“Where the body goes the mind will follow soon after”, Hayden Thorpe sings on ‘Mecca’, a lyric that could apply to the progression of the thematic concerns of his band. Wild Beasts have somewhat shifted focus away from their carnal obsessions for a more direct, angry and intellectual record in their fourth album. Not to say that any of their previous works lacked intelligence, nor that the latest isn’t libidinous and sensual, but where their past records presented an intellectualisation of the salacious, here the link to the body and the heart seems unmediated.
It’s been six years since the Kendall four-piece’s first album – an explicit and irrevocable statement record that introduced a sound that was refined and somewhat caged on the following two albums, culminating with 2011’s dark masterpiece, Smother. Those who miss the brashness of Limbo, Panto have little to complain about – that first album exists and will continue to do so, but Wild Beasts are treading new grounds of pop music, and Present Tense is their most original record since their debut.
The release has been accompanied by a social media Twitstorm, but despite engaging with all the networks at a modern band’s disposal, it would be too strong to claim that the boys have embraced these aspects of modernity. They remain outsiders, voyeurs even, just of the wrong generation for the internet to be part of their physiology. The title and album cover reflect a concern for the fragmentation of the now and for the place of the individual, and the man, in such a world. This relation seems mirrored in the fact that record is the band’s first since relocating to London, and Present Tense is subversive in its recognition of class and its threatening discontent with inequality. But the fact that this album feels, at times, fiercely political is perhaps more a sad reflection on the lack of social awareness in much of the music industry as opposed to any explicit ideology expressed in Present Tense.
Thorpe has spoken of using his distinctive vocal delivery “almost as a tool of protest” in the early days, but now it seems like the Beasts have more faith in the musical and lyrical content of their songs. Not to say that the vocals have been completely toned down - Thorpe and Fleming’s ‘comedy high voice/comedy low voice’ routine remains mostly intact, but there are times when the two meet and overlap in the midrange, as on ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’, and the effect is mesmerising. Tom Fleming’s vocals in particular are the best they’ve ever been, reaching notes with a perfect combination of clarity and catch. From the second song, ‘Nature Boy’, Fleming’s honey-soaked growl is introduced as an unsettling parody of innate masculinity, “I am the thing fenced in/I’m ten men”, and its return in later songs is inextricable from this menacing lasciviousness.
Whilst Wild Beasts have always understood the power of the comic, Present Tense is another album that is far more dramatic than it is humorous. Unlike similarly ambitious works of reappropriation, such as Arcade Fire’s Reflektor or Gayngs’ Relayted, Present Tense does not hide behind irony. Indeed it is very much a forward-looking record – its synths channelling Oneohtrix Point Never more than 80s synth pop directly, a bold direction at a time when revivalism seems a safe bet for commercial and critical success. Reflections of other contemporary producers prevail, such as the Nicolas Jaar inspired drum rattles on ‘A Dog’s Life’, and the building textures on tracks such as ‘New Life’ echo the subtly unsettling atmospheres created by label-mates Junior Boys. The electronic production is perhaps a reflection of the physical constraints imposed by working in a city as compressed as London, but typically the band manages to turn every element of their circumstances into a refined feature of their sound. By stripping away what is nonessential, the band have produced a record that is clear-eyed and sober, with every component captured in glittering widescreen detail. Much of the strength of the music rests on Chris Talbot’s sublime and intelligent drumming. The album uses live performance alongside a courageous confidence in drum machines, with both doing a large amount of work to subtly unite the songs’ precise elements and keep the momentum of the first song tumbling through to the last, via the circular grooves on ‘Mecca’ and the teasing game of tension and release on ‘Pregnant Pause’.
The label “art-pop” seems appropriate, but is perhaps misleading: very few of these songs are suitable for mainstream radio, both rooted in the context of the album as a whole and sounding unlike anything likely to be heard by accident. But Present Tense is art, and it sees Wild Beasts’ bark and bite at their sharpest and loudest, resulting in a strikingly clear but unmappably deep record that feels beautiful, incendiary and necessary.
