Album: From The Roots Up
Format: Physical and download
Delilah first appeared as a guest vocalist on Chase & Status’ eerie, clattering and incredibly powerful Time. Her breathy, distinctive vocal made the track a stand out on No More Idols, creating an intimate, tough effect in a way that traditional drum’n’bass vocals don’t always and referencing the sort of warmth that Cold Cut and Massive Attack bring to their songs. The song itself is made for hurtling around London at night, juddering tube tracks with the hot air of the tunnel pushed ahead of a train. The tough-girl-listening-to-her-own-heart-break-in-her-earphones evocation is spectacular, on an emotional par with some of the best of 90s euphoria.
She could easily have disappeared then, like so many dance vocalists. So I was totally thrilled when she resurfaced in late 2011 with the unearthly, threatening ‘Go’ –
Taking Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ and deconstructing it into a will-o’-the-wisp, prowling exhalation of lust, ‘Go’ is the ultimate cold-temperature lust song. Full of need, the desire has iced over dangerously and is turned to a possessive obsession. Delilah sounds utterly terrifying on it, all restraint and softness that’s full of unreleased but present tension, the sort of chilling, masterful vocal performance you wouldn’t expect from an artist’s first single, all mired in a smog of electronic wobble and the after-echo of a late night bar. Read more…
Artist: Purity Ring
Format: Physical and download
Purity Ring make really, really nice sounds. They’re a Montreal-based duo, consisting of multi-instrumentalist Corin Roddick and vocalist Megan James, who formed semi-accidentally while both part of Gobble Gobble (then Born Gold) after Roddick started messing around with beats. They released their first track, ‘Ungirthed,’ online in 2011 and have been slowly leaking songs ever since.
The project was born when Roddick decided to experiement with hip hop beats, which is a fact that genuinely surprised me. Perhaps because I listen to hip hop as a matter of course, it never occurred to me that what I was hearing was more inspired by that than by electronica in general. But finding it out made me overcome all grumpy and mutter feelings about Girl Talk bringing smug hipster pseudo-ironic vegan crunk nights to life. There’s been far too much back-patting over indie musicians listening to a bit of UGK or whatever over the last five years; ever since Simon Reynolds’ outright bonkers declaration that Vampire Weekend had the most innovative beats of 2009 I’ve been twitchily cynical about this sort of fusion cookery.
The good news is: like the xx, Purity Ring pull it off. Read more…
There’s a lot of stupidly talented young people releasing music right now. From Angel Haze and Azealia Banks to Odd Future’s roster, which includes the 18-year-old Earl Sweatshirt, recently back from being grounded by his mum.
Cory Jreamz, from Houston, Texas is young even from that list. Recently turned 18, he’s already released a dense, interesting EP of smooth, electronic hip hop where sparkling synths and sax clash with clattering beats and sampling. ‘Electronic hip hop,’ especially coming out of Texas, has come to mean the woozy, minimalist stylings of crunk but Cory’s music is lush, almost swollen with sound and fantasies quite different from the stereotypical girls and parties; Polysemy, his first four-track offering, is full of ghosts and religion. I spoke to him about the internet, artistic integrity and what he’s doing next.
You’re from Houston, Texas, which is where a lot of the biggest artists in southern rap/crunk were coming out of in the 00s. You don’t fit that profile; has the scene changed overall or are you trailblazing?
Trailblazing. Who wants to hear the same thing for 10 to 20 years? I couldn’t tell you about the scene, I maintain to stay in my own world and universe really. But one of my goals is to tear down the stereotype some peeps have on “Southern born artists.” It’s disgusting when people presume what music I make because of where I’m from.
In our contemporary culture there is the tendency to overlap, to mashup and collage; exciting new art styles end up as clothing line prints, books turn into movies that turn into novelizations of movies, and the music we listen to frequently ends up on commercials. As a patron of the arts, a reader, a listener, and a consumer, it’s difficult to say what the intentions of creators are. Whether an artist attempts to make art or something commercial little matters, because inevitably we’ll end up able to consume it in both forms.
