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Monthly Archives: July 2013

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So the build up to the National’s new album had expectation on the maximum, with youtube comments galvanising into something like ‘I’m looking forward to crawling up in some National and staying there for the summer’.  And as the released songs gradually ticked all those expected boxes many people seemed satisfied with the emotional burrows they had prepared for it.  But a few months on when the dust has settled perhaps gives a better perspective on Trouble Will Find Me’s true worth.

The first problem is exactly that the National has ticked these boxes: as in fulfilling an expectation on what they should be giving.  It fills the National quota of having a good opener ‘I Should Live in Salt’- a tamer, yet still effective parallel to their previous opening songs such as ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Terrible Love’.  Then later down the line is the solid anthem that gives the album a core from which the other songs can orbit around.  There was ‘Apartment Story’ for Boxer and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ for High Violet and here it is ‘Sea of Love’.  Then near the end there’s the closing ballad in the form of ‘Pink Rabbits’ maintaining the National’s gloomy cloud, yet allowing a crack of light to pierce through offering hope until the next album.  And so everyone goes home as satisfied like a regular patron who always enjoys eating the same meal at his favourite restaurant.  Of course my drift is hopefully becoming clear that The National have become a bit samey.

Yet there’s a counter-argument to this that the National has earned the space they’ve now settled in, having struggled for many years to receive attention and finally achieving their commercial success with their previous album High Violet.  For this reason some would say that they are entitled to revisit familiar tropes such as thirty-something-domestics (‘There’s some things I should never laugh about in front of family’) or getting the Dessner twins to help wrap up the vocals to a song.  And to a point this is valid: every great nation has to develop it’s homeland after it has expanded its borders.  Yet upon further listening it appeared to me that the band wasn’t so much fortifying as clumsily dismantling what it had already established.

To start, the lyrics are sub-par.  While before Matt Berninger was able to carefully balance between sentimentality and portentousness such as in ‘Cardinal Song’ and ‘Slow Show’- now he tumbles into both camps.  The whole of ‘I Need my Girl’ could have been written by a pseudo-romantic sixteen year old who has to go on a family holiday and leave his girlfriend for a week.  Likewise ‘Sea of Love,’ an otherwise good song, makes me cringe in despair when Berninger mumbles the single line “I believe”.  On the other hand Berninger’s tries maintaining image as the polite self-effacing middle-aged man out of a New York novel.  He croons ‘I survived the dinner,’ mutters seemingly deep truisms like ‘everything I love is on the table’ and keeps on seeming to nag his friends to let him sleep on their floor.

The other factor is the instrumentation.  This is what would make many consider that Trouble Will Find Me is a great album.  And to be fair they do the job.  ‘This Is the Last Time’ has a great riff, and ‘Graceless’ gives a nice chill down the spine.  Moreover, Berninger’s voice has reached a satisfying plateau of baritone, and usually progresses it towards a gripping chorus.  But then there are moments that don’t seem as fluid.  Occasionally it’s advantageous, such as the extra chord in ‘I Should Live in Salt’ that really makes the song.  Other times they jar, such as the unimaginative finger-picking of ‘I Need My Girl’ or the over-aggressiveness of ‘Sea of Love’.

I think the key irritation that this album gives, and which too many review sites try forgiving it for, is the evident gap between emotion and material.  It is as if The National are trying to make an anthem out of a roll of duct tape and some paper clips that were lying round the office.  It betrays a sense of negligence that insults both their now large fan-base, and suggests that the band has become a bit careless with their new found fame.  It is as if as long as they describe someone drunk and crashing a car in the garden, and then sing the chorus long enough until the audience gets its fix.    I say this because The National have produced some amazing songs, and have still come out with a good album.  The worry is that it is not a spectacular album.  But many people, who have invested a lot of emotional baggage in the band’s music are trying to convince themselves that it is, and to paraphrase the National song: ‘it’s probably best not to swallow the cap while you’re enjoying your medicine’

