Album Review: Lescop – ‘Lescop’

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Whether it’s due to our weak linguistic skills or perhaps the sheer quantity (and undeniable quality) of our mother tongue’s musical output, the British don’t usually experiment much with non-English language bands. The rest of Europe cheerfully listens to anything with a good tune; be it in their native language, beautifully misheard English, or whatever else, they’ll give it a spin and an objective listen. Successful non-English acts have been relatively few and far between in the UK though, with Sigur Rós, that ‘Numa Numa’ song and Rammstein the exceptions rather than the rule. Maybe it’s a result of all those Eurovision embarrassments. Whatever the reason, it’s a tradition worth breaking for Lescop, a French singer/producer whose work echoes the cool restraint of the xx and the glossy, dark electro-pop of the Drive soundtrack.

Certainly, listening to his debut without understanding the lyrics will take something away from the experience. With fewer plosives than English as well as more unconscious connotations than a train speeding into a tunnel, French has an undeniably romantic association for English speakers – but Lescop isn’t just singing sweet nothings about pamplemousses or going to la piscine. Over his cold-wave disco, he tackles everything from love to punk to Jesse Owens. And thanks to that Thierry Henry advert, it all sounds fantastically sensuous and deep. On ‘Tokyo, La Nuit’, he deadpans “Tokyo, la nuit. Le doubte, la crainte, l’ennui. Tokyo tu vis, dans la mort, le sang, le bruit“ – meaning “Tokyo at night. Doubt, fear, ennui. Tokyo you live, in death, blood, noise” (no need for Google Translate; knew that French degree would come in handy eventually). Whilst it obviously sounds better with a Gallic lilt and a rhyme scheme, that’s a representative sample of both Lescop’s lyrical content and the entire album’s atmosphere – following the lead of the Cure and Joy Division, Lescop consistently achieves a beautiful melancholy, both musically and lyrically, but never forgets to keep his listeners dancing.

Undoubtedly this is serious music – you can dance, but Lescop also wants you to think. As with Daft Punk’s endless spiel about humans being robots and vice versa, he isn’t above pseudo-philosophy, stating “we want our pop to be bipolar; we fight against musical boredom, it’s a controlled chaos, a love story”. And while there’s little sign of the chaos, it’s certainly controlled. Almost invariably, the songs are propelled by metronomic bass pulses, before the chilling synths and Lescop’s assured vocals kick in. It’s cinematic and urgent, but without the lack of depth that could so easily be present. From the soaring, motorway-at-night tension of ‘La Nuit Américaine’ to the 80s noir of ‘Ljubljana’ and the creeping paranoia turned darkest disco of ‘Le Mal Mon Ange’, it’s an impressive debut all round. Though it never truly approaches the dark, opulent glory of Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’, Lescop has a thinner, more analogue sound – there’s more than a hint of Placebo-style dark alt.pop here. Had he actually soundtracked Drive, Gosling would have stopped and thought about all those people he was killing, and probably talked about his feelings a whole lot more.

Though the “I don’t like films with subtitles” crowd will doubtless make their excuses, Lescop remains an extremely easy album to get into, with the only downside being that the constant French can lull you into not giving each song your full attention. Turn out the lights, drag angstily on your Gauloise and dance your most serious dance – vive la vague de froide.

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Album Review: Tribes – ‘Wish To Scream’

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Every so often, the UK music press seizes upon a new guitar band to spin-doctor, and more often than not, proclaims them the next Arctic Monkeys, next Oasis, the next big thing. A few years back, I saw the Camden-based, leather-jacketed, guerrilla gig-playing Tribes written up as the next Libertines and, for much the same reasons that I can still be found buying the NME when Pete and Carl are on the cover, checked them out.  Beneath all the hype, there seemed to be a lot of potential. Early demoes showcasing ‘We Were Children’, ‘Wherever’, and the Pixies-indebted, giant-riffed ‘Sappho’, all looked promising – yet their 2012 debut Baby was an undeniable disappointment.

This time around, they’ve swapped Liverpool for Los Angeles and, in keeping with the long tradition of British bands inspired by the Californian idyll, have exchanged grunge for Americana and the traditional blues-rock of the Rolling Stones. Wish To Scream is hardly an austerity album, with gospel choirs, horn sections, and a new keyboardist joining up, in addition to slick production values to go with the cinematic anthems that Tribes are shooting for.

However, though the sound has changed, unfortunately the overall impression has not. Once more, there were some hopeful singles released, and once more, the rest of the album doesn’t quite manage to live up to them.

First single, ‘How The Other Half Live’ isn’t so far away from the better bits of Baby. By the time Lloyd sings the opening line “We need a change of direction”, it’s clear that they had already taken it. An epic anthem, it references both Primal Scream and Oasis before diving into a squealing solo and Stones-esque blues and stuttering vocals. The next teaser, ‘Wrapped In A Carpet’,  was another total change of pace. Whimsical psychedelia, its baggy lilt and hooky chorus make it a surefire standout on the album.