In the crux of this conundrum lies Passion Pit’s album Gossamer. It doesn’t matter if the artists were trying to create art or commercial art, but often throughout their latest offering there is the disturbing sensibility of listening to an extended commercial, being fed an offering that gives little sustenance and nourishes naught, while simultaneously there are attempts at lyrical depth and a seeming desire for sincere communication – and therein lies the dilemma.
It’s difficult to criticize a fence-sitter, because the art is likely to disappoint either way you interpret it. Unfortunately that’s precisely the problem of Gossamer. The music – an electronic, distortion-heavy alt-pop menagerie – is largely forgettable. Most of the melodies seem familiar, have regular rhythms to dance to, and yet glide effortlessly away from the listener without leaving anything behind to remember. While the subject matter of the album appears to be provoking and intriguing, ranging from working class doldrums (“Take A Walk”), over imbibing (“Cry Like A Ghost”), and the favorite bad love (“I’ll Be Alright”, “On My Way”, “Hideaway”, and the aptly titled “Love Is Greed”), the execution of the subjects is eternally bright, and often overlaid ad nauseam.
There are a few exceptions, moments of genuine fun that serve as points of clarity. “Carried Away” sparkles as a juicy trite bite, with its 80s girl pop feel and lyrics that describe the sliding nature of false friendships – a subject that in the age of social networking and increasing tendencies towards isolation seems more relevant and relatable than ever before. Breezily sung lyrics that state “Listen, I’m your friend, don’t quote me” come across as perky, sour and sweet. “Cry Like A Ghost” has the most distinguishing personality of the collection within the music itself; heavy, electronic synth distortions periodically give it a sort of haunted house pop feel, and inject the song with some genuine eerie fun, but when the chorus kicks in there is too much of a hollow contemporary pop emptiness infusing it. Promise turns to empty shadows, and the listener is left with disappointment.
Sometimes on Gossamer the things that you hear with the least clarity are the most interesting. “Where We Belong” features some unusual and complex violins and noises similar to the flitting of insect wings, and “Mirrored Sea” has a dreamy binge of psychedelia hidden within it. But like hunting for proof of Nessie or Bigfoot, these moments of inspiration that you took a smudgy photo of in your excitement vanish all too quickly, and you are left wondering if anything exciting actually happened at all.
While Passion Pit fans might be more forgiving of the album, or so eager to embrace a new entry since 2009’s Manners that they find gold here, this collection of songs has less a heart of gold than a heart of iron pyrite, if there is any heart to be found at all.
“Experimental” is not a dirty word. The fundamentals of great experimentation are a sure knowledge of what has preceded the new creation, and a passionate desire to play with the limits and boundaries of what is known and comfortable. Even if the experiment fails to do what it set out to perform, the results are often compelling at best, and mildly interesting at worst. Unfortunately all too often we are greeted with lazy artists who create something and, failing to easily define what they’ve made, dub it an “experiment” and inflict it upon others without any real passion or love for what they created. In this circumstance the real experiment is a social one – an impromptu Emperor’s New Clothes scenario where appreciation for the artist conflicts with the lackluster product the poor victim has been subjected to, but is expected to praise.
Fortunately Swing Lo Magellan by indie rock band Dirty Projectors is experimental in the good sense of the word. While not always satisfying emotionally or intellectually, the album is a worthwhile experience, and rootling through the rhythms, vocals, and psychedelic influences on it make for an enjoyable pause over your hot beverage of choice.
The star of the album is the title song, where drums and guitar meet with David Longstreth’s gorgeous vocals. His voice trails to high ranges seamlessly – but unexpectedly – with meandering lyrics that create tone without too much specificity. There’s a simplicity to this song, a folksy 1960s hint of the past that blushes becomingly at the surface. Interestingly enough, none of the remaining songs on Swing Lo Magellan feel quite like this entry, although they retain certain shared aspects. “Impregnable Question” is perhaps the song most outwardly similar to “Swing Lo Magellan” – retaining the retro folk rock feel with piano and tambourine underscoring its influences. Here too simplicity is key, the lyric “you’re my love and I want you in my life” as direct as the music itself.