Side-projects are a funny thing. They tend to symbolise a conduit for a deeper or alternative sound to the main band’s oeuvre. Yet Black Pus, the tasteful pseudonym for Brian Chippendale the drummer of the noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, doesn’t fit this pattern. On one level it’s because Lightning Bolt sound like two decades worth of bass and a drum constantly on the cusp of exorcising the demon inside them. But more importantly it is these two instruments that are the band’s personality: though the kind that fills the room so thickly that your brain gets sluggish in trying to think. So does that mean that Black Pus is just the drummer? Nope, well technically yes. Black Pus started with free jazz sax on his early home recordings, which have crystallised into some kind of drum-mounted fuzzier substitute of bass on his latest album All My Relations.

On one level this gap allows Chippendale’s woollen gas-mask miked vocals to progress more to the forefront. And while I preferred the image of the Chippendale’s voice being detached from the band, like a zealot stumbling into a jam session, it actually functions well as the song’s core. The single-worthy tracks (and this term is used very loosely) are the predominantly vocal-lead: the perversely doo-wop ‘1000 Years,’ the Ian Curtis-esque ‘Fly on the Wall’ and the shamanistic ‘Hear No Evil’. Yet in true fidelity to his moniker, Chippendale then shoves the most listenable tracks through a blender and sees what gunk comes out the other side. This may often come in the form of loose keyboard riffs, a dying organ or looped shrieks; such that by the end each song it looks like Chippendale has broken this toy and moves on gluttonously to the next.

On the other hand, Chippendale’s bass substitute doesn’t match up to Lightning Bolt comrade Brian Gibson’s basslines. On All My Relations the bass sounds like revving chainsaws that are constantly fading, and Chippendale is trying desperately to keep them afloat. While on Lightning Bolt Gibson’s riffs help maintain a solidity that slowly bores into your skull. So it was slightly disappointing to see the pale remnants of the Lightning Bolt monolith ‘2 Towers’ on Black Pus’ opener ‘Marauder’. However it seems unfair to make this comparison. For this sense of decay seems to be a central theme to the album, best shown on the cover (Chippendale’s own work). It seems like quite an originally nice abstract piece that has been left to drip and formulate itself into a colourful mess. And that’s probably the best way to describe the album.

A good pH Test for Lightning Bolt’s work is to leave it going on in the background. A popular reaction would be to turn it down/off. The motive for this action will likely fall into two categories. You’re either just a fucking pussy (e.g. “Megaghost”), or the song is actually quite annoying (“I Wanna Get High But I Don’t Want Brain Damage” collab with Flaming Lips”). On All My Relations however there was no desire for this, and I managed to cook a spaghetti carbonara without wanting to rub my hand on the cheese grater out of catatonia/irritation. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, All My Relations sure gave me other feelings, and I still dripped some sweat and confusion into my carbonara. They just had the faint taste of something different: a new kind of abrasion.

It’s nice when an indie musician has been in the limelight enough to develop a recognisable persona. Or more perhaps that listeners are made to formulate their views around the persona rather than merely pigeonhole it. Danny Brown is one of them. Bradford Cox is another. Kurt Vile has crystallised into one. Indeed that hairy, guitar-wielding slacker has taken his ‘take-it-easy’ persona into parenthood. But funnily enough responsibility hasn’t made our man nervous, like Matt Berninger’s parental lament in the National’s ‘Afraid of Everyone’. In fact Vile has sunk into his character even more and given his songs room to breathe. I’ve got a feeling he’s not an uptight parent.

This point is immediately made in the spectacular nine-minute opener ‘Wakin On a Pretty Day,’ which plays as calming as it sounds. It will definitely become one of my summer regulars. The album continues in the same fashion, with each song averaging around five minutes, and not taking too much care for a chorus or poignant versing. This slackerness, as a few publications have pointed out, can sometimes be a bit irritating, and it is debateable how far Vile can get away with it. To start, Vile’s most standout single ‘Never Run Away’ doesn’t really compare with songs from his previous breakthrough album Smoke Ring for My Halo like ‘Baby’s Arms’ and ‘Jesus Fever’. Likewise the electronic drum-beat song ‘Was All Talk’ is no way near as epic as the earlier similar-sounding ‘Freak Train’.

