Album Review: SBTRKT – ‘Transitions’

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The man in the tribal mask has been keeping quiet. Three years on from Aaron Jerome’s excellent debut, and he has been entirely leaving us hanging. Fortunately though, SBTRKT is back with this little hors d’oeuvre, a timely amuse-oreille to tide us over until his next LP drops. A six track EP, Transitions is closer to Jerome’s earlier pre-Sampha and Jessie Ware work, a shimmering collection of atmospheric instrumentals and dense, complex productions that really allows SBTRKT to take centre stage and tantalise listeners with his sound’s latest developments.

On a purely titular level, it seems initially to be quite a defensive album. A transition, rather than a final product, track names including ‘Resolute’, ‘Stifle’ and ‘Hold The Line’ don’t conjure the most progressive connotations. There is however, no doubt that Transitions marks a significant step forward for SBTRKT, bringing a new lean, sparse element to his existing style. Certainly it’s less overtly commercial than SBTRKT, but it packs no less punch. There’s a certain restrained strength – a definite sense of power in reserve combined with metronomic, looping motifs – that calls to mind the xx’s debut.

Opener ‘Gamelana’ combines a cicadas beat with an uneasy, wet-trainer, metal-on-metal squeak as a constant, matte synth chimes out an innocuous, deceptively catchy riff. There’s an oscillating, uneven edge to it, slightly sinister and unstable – the vague whiff of a bad trip; electronic swings and roundabouts, fear and loathing in the playpark! Elsewhere, the synth arpeggios continue in a  fresher, more daytime-friendly fashion with ‘Resolute’, which brings a faint 8-bit vibe to a disco beat, and ‘Stifle’, a trilling, liquid slice of wake-up ambience laced with a choppy, clapping beat and slivers of wonky synth. Perhaps most different of all is the colossal ‘Highs + Lows’, which whacks slabs of shuddering bass over a spare change-jangling beat. Undisguised dancefloor fuel, it manages to be psychopathically dark whilst irresistibly danceable – forget feeling the bass in your chest, stand close to the stacks for this and your eyelids will vibrate.

Transitions may be styled as an EP, but it’s only being released in hard copy as three distinct 12”s. Digitally, the tracks sync up with an eye-watering, interactive website that calls to mind those “visual high” videos that were so utterly ineffective. Better still, the vinyl sleeves and inners interlink to create the same trippy Moiré effect: far out! It’s a cool package in an industry increasingly flooded with quirky formats and marketing tricks, but then, SBTRKT has always excelled at visual accompaniments.

All told, it’s a revealing glimpse into the machinations behind the mask – and there’s no doubt that SBTRKT is moving into gripping new territory. I’m fascinated to see what Transitions turns out to be a stepping stone towards – bring on the full length!

Album Review: Werkha – ‘Beacons EP’

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If you’re in the business of making eclectic, influence-crunching electronica that’s rooted in live instrumentation, being invited to tour with Bonobo is quite the seal of approval. It’s not hard to see how 22 year old Tom Leah caught the attention of his simian soundalike; there’s more than a passing resemblance in Werkha’s layered instrumentation and pattering beats, but like any decent opening act, Werkha packs more energy and dancefloor draw than the blissed out whirls of Black Sands or The Northern Borders. Elsewhere, another big name endorsement comes from Gilles Peterson, which is not overly surprising given Leah’s interests in jazz, Afrobeat and soul, amongst others.

Beacons kicks off with ‘Lapwing’, a jitter blend of jazz sax and soulful house that calls to mind the louche electro-swing of Parov Stelar’s work. If Jeeves & Wooster were on the dancefloor today, this would be entirely classy enough for their jazz-age cool.  Underpinning it all lurks a fuzzy, ambient bass, tying the track together with a delicate, crafted feel. (It also has an endearing video starring middle-aged yoga enthusiasts – bonus points).

 

‘Moving with the Nuisance’ is slightly less successful in its jazz reappropriation, as an electric guitar stirs over a dubby, distorted beat and T.E.E.D. style layers of micro percussion. The vocals are slightly too generic (“Put your hands up if you came to party”) and the jazz/house fusion a little too laboured.