Unfortunately, ‘Wrapped In A Carpet’ is one of few songs on Wish To Scream where Tribes are able to resist an overblown chorus. Rather than the stadium rock that they so clearly want to play, they often end up mired in middle-of-the-road soft rock – sanitized and unmemorable. Far too many songs are the same radio-friendly, mid-tempo kind of rock that appeals to listeners who don’t really like rock music. Aside from ‘Never Heard of Graceland’, a warm, laidback slice of Americana, they repeatedly fall for the same mistakes. ‘Englishman on Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Dancehall’ are early Elton John-styled piano ballads, but with such predictable chord progressions, there’s nothing to bring them to life. ‘One Eye Shut’ and ‘Sons and Daughters’ are further Stones homages, but stay far too commercial and safe. Wish To Scream just don’t have the tunes to support the swagger – turns out being Keith Richards isn’t as easy as it looks.

Tribes have the opportunity to fill a real hole in the current UK scene; we’re missing a young rough and ready rocknroll band. They put on good shows, look sexy, and have the right kind of ideas behind them. But they really need to cut down on the filler and try to steer clear of the temptation of “anthemic” faux-depth; if they concentrated on what they’re good at – catchy, illusion-free rock – they’d fare much better.

The Madrid Open: We’re Not In Wimbledon Any More!

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Ever since I can remember the last week of June and the first week of July have been a big deal in my household. When Wimbledon’s on, my family becomes obsessed. However gloriously sunny it is, we will be found inside, curtains drawn, watching tennis. All regular household activity stops, and we are reduced to dashing to the kitchen to make sandwiches in the break between the live coverage and the highlights. I’ve also been down to SW19 many times in person, and it’s always been phenomenal – I’ve met Andy Murray, been walked into by Lindsay Davenport, and seen my mum rendered speechless by Pat Cash. All told, you can imagine that the opportunity for me to go to the Madrid Open this year was a cause for great excitement.

With its deep orange clay courts emphasising the vast difference in temperature along with its complete lack of roofs and rain provisions of any kind, La Caja Magica (Madrid’s tennis arena, which translates as “The Magic Box”) is a world away from the pristine lawns of the All-England Tennis Club. With a different surface, as you’ll know if you’ve ever listened to John McEnroe, comes a different style of play – you’ll regularly see players using the smooth clay to slide into their ground strokes, and there’s less of a tradition of serve-volley play. But it’s not all boring baseline slogging, whatever Wimbledon would like you to think. Whilst those who can return consistently from the back of the court do have an advantage on the slower surface, I saw just as many speedy net exchanges and acrobatics as I ever have on grass. Just as some of the competitors at Wimbledon determinedly stay back, retaining their clay-court style on grass, there were players here who were unafraid of challenging at the net and getting their shirts orange through Becker-esque dives.

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Aside from the tennis itself, as you might imagine, the Abierto is still a long way from the Pimms and strawberries&cream scene which Wimbledon is famous for. Not for Madrid the subtle, almost unnoticeable sponsorship from a chosen few. On the main court, there are football-style advertising screens around the court, glamour models draped over a car in one corner and huge TV screens that blasted charts-pop whilst the players were changing ends. Every second person was wearing a corporate-freebie straw hat. It’s a long way from the rarefied atmosphere and prudish “predominantly white dress” rules of Centre Court! Whilst this had clear upsides (DJs, bars, a strong post-tennis party scene), the tournament’s (typically Spanish) laid-back atmosphere did have a few downsides. Ringing phones, and worse, people answering them, were a constant accompaniment to play – I saw several players complaining to umpires, and more than a few glaring into the crowds. Similarly, it was almost impossible to find out who was playing or to find out results – a big change, but probably a result of a smaller, less-widely televised event.

That said, there were elements which undeniably improved on the UK tennis experience. For one thing, it cost me 12€ to get in. I saw three days of magnificent tennis, for less than the cost of one day at Wimbledon. As you can imagine if you’ve ever seen football played at the Bernabéu or Camp Nou, the atmosphere was electric. The crowds were unashamedly partisan, with a brief appearance from Rafa Nadal causing complete madness, and any Spanish player being roundly cheered at every point. Equally, they’re not above the dirty tactics – with the Spanish players’ opponents being slow clapped and catcalled at every turn (which led to more complaints, a few tantrums, and one broken racket). On the subject of patriotism, I had fully underestimated how fun it would be to be in the minority. I saw both Andy Murray and Laura Robson, and the need to vocally support them is so much stronger when you know you’re one of the few Brits present! I only regret not having brought a huge Union Jack.