But many of the songs on the album are eclectic, and despite sharing the same vocalists often seem as if they originated from different albums altogether. “Just From Chevron” – a song with a fairly obvious environmental message – features controlled clapping and guitar that explodes into a psychedelic interlude before neatly returning to its previous state. When Longstreth screams at certain points in the song the sound is suppressed, rigid with emotional restraint. “Maybe That Was It” alternates its rhythms in a regular way, the psychedelic intro of electric guitar, bass, and drums mellowing into a lilting and slow venture. Alternately “Gun Has No Trigger” has a distinctly 90s feel with its regular drums and female back up vocals ooh-ing to a progressively sharp folk crescendo, while “The Socialites” – the only song on the album where a female vocalist is foregrounded – contains a terse, tense electric rhythm punctuated by distortion that sounds vaguely like cat yowls.
We can never rediscover the true weirdness of the 1960s psychedelic movements without abandoning our own prohibitive – and inhibitive – self-awareness. There are no guttural intonations here, no untoward surprises; ultimately self-editing prevents the songs from becoming sublime. But the experiments here seem like a worthy exploration of uniting that inhibitive awareness with wildness, and when they succeed, are indeed dressing the band properly in shiny new clothes and not leaving them naked.
There are not an enormous number of 20-year-old, Native American, childhood-in-a-cult surviving, queer, female rapper/singers around currently. Given the cult stuff, you’d hope not. Angel Haze is, though and she’s about to be one of the biggest things in the world.
Female rap comparators are always limited- the default used to be Missy and now everyone’s the new Minaj who Angel Haze has mentioned aspirations to collaborate with- “it’ll be like a fencing match”. When she’s asked about her favourite artists, she says Drake, Jason Mraz and Sia (even though she says it Cy-ah) and then she talks about helping out at her mum’s daycare centre and spending most of her day surrounded by kids, not being into partying, not having been into hip hop until a friend turned her onto it. She likes fashion (Kanye, Pharell Williams, androgyny) and skateboarding, Chinese food and stuffed crust pizza; she doesn’t like labels, doesn’t like linking her sexuality to her music, doesn’t want to have to define it. She likes that her fans are crazily devoted but it also freaks her out. She sounds kind of sleepy and goofy when she speaks in interviews.
The idea of a mixtape conjures images of rough cuts, the sort of thing an artist does before they have access to a full studio and production; bootlegs. Equally, when I think of an EP my brain goes to something 5-7 tracks long that was chart ineligible. You know, back when cassettes were a thing- the world has changed, needless to say; this is 14 whole tracks, no interludes (that would’ve been an extended edition LP in 2001) and some of the most impressive music you will hear all year.
Childish Gambino is the not-really-a-side-project rap persona of multiple-threat megatalent Donald Glover. What he’s most famous for depends on your perspective but before the Gambino project took off he won an Emmy for writing on the third season of 30 Rock, launched a stand up career and starred as Troy Barnes in the very deeply brilliant Community. He’s 28.
Royalty is either his seventh or eighth full-length release as Childish Gambino, depending on whether you let him forget a juvenile effort in 2005 he’s subsequently divorced himself from. He also releases mixtapes as a DJ, just in case you thought he was taking time off occasionally- coupled with writing and starring in TV shows and doing stand up, I figure that leaves him about four hours a year for other things, which he’s probably also succeeding at and I just haven’t found out about yet.
It is one of the more inexplicable features of humanity that as summer arrives and the globe heats up, we begin to pursue athletic activities designed primarily to make us hot and sweaty. Some of them are understandable – swimming is hard to do when what you’re swimming in is frozen over – but dancing in the summer seems masochistic. Yet In Our Heads by Hot Chip may very well inspire the unsuspecting listener to engage in precisely that dangerous, sweat-inducing activity. Heart rates beware, there’s a new album in town prepared to make you buzz.
The sound of Hot Chip’s latest endeavor is not completely unexpected; synthesizers, drums, and a variety of electronic miscellany conspire to create a faintly nostalgic, 80s electric dance pop-influenced sound. There is even the whiff of the video game among a few of the tracks (“Motion Sickness,” “Night and Day”), and music that occasionally feels like it could double as the theme song for a public access television show three decades back (“Don’t Deny Your Heart”). The choral series of “ohs” in “Let Me Be Him” are strongly reminiscent of pop rock vocal diversions from the 80s – in fact with only a few glancing moments of 70s disco percussion and choruses, and some 60s rock folk blushes (particularly in “Now There Is Nothing”), the album comes across as a loving look backwards that, while not entirely immersive in the era, certainly lingers along the doorway there.