The pace is soon ramped up again though, as the EP’s apex arrives with the excellent ‘Sidesteppin’’; a soulful house cut that is dominated by Bryony Jarman Pinto’s pure, unprocessed vocals. It’s a irresistibly crisp, silky track that builds into a solid groove, with a crunchy synth line and a beat that carries off the chorus’s claim – “I can feel my body rockin’ side to side!”.

From there, Beacons takes a slide down into the dark, with dubstep trumping jazz as the foremost influence on display. ‘Tempo Tempo’ brings a slinky, beat-driven open of clinking chimes and cymbals before succumbing to a dominant wonky synth pulse. Thankfully, this is on a different continent to aggressive brostep though; Leah commented recently, ““Since the bastardisation of the term dubstep, I have been keen to demonstrate that it doesn’t all have to sound like robots being sick” – mission accomplished. Smart, sexy and minimal, this is far more interesting than Skrilly and co.

One for those searching out unconventional grooves, Beacons is certainly an impressive calling card for Werkha. Skipping across genres carelessly, stitching his multiple interests, the EP heralds an undeniably original sound. There is a risk of lapsing into slightly bland, dinner party music – but if it’s good enough for Bonobo and Four Tet, that might no longer the criticism it once was. Next time around though, it would be nice to think you’d bother to interrupt someone mid-sentence to ask what was playing.

Album Review: Tensnake – ‘Glow’

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Imagine an album that was the result of a night of passion between Random Access Memories and Settle, one whose heritage contained the 2010 hit ‘Coma Cat’ and oozed deep disco. Of course, Nile Rogers is it’s cool great-uncle, Jacques Lu Cont babysat it, and it looks up to Moderat, Lindstrom and Pharrell Williams just as much as Prince and Michael Jackson. A little spoilt, a good dancer, weighed down with high expectations after this drawn-out, hyperbolic comparison. Born the 10th March 2014 at Synthesiser General: Tensnake’s first LP, Glow.

Though it isn’t as quite as good (and certainly won’t make as much money) as Disclosure and Daft Punk’s 2013 giants, their DNA looms loud in the 80s funk guitars, UK Garage beats and the sheer dancefloor pop appeal strewn through the record. And like it’s chart-topping ancestors, Glow is infused with dance music’s past, paying homage to funk, house and disco as it ranges from pounding intensity to inane club-pop. It’s even got a meta-‘Giorgio by Moroder’ bit. Wisely, since he is neither French nor yet universally revered, Tensnake doesn’t try the philosophical robot angle, but mocks his work: the vocals insist “I’ve been listening for ten minutes already to this Tensnake shit. What the fuck are you guys talking about. I know, but whatever, I don’t need any twinkly, 80s, c’mon-lets-wear-a-tanktop-shit-fucking-rah-rah-rah-shit. I just want something hard, I just want big bass like, wah-wah-wah, like dubstep, like club step, like electro”.

Intermittently the strident 80s pop and the 2-step vibes come together in hugely fun disco flourishes, as on the pulsing ‘Good Enough To Keep’ or 2-step flavoured ‘See Right Through’, both of which sport excellent, diva-worthy deliveries from Fiora. This isn’t house for skanking or eye-rolling or gurning, but for all out, probably-will-be-embarrassed-later, committed boogieing. Other potential soundtracks for montages of silly discoing include the Michael Jackson-referencing, funk-laden ‘Selfish’ and irresistible slink ‘Love Sublime’ (feat. Nile Rogers! Of course!), which takes the minimal disco of ‘Inspector Norse’ and blends in a vocal line worthy of Kylie.

With all these references to juggle, you might be wondering whether Tensnake risks losing his own sound under those of his influences, but there are careful, contemporary clues scattered throughout and 2014 rises clearly through the callbacks and tipped hats. There’s a hint of trap in ’58 BPM’’s intro before it becomes a slow-burn 80s ballad, an EDM wobble amongst ‘No Colour’’s Discovery synths and hip-hop beat, that anchors Glow in the present. Occasionally, the cheese gets away from Niemerski, but on the whole, it’s fantastically produced, hip-friendly dance fun.

