Category Archives: Music

Weekend reviews: Courteeners and Foals

The Courteeners: Anna

The Courteeners are very much part of that English brand of lad-pop. They belt their songs and drawl their words, embracing their arrogance and winning over crowds with pithy pop ditties like “Not Nineteen Forever” and “Take Over The World”.

But Anna, The Courteeners’ third album, hits a brick wall. This isn’t standard third album confusion either, but rather third album bewilderment. It’s as though the guys sat down, charted a map of the current pop music landscape and declared that ‘80s was in, and vaunted English lad-ism was out.

The outcome of that conclusion is so-so. “Lose Control”, Anna’s lead single starts well but soon descends into an insipid mix of ‘80s synth and stadium rock. And while Anna’s eleven tracks are an easy listen individually, they’re unvarying and forgettable together.

That said, this is easy enough music to sing along to: not because the lyrics are particularly catchy but because every song seems to include around 100 ‘ooh-ohhhs’.

3/5

Foals: Holy Fire

When Foals released their first album Antidotes, I was in my final year of secondary school. Their second album, Total Life Forever, came at a time when I was starting to understand what college was about, and now their third album coincides with my first year as a graduate. Having spent the same amount of time navigating the education system and outside world as Foals have creating albums, there is, for me at least, an odd affinity: Foals’ albums are still associated with times rather than meaningless gaps of time.

Like most, I love music that wrings my brain of everyday thoughts and floods it with summer nostalgia. Normally Friendly Fires are my go-to group for that kind of fanciful dance-about pop – the kind that relocates you to a warm day, with a cold drink, maybe even at a festival like the ones in the O2 adverts. And here, there’s whimsy pop in abundance, particularly in songs like “Inhaler” and especially “My Number”, both of which were made public before the album’s release.

“My Number” isn’t worlds apart from Foals’ earliest output, songs like “Mathletics” and “Hummer”. But where “Hummer” and Co., were slightly more rigid and a little difficult to dance to, “My Number” is that dependable brand of soft pop. The chorus of “cos you don’t have my number” is a great sing-along chant while the trill of the electric guitar keeps the whole thing finger-tappingly upbeat.

Oddly, “Preclude” and “Inhaler” remind me a little of Jane’s Addiction’s 2004 album Strays, as though they share a musical chromosome of sorts. Incidentally, Foals’ last big hit, “Spanish Sahara” was used in the season seven trailer for HBO’s Entourage whose theme track is Jane’s Addiction’s “Superheroes”.

Meanwhile the fourth track, “Bad Habit”, draws a leaf from Temper Trap’s books with its easy-going jangle of guitars, and could undoubtedly soundtrack the next of those aforementioned O2 adverts. But despite the opening tracks’ enthusiasm, the album isn’t an eleven-song list of sing-along tracks to gyrate to while vacuum-cleaning the house. Final track “Moon” for example, is five minutes of chiffon-like pop that chars itself into your memory while “Late Night” is the album’s central break-up track, which builds, then ebbs away.

Like Total Life Forever, Holy Fire tails off somewhere in the second half. Regardless, this is still a great album; where Total Life was inspired by technological super-intelligence, Holy Fire avoids the esoteric and instead favours everyday tales of breaking up, and that person not returning your calls. But more significantly, Holy Fire consolidates a new stage in Foals’ career. This album sees the group leaving behind their arcane ‘math-rock’ roots to channel a new style that could easily propel them to UK pop star status.

4/5

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby and why ‘Rosalita’ might be my favourite Bruce Springsteen song

A few years ago I was going through the airport and decided to stop off in Hughes & Hughes to buy a book. At the time I was feeling particularly lazy and decided that whatever book I’d buy would have to have been previously adapted into a film (that I’d seen), so I could read the book but without all that added hard stuff like, needing to concentrate, using my eyes or working my brain.

It might not hurt to mention that I’d just finished exams.

There were several books I had in mind and predictably Hughes & Hughes didn’t stock any of them.

I’m not sure if it was because I had decided to try and find About a Boy or had simply drifted into the ‘H’ section but I somehow stumbled upon Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which I had never heard of but whose cover was practically pockmarked with star-ratings and proclamations of excellence. So I bought it, and read it, and as it turned out, absolutely loved it.

At seventeen I was blown away by Hornby’s ability to use music both as a crutch and a backdrop to describe and develop his main character’s feelings and mental outlook, and all simply by chronicling what music he was listening to. But I sometimes wonder if my age might have been divisive in my love for High Fidelity.