Regular readers of the music section will have noticed quite a bit about Spring Offensive from me this term and while I apologise for such a deluge, I assure you they really are more than worthy of the coverage. Self-released and funded by an ingenious Pledge Music campaign, the Oxford quintet’s debut Young Animal Hearts has been a long time coming and die-hard fans will appreciate older favourites holding their own amongst some stunning new material.
Thematically, Young Animal Hearts will resonate with the bands 20-something peers, encompassing the post-student worries of dead-end jobs, financial grievances and identity crises. With the band members themselves experiencing many of these issues first-hand, the songs have a credibility and conviction that is overwhelmingly emotive. Lucas Whitworth and Matt Cooper’s lyrics balance simplicity and poetic imagery perfectly, with narratives that are both beautifully articulate andintellectually accessible – an irresistible mixture that makes the album highly relatable. The defiant, chanted refrains found on tracks such as ‘Speak’ and ‘No Assets’ draw you in deeper, subconsciously catchy and bizarrely euphoric given their morose subject matter.
Such an odd juxtaposition of dark, melancholic lyrics with exhilarating, uplifting melodies has led to comparisons with bands such as The National and Death Cab For Cutie. The intensity of the emotion is certainly equal to that portrayed by Berninger and co. but the jolting rhythms and mesmeric blend of vocals feel less polished, rawer and more intimate.
While musically complex, the album has been meticulously arranged to ensure every instrumental layer gives something to a track. There’s no flamboyance or pretension and their characteristic intricate percussive patterns and striking harmonies remain at the core.
The flawless ‘Not Drowning But Waving’ opens, its eerily unsettling guitar hook providing a relentless undercurrent on which the percussion and harmonies build – steadily brewing like the storm depicted – to a thunderous crescendo. Staccato synths punctuate the clipped vocals on the more instrumentally sparse ‘Bodylifting’ and clapped rhythms on ‘The River’ and ‘Carrier’ provide a similarly punchy beat that both lifts and drives the brooding libretto.
This unsuppressed vigour and energy in the face of hardship tires only in the final tracks ’52 Miles’ and ‘Young Animal Hearts’. Slowed down and more subdued, they convey a wearier resilience and while still hopeful in outlook, express a resignation to the trials of modern life and an acceptance of our innate human nature.
St. Vincent’s ‘Digital Witness’ sees Annie Clark mocking the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram age: “If I can’t show it, you can’t see me – what’s the point of doing anything?” It seems to be justified criticism, but then it seems hypocritical: St. Vincent released an intricate and immaculately executed video for the same song on the internet; a video was shared of her teaching the “rainbow kick”; ‘Rattlesnake’ opens the album by narrating a true story of her stripping in the desert and then being confronted by rattlesnakes. Yet Annie Clark at no point attempts to exclude herself from the society she is condemning. This is manifest in the video for ‘Digital Witness’, where she is in an eerie dystopia, but her sinister smile, electrified hair and high heels display her maintained individuality. St. Vincent’s Socratic self-awareness rightly elevates her above everyone else, frees her from criticism of hypocrisy, and helps create a beguiling yet entirely enjoyable album.
The album thrives on these contradictions and contrasts, even more so than previous releases: one of the purest love songs on the album is named ‘Psychopath’; ‘Huey Newton’ climaxes with angelic vocals of “Hail Mary” before descending into a blistering, semi-synthetic, distorted guitar riff; after the complaint “oh what an ordinary day”, the line “take out the garbage, masturbate” comes as a shock. This is all made possible by Annie Clark’s phenomenal guitar playing, versatile voice and her astute lyrics, as on ‘Prince Johnny‘, a poignant character study of an insecure boyfriend – “You traced the Andes with your index, and bragged of when and where and who you’re gonna bed next”.