Forgive me one last link to R. A. M. and Settle…  This is yet another dance album that avoids the pitfalls of stringing together separately conceived singles. Just like the aforementioned, regardless of many collaborations and genre switches, Glow makes complete sense taken as a whole. From the stretching bass muscles and flexed synths of the uplifting warm-up ‘First Song’ through to the Hawtin-worthy repetitious build of ‘Last Song’, this is a real escalation in Tensnake’s sound. Dancing is awesome. It’s sexy, it’s fun – we can stand to do more dancing!

Album Review: Breton – ‘War Room Stories’

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Thanks to their current inverse status, in both popularity and innovation, it seems that more and more “indie” records have been picking up dance music’s mannerisms – while Breton’s sound in 2012 called to mind Tom Vek and few others, their relatively unchanged sound sets of a chain-reaction of indietronica associations this time around, from Everything Everything and Two Door Cinema Club to Foals’ Holy Fire and recent James Blake.

Resolutely electronic but retaining an “indie” sensibility, faintly industrial, melancholic; Other People’s Problems  was everything you’d ever hoped Kele Okerree’s solo exploits might be –  the tragic romance and earworm hooks of early Bloc Party transposed into a dance-centric setting. At the time, an awful lot was made of their being a “multimedia collective” from “South London” who “squatted” in an “abandoned bank” – a great press release has the power to drown a great record. That their current blurb includes the phrase “distinctly un-hipster” is telling in itself. Forget the myth-building and ignore that it was recorded in an old Soviet radio station; Breton have an aggression, a droning abrasiveness, that just about justifies their “being a dickhead’s cool” swagger. They make electronic music with indie overtones, not the other way around, and in so doing, still manage to stand out from the crowd.

The excellent ‘S4’ is closer to their early Blanket EP in its production’s ferocity, as off-kilter drums skitter across police-kicking-your-door-in bass, while the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra lend the band their effortless ambiance of class and Roman Rappak sings a hook straight off Silent Alarm. Similarly fierce is the Chemical Brother-infused, witch-house stomp ‘Got Well Soon’, which brings brain-scrubbing repetition and Breton’s trademark walls of bass together with the edgy, brooding indie of the Maccabees’ ‘No Kind Words’. The gloves are off and it’s genre-meltingly good.

Taking the edge of with ‘302 Watchtower’, War Room Stories also ventures into gentler territory, bringing a trip-hop kaleidoscope of wind chimes and squeaked bum notes to create an immersive stand-alone world within the album. Sliding into ‘Brothers’, things become a little sub-par Foals, with Rappak’s wails demonstrating why he usually sticks to staccato pronouncements, and though the spacious, confident instrumentation is only a stone’s throw from Holy Fire’s gorgeous ‘Prelude’, it feels a little derivative. Likewise, ‘Envy’ appears to be a pastiche of Breton’s past work – their trademark production accompanying the nonsensical, facile rhyme “You’re a tourist, there’s nothing wrong with that / But what you never could have noticed is how your bags were packed”.

At the other end of the spectrum is mid-album deep breath, ‘Closed Category’. A crisp, spoken sample oozes cool, left-hand piano replaces the usual relentless bass pulse and the guitar lines positively shimmer in their delicacy. Though it’s like nothing Breton have released before, it’s instantly recognisable; an unplugged version of their usual rhythmic gymnastics. What War Room Stories makes clear is that the way forward is further exploration and boundary pushing. Unsurprisingly, given both their sound and their ethos, Breton are not at their best when static, but rather forging ahead – cramming the bare bones of their sound into new and unsuspecting genres and influences.

The Top Five Albums of 2013

Finally, Rock and Rolle’s BEST albums of 2013, the top five!

For numbers ten to six, click here.

