Album Reviews

At last! The Pretty Reckless are back

At last! The Pretty Reckless are back

It’s been four years since New York alt-metal band The Pretty Reckless blasted onto the music scene with their debut album Light Me Up. Since then, the band have been touring the world, both as headliners and support for bigger acts – most notably Marilyn Manson, Evanescence and, currently, Fall Out Boy. Frontwoman Taylor Momsen has definitely shed her good-girl image of the Gossip Girl and Dr Seuss days, solidifying her place amongst the female-led bands on the increase within the rock scene.

The wait for Going to Hell has definitely not been wasted. The band have obviously had time to develop and work on their own sound, which permeates every track. Although the influence of Evanescence on Momsen’s voice is evident within tracks like ‘House on a Hill’, and there are moments with longer notes when there is a (somewhat surprising!) touch of P!nk-esque drawl, The Pretty Reckless are obviously comfortable and confident with their own music.

The album gets off to a very strong start, with three heavy and powerful tracks after another. ‘Follow Me Down’ and ‘Going to Hell’ are sure to become crowd favourites, with their fast-paced riffs, whereas ‘Heaven Knows’ proves easy to sing along to – its chanting chorus is bound to give this song anthem status with the band’s fans. There’s a welcome change of pace with the fourth song of the album, and Momsen’s vocals are really able to shine, although a slightly stronger chorus would have lifted the song further. The rest of the album maintains a high standard, with a regular shake-up of pace: the shorter songs ‘Burn’ and ‘Dear Sister’ provide the emotional depth that the heavier ‘Absolution’ and ‘Sweet Things’ may be seen to lack. ‘Blame Me’ proves a nice bridge between the polarities.

The two real surprises of the high-standard album come with the final two songs. Riding on the back of an undoubtedly catchier and wannabe rebellious ‘Why’d You Bring a Shot-Gun to the Party?’, the angst-laden ‘Fucked Up World’ is one of the weaker songs of the album, drawing it to a seemingly disappointing close. However, the final song, ‘Waiting for a Friend’, is the shocker of the album. Featuring Momsen’s voice and acoustic instruments, the song is drastically different from the rock-heavy opener – in the best possible way. Here the band displays that their talent is not restricted to one particular style, and it’s nice to hear a more natural side to Momsen’s voice rather than the grunge-like drawl she’s often fond of.

4/5

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Everything is not as embarrassing as it seems

Everything is not as embarrassing as it seems

There are a rigid list of rules to follow nowadays if you want to become a pop starlet: a long overdue album, drugs bust with semi-famous boyfriend and some kind of collaboration with Dev Hynes. At the end of it all, if you’re successful, you get a spot as support on a Miley Cyrus tour. Fortunately for Sky Ferreira, she’s managed to follow all of this to the letter, ensuring there is enough notoriety surrounding her name to make Azealia Banks jealous. “I blame myself for my reputation,” she sings on ‘I Blame Myself’. It’s easy to see why Ferreira has felt a bit lost in the world of the music industry. Night Time, My Time has been in the pipeline for almost three years now, with Sky Ferreira coming to mainstream attention with her first single, ‘One’, which was a somewhat sickly but undeniably catchy piece of pop, reminiscent of Little Boots. At the time she was tipped to be seen as the new Britney Spears, but it soon became clear that she had other ideas, leading to record label arguments that left her fans hanging in the balance for new music. The problem with the fickle world of pop music is that it becomes very easy to be forgotten, and when albums are this highly anticipated, they are expected to demonstrate something really special.

The opener, ‘Boys’, seems to fulfil all of these expectations. Featuring fast-paced drums, crashing guitars and multi-layered vocals, it gives a fresh take on romance, with Ferreira singing that “you put my faith back in boys”, having spent the first half of the song moaning about them. The guitars are part of what makes Ferreira’s brand of pop so interesting, wholly reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain or bits of The Cure’s back catalogue, but mixed in with pop elements more likely to be found in the Top 40. ‘24 Hours’ starts with an alarm clock, before using xylophones to recreate the Scandi-pop sounds that have become so popular over the past couple of years, whilst ‘Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)’ seems almost destined to be shouted around stadiums. It is easy to see the mark of producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Charlie XCX, Haim, Vampire Weekend) on the more upbeat tracks, which give a polished shine to the darker lyrics that make up a storyline of destruction and insecurity. It would be easy to let the album descend into grunge, but the sheen that somewhat masks Ferreira’s lyrics in turn serves to emphasise their incongruence with the sound even more.

However, sometimes when the sound calms down a bit, it all becomes a bit more accomplished. The title track, ‘Night Time, My Time’, features a muttering and menacing Ferreira accompanied by strings, which become more and more intense as the song grows before cutting out suddenly before the final track. ‘Everything is Embarrassing’ closes the album, and you can see why: it is clearly the most sophisticated piece of writing Ferreira has done. One of those songs that you can never put your finger on why it is so impossible to get out of your head, it was what properly launched her into the public eye in the first place. Whether it is the drum sample that it runs throughout, or Ferreira’s sultry duet with herself, it is easily the best song on the album. And that is somewhat the problem with Night Time, My Time. A lot of it is well produced, exciting and catchy, but it never goes further than where we had seen Sky Ferreira at in the first place. I guess given the amount of furore that went into releasing the album, we can only be grateful that it’s here, and that now the drama is dying down she will be able to focus on bigger and better things.

One thing is for sure: the pouting, half-naked Ferreira who features on the front cover sure looks a lot more vulnerable than she sounds on it, and that bodes well for the future.

 

3.5/5

Wild Beasts: putting the past (tense) behind them

Wild Beasts: putting the past (tense) behind them

“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.

5/5

Tugging on the heart-springs

Tugging on the heart-springs

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.

5/5

Bow down to St. Vincent

Bow down to St. Vincent

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.

4/5

It’s time for a Mourning Phase

It’s time for a Mourning Phase

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.

2/5

Not one for shelving

Not one for shelving

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.

4/5

Bookshelves is out on 24th February 2014

Sorting The Men from the boys

Sorting The Men from the boys

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.

4/5

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