Yet dissections aside, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, floats well. Though not chart-topping, the songs are all enjoyable, best appreciated as factors of the album as a whole. Indeed, as Daze suggests, the best way to enjoy the album is to get lost in it: the other long songs ‘Too Hard’ and ‘Goldtone’ are excellent starting points. And then ‘Shame Chamber’ (with a great ‘whoo!’ in the middle) and ‘Air Bud’ are good songs to liven up to.

The lack of urgency in this album can be contentious. For Vile’s two former albums had some overriding theme, Constant Hitmaker of a musician anxious to be a contender, and Smoke Ring for My Halo of a this musician struggling to cope, having become one. Now that Vile’s to some extent ‘made it’, I personally think he deserves this space he has given himself in Daze. It is not self-indulgent but highly enjoyable, listening to his musical ponderings for an hour. For now, at least, Vile has occupied a fruitful patch of his own musical persona, which I’m sure will only flourish even more as we too wake up sometime in summer and it’s actually sunny.

So here’s my concept of Wondrous Bughouse. The realm of Youth Lagoon’s fantastic debut Year of Hibernation has been left to rot/ferment. But instead of two years, it seems like a century. Everything is (more) out of tune; the tight single-worthy songs of the debut have been neglected and melted into colourful sonic puddles. Indeed the remnants of ‘Cannons’ from Hibernation can be heard as a stuck loop on Bughouse’s ‘The Bath’. It would not be far off to say the album sounds like an abandoned carousel, or the canal trip in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Except the real inspiration seems more psychological than visual. As the album cover of Hibernation seems like the outside of a cave, the cover of Bughouse looks like some fantastic troglodyte world that is eons away from the surface. Trevor Powers’ motto seems to have been ‘go deeper’.

This tactic may seem risky. For it becomes simultaneously more personal and more unrelatable. We no longer have the universal themes to grasp onto, like ‘Posters’ or ‘Afternonn’. Instead we have nightmarish apparitions, a ‘Pelican man’ and ‘Attic Doctor’. This is perhaps why a few, including originally myself, were disappointed with Wondrous Bughouse. It did not have the simple riffs, the heartstring pullers, that cosily distant voice that we had eagerly anticipated. Now Youth Lagoon sounded like it had been left out in the sun for too long- or not been out at all. But I supposemusical maturing is neither easy nor graceful. And perhaps it was this in mind that I’ve eventually come to appreciate this unique album. Its molassal thickness can be intimidating, but if you wade through it enough it can be very rewarding. Perhaps the greatest challenge is getting through the first song, which is random spurts of keyboard, almost a rite of passage for listeners into the ‘bughouse’. But once through, there are some standout songs like ‘Mute’, ‘Dropla’ and ‘Third Dystopia’. There are also some playfully irritating songs like ‘Attic Doctor’ and ‘The Bath,’ to remind you that the ride will not necessarily be comfortable.

Thus Wondrous Bughouse feels like a transitional album. It is of Youth Lagoon searching still deeper into his musical psyche and describing the things he has seen on the way. Much will decide its worth with his following album, which will hopefully elucidate whether it was part of a great trilogy, or in fact a standalone classic. For now it is a challenge, and that is perhaps one of the greatest gifts real music can offer.

