Single Review: The Strokes – ‘One Way Trigger’

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I don’t think anyone would contest that the Strokes were a game-changing, scene-shaking, gigantically huge deal in 2002; but are we still interested? After all, the star of punk and pop-influenced guitar-led indie has somewhat waned, skinny jeans have become positively mainstream, and the last album was largely disappointing.

The new offering, ‘One Way Trigger’, is not a single but rather a “song” (what defines a single, other than being an individually released track? Is this the single equivalent of a mixtape? Is the distinction that it’s being given away for free?) taken from their approaching album Comedown Machine. It’s certainly recognisably the Strokes, but it’s closer in sound to Angles than any of their other releases. But that’s what we should expect – it is after all, 2013, and the Strokes, like the rest of the world, have changed in the last ten years.

Though if you do want to hark back to the days when no-one had ever heard of Razorlight, when you could still smoke in pubs, and when chavs were just beginning to take over the streets,  there’s something here for you too. An inherently Strokes riff dominates; albeit from a synth rather than a guitar, and Albert manages to jam in a straight classic Strokes solo, which sounds as if he at least hasn’t changed his amp set-up since 2002.

All told, it sounds very Julian. His falsetto soars over the looping synths and minimal, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs-mimicking minimal percussion, coming within a stroke (wahey!) of his self-parodying vocals on the Lonely Island’s ‘Boombox’. From what we saw in the Angles-era interviews, the band was then threatened by serious internal divisions, and it seems to be Casablancas who is leading the way out of the darkness. After waiting six years last time, it’s refreshing to hear a new track after a mere two.

If this had been from some unknown new band, I’d certainly have sat up and taken notice. The verse is a bit annoying, but I like the progression to the chorus, I like the solo, I even like the synths. But there’s something about the Strokes (their on-going status as the saviours of indie-rock this century and that perfect, perfect first album and their jeans and their hair and and) that means we can’t take it. I’m disappointed, and unreasonably so. What was I expecting – a lost track from Is This It? Which of course, now, wouldn’t be half as revolutionary anyway as it was first time round. They progress, they’ve stayed together; we should be thankful. Comedown Machine is slated for late March release, so we have a full two months to rein our expectations in yet.

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Album Review: A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.A$AP

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With all the glorious judgement and perspective that comes with being one whole month into 2013, the way things stand at the moment it looks like the most revered, the most defining, and the list-topping releases of 2012 were mostly hip-hop records. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean smashed it, dominating end of year lists and radio waves alike, whilst Schoolboy Q, Killer Mike, Roc Marciano, and tons of others put out interesting, challenging and successful albums.

And on their heels, come to dominate the decade’s teenage years with his first full release, is one A$AP Rocky. After a huge amount of hype and much spin-doctoring, Rocky had signed (a reportedly $3 million contract) with Sony, been hailed around the internet as the biggest contender for OFWGKTA’s swag-hop crown, and finally, in 2011, put out the Live.Love.A$AP mixtape. Though the hype has subdued and there have been some major careers launched in the interim, there was still pressure on Rocky to deliver with his first album proper.

Unlike Kendrick or Frank’s confessionals, or even Tyler’s pseudo-anarchic rhymes, Rocky mostly stands by straight-up, classic gangster rap content. The first three tracks stick well within familiar tropes, backed up by the familiar Clams Casino-style slick sub-bass beats and clattering spills. ‘Long Live A$AP’ is a standard rags-to-riches tale, pieced round a gliding, dreamy chorus; “Who said you can’t live forever lied”.  Next, lead single ‘Goldie’ is jammed with A$AP trademarks, and manages to be catchy without drops or gimmicks, relying instead on relentless flow. ‘PMW’ rounds it off, a case in point; “Pussy money weed, that’s all a nigger need”.

Lyrically, Long.Live.A$AP can feel somewhat shallow, with particularly ‘Fashion Killa’ (lyrics composed almost entirely of brand names) letting the side down. Just as his first mixtape dwelled almost exclusively on smoking weed, here Rocky is inclined to talk cash and hoes to the detriment of everything else. There are some flashes of potential for more though, most prominently on ‘Suddenly’, where finally there’s some humour (“Roaches on the walls, roaches on the dresser, everybody got roaches but our roaches don’t respect us”) as well as story-telling, with Rocky’s finest lines on the album; “cookouts and dirt bikes and dice games and fist fights/And fish fries and shootouts like one SIG with two rounds/And click left two down, that’s four kids but one lived/That one miss, that one snitch”.

