Review: Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Frank Ocean,

Channel ORANGE,

Def Jam

“PEACE UP, A-TOWN!” – Everyone knows what comes next: jarring beats that sound like lightsabers ping-ponging their way across a checkers board. But those four syllables were a musical call for duty it seems. It was as if the pop world stood up, took out a pen and wrote itself a note: the future was going to be a treadmill of unabated urban ditties featuring repetitive choruses and 35-second guest appearances from global rap stars with a yo-yo long list of hit singles and guest vocals. It was a two-fingered goodbye to the likes of Destiny’s Child, and a ‘follow me’ gesture to Chris Brown, Rihanna and Co.

But a few weeks ago, Frank Ocean leaked his single, “Pyramids,” a nine-minute epic that coalesces the narratives of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Cleopatra, and Cleopatra the stripper, who works at a bar, called The Pyramid. The track confidently works its way through fast-paced club beats and a slowed down warbling of, “Working at The Pyramid tonight,” ending with a crooning electric guitar that underpins the song with equal doses of angst inflected with despair.

Unlike a lot of commercial pop records, Ocean’s new album, Channel ORANGE, is a carefully devised piece of work that comes without any padding or Polyfill pop songs. It oozes confidence throughout without becoming cocky, and assimilates a range of style without ever copying or sounding tedious.

Opening track “Start” doesn’t begin with a bang but rather a series of everyday noises: the TV, an iPod, some videogame beeps. Silence and noise blend together to culminate with the orchestral strings that herald the second single on the album, “Thinkin Bout You”. And Ocean’s falsetto croon of, “Do you not think so far ahead, because I’ve been thinking about forever,” resonates a subtle yet itching type of romance, which supersedes the everyday pop-hyperbole of love-lost.

“Thinkin Bout You” is followed with a witty minute-long interlude, “Fertilizer”, which absorbs the TV jingle-rhetoric before blazing headlong into the album’s best tracks, including “Sierra Leone, “Crack Rocks” and my personal favourites, “Pilot Jones”, “Forrest Gump” and “Super Rich Kids,” which features Earl Sweatshirt of rap co-op, Odd Future.

In songs such as “Forrest Gump” and particularly “Bad Religion,” the album’s overwhelming sense of self-awareness can be felt. “Forrest Gump” features soulful coos of “Running on my mind, Forrest, my mind” – Ocean referencing the film and the Deep South through a coalition of music and lyrics. “Bad Religion” on the other hand grasps hold of a traditional gospel sound but rather than confessing in a church or to the preacher, Ocean reveals his insecurities to a Muslim taxi driver, describing “the truth of my disguise” and the problems that “being in love with one who never loves you” can bring.

Without a doubt, Channel ORANGE is probably the most intricate and engaging album I’ve heard this year. With subtle nods towards Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince and even a sprinkling of Pink Floyd-like guitars in “Pyramids,” it is, at its core, a love story without the happy end. And just the way Channel ORANGE began, it ebbs away with the sound of a car engine, footsteps the jingling of keys and the close of the door.

Singles review

The XX, Angels:

It’s probably a regressive way to begin (and an even more regressive way to think), but generally speaking, anything with the word ‘Angel’ in it is probably a bit shit. Think about it, Angel Delight; Angels by Robbie Williams; One of Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls being named “Angel” after Stefani’s debut album, “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” Yep, as pop-culture diagnoses go, it’s clear that ‘Angel’ is interchangeable with either, ‘Total Rubbish’ or ‘What The Bloody Hell is THIS?’

Fortunately however, The XX’s new single, Angels, is neither rubbish nor some awful, pink powdered dessert concoction.

Opening with an electric guitar, a subdued plucking of strings carries Romy Madley Croft’s voice like a treadmill threatening to slow to a stop. Each chorus is bracketed with a pause, giving the song an almost chapter-in-a-book feel as it charts its terrain, pauses and starts all over again.

It’s very much an XX tune except more crafted and far from monotonous. Whether the same can be said about their new album waits to be seen however.

Bloc Party, Octopus:

I’m beginning to think music writers are more affected by ‘Second Album Syndrome’ than musicians are. It’s like some kind of journalistic Tourette’s; “Can you discuss the new second album?”– TWITCH! “Was there a lot of pressure for your second album to be as commercially successful as the first? — TWITCH! “Did you worry that your second album might alienate fans? — TWITCH!

Of course everyone knows that third albums are where it starts to go awry. And awry it went for Bloc Party. While “Intimacy” boasted some great songs like “Talons” and “Signs”, the album was radically different and incredibly weak when compared to its siblings, “A Weekend in The City” and “Silent Alarm”. Thriving from the electronic wave that swept across music in the late 2000s, the album was gimmicky and a bit mundane.