For all its complexity, St. Vincent is remarkably direct and instantly gratifying. Its emotions are accessible and immersive, with Annie Clark thankfully realising that taking lyrical and musical obliqueness too far more often than not results in less enjoyment for the listener. At points, such as the ferocious ‘Bring Me Your Loves’, the extremes of St. Vincent’s spectrum are isolated as a reminder of her ability to create captivating music without antitheses. Interesting and enjoyable as these deconstructions are, they’re not as mesmerising as the tracks with extreme and daring appositions. Yet despite these occasional disappointments – the lyrics’ slight visceral realism on closer ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ doesn’t prevent it from appearing uninspired in comparison to all that’s preceded it – St. Vincent is an exceptional display of challenging and inventive song-writing.
Morning Phase begins with half a minute of plaintive strings. It’s an odd start to a Beck album – his last two albums, The Information (2006) and Modern Guilt (2008) start with processed beats, edgy lyrics and, on the former, a bit of rapping. Morning Phase is trying something different from the word ‘go’, and it’s an ill-omened change-of-tune.
The second track, ‘Morning’, is a shock to the system, precisely because it isn’t. ‘Morning’ is almost a dirge, dragging on in 4/4 time without any of the idiosyncratic features I’ve come to associate with Beck. The Beck I know and love from Guero (2005) and Odelay (1996) finally appears ten minutes through the album on ‘Say Goodbye’, but only fleetingly – like the rest of the album, it’s generally monotonous. After ‘Say Goodbye’, we return to the style of the earlier tracks – slow, simple and unadventurous, redeemed only by a few pretty guitar licks.
Beck is known for being innovative and experimental, but Morning Phrase is neither. I found myself singing along to these songs on the first listen, not because they were catchy but because they were so predictable. Where has the Beck of ‘Qué Onda Guero’ and ‘Loser’ gone? Where are the funky beats and Spanish lyrical interludes? Like Of Montreal last year, Beck seems to have retreated into pop-folk convention, only where Of Montreal did it with panache, Beck’s new effort is just average.
It’s always difficult to review bands when they are known for putting out interesting, surprising music – if you’re not interested and surprised anymore, is it their fault or yours? Are you missing something? If Morning Phase were released by a new band, they’d probably get crushed underfoot in the race to fame, criticised by enough reviewers to deter their burgeoning fanbase. But Beck, in so many decades of avant-garde music production, has probably earned the right to make a few dull albums without it ruining his career. Any resistance he faces will be put down to wilful hipsterism. I’m going to be brave, though, and stick with a 2/5 star rating. I just hope that Morning Phase isn’t a sign of things to come.
After moving from the coast of North Devon 5 years ago, folk singer Jess Hall (no relation, before you start crying nepotism…) has certainly not forgotten her roots on debut album Bookshelves. Classically trained and from a musical family, Hall has an undeniably stunning voice and her captivatingly pure vocals have seen her quickly established on the Oxford music scene, attracting attention from a number of big names.
A musical acquaintance of Hall’s for a number of years, renowned folk-roots cellist Barney Morse-Brown (Duotone) produced this debut, as well as providing accompaniment throughout. On hearing her performance with local band Flights of Helios at 2013’s Wilderness Festival, Stornoway’s Jon Ouin also expressed a keen interest to work with Hall and had a hand in arrangements and instrumentation. The result of such high profile collaborations is, however, still very much her own record. Instrumentally sparse, Bookshelves holds Hall’s hymnal voice centre-stage, with her own gentle guitar picking rippling beneath, there simply to accentuate her wistful and nostalgic musings. Morse-Brown’s subtle yet affecting cello movements exquisitely compliment Hall’s alto range – most notably on opener ‘Dearest Heart’ – lifting the touchingly open lyrics and adding emotional depth. ‘Apple’ (cover of traditional folk tune ‘I Will Give My Love An Apple’) is sung entirely unaccompanied, showcasing the power of the human voice as an instrument. This though, is the only song on the album that could be said to stem from the traditional heritage that inspires numerous folk artists. With Bookshelves, Hall instead focuses on the more personal, setting to her familiar back-drop of sea-spray and sand, stories of friendship, love and childhood memories, all narrated with a simplicity and honesty that is surprisingly emotive. On tracks such as ‘Sea Song’ and the playful ‘Maps’, this lyrical simplicity can sometimes come across slightly twee, but for the rest of the album, it works perfectly. Achingly tender vocals, choral at times, wash over the poignant undercurrent of rising riffs and hooks, crafting the purest declaration of love on stand-out track ‘Duet’, while building heart-rending pathos on break-up song ‘Winter Branches’.