Last week I turned 23. A week or two before that I was in the car with my mum and told her that one of the things I find strangest about being an adult is that music, which I love, isn’t the same now as it was when I was fifteen. As a teenager I loved music. I receded into the lyrics of my favourite songs and often cited lines to explain what I meant or how I felt. But it wasn’t just about the lyrics; it was about the sounds, the pace, the crescendos and harmonies, and how these combined to create an atmosphere that could elucidate my emotions or kick-start feelings of excitement, sadness or anger. I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’ and thinking that the combination of the upbeat tempo and the downright depressing lyrics was magical. At fifteen, my favourite musicians and groups were Neil Young, Elliot Smith, Radiohead, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The Beach Boys.

I only read High Fidelity once, and now I worry that the impact it had on me six years ago will be dinned and perhaps undone if I read it again. There’s a line in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous where Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) says, “These girls don’t even know what it is to be a fan. To Truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” I don’t remember High Fidelity hurting but I remember feeling a little like someone had pulled a dusty blanket back to reveal to me my life.

Somewhere between grappling whether or not I’d read High Fidelity again, I’ve read other works by Nick Hornby including About a Boy (which didn’t end with Hugh Grant closing his eyes and singing Killing Me Softly, sadly) as well as downloading samples of most of Hornby’s other books for Kindle (excluding Fever Pitch, because I hate football).

One sample, which I downloaded a few months ago, was Hornby’s 31 Songs, which lists the writer’s favourite tracks and includes, at number 2, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’.

Sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly,” wrote Hornby in 31 Songs.

It’s a process something like falling in love. You don’t necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest, or the most beautiful, there’s something else going on… So even though I’m not American, no longer young, hate cars, and can recognise why so many people find Springsteen bombastic and histrionic… ‘Thunder Road’ somehow manages to speak to me.

I read this passage months ago, then failed to pay the ten quid to buy the completed book and eventually moved on and read something else. Recently, I was tinkering with my iPhone and trying to work out what music I’d keep, and which would be relegated to a Cloud. I have nearly 50GB of music according to iTunes but my phone holds less than 16GB, meaning that for the most part my phone is just a pop scan of my favourite artists. I had problems however working out how much Springsteen I’d include on the phone; there was a three-CD Best Of compilation, but I also had, in addition to these, seven other Springsteen albums: Born in The USA; Born To Run; Darkness On The Edge of Town; Nebraska; The River; The Wild The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle and We Shall Overcome.

I went with the first two discs of the Best Of collection initially but overtime caught myself downloading some of the others including Darkness on The Edge of Town and Born to Run whilst listening to ‘Rosalita’ on constant repeat.

A while ago I was trying to decide which Radiohead album was my favourite (Kid A) and following my iPod-Bruce dilemma, I started thinking about Hornby’s book and trying to pinpoint my own stand alone Springsteen track.

Bruce Springsteen, unlike Radiohead for example, wouldn’t be my immediate go-to artist in a top 5 list-off. Yet Springsteen, unlike the others, echoes this phenomenal sense of urgency, excitement and desperation that just doesn’t exist amongst the other groups and musicians I love. In the second verse of Streets of Fire for example, Springsteen’s voice sounds almost as though it’s curdling at the bottom of his own throat and bubbling up, coming out as this thick and abrasive bellow,

You realise how they tricked you this time, and it’s all lies but I’m strung out on the wire, in these, Streets of fire.

When I initially started thinking about which track might be my favourite, I leaned towards ‘Jungleland’ and decided that ‘The Promised Land’ would probably be my runner up. Except every time I tried listening to ‘Jungleland’ I immediately grew bored and restless; so, the Rangers had their home-coming and there are shoe-less women sitting on the hood of the dodge but would they ever just hurry up and get to that gut-wrenching howl of ‘Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz, Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be’?

‘Junglelands’ as it turned out didn’t top my list. I feel I’m too old to be excited by gang-like images of ‘kids flashing guitars like switchblades and hustling for the record machine.’ Similarly, it seems I’ve cultivated some kind of attention deficit disorder in my old age. One thing that I will say for ‘Junglelands’ however is that, a little like Neil Young’s ‘There’s A World’, for me there’s an overwhelming sense of familiarity about the track. It’s as if the tune (sort of like the Nokia ringtone) has been permanently hardwired into my genetic makeup.