That said, I’ve always maintained faith in Bloc Party and waved the Bloc Party flag whenever I could. And apparently, it’s been worth it. The new single is an absolute cracker!

Brimming and bubbling over with energy, it’s as if the guys cooked the tune in vodka and now that tune is raring to go out dancing and slosh some lager and wiggle its double-clef bum to a catalogue of Brit-pop hits. Admittedly, the lyrics are a bit weak, the chorus ending with a chant of “I don’t know why I feel like crying, Well come on, come on, Say come on, come on.”

Not exactly Paul Simon but I’ll continue to wave the flag.

Two Door Cinema Club, Sleep Alone:

Two Door Cinema Club are releasing their second album soon — TWITCH!

The new single, Sleep Alone, was previewed on BBC1 last night, and made available for free-download for a 24 hour period on the group’s website. It’s a typical enough Two Door Cinema Club song: kicking off with a catchy drumbeat, the chorus is where the fun’s at while the lyrics serve to cushion the aforementioned pop climax.

Once it’s sound-tracked every ad on television, I’m sure the tune will have truly welded itself into my brain, but currently it doesn’t seem to have the hooks that “Come Back Home” and “This is The Life” did. Then again, “This is The Life” essentially had no lyrics, except ‘This is The Life’ being sung over, and over again. Time will tell, I suppose.

The Stone Roses, Phoenix Park, 5 July.

Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses’ 1996-split has been well documented, and the subsequent solo-careers of Ian Brown and John Squire have almost served no other purpose than to cement The Roses’ demise. But in October 2011, everything changed as Brown declared, “This is a live resurrection. You’re all invited, so you’d better be there!” After an almost two-decade hiatus, The Stone Roses had at last returned. The Second Coming was here.

The last time that Stone Roses performed in Ireland was 1995, and tonight, the group’s return feels almost religious. In the distance, an electric crucifix from the previous week’s Eucharistic Congress procession towers over the Phoenix Park. And in the stadium, 50,000 fans are knee-deep in muck, most of these kitted out in rain-hats and Stone Roses tees, or sporting haircuts that footnote The Roses’ front man. Ian Brown was right: this was a live resurrection. And everyone had read the invite card.

Incredibly, since The Stone Roses called it a day more than fifteen years ago, a riptide of pseudo-religious sentiment has carried the band away. Like crusaders who waged war against the unbearably cool Manchester music scene of the 1980s, the group toiled against the oppression of black clothes, bleak lyrics and the nihilism that came with Ian Curtis’ death and the Blue Monday synths that followed. And just like a miracle, the sense of disbelief and wonder that the band will soon be on stage and performing to fans of old and fans of new – many so new, they were not born at The Roses’ peak – settles in the air as The Wailers conclude a fantastic set, leaving a packed audience alone to shuffle and shift in the descending restlessness.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they’re here!

Ten minutes late, Ian Brown, one arm raised victoriously and grinning, followed by Mani, Reni and Squire, struts onstage. And then, in an instant, as sudden as a light switch turning on, a throbbing bass permeates across the park and a cheer of recognition runs through the crowd as fans bellow (and prematurely bellow) the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’. Of course, the possibility that the group might be anything but adored by this lot is laughable.

As Brown works his front-man magic, striding between both sides of the stage and jumping down momentarily to hi-five and shake hands with the front row of cheerers and chanters, Reni, Mani and Squire show that age hasn’t caught up with or compromised their talent. In fact, Squire’s indulgent guitar outros are a prominent feature throughout the night and even through the sea of front-man charisma, Brown occasionally appears to be a little sceptical as to what to do next; a quick jaunt down to the other end of the stage perhaps? This is obviously the rock star equivalent of ‘What do I do with my hands?’

The night ends, inevitably, with ‘I Am The Resurrection’, and despite its almost ten-minute run time, this evening’s disciples are more invigorated than they were an hour ago. Because the closer we edge to the closing note, the closer we edge to a dream ending. A dream that so many people here have waited almost two decades to come true.

The four-pack assemble centre-stage at the song’s close and hug one another, pumping their fists in triumph, hugging again and thundering a farewell chant of ‘In Dublin’s Fair City…’ The lights turn on and with them the dream that no one thought could ever come true evaporates into the nightmare of Dublin transport.

School of Cambridge-based group, Alt-J.

Last month, The Guardian asked, “who could have foreseen an unknown Cambridge art-rock quartet landing in the top 20 with their debut album?

A fortnight later, I wonder, who could have foreseen a top 20 rock quartet translate Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ into a modern-day, easy-to-grip, three-minute gangster video?