Though evidently collaborations are in part what brings Rocky his unmistakable sound, with giants like Clams Casino, Dangermouse and Hit-Boy (amongst others) producing, his decision to incorporate a hip-hop who’s who onto his debut album has perhaps backfired. With guest spots from – (deep breath) Schoolboy Q, OverDoz, Kendrick Lamar, 2Chainz, Drake, Big K.R.I.T., Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Gunplay and A$APFerg –Rocky risks his own identity being lost on his own debut, and at times it is certainly unclear who the dominate voice is supposed to be. And while at times the guest rappers add to the atmosphere, especially on 6 minute self-aggrandizing competition ‘1 Train’, the additions of Santigold and, mysteriously, Florence Welch are conspicuously out of place. Although, now that Tyler the Creator is supposedly singing on Miley Cyrus’ new album  it looks quite a mundane choice. Worst of all is ‘Wild For The Night’, featuring Skrillex, with awful happy-hardcore chimes and airhorns.

It’s a confident, beautifully-produced record, which builds well on everything that made Live.Love.A$AP a success; but there is perhaps too little progress. Whilst there’s no doubting the hooks and the flow, lyrically it’s uninventive and repetitive in places, and there’s no doubting Rocky’s got more to give. Perhaps if it had come out this time last year we would have received it rapturously, but in the wake of 2012’s big hitters, it looks slightly pedestrian. Though he stands level with them as they guest on his songs, Rocky’s in danger of playing it too safe and being left behind by his cohort. Stay clear of the ridiculous collaborations though, and it’s an enjoyable, easy listen.

Album Review: Everything Everything – ‘Arc’

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There have been on-going claims of the death of guitar-music over the last few years; a perceived deterioration in the standard of indie particularly, as all everyone enthuses about continues to be electronic. I have to include myself in this supposed trend, as I’ve noticed a huge swing in my listening habits over the last year, away from indie and alt.rock and headlong into hip-hop, house, and techno.

However, claims of the end of indie are doubtless hugely exaggerated. There have been some truly great indie records lately; and though the NME may be desperately holding out for the supposedly due ten-year revival a decade after the Strokes and the Libertines changed it up in 2002 – the best “indie” record so far of 2013 is undoubtedly Everything Everything’s second record Arc.

Less relentlessly try-hard than their debut Man Alive yet still a challenging and interesting listen, Arc is an album with an essentially pop sensibility, dressed up with complex rhythms and orchestration – but this time it’s just restrained enough to be able to pull it off. A combination of weird Radiohead-like tracks (an inevitable comparison when you sing in falsetto over agitating, odd time signatures) and Wild Beasts-esque ballads, structurally it most reminds me of an Arcade Fire release. Consistently thematic lyrically (dealing with technophobia and the threat of a dystopian future), the songs are all clearly separate and memorable, but united under a presiding style, drawing the album together.

The first half of Arc is a particularly strong statement of intent. First single ‘Cough Cough’ will have caught many attentions, with its stuttering, rapid-fire lyrics and percussion, leading into a soaringly euphoric chorus; “I’m coming alive, I’m having now!”. Despite a slight sense of hysteria, it’s undoubtedly uplifting, even as the lyrical themes make themselves evident (“…and you wake up just head and shoulders in a glass jar”). Second track ‘Kemosabe’ is equally gripping – more skittish percussion, this time backed up with grinding guitars and a straight-up pop chorus, complete with clapping and “Hey!”’s. Reining it in slightly, next is the fantastic ‘Torso of the Week’; minimal percussion, synths and (yes!) guitars build as Jonathon Higgs’ intelligent lyrics pick at the dark side of celebrity culture, “Girl you’ve been hitting that treadmill like a freak, maybe you’re not quite the torso of the week – hollowest cheeks in the county, time to tweet” “, and then another ear-worm of a snarled chorus smashes in. And it doesn’t end there. Tracks like the beautifully melodic, looping dream of ‘Undrowned’ or the jerking,trickling minimalism of ‘Armourland’, which resolves into a restrained ballad, stud the album, with barely a filler track to be found.

