benny Blanco (forever problematic) and StarGate - whose last three big hits are probably Black Widow (the less said the better), Selena Gomez's Come & Get It (ditto) and that silly song about foxes - certainly bring little to the fold and their inconsistent, wishy-washy tracklisting ends up on the verge of turning Charli XCX into another bland popstar. She just about comes on top, though, and her craft and appeal seem - for now - unable to be squashed. Let's hope for fewer bratty Gwen Stefani anthems* on album three.

Rating: 7.5/10
Highlights: Doing It; Boom Clap; Famous; Die Tonight; Breaking Up
Avoid: London Queen; Hanging Around

Artwork Watch: Hair and make-up bag an instant 10/10 but that top belongs in a bag left outside Oxfam.
Up next: Purity Ring
*unless they sound as good as Break the Rules

Friday, 13 February 2015

Björk - Vulnicura

I don't know, maybe all of the best albums made are now going to be dropped, unannounced (or rushed by leaks) on iTunes some day. Maybe year-long promotional campaigns seem silly in retrospect. Don't they, though? Who has the attention span nowadays to wait 5 months for an album from Charli XCX, let alone when it's been sprung across the Atlantic those same five months ago? We'll come to that gripe in my next review (which, coincidentally, shall hopefully not be five months down the line. I really shall try this year to review at least one album a week).

So: Björk. I assume we are all familiar. We're nine albums in now so that makes her a bit of an institution, although one would suppose that many have made a marked impact with many fewer. When it comes to analysing the works of Björk, however, it soon emerges that few - if any - actually rival her when it comes to a collective, frightening, beguiling, challenging, revolutionary musical output. Overanalysis tends to put aside the most obvious and sensitive subjects, though: Vulnicura is a break-up album. Any idiot with a working pair of ears can detect that by the end of Black Lake and those strings. One could draw all sorts of maps about the influences and styles employed - perhaps on a neat little app that might've been slipped into the Biophilia advertising campaign - but soaked in, the immediate sucker-punch of Vulnicura is what makes it so compelling.

You'd be forgiven, in fact, for briefly forgetting her history and getting immersed in an easy, comforting, indulgent opener: 'Stonemilker' is unusually accessible, reminiscent of her Debut days, but charming and richly orchestrated all the same. The subtle nods to her previous works (perhaps following Biophilia's Mutual Core with an album opener with lyrics of mutual coordinates is just coincidence, but not in this romantic's head it isn't) are clever reminders of Björk's need for emotional openness: on Mutual Core she sang "What you resist persists/ Nuance makes heat to counteract distance", and here she reinforces her disappointment with an uncommunicative lover - "Who is open? And who has shut up / And if one feels closed, how does one stay open?" - in the dwindling days of their relationship. The sequential, diary-like nature of the album and her growing fears of said romance make for compelling reading, and on 'Lionsong' even better listening. The uncertainty and dread plaguing her emotional state at the time are translated through stuttered, dragging beats and a perennially ominous string arrangement; never an appealing mix, but it keeps you on your toes. Much could be said of the fact that the briefest song is one of momentary bliss and denial: 'History of Touches' finds Björk waking up in the middle of the night and feeling every sexual encounter she's shared with him to be "in a wondrous time lapse".

Of course, the perfect antidote to this brief glimmer of hope would be in excess of ten minutes and titled something so obviously dreadful and bleak as 'Black Lake'. The first track to be subtitled as "after" the break-up, it's still ripe with cold kiss-offs ("Family was always our sacred mutual mission which you abandoned/ You have nothing to give, Your heart is hollow"). The industrial build-up around four and a half minutes in is thrilling, too, a natural release to her resolution: "I rebelled/ destroyed the icon". To put it bluntly, it'll go down as one of her greatest ever tracks. That glorious breakdown is followed by an uncomfortable, unnerving detailing of the resulting fallout: 'Family' describes "no triangle of love" in terms of her daughter and ex-husband, whilst guest producer the Haxan Cloak is drafted in to spook it all up. Its resolution offers some hope: a series of drawn-out, almost heavenly synths closes the track as Björk maintains that "we can get healed".

The healing process Björk employs is, naturally, an unusual one: 'Notget' finds her using the morbid refrain that "love will keep all of us safe from death", with a colder emphasis on the death with each repetition. Although more renowned for his strewn across the bed, face down, crying into a pillow moments, Antony (and the Johnsons) Hegarty lends a touch of his shimmery, Hercules and Love Affair self to 'Atom Dance': a short revival of the themes of universal synchronicity employed on Biophilia, I suppose. Here the true meaning of Vulnicura emerges (it translates from the latin words for wounds and healing): "Let this ugly wound breathe". If I had to pinpoint a small gripe with the album I suppose it'd be the frenzied clicking and whirring of 'Mouth Mantra' - I'm not sure if I'm just developing a headache with or without its help but it's certainly a niggling sensation.

It'd be terribly straightforward to cite the brighter-sounding 'Quicksand' as a positive closer, as a bit of closure, as a sign the wounds are healing, but the small fact that it was written in light of her mother's coma in 2011 throws a darker meaning to the chorus of "if she sinks, I'm going down with her". The closing lines, however, talk of continuity and a refusal to give up; Vulnicura may be, for the most part, a break-up record but its process of healing is what makes the album such an endearing, heartwarming (if not momentarily soul-destroying) one.