‘The Promised Land’ didn’t quite make the grade either. I have absolutely no idea why ‘Working all day in my daddy’s garage’ resonated with me as much as a teenager given that (1) my dad’s a solicitor, (2) I (still) can’t drive and (3) we don’t live in New Jersey, but it did. The only lyrics that really grab me from that song are ‘Explode, explode and tear this whole town apart‘ – I love the build up of ‘explode’ (and later ‘Blow away’), and even still feel a little like a King Penguin puffing its chest out when I hear them.

Funnily, the track that I never liked as a teen but which I really enjoy as an adult is ‘Rosalita’ from Springsteen’s 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle. At every level it’s a song I feel I should (still) detest: the lyrics make me wince (“I don’t want to be your son, The only lover I’m ever gonna need’s your soft sweet little girl’s tongue”), it’s folksy in bits and audacious to boot. But I can’t help but smile when Springsteen repeats ‘And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money’ and follows this with his ballsy ‘Because the record company Rosie, just gave me a big advance’.

And there’s nothing to read into or draw from that statement other than that the record company just gave him a big advance.

So there it is, at twenty-three it’s not about big images of guitar wielding street gangs or growing up and needing to escape from New Jersey. Instead my current favourite Springsteen track is about being able to turn around and justifiably give someone the two-fingers.

Music isn’t the same now as it was when I was fifteen. But it’s not redundant either. Not yet anyhow.

A short Springsteen-inspired reading list:

Jeff Jinx: The Look, The Story & The Sound

Short feature on Jeff Jinx for the Music Review Unsigned magazine…

Alliteration is a great thing when you’re a fame-hungry singer out chasing favourable reviews and notoriety like Harry Potter zooming after the Golden Snitch. Indeed, if real-life were more like Hogwarts, perhaps world-renown would be as easy trampoline-ing in the dark with a fishing net and trying to catch the stars. Except, of course, it’s not. And in the absence of the all-coveted one-word monikers brought about through global success – think Florence, Madonna and Ms. Gaga – then an alliterated name is the next best thing. It’s snappy. It rolls off the tongue and seeds in the everyday blog reader’s brain.

Except Jeff Jinx isn’t Jinx’s real name. In fact, He’s Jeff Myers and while I have no reason to believe he’s any relation to Mike Myers, the creator and star of hit movie franchise Austin Powers, there’s certainly a touch of similarity between the pair: one is a cryogenically unfrozen cold-war spy from the 1970s while the other, Mr. Jinx, is a glamorous, David Bowie-esque musician who’s been gigging since 1978. I never said the similarity was great or striking but it’s certainly there.

Except I’m swimming in deep-waters now: Jinx is a guest writer over at Independent Music News and will no doubt be writing a few stern letters about his highly glam look being mentioned in the same sentence as a goofy film spy famed for his bad teeth. Oh well.

The Look:

The Camden pop band Tribes might have been referred to, as a throwback to 1970s glam rock but the guys never got the look entirely correct. Jinx however has got the look down to a tee – a tight-tee paired with black pants. His face is a powdered alabaster white, and his eyes are rimmed with black makeup that creeps all the way up to his eyebrows. His hair is black and while it’s neither long nor spiky, it doesn’t sit floppy or pancake-flat on his head. Instead it tufts up and juts out which gives him that slightly aforementioned Bowie-air.

The past:

Jeff Jinx and his various, previous bands might sound unfamiliar – Dead Horses, Generation X, Cliché, Stranded and Jeff Jinx and The Gems – but the man’s past has been colourful and varied. He’s gigged with Clem Burke of the American group Blondie and formed Dead Horses with former-Sex Pistol, Glenn Matlock. In 1982, Jinx started I Am Alone with his previous Cliché band member, John Watters, and this time Jinx wrote all his own material.

Of course all starting bands dream of being spotted by big musicians but thirty years ago I Am Alone performed in London’s The Embassy Club and entertained some of the modern-day granddaddies of rock and pop. The Police were on their guest list and their pay-in audience members included Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Lemmy, the lead singer with Motorhead.

But Jinx, the perennial music nomad did not stay with I Am Alone and moved into other bands and projects including, Memory Plastic and Mr Myers Place. He similarly tried his hand at writing, and kick-started an art career designing LP sleeves and magazine covers. On his list of achievements, Jinx counts a glowing review from Q magazine who wrote, “This guy hollers loud and full like an opera singer and the band are subordinate to him.” As a music writer, would Jinx have said it any differently?