With its evident focus on rhythm and percussion, like Metronomy’s English Riviera and the first xx album before it, Arc is in another string to the bow of electronic-influenced indie. Rather than harking back to brit-pop and piling pressure on bands like the Vaccines, Tribes, and (current “next big guitar band”) Palma Violets – we should accept that indie doesn’t have to be straight-up guitars, and embrace the alternatives. Clever lyrics, check. Guitars, yes, check. A slight sense of despair, check. As indie as indie can be. Given the leap forward between albums one and two, I can only eagerly anticipate what the next release will bring from Everything Everything.

Album Review: Dobie – ‘We Will Not Harm You’

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Last summer, I went to Outlook, a bass festival in Croatia. At some point during the blur of the weekend, I picked up a “No bass, no fun” sticker, which managed to permeate into my heat-bass-booze addled mind and resonated with me deeply. I plastered it to myself; delighted to parade my new-found life philosophy before everyone I met (thankfully there wasn’t a tattoo parlour to hand). Though the sticker is long disintegrated, were it still in possession, Dobie’s debut full-length would force me to shred it. This is not fun bass. This is not even Marks & Spencer’s bass. This is relentless, filthy bass – the kind that throbs through your head when you’re horrifically hungover on a bus and you accidentally lean it against the shuddering, vibrating window. It’s not the whirring and wobbing of dial-up modem mainstream dubstep but rather the ominous, water-shakes-in-the-glass boom of a particularly rhythmic Tyrannosaurus Rex approaching.

Anthony Campbell, a.k.a. Dobie, has loomed large on the UK production scene since the late 80s, working with everyone from Soul II Soul and Massive Attack to London Posse and Björk. Since allied with bass label Big Dada, he last year released two appetite-whetting EPs, and has now returned with a full-length, as well as an accompanying exhibition of his skate/hip-hop based photography and an  essay on his music and life by cultural commentator Jason Jules. Topped off with album art from Turner prize winner, and friend, Chris Ofili, this is the measured, thought-out return from an evidently respected artist.

The first half of We Will Not Harm You is an uppercut in bass-form. Opening track, ‘The Beginning’, plunges straight in with jarring synths and pounding sub-bass intercut, like a B-grade sci-fi soundtrack, with cries of “We will not harm you!” – Dobie is in fact so keen to reassure his listeners that this later repeats in a track of its own, ‘Skit’. Next up, the slightly less intense ‘Blip 124’ brings throbbing house over a thundering undercurrent of four-to-the-floor, yep, you guessed it, shuddering bass. It only gets darker, with ‘Then I Woke Up’ kicking off with nightmarish squeals, ominous synths and the faint ringing of alarms before smacking the listener with a chuntering bass break before introducing Space Oddity-style ascending, washed out synths. Best of all is first single, ‘She Moans’, essentially a wall-of-bass topped with tropical, drum-n-bass percussion – the sound of dubstep being deconstructed.

Thankfully, as one’s ears, eyes, and jaw muscles need a break by this point, Dobie relents with ‘Somewhere Over There’, a bass-free airy interlude of dream-pop synths and soulful piano. Instrumental hip-hop tracks ‘Crunch Factor No. 5’ and ‘The Chant’ also allow the listener to catch their breath – definitely necessary breaks in the record but equally slightly below the standard of the rest of the record.  Like the soundtrack of a night, becoming ever-more intense before peaking, pausing, and eventually taking it down a notch, the end of the album is much less bass-centric, instead sliding into spacey electronica (though, naturally, there’s still some sub-bass in evidence). Closing track ‘She Wiggles When She Walks’ is particularly successful, combining disjointed breaks with light-handed synths and experimental bleeping; perfect 7am after-party music.

By its very nature, electronic music is often at its best when repetitive; but it’s a fine line to tread between satisfying and dull. We Will Not Harm You is well-crafted enough that the looping repetition is pleasing, with the dominant bass thwacking out grooves which just play on and on. 

7/10

Book Review: Hilary Mantel, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’

 

 

Remember Thomas Cromwell?

 

He is the central character in Hilary Mantel’s consecutive novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies – which both went on to be Booker Prize winners and have been widely acclaimed as gripping historical fiction. A low-born son of blacksmith, Cromwell rose to prominence negotiating the complicated relationships between Henry VIII and his wives, along the way becoming involved in the reformation of the English church, and generally dominating the Tudor court during the height of his powers.