It’s been a vintage year, but these are the albums I’ve come back to again and again – obsessed over, agonised over, adored. Here’s the order of my list that it’s in.

5. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 – Eminem

The sequel to a much revered classic by a living legend, MMLP2 had a lot of scope for ending terribly. Instead, we were treated to the best Eminem album in a decade – packed with furious flow, fantastic wordplay and the full spectrum of human emotions. The immediate high of the scattered call-backs to his earlier works remain a thrill; but it’s an album that reveals more with every listen thanks to the sheer complexity of the rhymes. Even just taking phenomenal opener ‘Bad Guy’, hook-laden ‘Rhyme or Reason’, speed-of-light ‘Rap God’ and earworn ‘Dangerous’, this was one of the most impressive and entertaining records around.

4. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk

Forget how many times you’ve heard ‘Get Lucky’ in the last 6 months and remember how you first heard it. A slice of pure, irresistible funk – a perfect pop song? Then mounting anticipation; frantic commentary on the game-changing natures of Discovery and Homework whipped up with a teasing, enticing marketing campaign. Unbelievably, Random Access Memories lived up to all the hype. Prog, funk and jazz, live recordings and not of 4/4 beat to be found confounded expectations, once again throwing electronic conventions out of the window. From the first over-excited stream to the latest replay, this is an uplifting, fresh album, cleverly bringing together the past and future. And ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ was the best track of 2013, which helps.

3. Holy Fire – Foals

The best guitar-based record of the year comes from Oxford, the formerly spiky mathrockers turned luxuriant indie stadium rockers Foals. Building on the spatial, instrumental expanses of Total Life Forever, their third record saw them hit a new creative peak. It’s an album that creeps out of the speakers, from the slow-burn intensity of ‘Prelude’, through the anthemic ‘Inhaler’ to the sheer pop of ‘My Number’ – a single that demanded sun and bright blue skies. Carefully constructed, Holy Fire yields gorgeous lilting riffs, explosive rhythms and a newfound rock and roll crunch that entirely suits Foals. Beyond the singles, there’s an excess of massive indie to enjoy here.

2. Acid Rap – Chance The Rapper

Cutting above Kanye, A$AP, Jigga and the rest, the best hip-hop record for me this year was a free mixtape, from a 20 year old Chicagoan. Yelping and cartoonish, his style brings to mind early Eminem – but there was none of the aggression or insanity that characterised Slim Shady present here, but more the anti-gangsta analysis of Kendrick and early Kanye. Those are some colossal comparisons, but if Chance isn’t a household name by 2020, I’ll eat my blog. Alternately woozy and cartoonish, Acid Rap was off-the-walls, ADHD bursting with ideas and pop hooks. Infectiously good-natured, it will soon have you grinning and languidly struggling to keep up.

1. Overgrown – James Blake

Much as I am loathe to agree with the Mercury Prize, James Blake came a long, long way in 2013. Long gone is the dubstep, as is the taut, silent spacing of his 2011 debut. Instead, he brought us a disjointed, incredibly emotive brand of electronic soul and R&B, with both the trademark dubby shakes and voice-cracking melodies still present. Fragile beauty and a sense of yearning dominate Overgrown, but the songs are, for all their complexity, ridiculously hummable. There’s no doubt Blake is taking himself seriously, but the intimacy of ‘Retrograde’, ‘Life Round Here’ and the rest is utterly immersive; sensual, intricate, and like nothing else you’ve heard this year.

The Best of 2013 (10 – 6)

Mindblowing avalanches of hip-hop, a (whisper it) indie renaissance and the ever-growing dominance of an endlessly inventive electronic scene: by anybody’s standards, 2013 has been the best year for music in some time. As everyone’s music taste has steadily melted into one gigantic crossover success, the genre divides have seemed less important than ever. In a year where ‘Get Lucky’ led a disco revival, Kanye went full space-cadet, and Bowie had a number one album, these were my favourite records.

Thanks for reading, see you in 2014!