Artist: Chris Brown
Format: Physical and download
Spotify: UK Extended edition
Let’s get this over with: Chris Brown is not a nice man. He’s a violent ex-con, he has bar brawls, he whines. I wouldn’t want to know him. His last album was very annoying in this respect because it was extremely good.
“All popstars are horrible” is probably a bit true- most of them are probably not necessarily people I’d want to spend hours with but there’s a line between being an egoist or an extrovert and being Chris Brown. If, say, Kanye West was your friend’s diva-y boyfriend then he’d be annoying and you’d probably try not to go to the pub with him or get cornered at a party to talk about whatever he’s into in massive, intense depth for three hours without being able to get another drink but he’d otherwise just be any regular idiot Goldsmiths student. Lady Gaga would be your friend who you can’t go on a night out with without ending up holding their hair out of their face while they vomit and cry about things wrong with the world and/or men. She and Kanye would probably date, in some irresistably nuclear fusion of awfulness.
Chris Brown would be the dude who, had you known him, you’d have a restraining order out on. Sure, he seemed really cute and sweet for ages but there are things that stop you knowing people and one of them is violent assault. Read more…
Album: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s new album is very childish.
The word “childish” is a divisive word, a dismissive word; to be called childish can be a smarting blow, an insult that seems to put its target in a low place. Yet there is power in childishness, and strength in it as well – there is innocence inside of it, and precociousness – and the petulance and raw emotion of a wounded child can strike more sincerely at the chords of the heart than the tantrum of an emotionally-constrained adult ever will. It is precisely this other, less explored side of childish that threads its way throughout her album, from the long rhyming title (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do) to her vocals, and makes this collection of songs ultimately both endearing and hypnotic.
Each of the songs has a unique percussive introduction, from the xylophones of “Every Single Night” to the mechanized percussion that rhythmically begins “Jonathan”, which sounds rather like a photocopy machine. These playful beginnings are soon joined by piano, and inevitably the bewitching vocals of Fiona herself. Her emotions are exposed in every song – she sings part of “Jonathan” through clenched teeth, becoming petulant, and on “Valentine” recalls adoring and loving someone, ending with “you, you, you” each time, words that are clearly an irritated epithet. The vocals of “Regret” dissolve into deep, off-key shrieks that feel primal and naked. In “Periphery” the lyrics match her delivery perfectly as she exclaims “I don’t even like you anymore at all” – words that are clipped and biting, apropos of a playground friendship’s end.
Artist: Sara Bareilles
Album: Once Upon Another Time
Format: Physical and download EP
Sara Bareilles is a funny popstar. I don’t just mean in the sense that she’s pitched somewhere between the self-conscious alt-ness of Amanda Palmer and (unfortunately) the corporate advertising soundtrack of Daniel Powter, I mean she’s funny ha-ha. Being a popstar that plays a piano is kind of difficult- you can’t stand, legs akimbo, head back, hammering at a baby grand that’s got an unfortunate connotation of not quite being a pop instrument, despite this being patently untrue if even slightly scrutinised.
Pianos are, perhaps, a little bit twee. I’m not exactly sure why- say what you want about Elton John or Meatloaf but they’re not twee- and maybe the self-consciousness of having to sit at this big thing on stage, unable to move too much, means you have to learn to be funny to hold people’s attention, less theatre to cover any drops in the show. I don’t know if Sara Bareilles does much patter between songs (I know she gets up from the piano a fair bit) but she has a wry wittiness to her, something a little in the vein of a less-exhausted Aimee Mann and since 2007’s Little Voice album (probably best described as ‘targetedly charming’) she’s been getting just a little bit bitter.