Although elements of influences such as Laura Veirs and Lisa Hannigan are visible on Bookshelves, Jess Hall has certainly carved her own style and this simple but strikingly beautiful debut is a confident entry to the UK folk scene.
Bookshelves is out on 24th February 2014
Sacred Bones is one of those special, rare labels which shows faith in its artists. They put out whatever they want – reissues of forgotten 80s British punk (UV Pop), twisted folk (Cult of Youth) or even danceable psyche (Moon Duo) – and believe in those they sign, including The Men. When they released Leaving Home in 2011, their second release but first on Sacred Bones, they were down as a noise-rock band. There was the odd flirtation with blues and touch of folk on the record, a trait which was much expanded on their follow-up, Open Your Heart, which was The Men’s breakthrough. The album blended a plethora of influences into one of the highlights of 2012. New Moon, released the following year, again pushed the number of styles you can fit in an album, but this time felt ramshackle and, bar an odd moment or two, lacked the aggression of previous releases. They had strayed too far from their roots – there was a bloody harmonica!
However, another year, another record – for 2014 we get Tomorrow’s Hits. This, their fifth, is their first proper studio album, recorded in two days and completely live.
Horns are all over Tomorrow’s Hits – a welcome respite from the harmonica, which only makes a brief appearance. These horns add a sense of The E Street Band to their slower numbers, giving a quintessentially “American” sound to tracks such as ‘Another Night’. It’s not all Bruce Springsteen though; ‘Pearly Gates’ sees the horns up their tempo, freewheeling with the guitars. The band have reigned in the country on this album and the record is all the better for it. The soft twang on ‘Settle Me Down’ is testament to this more controlled approach.
The highlights of Tomorrow’s Hits come at the end of either side of the album. ‘Different Days’ and Going Down end sides A and B but would fit happily on ‘Leaving Home’ or ‘Open Your Heart’, acting as the heaviest numbers of the record. They hold the special ability of making your knee bob, but are more rounded than your typical noise rock tracks.
When Pitchfork reviewed their first album on Sacred Bones, they noted that “The Men’s modest catalogue thus far presents no such linear evolutionary trajectory [from chaos to control]” like their SST-influences (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth). How wrong they would appear now. The Men haven’t let themselves be held back by punk – they have taken influences from all types of rock’n’roll and crafted something very much their own. Tomorrow’s Hits feels like a homage to the history of guitar in the US and more so than any of their other genre-mashing records. Though lacking the full visceral bite of Open Your Heart, The Men’s fifth outing is a return to form. Maybe fewer horns next time.
Joined once again by ex-Razorlight’s Andy Burrows, New York duo Keith Murray and Chris Cain, aka We Are Scientists, are finally bestowing upon us their long overdue fifth studio album. Taking a break from their stint as agony uncles to their fans (check out the ‘advice’ area on the band’s website), they are taking us once again on a riff-filled romp through the angst and desperation of falling in and out of love, complete with obligatory enigmatic record title.
WAS tantalised fans last year with their EP Business Casual, which, alongside a couple of tracks off TV en Français, included their sublime cover of ‘Take My Breath Away’ – a homage to Top Gun dripping with pedal steel, the video to which (re-enacting key scenes from the film using Lego) will either delight or disturb you. Either way, it will give you an insight into what goes on in the heads of Cain and Murray, and it’s not pretty. Aside from off-the-wall music videos, the pair of jokers have in the past pulled off acting as fake interviewers at the NME Awards, and brought their advice blog to the Guardian covering essential topics such as ‘partying’, ‘wine’, and ‘writing a World Cup anthem’.