10. Psychic – Darkside

Nicolas Jaar’s woozy, skittish techno made a longform return in October, as he returned with guitarist Dave Harrington in his side-project, Darkside.  Having early in the year released their gorgeous album-remix of Random Access Memories, their third LP was a more experimental affair, adding dub beats and fuzz to the cyclical, disjointed Jaar sound. It’s minimalism calls to mind the 90s techno elite (Hawtin, Villalobos etc), but it also incorporates the space-prog and psychedelia alluded to in the band’s name – it’s techno-progrock fusion, undulating on whirring beats and strung out riffs, looping through the dark side of your mind.

9. Settle – Disclosure

Omnipresent thanks to its inescapable string of singles, the Lawrence brothers’ Settle was just one of the years’ fantastic mainstream successes. Brain-wiping repetitive beats, giant hooks, and a raft of excellent guest vocalists allowed the album to dominate the summer, zinging dance-pop, heavily indebted to late 90s garage, that was as suited to drivetime sing-alongs as mindless gurnathons. Get past the singles’ over-exposure, put it back on, and just try and sit still.

8. FIDLAR – FIDLAR

Dumb surf-punk will always have a place in my heart, and in 2013, FIDLAR did it best. Though Light Up Gold beat the Strokes at their own game and Wavves put out a decent second LP, only these LA boys were operating at a Black Lips level of debauchery and young-dumb-fun. Pure sex, drugs and rock n roll, I’ve played this again and again since February and thanks to its stellar hooks and sheer euphoric delivery, it’s still fresh. If you enjoy getting buzzed and shouting, this is the album for you.

7. Zomby – With Love

Following in the footsteps of Actress and Pantha du Prince, 2013 brought us a newly delicate, emotive Zomby – on record, if not in reality. Dark paranoia, lush instrumentation and beats from jungle, garage, dubstep and hip-hop pulsed through this double album, interspersed with miniature symphonies that were more classical than electronic. Spacious, beautiful and complex, With Love only grows with each listen.

6. Arc – Everything Everything

Taut, rhythmic indie has been stuck on the back-burner since Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand were relevant, but in January, it hit boiling point again with Arc. Stuffed with riffs, witticisms and creativity, it was a colossal follow-up album for the Mancunians – all electronic-influenced indie with wordplay worthy of the most tongue-twisting MCs. The gun-fire percussion and razorsharp guitars combine to hysterical effect, building complex songs that are catchy enough to be termed pop.

Album Review: Bryce Hackford – ‘Fair’

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Twenty minute-long songs are principally associated with overblown, over-extended prog or with self-indulgent, solo-laden hair metal. Of course, it is also a format that is extremely well suited to the electronic genres’ repetitive beats. Without resorting to sprawling outros or overstretched bridges, Bryce Hackford’s debut album features two tracks that are longer than an episode of The Simpsons, using the extra time to sustain its looping grooves and carve out an immersive listening experience, as the tracks’ myriad layers slowly intensify and lull, complicate and simplify, often so subtly that you hardly notice until the change being wrought is complete.

Fair begins with ‘Another Fantasy’, a much-hyped blast of storming techno that builds to a slightly disorientating climax with an industrial jitter reminiscent of Mitstabishi’s ‘Printer Jam’. Thoroughly enjoyable and the perfect soundtrack to losing all your friends in darkened room full of strangers and lasers, it’s exactly what you would expect from a man who has spent recent years playing pounding Brooklyn warehouses. It is also, however, entirely incongruous alongside the rest of the record. Like an experimental jumping-off point, from here on in the tracks only get longer and increasingly ambient.

By second track ‘Heart To Beat’, the bpm has plummeted and the vocals are already dreamily slurred. An iambic pentameter as strong as Shakespeare’s forms the beat and everything else continues to stretch and compress – metallic claps, growling sub-bass and floating drones combine excellently. Here again, both the instrumental layers and the hazy vocals dip in and out allowing the song to range infinitesimally from the minimal to the complex. With ‘Slow Emotion’, things only become more horizontally chillaxed, as a gentle, slightly mystical intro twinkles over gorgeously warm bass and a slow 4/4 pulse; distinctively trippy.