In the panorama of genres, “folk music” is one of the more interesting ones, namely because there is no clear definition for it. There are similarities of parts, but the true key to folk music’s mysterious heart lies within the words that compose the term: folk music is the music of the people, the ever-elusive common man, arising wherever the people gather. Like fairytales, folk songs have a familiar sense of storytelling; once the words are spoken there’s a sense of continuity, of familiarity with what has always been sung. Also like fairytales, folk songs are firmly entrenched within the concept of oral tradition. This is the music of firepits and families, and tells the story of the everyman trudging through this similar, yet often surprising world.
With this in mind, the concept of new folk music almost seems to be an anomaly. Yet Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros weave a new tapestry of folk songs with the ingenuous pluck of children on their album Here. In fact there is a sense of play and experimentation throughout, a lightheartedness that can be found in the range of instruments they use – from a didgeridoo in “Man on Fire” to the clanking shepherd’s bells of “Mayla” – and how they play those instruments – for example stroking instead of plucking guitar strings in “Child.” Two of the songs on the album even flirt with reggae and island influences; “One Love to Another” and “Mayla” both possess a meandering, relaxed mood contained by a characteristically regular rhythm and percussion.
Some of the most successful songs deal with religious themes. “I Don’t Wanna Pray” is a kind of agnostic anthem, celebrating a spiritual connection via life itself. The song is rich with folk music cues, including snaps, claps, and a banjo that adds a tuneful riverboat vibrancy. The melody at times becomes much like a spiritual itself, further turning the theme of the song into a tangible characteristic. “Dear Believer” discusses the personal pursuit of enlightenment with a warm, full sound and vocals reminiscent of 60s folk. Yet despite the washboard and the rich choral swell, this is a song which comes across as surprisingly dark upon a closer listen. There is a sense of the desperado, the lone gunman seeking his quarry, as Sharpe sings “paradise has its hunter.” This unusual juxtaposition enriches the song in just the right amount, making a mellow tune suddenly ominous, and worth repeated investigation.
The songs range in the types of folk sound they pursue, from the slow 70s folk of “Fiya Wata” where every phrase sung punctuates an emotional progression that the music echoes, to the 60s big band folk of “That’s What’s Up” which gives a sincere and inescapably optimistic sing-along rollicker, replete with tambourines, whistles and shouts. Not every story will instantly appeal to every listener, but the common man will find some common ground in at least some of the tales told Here.
Artist: Silversun Pickups
Album: Neck of the Woods
Label: Dangerbird Records
Format: Physical and download LP
Silversun Pickups sit within a genre that crosses one of my favourite transatlantic semantic divides (like pants/trousers or cars/trucks) -in the US they’re dreampop, in the UK shoegaze. This is great because both portmanteaus are gorgeously evocative; maybe I’ve spent too much time staring at my bedroom ceiling over the years but it’s hard to hear the word ‘shoegaze’ without immediately thinking of that slant of sunlight through dust onto your feet atop a duvet. Dreampop, too, is all light shapes on dark floors and the Losing My Religion video.
Silversun Pickups’ name itself is evocative, dry air and lazy afternoons and both their previous albums have been instantly recognisable by abstracted, murky swirls and lights on the covers. Their understanding of the soundscape immersion that this kind of music needs to achieve seemed exceptional, if rather directly related to that of the Smashing Pumpkins.
Neck Of The Woods, though, has as its cover art a stark, twilit suburban house, replete with picket fence. The inside is lit blankly and the observer is outside the fence- a far, surgical cry from the almost tactile swirls of Carnavas or the Rorschach splodges of Swoon. Their third album is an evocation of homesickness-at-home, a sense of alienation in your home town, where that sunbeam is no longer evocative but dispossessing, ghostly; an album about horror stories in midwestern towns and that creeping sense of dread in the mirror. Read more…
Great music acts as a direct conduit to another world. The world is internal, the avenues and features of the landscape changing with each new aural narrative, but you always know when you are there. The new album The Shallows by I Like Trains is yet another passage to this place that’s familiar but new, unknown but wonderfully exciting to explore.