Well we’ve got our first solid rock album of the year, and looking at Metacritic everyone else seems to think so too. Which is quite surprising on first observation because the singer can’t sing, the riffs sound like a child tapping on your shoulder and the lyrics are so steeped in pseudo-intellectual slackerisms that they beg to be ignored as merely verse fillers. And yet for some reason it works. Firstly, it’s actually a tight album, the drums always have nice raw beat to them that help move the efficient riffs. Moreover, the lead guitar hasn’t been given Mascis-esque wandering rights, but instead functions as simplistic forerunner, helping flesh out the verse and lead the momentum. Most importantly, the album actually has hits. ‘Borrowed Time’ has knee-jerk danceability. Indeed after a few choruses you’ll most likely be singing along to what you think the chorus sounds like, “it seems these days I’m ‘cappin-a-miss’ (?) borrowed time!” And it’s probably this blend of fun and not caring what the lyrics mean, which makes the album so attractive. This ain’t a hipster band, they can hardly take themselves seriously enough to qualify as one. Instead it becomes a pleasure to just wallow in this 90’s slacker bliss like, “Storm chasin’ hippies at a discount mall/ Megaphone muppet poster on the wall.”

However, it would be worth seeing what these guys roots are, as this 90’s alternative rock has had a big renaissance lately with such bands as The Men, Mac DeMarco and Yuck. Firstly, Parquet Courts seem to know exactly where they’re coming from, referencing Pavement in “Careers in Combat” and “N Dakota,” and “Caster of Worthless Spells” sounds like a Guided by Voices B-side. Yet, the band’s real weight, which sets them apart from other garage-rockers, seems to come from their predecessor’s own influences. The singer sounds like Jonathan Richman, punk’s goofy godfather. Moreover, the driving bass/drum duo harks back to krautrock bands such as Neu! and Can. However, the real juicy ingredient in the mix is The Minutemen, a band whose influence has not been as apparent in since the millennium. Parquet Courts have discipled well under Boon and Watt, learning how to pack a punch with condensed songs, punchy lyrics and casual bass/guitar interplay. And, while its any reviewers (ultimately unproductive) dream to dissect a band into its influences, the method here goes to show that the fact Parquet Courts songs sound eerily recognisable, while also fresh, is that they’ve found a deep blend of influences that they can formulate into something new.

Yet these overtly underground roots may be counterproductive, and may perhaps be why Light up Gold got overwhelmingly good reviews. For reviewers don’t forsee the band upsetting any system, which could put the review site’s reputation on the line. Indeed the best this album can hope for seems to be breaking even on sales and reaching #49 on Top 50 albums of 2013 (the album actually came right at the end of 2012, but most sites are treating it as a 2013 work.) Nevertheless Light up Gold is a great foundation album. Parquet Courts now need to formulate their own image into something that is unique and necessary in the 21st century.

Kendrick Lamar is no longer a cult figure, his breakthrough album Good Kid M.A.A.D. City swept up a furore of universal acclaim and huge record sales. Yet there was still a tangible feeling in the audience last night that we were experiencing something incredibly fresh, and were witness to the rise of one of our time’s most innovative rappers. It was Kendrick’s first time to Newcastle too.

There were two very striking features of Kendrick’s set. Firstly, it was incredibly minimal. Kendrick only had his DJ on stage that MC’d for the first five minutes and then stuck to the decks. Moreover, as apparent on the album, the beats were so simple. This provided the contrast for the most brilliant part of the set, which was the sheer craftsmanship of Lamar’s lyrics. In fact, on numerous occasions, he’d stop the decks to freestyle on his own, and on one song even told the audience to pay attention to the words. Furthermore, the speed of his lyric delivery is not totally appreciated until you see him up there, not missing a beat in his poetic stream-of-consciousness.

These two features made it very evident that this was a no-bullshit rapper. He didn’t need the public image of his contemporaries such as Riff Raff or Chief Keef. In fact he looked incredibly normal on stage with just a hoody, and would not have stood out in a crowd. All emphasis was made on the music.

And boy was he not cashing in on the classics either. The first three or four songs of his set were from his acclaimed but less-well-known earlier album Section.80, the highlight being “ADHD”. He even did some songs from his first EP and earlier mixtapes. Fortunately the Newcastle crowd was very well versed on their Kendrick Lamar, and managed to shout back every chorus that Kendrick threw at them.