Finally come the mammoth closers, with the last two tracks almost hitting 50 minutes runtime between them. At first listen, ‘Run On Cirrus’ sounds like the product of those apps that build pretty rippling jingles according to the pattern left by your fingertips on the screen. Soon, the lazy fuzz of a stationery lightsabre flickers in the background, then slashing and clashing – conjuring distracting mental images of sparring Jedis. ‘Modern Propeller Music’ builds looping electric guitar samples to create a warm, ponderous ambience, a meditative conclusion to a decidedly out-of-body album.

Ethereal and cosmic, Fair is perfect listening for lucid dreaming or dope-fuelled naps. Too inaccessible to win any ambient converts it may be, but certainly an unexpected pleasure for the initiated. And those brought here on the back of ‘Another Planet’, chasing more brain-wiping techno, will be thoroughly disappointed.

Album Review: Destroyer – ‘Five Spanish Songs EP’

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Dan Bejar has never been a predictable man. A serial genre-chameleon, under his Destroyer guise, he has churned out everything from acoustic indie to ambient and experimental electronica. If you were to pick an “indie” band to put out a Spanish-language covers EP, Destroyer would be second only to Damon Albarn.

 After the British accented, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker…” name-dropping of 80s soft rock Kaputt, it’s no surprise to see Bejar don another genre, persona, and even a new language. All of the tracks on Five Spanish Songs are Sr. Chinarro songs originally, but instantly everything from the production, sheer pop hooks, and tongue-in-cheek vocals shouts Destroyer. That’s not say the pose isn’t convincing – with such an authentic accent, this could easily be a Castilian imposing his lyrics into Destroyer compositions.

The laid-back, Californian lounge vibe that dominated <i>Kaputt</i> lingers, as electrics ripple over delicate acoustic strumming and Bejar continues with the morning-after-excess quality, although he’s swapped the playboy coke tales for mythical Spanish warriors and religious processions. Opener ‘Maria de las Nieves’ brings a glistening, lounge riff over gentle acoustics, as Bejar laments “Maria of the Snows”, his troublesome ice queen. A melancholy, fragile earworm, bringing early Elliott Smith to mind both sonically and lyrically – such praise is not lightly given. “Esterilizantes con alcohol, practicantes de una rara religion / Como una monja bella, a ver que dice ella” (Sterilized with alcohol, practitioners of a strange religion / A beautiful nun, let’s see what she says).

Elsewhere, ‘Babieca’ continues the lounge funk, bringing Chic guitar stabs and overwrought flourishes to pattering finger percussion. Over a silky smooth chorus, Bejar relates Chinarro’s story of El Cid, a medieval Spanish warrior, and much immortalised folkhero. It’s a gentle caress of a song, cleverly combining Destroyer’s trademarks with a traditional Spanish narrative. Those of you who don’t speak Spanish, be warned – bogus attempts at singing along are guaranteed. ‘El Rito’, a song about the San Juan Saint’s day, brings a bizarrely Britpop sound, with a riff straight of Different Class, held together by a folk-stomp backbone: whatever the language, this would catch your attention; as the chorus insists, “Bailarà! Saltarà!” (You will dance! You will jump!). Additionally, there’s evocative love song ‘Del Monton’ (“I looked at the castle and believed Franz Kafka, and I wrote a song that ended in a tavern…”) and ‘Bye Bye’, a Chinarro classic that comes to evoke Bright Eyes in Bejar’s hands.

By transplanting his work into another language, and into songs written by somebody else, Bejar takes the oblique lyrics and “I write poetry for myselfKaputt-approach even further, as many won’t understand a word. But it’s a good test, and one that highlights Destroyer’s sheer musicianship. Regardless of their supporting tropes, the songs prove themselves consistently memorable and enjoyable. It’s another home run for Bejar – a disappointingly short taster that will leave you dreaming of Spain’s mountains and deserts, and longing for more.