The music is dark, pulsing; it drips with the artificial, electric sound of mellow 80s dystopian pop. If ever there was a soundtrack for a party held on the oil-drenched shore of a Malibu beach house in Blade Runner, this is it. Synthesizers frequently pair with drums and heavy bass rhythms that enthrall, while lead vocalist David Martin sings with a hushed inevitability as simple – and intense – as breathing.
Truly, this is an album for lovers of wordplay and idiom collage. Everyday phrases are paired in unexpected ways, leading to a tenebrous synchronicity that reveals the darkness lurking within the commonplace. The opening lines of “Beacons”, the first song on the album, state that “I will be taking care of business, I’ll run it all into the ground,” transforming two casual phrases into a new and much more ominous sentiment than its parts. This casual act of juxtaposition is not a singular event, but a theme throughout the album, turning it into a kind of written dream or calculated stream of consciousness. Some other choice delights include “the lion sleeps, honey dripping from its teeth” and “the blind will lead the blind into the rabbit hole again” – both from “The Hive” – but the entire collection of songs is rich with this linguistic love affair.
David Martin is so skillful that when he grows quieter on “We Used to Talk” the intensity there increases rather than diminishes. For much of the album he sings with a careful elocution that complements his deep voice, blending hypnotically with the distorted and assorted musical accompaniment. This is music that could certainly be danced to; the rhythms are often regular, quick, and appealing (“Mnemosyne”, “The Hive”) but it would be difficult to label this a dance album. The words of the lyrics are so intriguing, the music unpretentiously rich, that dance is less often inspired than actual thought.
Every song has something to offer, whether it be the funereal yet celebratory sound of “The Turning of the Bones” – a song about famadihana in Madagascar – to the enigmatic repetition and progression of music and lyrics in “The Shallows”. The final song (“In Tongues”) ends suddenly, abruptly pulling us from the world we’d fallen into and leaving us wanting more.
Whenever someone creates a cover album, the first question that comes to mind is whether that album needed to be made or not. Some songs, like great films, evidently got it right the first time. When a new interpretation of a song comes along, that version faces the fierce scrutiny of every die-hard fan of the original. Iggy Pop’s Après is a cover album of primarily French songs with some English ones thrown into the mix, in the vein of his previously released album of 2009, Préliminaires. Suddenly the question of whether or not a cover album of these songs should be made dwindles in importance – surely with Iggy Pop involved, Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” will shine, “Michelle” by The Beatles will resonate afresh with a new set of pipes to sing it. The disappointment that arose upon listening to the album itself was indeed a melancholy affair.
To those unacquainted with Iggy Pop’s vocals let it be known that they are not merely idiosyncratic, they are bewitching – a feast of aural mesmerism that groans, quavers, and wavers with bass-driven emotion. Pair this talent with the alternately moody and breezy selection of standards on the album, and one might expect alchemy to render instant pop gold. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While occasionally a few singles have momentary sparkles, the songs largely suffer from overproduction and simply too much instrumentation on melodies that would benefit from simplicity.
The opening cover “Et si tu n’existais pas” – originally a Joe Dassin song – is a prime example of the instrumentation turning bad seed. Here Iggy Pop’s delightfully rich voice is preceded – and consequently accompanied – by far too much full orchestration, and when he begins to sing, the female supporting vocals incrementally drown rather than actually support. Regrettably this becomes a regular occurrence, rendering several of the songs dissatisfying. There is often the sense that the music is searching for something, and indeed according to a post on Iggy Pop’s Facebook page it appears that this album was looking for emotional closeness by communicating through human breath rather than the human heartbeat – yet it is precisely the instruments imitating those heartbeats that end up obfuscating any whisper his voice attempts to speak.
“Only the Lonely” is possibly one of the most successful songs on the album because of how stripped down the instrumentation becomes, allowing Iggy’s long, drawn-out vowels to resonate with arcane beauty. After the introductory background walla, and the somber piano and bass begin, Iggy Pop’s voice sadly unfolds, and the listener is taken with clear immediacy to the sorrowful recollection the story of the lyrics relays. If the rest of the album had the courage to pare down the instruments to that intimate, personal level, it would be a dazzler. As it currently stands many of the songs are simply too busy, forcing the listener to hunt for a fantastic vocalist amid fairly standard but overwhelming instrumentation.