Yet when Kendrick asked if anyone had heard of his new album Good Kid and went straight into “Money Trees,” things became electric. He went on to do an onslaught of the incredible hits from that album, the highlight being “Backseat Freestyle” especially the “biaaaatch-Coldplay” build-up (the jury is out on whether Kendrick actually says Coldplay, but I will certainly be singing it, and will defy anyone who wants to prove me wrong). Kendrick even did a smooth medley from “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” into “Poetic Justice,” which was good but seemed to cut the first song, perhaps the album’s strongest, off a bit short. Overall, Kendrick played around half and half of Section .80 and Good Kid material, which though disappointingly meant that he missed a few Good Kid greats such as “Compton” and “Sing about Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” also merited a lot of respect, in that Kendrick called the shots and not his audience. In fact the encore was one of Kendrick’s earlier more obscure tracks.

Indeed, this sense of self-respect and control really resonated in Kendrick’s character if you compare him to another rapper of similar status, Danny Brown. A friend remembered how at a London gig Danny came on stage with a bottle of Hennessey’s, fell off stage, and apparently got a handjob during the set, though somehow managed to do an incredible performance. This kind of excess wouldn’t happen at a Kendrick Lamar gig. But it doesn’t mean that Kendrick was somehow a tamer rapper, it’s just that all the energy went into the music. Even gangster rap, which Lamar was definitely a disciple of, being Compton-bred and a Dr. Dre collaborator, seemed less about intimidation and more a communal celebration, most noticeably in his performance of the really dark “m.A.A.d city.”

Kendrick also showed himself to be a really principled character. He gave respect to his hometown Compton, as well as those that helped him on the way, giving a brief account of his musical career through introducing his songs. He also gave a shout out to all his doubters and made the pretty impressive, and mostly true, statement that “we made the mainstream come to us.” But perhaps the greatest moment of the whole set was at the end, when Kendrick picked out a fan at the front, who had known every single word to Lamar’s songs and impressed the rapper by keeping up with him for the whole hour and a half. Kendrick brought the fan on stage for everyone to see him, and told the crowd that this guy was the reason he’d be coming back to Newcastle, though next time he’ll probably be in the Metro Arena at £50 a ticket.

more_you_becomes_you

Some albums place themselves out of any sense of a musical spectrum. This can be done in two ways. One is to do something so different as to have no forerunners, as in Captain Beefheart or The Velvet Underground. The other, perhaps less travelled route is to have such singleness of purpose as to isolate oneself from any future musical interaction. Liam Hayes, AKA Plush, pursued the latter route in his debut album More You Becomes You. His man-and-a-piano songs are so similar to each other that it took me several listens to pinpoint where one ended and another began. That is to say, whether you would count them as actual songs. For example his two songs: “The Party I” and “The Party II” are in fact little 30-second sound bites of a chord progression. Indeed many of the songs pass by so quickly you barely notice them, and then the album is over. It doesn’t even clock past the 30 minute mark.

So it’s no surprise that this album never had much commercial success, it so successfully eludes the listener. Indeed, that was its lasting appeal to me: it was such easy listening you really needed to focus on the core of the songs’ eerie beauty. In fact the last minute and a half of the album is silence, which has a surprising effect, in that you become so lulled in the music that you don’t notice that it has ended. Another of the album’s deceptive qualities is that it seems crystallised in a nostalgic timeframe of barroom solos, which makes it so hard to believe that it was actually released in 1998.

Yet what cannot be ignored is an underlying current of loneliness between these tuneful songs. Hayes’ voice breaks in “(I Didn’t Know) I Was Asleep,” but then provides the contrast for the final driving chorus singing ‘it took me sooooo long.’ He hits falsetto too often for us not to notice vulnerability in his voice. Thus he’d perhaps be most affiliated with Alex Chilton during Big Star’sThird/Sister Lovers era, where the songs contain a harrowing beauty that can’t be felt underneath the sweet melodies.

And so this album exudes a sense of discomforting leisure (just take a look at the ominously childish cover art). Hayes sings airily about sleeping, boredom and parties, but if you can grasp his lyrics, they betray a lonelier image: “I saw the party look at me,” and we realise that this man is not singing at the party, he is singing in a corner, by himself.