Album Review: Bonobo – ‘The North Borders’

Image

 

Bringing everything from strings and woodwind to bear over his liquid hypnotic beats, with his fifth LP Bonobo has stuck to his inimitable signature sound. Electronic, but overwhelmingly naturalistic, the listening experience is akin to slowly regain consciousness in a sun-drenched forest; walking around in dazed contentment before stumbling into the E’d up crowd of a gentle, isolated rave.

Though Simon Green, the man behind the monkey-namesake, has been putting out albums of all-encompassing cinematic orchestration since 1999, achieving his mainstream break with 2010’s sumptuous Black Sands, which reached the ears of the masses through multiple adverts and TV soundtracks. Rather than turning his back on his most famous creation, with his latest release Bonobo has built on the heritage of Black Sands, continuing to use organic sonic textures, complex, rolling beats and full, rich production to conjure calm grooves and the chillest, most sedate drops in the business – though he has largely stayed away from the global influences that resonated throughout his last release.

As ever, Bonobo walks the tightrope between downtempo, IDM and pseudo-classical, carefully alternating between vocal and instrumental tracks, leaving his dominant grooves space to come to the fore. From ‘Heaven for the Sinner’, the album’s danciest track with a disjointed two-step under a yearning Ery vocal, rather reminiscent of a super-slowed SBTRKT track, to the classical ‘Cirrus’, which creates a Peter and the Wolf-style challenge in identifying the variety of instruments present; Green holds your attention throughout, flexing his emotional control as the listener plunges from genre to genre, and emotion to emotion.

Inevitably, it is often Bonobo’s carefully woven beats which steal the spotlight. The songs are mostly linear constructions, developing piece by piece with the addition of each new element and slowly gaining both complexity and momentum as basslines, percussion, woodwind, or strings join the jam one by one. Then, the process reverses, and the groove’s constituent parts are laid bare, before reassembling once more. On ‘Jets’, an almost RnB beat vibes under the many layers, creating an instrumental homage to Motown, but Green is, of course, quite happy to go in the opposite direction as well, as on the disorientating ‘Antenna’, where the skitch percussion and vibrato loops create a dreamlike, meditative sense of joy. Elsewhere, the loose hi-hats and slow synths of ‘Transits’ become the hypnotist’s voice, counting upwards and slowing bringing you back to reality; readying you to open your eyes and face the world once more.

Overall, though on first impression it might be dismissed as muzak or mere background music for monging stoners, Green’s crafted production and restrained understatements are both distinctive and totally immersive. The North Borders is as ambitious a record as its predecessor, and it’s just as successful. Due to Bonobo’s diverse sound, uniting pulse, and sheer warmth, this is a record that will work in many situations – whether as the background for a dinner party or as the soundtrack for a grim dawn comedown – and in most music collections.

Advertisements

Album Review: The Strokes – ‘Comedown Machine’

Image

 

It would be easy to assume that the title was referencing its members’ well-documented chemical indulgences, but it seems that the New Yorkers’ fifth record’s name refers to an altogether different detoxification; a step away from their status as the 21st Century’s first and, so far, best rock band. From the expectations, from the pressure, and from the spectre of their glorious debut album, which has arguably kept them locked into trying to be the band they were between 2001 and 2003. Comedown Machine doesn’t sound like it was made by the Strokes, or at least not “the Strokes” that a generation have kept unchanged in their heads. Not that I didn’t enjoy First Impressions of Earth or appreciate Angles – but this is the Strokes record which we’ve been waiting the last decade for.

The first half is a tour-de-force, kicking off with the instantly accessible and joyously catchy ‘Tap Out’, which I doubt I’ve had even recognized as a Strokes track if I hadn’t been forewarned. The titular ‘80s Comedown Machine’ (perhaps my deep title analysis wasn’t as revealing as I first thought) has a positively Zeppelin-esque riff towering over its intro, before it plunges into the extreme processed vocals of the earliest Strokes demos, and a scuzzier, punkier song than anything they’ve released since Is This It. Best of all is the colossal, disco-driven ‘Welcome To Japan’, comprising old-style Strokes staccato guitars, a hefty Elvis Costello influence, and the kind of slick insistence that Julian Casablancas did so well on ‘Little Girl’, his Sparklehorse collaboration; “I didn’t really notice, I didn’t know the gun was loaded – what kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”. Contrast soon comes, with ‘All The Time’, unmistakably pure, classic original Strokes; all angular guitars and punchy, garage rock. Well, they had to throw a bone to everyone who wishes it was still the turn of the millennium.