By all accounts TV en Français is more mature than their previous work, but don’t let that put you off. This album has something for everyone – for those of us who grew up with their first studio album, With Love and Squalor, the explosive licks, clever lines and backing harmonies (parallels between ‘Overreacting’ and their early hit ‘Inaction’ springs to mind particularly) will definitely make you smile; fans who were more at ease with the echoey studio-polished moodiness of Brain Thrust Mastery will feel more at home with ‘Return The Favor’ and ‘Don’t Blow It’; while for the newcomer…well, it’s just great fun. Yet it’s not all been done before – ‘Slow Down’ is a bit racier than we’re used to, while ‘Dumb Luck’ is very different, but hideously catchy. The slightly weaker track ‘Courage’ is more than compensated for, and the first thing you want to do when the album finishes is hit replay.
In all, TV en Français is a must listen, whether you’re a diehard fan or you’ve never heard them before. Catch WAS in Oxford on 6th March at the O2 Academy.
The title of London grungers Whales in Cubicles’ debut, Death in the Evening, would seem off-puttingly bleak to some. And, although it’s true that, lyrically and sonically, the album’s ten tracks lean towards the darker end of the spectrum (see the video for ‘All the Pretty Flowers’ for further verification), it’s not a purely black canvas; amongst the lo-fi laments lurk more poppy sensibilities. However, what’s tragic is that the album is a mixed bag, not only in the types of songs on offer, but even the quality and originality of the songs.
Obviously, to expect every song to be a ground-breaking masterpiece would be utterly unreasonable, and, for the most part, the band manage to craft an identity without tumbling head over heels into cliche. The opening track, ‘Yesterday’s News’, is a prime example of a band wearing their influences on their sleeves, and yet managing to live up to the standards set by these heroes. Instantly, Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins leap to mind; producer Simon Barnicott’s rough-yet-polished touch yields raw-sounding drums juxtaposed with a sweeping guitar swell. Furthermore, the band has a formidable weapon in frontman Stef Bernardi’s voice; imagine if Billy Corgan had grown up in South London, losing none of the understated intensity from his slacker drone, but hopefully forgetting to cultivate his all-conquering ego. Bernardi’s voice complements the band’s rapid loud/quiet shuffling perfectly, before it culminates in a squalling guitar solo reminiscent of the likes of ‘Geek USA’. For further evidence of his talent, look later in the album, particularly to later track, ‘I Knew It’; it’s here that his versatility most shines as he alternates between a lethargic groan in a hauntingly sparse verse and stratospheric, otherwordly cries in the chorus, showing an impressive vocal range. This impressive opening salvo is followed up by the band’s debut single, ‘We Never Win’, instantly, any misgivings we may have had about the band’s inability to move out of their heroes’ shadows are dispelled; the musicianship of the drums’ odd-time workout provides the backbone of a simmering build-up culminating in a blistering outpouring of lyrical rage. It is here, more than anywhere (although the cavernous depth of closer Find Your Way comes a close second) that the individual sound of Whales in Cubicles shines through. What’s more, as a harrowing lament of the loss of innocence, ‘All the Pretty Flowers’ blows the likes of the Offspring’s ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ into well-deserved obsolescence.
However, this is not to say that the album’s majority of hits aren’t accompanied by a minority of total misses. It is particularly in the album’s troubled midsection that Bernardi allows his pop sensibilities to overcome him, skidding somewhat into the pitfall of sugary radio fodder. The two songs particularly guilty of being disappointingly predictable are ‘Across America’, which features a self-consciously ‘hooky’ chorus you see could coming a mile off, and current single ‘Disappear’, which, frankly, in the hands of a different producer, would sound like New Found Glory at their most wince-inducing. However, it would be colossally unfair to dismiss this album purely on the back of these; just listen to the likes of ‘Nowhere Flag’ to witness the band’s potential for marrying their darker tendencies with simply being catchy; the vocal refrain is nothing short of an earworm, while maintain a distinct desolation. Therefore, the album is definitely recommended, and it will be interesting to see which direction they take in the future; hopefully one which shakes off any perception of ‘what makes a pop song’.