Album Review: La Femme – ‘Psycho Tropical Berlin’

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La Femme: a French band plying us with jangling West Coast surf-pop, undercut with doom-laden kraut-coldwave. It’s as unusual as it sounds – Google “surfpop coldwave” and they’re on their own. Add to that mix a serious dose of wackiness and a general Halloween vibe, and the whole thing should be a disaster. Their debut album Psycho Tropical Berlin sounds like the Beach Boys jamming with the Velvet Underground and Françoise Hardy, covering ‘Monster Mash’ – and though that sentence has to be up there with “Santa, the Armadillo and I” in terms of implausibility, it’s a style that is astonishingly catchy, natural, and flat-out fun. It’s time to surf the coldwave.

Throughout the album, most tracks have the same broad blueprint. A thudding, ominous intro laden with thwacking bass that blooms into sharp, punchy surf guitars. A spooky ambiance lent by droning organs or synths, and yéyé, aggressively rhymed vocals from one of the group’s many femmes. There’s a constant aura of kooky upbeatness – most of Psycho Tropical Berlin could be featured in a zany advert for French cars, wasted in that context but still prompting you to reach for Shazam. A standout is former single ‘Sur La Planche’, a pleasingly repetitive romp through the pleasures of surfing, updated here to be faster, tighter and more synth-dominated. Frantic, glorious and lighthearted, it’s all you can ask surf-pop to be.  Elsewhere, opener ‘Antitaxi’ pushes the 60s Californian influence further, flexing razorsharp guitars and a Theremin whilst slightly menacingly extoling the benefits of taking the bus (“Antitaxi! Prends le bus!”).

Good as these tracks are, sixteen of them would perhaps be too much. This is where La Femme’s odd genre combination comes into its own, as their surf side can be played down, and their other interests pushed to the fore. The excellent ‘Le Blues de Francoise’ is a case in point, demonstrating a more sombre style with not a jangle in sight. Over a haunting organ and subdued strums, a perfect monotone spoken delivery details Françoise’s blues as she sits alone with her tissues and cigarette ends, “pas un email, pas un coup de fil”. The chorus chimes in, and another Femme jollies things along, insisting “Tu n’es pas belle quand tu pleures” . Another gentle success comes in ‘It’s Time To Wake Up’, a slow ballad which captures wheezing synths and soothing organs, calling to mind their compatriots M83. Initially a simple lovesong, it quickly unravels into brilliant post-apocalyptica, as we learn they are together forever, the survivors – “Tout le monde se fait tuer / La silly cause / La guerre était finie – Mata Hari!”.

Though La Femme’s music is often irreverent and their female singers anonymously ever-changing, the women of Psycho Tropical Berlin are packing ideas behind their sultry vocals. Whether or not you can be bothered to translate the lyrics, their manic, rollercoaster pop and fierce hooks should be enough of a draw for the most Anglophone listener. 

Marshall Mathers and His Many Alter-Egos: ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2′ Album Review

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Content-wise, Eminem has always been problematic –the misogyny and homophobia that lurk throughout his lyrics are still there. But somehow, we collectively got over it. Funny and intelligent though he often is even at his most deplorable, his saving grace is Marshall Mathers’ infinitely fractured personality; is he genuinely advocating what he’s saying or is he in character?

It was a question that dominated The Marshall Mathers LP and one that he addressed perfectly in ‘Stan’, satirising the media frenzy about the violence his songs might inspire whilst counselling, “maybe you just need to treat her better”. He had just devoted a track to rapping about killing bitches, but the distinction was clear. What happens on record isn’t okay in real life (despite his own history). The point is that ever since he first got the outraged reaction he was looking for, Eminem has been mocking the humourless critics who take what he’s saying entirely seriously – the jokes and insults, like his true self and his alter-egos, have long been expertly blended.