Whilst the second half subsides slightly, it’s not dismissible. Slightly harder to get into, but still showcasing the band’s progression into unchartered territory, it makes for interesting listening.  Both ’50 50’ and ‘Slow Animals’ are in the same vein as First Impressions, with glossy, processed guitars and echoey percussion and the latter boasting  a brilliantly hooky chorus. Next, jittery vibrato guitars and unusually restrained Strokes on the funky ‘Partners in Crimes’, before a crunching QOTSA style riff crashes into ‘Chances’, overlaid with a Casablancas falsetto. Finally comes track-come-coda ‘Call It Fate Call It Karma’, a pretty piano-led piece, with both a classical and a Motown edge to it. It’s a final shock, a final end to the endless “old Strokes” carping that Casablancas recently bemoaned on Twitter.

It seems that the for-so-long lost boys are back in the game, back in the gang, but with no desire to rehash past glories. Comedown Machine, like an oxymoronic greatest hits of new releases, brings together the best of the Strokes’ back catalogue, whilst giving them a solid 2013 twist. The garage perfection of Is This It and Room on Fire, the processed sound of First Impressions, the tropical lilt of Angles; it’s all there, along with ideas we’ve never heard before. 

 

Album Review: Justin Timberlake – ‘The 20/20 Experience’

Image

The punalicious Justified, and its colossal singles, has stood the test of time amazingly well, and follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds’ sexy disco-funk had an impact on the pop scene that resonated long after 2006.

As ever, Justin Timberlake‘s latest record demonstrates that he has his finger firmly on the pop zeitgeist’s pulse – The 20/20 Experience, like most of 2013’s pop, wears its EDM influences proudly and, inevitably, has taken a few pointers from channel ORANGE. To be fair to JT, there’s not a single neo-house synth progression or a dubstep wob to be found, so he can hardly be accused of the same mainstream pilfering as many of his popworld compatriots. Instead, with Timbaland’s ever-effective help, Timberlake has embraced the more experimental end of electronica, with looping echoes, weird sound effects, and sub-bass all layered in with his trademarks; crooning falsetto, lush string arrangements, and the welcome return of Timbaland’s boom-click-boom percussion.

At the album’s centre lie ‘Don’t Hold The Wall’, ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’, and ‘Tunnel Vision’ – three seven-minute-plus tracks which showcase JT and co.’s latest influences. With chugging afro drums and a looped M.I.A.-esque sample of children’s vocals, ‘Don’t Hold The Wall’ is perhaps the closest to FutureSex/LoveSound – but undeniably updated for the next decade. ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ (surely the most unsubtle metaphor since ‘Little Red Corvette’?) and ‘Tunnel Vision’ employ straight up hip-hop beats, overlaid with Timberlake’s signature alternation between slick falsetto and syncopated spoken interjections; but despite their RnB ambiance, the EDM references are still clear – ‘Tunnel Vision’ in particular sounds as if it owes more than a little to TNGHT’s ‘Goooo’.

The two main anomalies amidst all this are the disappointingly unadventurous lead single ‘Suit & Tie’ (you know, the one with the horrible Jay-Z guest verse), and its polar opposite, the sprawling, ambient closer ‘Blue Ocean Floor’. Most of The 20/20 Experience’s tracks have odd, appealing little outros tagged onto them, and ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ is the album’s own bizarre sign-off, sounding more like In Rainbows-era Radiohead than Radiofriendlyunitshifter JT. Having embraced the long, slow songs, it’s a shame that there aren’t more that take this approach.

And there certainly are a lot of long songs. With only two tracks at much under 7 minutes, and three that lounge over the 8 minute mark, most tracks stretch through extended intros, main sections, and codas – allowing Timberlake space to build a vibe and a very slick, cohesive album, but unquestionably reducing their immediacy and leaving a slight sense of poor editing. Undoubtedly, one of Justin Timberlake’s main attractions as a solo artist has been the absolute dance-appeal of his songs, but on The 20/20 Experience, there’s little evidence of that. Whilst his core fanbase might be disappointed at this striving to go beyond pop and RnB, given the woozy, sound-effect laden successes of artists like the Weeknd, Miguel, and of course Frank Ocean, it looks like yet again Justin’s going to succeed in reaching out to those who might have previously dismissed him.