Rating: 9/10
Highlights: Black Lake; Atom Dance; Stonemilker; Family; Lionsong
Avoid: n/a

Artwork Watch: I like dandelions. I get unsettled when they look like a PVC vaginaboobed woman covered in syringes. 
Up next: Charli XCX  

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour

Looking over the list of the potential recipients of the same award that launched Sam Smith into the unstoppable chart force that he is (although terrible album sales all around mean that basically anyone with a strong marketing campaign can remain in the top 40 for a month or three), I sort of feel sorry for them. Years and Years (probably the most likely, considering the award's not gone to a group before) (news just in informs me I was wrong), James Bay (this is why) and George the Poet are all of the hallmarks of what you'd usually hear about a Critics Choice winner: safe, carved for the mainstream and about as soulful as a cup of tea (with milk, obviously).

A telling interview near the start of the year in the build up to his album's launch told us that Sam Smith had never actually been in love:
"On Latch I was singing about love... but I've never physically experienced it. And I'm kind of sick of listening to albums about the turmoils of relationships, never having had one. So I wanted to write an album for people who have never been in love. I want to be a voice for lonely people."
This, coupled with his choice of album opener, does make one worry about the state of popular music and what's required to make it big, but let's suppress that twitch and enjoy Smith's fairly formidable talent.

I cannot abide 'Money on my Mind'. I am so sorry, but I will never be able to: that chorus is so shrill, it's such a simple way of making me wince and feel like I'm having root canal treatment (I've had it as well, and it does compare). I do get lulled a little bit inbetween choruses with the rather lovely rills and synths from producer Ben Ash, but - especially compared to previous earworms that proved Smith is more than able to helm a dance hit - this is too much. Perhaps Smith knows this too - the rest of the album is unashamed, sombre balladry, excessive guitar licks and a fondness for the piano. The main producer of 2013's winner Tom Odell, perhaps the most unconvincing attempt at a personality in recent years, Eg White, helps out with 'Good Thing': a song that starts with "I had a dream that I got mugged outside your house" and doesn't really go uphill from there.

Of course, there are tremendous moments. There are those who'd argue the standout song of 2014 is Stay With Me and you'd be hard pressed to refute the claim: it's just such a straightforward, gorgeous vocal layered over the same alchemy that made Adele the queen of 2011. The record's other singles are further little delights: 'I'm Not the Only One' has a wonderful live-lounge quality about the production that makes the whole thing much less forced, and probably boasts the album's most enchanting vocal of the lot. 'Life Support' is the only other Ash production on offer here, and a much more tolerable exploitation of Smith's falsetto, whilst 'Like I Can' is the closest Smith comes to the menace and power behind 21, and particularly Rolling in the Deep.

It's just that Smith is aiming for an album of Someone Like Yous, which can be fine when listened to in small doses, but a whole album of it is neither fruitful nor possible. I mean actually thinking 'Not in That Way' or 'Leave Your Lover' or 'I've Told You Now' are titles that suggest anything other than a one-dimensional fit of misery is rather shortsighted, and the songs themselves are fleeting little things that may, one day, find themselves soundtracking the fanmade videos of YouTube's most volatile Sherlock or Supernatural fans, but otherwise offer none of that personality, that experience or specific storytelling that's required to make a ballad emotional.

There is the general feeling that this a collection of soundbites and general piecings together of a bunch of friends' or strangers' or TV characters' emotional problems without any of the idiosyncracy or intimacy, or anything other than a defeated, morose whine... and to that I say "well. At least he has a nice voice."

Rating: 5/10
Highlights: Stay With Me; Like I Can; Life Support; Lay Me Down; I'm Not the Only One
Avoid: Money on my Mind

Artwork Watch: I'm not sure how you can expect to be anything other than alone on a stool that bloody small.
For fans of: Daniel Merriweather, Ed Sheeran, basically everything else to come from the BRIT Academy
Up next: The Horrors  

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Clark - Clark

OK can we all look away and pretend I'm not jumping straight in on an artist's seventh album because it was on Pitchfork's best new music feature? Please? That would be lovely.

Some albums are difficult to put into words. Clark is one of those albums. So, let me summarise by saying that I massively enjoy:
  • the way 'Banjo' sounds like Alice Practice's happier little sister.
  • how 'Petroleum Tinged' is basically the entirety of the movie Drive ground into one quick nutshell.
  • The entirety of 'The Grit in the Pearl'. Says Mr. Clark: "I hypnotised myself with it, couldn't stop listening to it. Part of me sort of wishes the whole album was just this improvised loop."
  • the bouncy bounce bounce..
  • ...

And so, in the first of four hundred reviews to actually dare to use bullet points, please let's all retire and listen to Clark in silence.

Rating: 8/10
Highlights: The Grit in the Pearl; Winter Linn; Unfurla; Silvered Iris; There's a Distance in You
Avoid: n/a

Artwork Watch: AND WHY IS HE ALLOWED TO GET AWAY WITH BLACKFACE? An angry teenager screams, putting away some facepaints for Halloween 2015.
Up next: Sam Smith