The Sound:

The sound is all about the voice, which bellows from start to finish. Only in Dreams kicks off loud and howling and only backs down at the chorus of Jinx’s “Only In Dreams” trill. Childstar Factory on the other hand, which is featured on Independent Music News’ Indie Artists of 2012, captures Jinx’s high-pitched, sonorous voice and envelops it in a blanket of electric guitar chords. While Waiting for The Tide To Turn is short and offers some juxtaposition for the ears: the music is laid-back but the voice is thick and booming.

Perhaps a 1970s throwback rocker has no place in our modern music world, or maybe, just maybe, the Golden Snitch will finally come out to play.

Diggs Duke – Mass Exodus EP

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Where most would be miffed, Diggs Duke keeps his cool, writing on his Facebook page, “[iTunes] messed up the title [of Diggs Duke’s new EP, Mass Exodus] and it is listed as “Diggs Duke – EP.” But, whatever. That doesn’t stop the music from being good.”

While some detractors might raise an eyebrow at the soul-singer’s cockiness, Diggs’ new EP proves that the man really has something to boast about – Mass Exodus is a shuttle-bus from the banal world of radio-friendly soul music and into a jungle of styles, instruments and influences. It excites with its uncertainty. Just as something becomes apparent, the direction changes. Take your eye off Diggs for a second and he’ll have slipped down a side road and emerged onto a new avenue. In a new continent!

A saxophone starts up on opening track Lion’s Feast, and pulls the listener into the muggy, sun-blazed heat of the Serengeti. Soon after, a ripple of strings cuts through the saxophone-haze like the circling feet of a preying lion. “Lions feast on this strange beast,” Diggs sings, “food for cubs, antithesis of safety.” Musically, Lion’s Feast is certainly the antithesis of safety; it has no chorus, a small number of lyrics and a long introduction. But Diggs appears to be unconcerned, and the track breaks into a tune that is exotic and tribal-like but still soulful as a saxophone capers above the tribal melody.

But Nine Winning Wives, the second track on the EP is nothing like its predecessor. It’s also nothing like the third track which itself is wholly different from the first and last track. In fact, the only obvious similarity between the four tracks is their timing – none of Diggs’ songs run past the two-and-a-half minute mark, showing Diggs’ ability and inclination to create songs that are crafted and honed rather than long and tedious.

Crazy Like a Fox, the third song on the EP, is the standout pop-song of the lot. It slinks around initially but quickly grows and builds and conjures up images of a prohibition jazz hall where smoke whirls, men wear hats and women saunter around in flapper dresses and fur coats.

While Diggs Duke has plenty of free music available for download from his Bandcamp page, Mass Exodus is currently charging at €2.99. And rightly so. “The new Duke of Soul” as Car Company, Mercedes Benz dubbed the Washington soul-singer, is unique and interesting. Above all, he keeps his listener on their toes without becoming tedious or coming off as pretentious. Mass Exodus is a snap shot of a man with real talent and the potential to create incredible music going ahead into the future.

The Monster Mash

Angus Powell, Monsters EP:

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Wales — she’s like the shy sister of these cold waters.

Last year, she was spotted making a wind-swept appearance in the movie Submarine, exposing her fabled grey skies, hair-raising cold nights and desolate landscapes. Her Kingdom, famously dotted with pop royalties, including Under Milk Wood writer Dylan Thomas, and the always-indefatigable Manic Street Preachers, has exposed an underbelly sprinkled with rapt lyricism.

Now, step out from under the belly, Angus Powell.

Powell’s EP Monsters is a four-track taster of things to come from Powell’s debut album, expected 2013. It’s a tense listening throughout, and Powell’s lo-fi voice, which is slightly falsetto, sounds a lot like Elliot Smith trying to reach a high-note. Oddly when the Smith comparison relents in final track, Trenches, it is replaced by a voice, which in the opening lines sounds strangely likes Nico’s — who out there thought that All Tomorrow’s Parties would do a stop-off in Wales?

Without a doubt, the EP’s standout track is Special with its earnest chorus of, “You used to say that I was special, you used to swear we’d be okay, so how did I end up here today?” Powell’s voice is at its most melodic here, and the acoustic guitar, jingle-y tambourine and backing vocals make Special the most finger-tapping track of the lot.

Opening track Monsters combines Powell’s high-pitch, quiet vocals with a tinkling piano that grows and grows over the song’s three-minute run-time. Upside Down on the other hand shows off a sweet guitar refrain complete with atmospheric sounds, hinting at an interest in detail and layer.

Powell’s EP will certainly strike a chord with many listeners. One even wrote on his SoundCloud, “These lyrics are devastatingly real… They hit home hard.” For a newbie, Powell certainly shows promise.

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.