After last time, we were hoping for a big shift in sound – possibly a seismic, pop-landscape altering shift. Whilst it in no way compares with the leap in ambition we saw between his first two albums,The 20/20 Experience is nonetheless another interesting inter-genre move, this time into alternative RnB and neo-soul. Admittedly, it’s a little too self-indulgent – the “serious” work of a man who’s starred in an Oscar-winning film, rather than the energetic, irresistible pop of a successful boyband escapee, but there’s no doubt he’s still got it. 

Film Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’

Image

Adapted from David Mitchell’s astonishing novel, the Wachowski’s latest film Cloud Atlas is a sprawling epic spanning centuries and myriad characters – all tied up with a repeated motif of control, love, and rebellion. Settings range from the recent colonial past of the 19th Century through to the modern day, and on to a futuristic somewhat Bladerunner-esque sci-fi city and then a post-apocalyptic future, with the stories within them carefully interlinked and showcasing two of humanity’s central traits; the greed and desire for domination inherent in repression and the resistance which this conjures. More profoundly, it expands beyond a simplistic karmic message and instead hints at Sartrean vision of universalism.

Admittedly, at almost three hours, it’s not a light undertaking and there’s no denying that Cloud Atlas gets off to a somewhat slow start. Where in the novel, Mitchell slowly builds the reader’s attachment to the characters, and is able to subtly reinforce his “twist” thanks to the absence of time-restraints; the film version is forced to bring the ideas and morals to the fore much sooner, necessarily sacrificing some characterisation. But this is a film adaptation, you expected that.

The decision to intersperse the separate stories, rather than telling them in chronological pairs as in the novel, is well taken though despite the start, which though slow is still engaging, as it allows the stunning, thrilling conclusion, as all six storylines struggle for resolution through taut, tension-riddled action sequences, underlined by the depth of meaning which becomes increasingly clear. As you might remember, the Wachowski’s know their way round a compelling action sequence, and they put them to good use.

Boasting an A-List cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant amongst others), the actors are called upon to portray multiple characters, as the roles of slave and master twist, interlink and repeat across time. Whilst this allows an impressive range of makeup, accents, and above all convincing acting to be showcased, such familiar faces become something of a barrier to the suspension of disbelief. Admittedly, it’s helpful to recognise who has been who in past and future scenes, but the range of characters portrayed rather highlights that they are just that – characters. One is left admiring the acting and disguises, and thinking about Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant rather than connecting with the characters. That said, special mentions should go to Ben Whinshaw – scene-stealing as the 1930s dandy Frobisher, just as captivating on screen as in print – and to the ever-reliable Broadbent, as the life-affirming retirement home escapee (though no less poignant than the enslaved, butchered drones of the futuristic storyline, his Italian Job referencing escape provides a much needed lighter note).

Far from illustrating a simple karmic message, the film insists that there will always be evil – “The weak are meat and the strong do eat” is a philosophy repeated throughout – but, consequently, that there will also always be those who rise up against injustice. Though the voiceovers rather hammer home the point, it’s still unusually weighty content for what is essentially a blockbuster release. Ultimately, it all comes down to existentialism; for good or bad, we are bound to others and us to them, and so “by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future”. Personally, I found this message much clearer than in the book (where I was ultimately distracted by the characterization and individual stories), and it’s certainly an interesting enough idea to bear being posed in more than one medium.

Britannia Rules The Soundwaves?

The London 2012 opening ceremony, Glastonbury, the sheer street-cred importance of Prime Ministers’ responses on Desert Island Discs; it’s no secret that the British take music seriously. We download more music per capita than anyone else in the world, and we’ve arguably (certainly?) produced more of the most important bands than anyone else. But why?