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Along with the Romans and the Victorians, the Tudor period must be among the most taught within school history curriculums. Henry’s wives and their various ends, his dissolution of the monasteries and break from the Catholic Church, and his descent from sporty, handsome prince into gross, blood-stained King make for a memorable tale. Though Henry is certainly present, it is Cromwell – often maligned, made into a Machiavellian villain by everyone from Shakespeare onwards – who Mantel chooses to thrust into the limelight. Almost impossibly determined and with a seemingly photographic memory, Wolf Hall sees him rise through poverty, crime, and war to reach his eventual place at Henry’s side, with the second documenting the downfall of Anne Boleyn at his hands.

As Cromwell ascends through the ranks, his perceptive and analytical eye allows Mantel to address every strata of Tudor life, from kitchen-boys and clerks to cardinals and kings. The horrible reality of beheading is brought home, the hypocrisy and greed of the churches both sides of the schism emphasised, and a burgeoning Europe, with its universities, political intrigue and social climbers, is shown to be on the brink of becoming undeniably the ancestor of our own, as yet unthought-of, society.

Like Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Lion King before it, Wolf Hall and its sequel are a clever “new twist on an old tale”. We all, however unclearly, know the story of Henry VIII; with the arrival of each new wife, most readers are mentally muttering “Divorced, beheaded, died…” etcetera.  But, although we all know how the story ends, Mantel manages to maintain high tension and suspense to the last. I read both books, more than a thousand pages, in a little over a week. Perhaps the difference with the aforementioned fictional reworkings is the flexibility with the characters – Mantel is able to make everyone, from Cromwell’s family to the King’s executioner, memorable and well-rounded; more so than they could ever be with historical accuracy.

I stopped studying history at 14, largely due to an antagonistic adolescent relationship with an unlucky teacher, so for me the historical fact was hazy before I read the novels and is now hopelessly confused with the fiction with which I cannot tell it apart. The Thomas’s of the tale; principally Cardinals Wolsey and More, and the central Cromwell; lurk vaguely in the recesses of my mind, unconsciously associated with Thomas Beckett, another murdered churchman of the same name, and  confused with Oliver Cromwell – although Wikipedia informs me that they were indeed distantly related! (As a direct consequence of consuming the books I am now continuously absorbed in reading the Wikipedia entries for obscure Ladies in Waiting and other hangers on and nobility. In her epilogue, Mantel recommends various historical biographies; something I imagine many readers will be keen to do as it will allow the separation of fact and fiction whilst providing more information on these intriguing characters/historical figures.)

I should also add that it’s the perfect book to accompany any tough New Year’s Resolutions through their teething stages – Thomas Cromwell is so ferociously productive and focused in both books that you’ll feel positively shamed into taking command of your life. Although you may be inclined to waste time rewatching The Thick Of It, as Cromwell brings no modern character more to mind than spin doctor mastermind Malcolm Tucker.

9/10 – highly recommended, but with a warning; you’re likely to obsess.

He’s Bringing Sexy Back: Justin Timberlake’s ‘Suit & Tie’

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I’m going to come straight out and say it; I’ve always loved Justin Timberlake. Whilst I was unfortunately too occupied crushing on Robbie Williams to sit up and take notice during his N*Sync days, by the time the punalicious Justified came out, I was ready to embrace ‘Cry Me A River’ along with everyone else. A collection of songs originally offered to Michael Jackson by the Neptunes, they have stood the test of time and it remains an excellent R&B record. By 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, he’d only perfected his sound – Timbaland’s production was just as slick, the grooves were deeper and the repertoire was more varied. His self-depreciating turns with the Lonely Island boys and his efforts in The Social Network only endeared him to me further; Justin had pretty successfully shaken off his boyband-Mickey Mouse club image and become a credible solo powerhouse.

Earlier today, streaming of his new single ‘Suit & Tie’ (taken from the forthcoming album The 20/20 Experience, out later this year) went live on his website – which was evidently struggling under the weight of excited traffic descending to listen JT’s latest offering. Though it’s not perhaps as stunning as some of his previous singles, it’s perfectly solid. As is often the case with Timberlake, the intro is a self-contained gem; all swag beat and quasi-spoken vocals, insisting “I be on my suit and tie shit, let me show you a few things…”. With Timbaland providing rolling beats, chipper horns, and a shimmering harp, Timberlake is free to float his unmistakable falsetto over the top. It’s shamelessly upbeat, slinky R&B – home turf for JT. Much like Bowie’s comeback single released last week, the main thing for the diehard fans is that the new songs carry a few trademarks of their much-missed creators and indicate that they’ve still “got it”.