The answer it turns out, is the four-piece, triangle-lovers, Alt-J:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPH89HIBLiw

Singles and songs review

Scissor Sisters

Scissor Sisters, Magic Hour

Best in Me

 

Best in Me might not be a single (yet), but its laid-back attitude, which perhaps sounds a little pedestrian on first listening, is so even-tempered and chilled that it’s like floating in a swimming pool before ducking under the water and swirling around in circles, only to emerge for a towel and Tahiti cocktail. The song’s reprise, which comes with coos of “You take what’s good and make it better,” is an apt description of what makes this song so great: it’s the sound we all associate with the five-set but polished, stripped back and above all, better. By blending Shears’ catchy falsetto with the band’s easy-to-listen-to electronics, the Sisters have managed to devise an easy-to-stomach dance floor ballad that comes minus any overindulgent, melodramatic choruses.

Maybe it’ll never make its way into the singles totem but in the song’s own words, “May not hear it on MTV, no big deal, fine by me.”

Alt-J (∆), An Awesome Wave,

Matilda

Presumably hitting ‘alt-j’ on your Mac computer sends an instant, automated message with the subject line “CODE NERD” to a 24-hour hotline dedicated to those who spend too much time exploring Apple keyboard functions. It also, for the record, makes a triangle symbol not unlike this one: ∆.

Bringing their Steve-Jobs brand of nerd to music, Alt-J’s single Matilda sees the group quoting English folkster, Johnny Flynn – a chap also known for quoting- over a medley of strings and an undercurrent of tip-tapping drums, all the while declaring, This is from Matilda. Initially I thought this song sounded a little like a Gotye-Elliot Smith regurgiation but on second-take, well, I had to do a double-take and concede that it was actually very good. Damn you, oh sour, reluctant praise.

TV Review: All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry

Part 1: All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry,
Channel 4.

Grayson Perry

Even before the opening credits began to roll, a siren was sounding in my mind.

Channel 4’s new three-part series, presented by the Turner Prize winning artist and transvestite, Grayson Perry, was an hour-long “safari through the taste tribes of Britain,” kicking off from “the bottom up” in the industrial city of Sunderland.

From the get-go, I imagined a row of media-minions, all lining up and hunching over as their paper capes, fashioned from old tabloids flapped in the wind. As the credits rolled and arms, wrists and fingers prepared to point and fire, I foresaw a torrent of classist abuse, spooled around some superficial and impalpable idea of ‘taste’ that would fly and swirl in the air like confetti that fails to fall. Fortunately however, I was wrong. I was really, really wrong.

The first episode in the series previewed on the final night of the Queen’s diamond jubilee weekend. But Perry and his posse of guys and girls were immeasurably more fun than Her Royal Stuffiness. If we weren’t going to be made privy to some goose-bumpily shots of England’s reigning monarch in a paper thong awaiting her jubilee spray tan, then Perry was glad to fill her shoes. Donning a plastic shower cap and lifting his arms on cue, the artist introduced us to some of Sunderland’s pre-boozing, beauty rituals, all the while laughing and declaring, “Naturalness, it’s so, I don’t know, boring, isn’t it?”

Perry’s hour-long search for a working class taste mostly wound up focusing on style, appearance and home décor. As he ducked and dived through changing rooms, salons and tattoo parlours, he explored the significance of religious tattoos, the quasi-sacral role of men’s cars and the impact celeb culture has had on Sunderland women’s appearance. Throughout, Perry’s gift as a narrator was unequivocal and his central role in the programme painted him as a chameleon of sorts, as he happily jumped ship from male-centric, football-obsessed Sunderland to the girly world of lashes and tan.

Undercutting the fun of his physical transformations however were Perry’s own musings. As the people of Sunderland invited him into their homes, Perry in turn gave the viewer an insight into his own world, explaining how, “as somebody from a working-class background, I’ve spent most of my life in the very middle-class background of contemporary art.” He later reflected that his art was the only place that his working class roots still bloom.

At last, turning to his loom and depicting his trip up North, Perry told the first part of his tapestries’ story, introducing us to his central character, Tim Rakewell. Rakewell, he explained, was going to be a modern spin-off of William Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell, from Hogarth’s eight-part series, A Rake’s Progress. Would this be a modern-take on the classic tale of a wealthy merchant’s son, who lived it up and spent it all and wound up mad?

Outside of the pseudo-anthropological take that ran throughout the programme, the highlight of course was seeing how the ideas outlined in the show were trickled out and distilled into two carpet-sized works that referenced ideas of taste as much as they referenced major works in the history of art.

The end of course was about the big reveal. And, yes, it wound up being a bit sentimental. And no, of course no one turned to Perry and said, ‘Well, I think you’ll find my arse is nowhere near that size,’ although admittedly there were few side-portraits. But in all, Perry’s first TV entry was an exciting introduction to one of the three ‘British taste tribes’.