Image

A large part of it is simply getting there first. Like our long-gone imperial glory, we managed to get the jump on a lot of the rest of the world simply by starting first. Although the Americans can claim the first international popstar in Elvis, in our defence we were pretty occupied with the crippling aftermath of the Second World War – and once we did get going, boy were we good. With the 60s, came the British Invasion, and British music hasn’t looked back since. After the initial success of the 60s, a supporting scene sprang up, venues to support bands from the toilet circuit to arena tours. Having decided to be trend setters, the British chased the next sound, the next scene, the next big thing – often finding it. From glam and punk, to grime and dubstep, innovation has poured out of our little island. Whilst obviously we can’t claim that everything originated in the UK (reggae, hip-hop, jazz, and house are all major exceptions), proportionally, there’s no denying that we done good. Once we built up the momentum, the support network, and the rabid enthusiasm for more and more music, it was always going to be tough for anyone else to stop Britannia ruling the soundwaves.

Spiralling out of decades of successful, incredible bands came a nationwide obsession with music. British teenagers in particular tend to broadcast their musical tastes to the world, whether swathed in baggy plaid, sporting Mohicans, trilbies, or snapbacks, or wearing jeans anywhere on the vacuum-tight to circus tent spectrum. Arcade Fire summed it up succinctly, singing “The music divides us into tribes, you grew your hair so I grew mine” – the myriad scenes become socially divisive and all-consuming, leaving a gang-like story of conflicts, traceable back to the mods and rockers, the punks and new Romantics, through to Oasis and Blur and the chavs versus the goths.

I’ve lived abroad in both Spain and France, either amongst or working with teenagers. And I’ve been increasingly shocked at their casual attitude to music – which is only amplified in the wider society around them. I recently asked a class of 17-18 year olds to name the Beatles, then desperately, a Beatle – they couldn’t. My shock shocked them. Of course there are exceptions – the odd case of One Direction-mania, the occasional devoted Anglophile who wants to discuss the Smiths or to understand the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ lyrics; but the majority don’t conform to any scene, don’t care what’s being played in their clubs, and can’t tell you their favourite band or even genre. Again, why?

Our closest European neighbours are that much less passionate about music, and it seems particularly a southern, Mediterranean issue. The Germans, Scandinavians and Slavic countries have all embraced music – especially electro, punk, and metal – yet the Spanish, French, and Italians seem less than enthused. Spurious though it may sound, I think the climate is a big factor. Whilst our Lennon and McCartney’s, Morrissey and Marr’s, Gallagher’s et al were strumming guitars, across the channel, kids were out in the sun, at the beach or in the mountains. In addition, there’s the Catholic/Protestant division. Whilst the UK, Germany, and Scandinavian countries are more into music than their southern neighbours, perhaps it’s more than just a climate division. The strength of the Catholic influence, particularly in Italy and Spain, would certainly discourage many from the darkest depths of rock ‘n’roll.

There’s also the question of sport. Despite our prowess at inventing sports, the British performance in World Cups, Wimbledon, and elsewhere indicates that the minds of our youth is otherwise engaged. As France, Italy, and Spain churn out sports stars, their majority of their teenagers dress in the tracksuits of their heroes, whilst the British strive to become the musical voice of their generation. Perhaps our recent Olympic successes equate to the current perceived dip in the British rock and indie scenes??

More realistically, I think a major factor in the UK’s prominence is the dominance of English, internationally. English is the world’s most widely spoken second-language, and of course, the main language of the ever-influential United States. Though of course other countries produce their share of musical geniuses, it’s that much harder to get exposure and fame outside of Eurovision if you’re singing in another language. While everyone else has to accept that to listen to the Beatles it’ll have to be in English, the Anglophones are much less willing to listen to music in other languages, principally because there’s so much in English anyway that we don’t really need to. This goes some way to explaining the widespread success of French electro – innovative, instrumental, and often with artists with Anglicized names, it was able to thrive because we didn’t really have to acknowledge that it was in a different language.

Of course, I’m sure the Americans see the whole thing differently. And given the chance, judging by the sheer volume of “Please come to Brazil!” comments on YouTube, it looks like we can look forward to the rise of another musically obsessed nation soon. But thanks to our combination of dismal weather and our apparent inathleticism (sorry Beckham, sorry Team GB),  our pre-existing network that churns out so many new artists and our own rampant enthusiasm for the tunes they create – we can continue to revel in our rich musical heritage.