The undoubted low point is Jay-Z’s guest verse, which one can’t help but feel has been jammed in purely to allow Justin to demonstrate exactly how much street-cred he has these days – a bit of a fuck you to all those inevitable comparisons back to his N*Sync and Disney days; in 2002, who would have believed Timberlake would ever get the chance to mutter “Get outta your seat HOV”? It’s dull flow by Jay’s standards, but it doesn’t manage to impinge on the song’s joyful air; Justin’s sounding his own trumpets in a delighted celebration of his return.

In an era with many commercially but also critically successful, credible pop-stars (see Beyoncé headlining Glastonbury, the wide-spread fêting of Lady Gaga, the collective hipster obsession with Lana Del Rey…), we’ve been missing a male equivalent. And although his acting career has been a pleasure to watch, I don’t think there are many who’ll be sad that Justin’s chosen to take a break from the silver screens to return and claim his crown. Bring on The 20/20 Experience.

I’d recommend glancing at his open letter to the fans too; the gushing rather undermines his determination to be cool, and his signature looks like a perfect visualisation of how he sings his name on the ‘Señorita’ intro.

(stream it here; http://countdown.justintimberlake.com/)

Album Review: Falty DL – ‘Hardcourage’

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A native New Yorker who’s long lingered on the London scene, producer FaltyDL has quite the enviable musical CV. Two LPs through Planet Mu, accompanying singles and EPs with Swamp 81 and All City Recordings amongst others; he’s opened for Radiohead, remixed everyone from the xx to Scuba, and as a result can boast B-side remixes from Mike Q, Gold Panda and Four Tet on his new album Hardcourage. With his genre-jumping list of collaborators, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the man himself, Drew Lustman, finds it hard to sonically pin himself down, culminating in a distinct sound which blends house, techno, and UK garage alongside myriad less distinct influences.

On his latest full-length, his first with London’s Ninja Tune, Lustman has edged away from his normal sound, an American spin on UKG, and has instead embraced the styles of minimal house and soul-referencing electronica. Hardcourage is a consistently upbeat, uplifting record, often openly displaying the high-flying passions of a man who’s fallen hard and fast – it comes as no surprise to hear that it was inspired by a new love and muse, a soundtrack to falling in love that Lustman didn’t originally intend to give a public release.

It is at its highest peaks of emotion, at its most vulnerably honest that Hardcourage is most affecting. With ‘Straight & Arrow’, Falty starts off in a fairly generic rave-house gear, but as the beat is layered with squelching synths and a jittering chopped and filtered vocal, it swerves into territory not dissimilar to Jamie xx’s reworking of Gil Scott-Heron as the sample flickers over the shuffling, ponderous house beat. On ‘She Sleeps’, Lustman is joined by Friendly Fires’ Ed Macfarlane, whose beautifully silky descant soars over a gorgeous, post-coital utopia composed of thudding sub-bass and loose hi-hats; a clever combination of indietronica and smooth, minimal house. On perhaps the most conventionally “FaltyDL” sounding track on Hardcourage, ‘Kenny Rolls One Up’, the mood remains assured and content, with a sunny break-beat and warm, washing fuzz backing euphoric synth stabs and more trademark loose hi-hats.

At the risk of sounding inadvertently Fifty Shades Of Grey, the album’s chief charm is its tight-rope balance between airy sweetness and determined, insidious force. For alongside the shameless, loved up electronica lie a few darker tracks, like post-dubstep ‘Uncea’ and ‘Finally Some Shit/The Rain Stopped’ – an unusual mix of heavy bass, barely audible incomprehensible spoken samples, and pitter-patter percussion, which sounds as if it was created with all those satisfying, weird little instruments from primary school, graters and shakers alike. The outright, quasi-religious euphoria and the underlying determination come together on ‘Bells’, whose looping angelic synths crescendo into slinky sax and wheeling violins over a thudding, glitch-laden beat. It’s like Crystal Castles playing a Valentine’s Day set.

From its artwork to its influences, Hardcourage is an evidently retrospective album, revelling in its references to all kinds of forerunners. Thanks to Falty DL’s wide-ranging tastes though, the unusual combinations come together to make something uniquely his. A record for bedroom chilling that has more than enough clout to slot into dance floor sets, it’s a refreshingly vital take on the heavily worked over source material.