Thirteen years later, and the master of self-referential mythologizing is back on top form. With The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the connection to its iconic prequel is explicit. As well as revisiting the sounds of his earlier album with rock-rap production and furiously fast flow, he further complicates and enriches his web of self-obsession by scattering call-backs throughout the album (the “Hi!” from ‘My Name Is’, a snippet of the hook from ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and more). Even better, many lines are careful echoes of the past, pseudo-homonyms that both subvert his old lyrics and beautifully mess with our expectations. On ‘Asshole’, it’s the altered line “Soul’s escaping through this asshole that is gaping, whilst ‘So Far’ has him again “spittin’ on your onion rings” and the ‘Rap God’s dizzying flow conceals references to ‘Kill You’ and ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’. When he raps “It’s just you and the music now, Slim, I hope you hear it; we’re in the car right now – wait, hear comes my favourite lyric!” during ‘Bad Guy’, he knows exactly what he’s doing – this is meticulous manipulation of the millions who have his words seared into their minds and it’s grin-enducingly glorious.

The Inceptionesque complexities of his inter-alter-ego references at the heart of MMLP2 are most overtly laid bare in its opening and closing tracks. ‘Bad Guy’ tackles Marshall Mathers’ biggest legacy head on, kicking things off with an astonishing, seven minute follow-up to ‘Stan’. Initially, with the simplistic flow, he takes the voice of Matthew (“that’s my little brother man, he’s only six years old”…), taking revenge for his long-dead older brother: this time around, it’s Eminem screaming in the trunk. It’s a chance, confusingly, for Eminem to take a shot at himself, as Matthew mimics him “I’m the bad guy who makes fun of people that die / And hey, here’s a sequel to my Mathers LP just to try and get people to buy” – he’s always been a fantastic mimic of his critics. Deeper self-analysis comes, as “Matthew” raps “I’m the bullies you hate that you became with every faggot your slaughtered / Coming back on you every woman you insulted with the double-standards you have when it comes to your daughters” – he’s well aware of his own contradictions and it’s irresistible listening.

Closer ‘Evil Twin’ is just as satisfying complex, another piece in the jigsaw as the album continues to seesaw wildly between justifying, apologising for, and glorying in his own character creations. Here, it’s all swagger, he’s the “borderline genius who’s bored of his lines”. Singing sweetly, he proclaims “That ain’t me [...] he’s just a friend who pops up now and again, so don’t blame me – blame him” – but it’s never that easy. Next, he spits “Then again, who wants a plain Eminem […] look at that evil grin, evil twin, please come in!” before proclaiming “Still Shady inside, hair every bit as dyed as it used to be when I first introduced y’all to my skittish side and blamed it all on him when they criticised – cus we are the same, bitch” – Jesse Pinkman, eat your heart out. Immature insults, self-obsessed analysis, and deadly flow – Eminem is back, the same old hot mess he’s always been.

Aside from the occasional freestyle, Em hasn’t stretched himself like this in a long time. It’s an album that’s jam packed with ideas; constantly upping the ante with each verse and unstoppably gaining momentum with every track. It’s incredibly energetic and bursting with evident enjoyment despite the anger that’s being chronicled; for a man who’s just turned forty, he hasn’t sounded this young since 2002. Slinking ‘Rhyme or Reason’ packs the jokes in as he further explores his thoughts about his father, ‘Headlights’ contains an astonishing apology to his mother (“I love you Debbie Mathers, oh what a tangled web we have”), and ‘Rap God’ is the fastest, most technically complex song  Eminem has ever recorded. The excellent ‘Love Game’ will be a genuine passing of the baton if this really is Em’s last album. Kendrick Lamar’s verse is exemplary, but it’s irrelevant whether or not you consider him to have “outshone” Eminem. Despite the earlier “why be a king when you can be a god” putdown, this is still the Eminem show, and adding Lamar’s skills to the mix is a generous move – he isn’t close to being threatened by Kendrick.

Imagine a world where Dr Dre had never uncovered Detroit’s greatest export, that this was somehow your first time hearing Eminem, and there’s no way that MMLP2 would not be as seismically important and game-changing as its prequel. This is Eminem’s best record in a decade – and one of the most impressive, entertaining and addictive hip-hop albums of the year.