 And despite all of this, perhaps best of all, the whole event was understated and undersold. There was no shortage of prime seats, few queues, and none of the must-get-my-money-worth that can occur at Wimbledon. However, this also meant that there was less of the frenetic, charged atmosphere that the British crowds do so well; there were less tennis obsessives and no equivalent to crowds sitting on a packed Henman Hill in the rain. It was more casual spectating, which had both benefits and drawbacks. I left vowing to visit Roland Garros, Flushing Meadows and Melbourne Park, stereotypically sunburnt, and more than ready for the 2013 Championships. Roll on, June 24th!

Album Review: ADULT. – ‘The Way Things Fall’

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With a grind of synths and a few involuntary twitches, Detroit’s biggest purveyors of techno paranoia and electro unease are back. After a six year hiatus, husband-and-wife duo ADULT. have returned with their fifth LP; and it’s their most conceptual yet.

Less confrontational than most of their earlier releases, The Way Things Fall marks a shift away from the industrial and towards the accessible, harking back to perhaps their most well-known release: the famously Soulwax-remixed ‘Hand To Phone’. Synth-manipulator Adam Lee Muller describes the record as “the closest we have come to writing traditional ‘pop’ songs… even though we know they’re totally mutants”; and he’s summed it up perfectly. Most of the album’s intros are strongly reminiscent of dark 80s synth-pop, with thin, echoing drumlines and synthesiser-led hooks, but ADULT.’s trademark taste for doom and dread is never far away as Nicola Kuperus’ foreboding, monotone vocals concern themselves, as ever, with only the darkest of themes. There’s no bass guitar to be found on the album, but that merely allows them to avoid the easy scares of make-you-jump horror in favour of pursuing the deeper, claustrophobic fear of an unsettling psychological thriller.

Singles ‘Idle (Second Thoughts)’ and ‘Tonight, We Fall’ are demonstrative of this new style, combining unnerving analogue techno with a pop-edge that calls to mind early Cure records. Thematically grim lyrics underline the anxiety, as Kuperus intones, “Shout if you want to, no-one really cares / Panic if you need to, you’ll still be standing there”. It’s like listening to the Eurythmics, from the bottom of a deep, dark k-hole.These  icy proclamations are what ultimately ties the album together, as Kuperus’ reflections on failed relationships and lost loves create a wider, more universal sense of fear, as the omnipresent undercurrent of paranoia hints at all-encompassing disaster.

Elsewhere, The Way Things Fall maintains the nightmarish fever pitch, as the dark pulse of ‘Love Lies’ clashes with high, unnerving synths – and the rich, delirious vocals loop “Love lies, it’s no surprise, it’s your demise”. Finally, ‘We Will Rest’’s metronomic synths lead into alien glitches and a sinister nursery-rhyme melody, and Kuperus’ apocalyptic visions seemingly come to pass, as she deadpans “We will rest like sinking ships”, as the outro’s clanging ship’s bell signals the end of the world, and the album.

Despite its relative smooth polish, The Way Things Fall is consistently creepy; a gothic, glitch-ridden Kraftwerk, accompanied by the vocalisation of those haunting thoughts that come to you as you’re trying to fall asleep. Like horror films or ghost stories, the upside of ADULT.’s brand of dark paranoia is its visceral thrill; it’s as nasty as electro can get whilst maintaining a remnant of a reassuring pop edge.

Album Review: Dungeonesse – ‘Dungeonesse’

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“Alt” RnB has boomed lately, with Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and Justin Timberlake, amongst others, establishing themselves as cross-over successes, as beloved by traditionally “indie kids” as pop and RnB fans alike. With electronic trends increasingly coming to invade all other genres, from the now-ever present pop “drops” to the invasively popular house synth stabs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that RnB too is having something of a renaissance. Of course, it also fits with the continued 90s-inspiration mining that has been dominant in music for the last few years. Despite all this corroborative trend-analysis though, it remains an surprising change of direction for Dungeonesse, a duo with unquestionably indie credentials. John Ehrens (White Life, Art Department) layers loops and synthetic beats under Jenn Wasner’s (Wye Oak, Flock of Dimes) Mariah-imitating vocals, and the pair leave behind past broodings in favour of bubbling, shiny 90s-referencing pop.

Had you never previously heard any RnB or pop from the 1990s, Wasner and Ehrens’ debut covers a hell of a lot of it, with slow jams, saccharine pop, daytime disco and funky hip-hop all making appearances. Opener ‘Shucks’ provides an instant showcase for the duo’s talents, as Wasner flaunts studied RnB vocals, not so far from Mariah’s ‘Fantasy’ take, whilst Ehrens creates a brilliantly disorientating headphone experience, as shimmering synths seesaw from left to right. Light and loved-up, it still retains a little funkiness – but it’s a mere taste of what’s still to come. The disco gloves are really off by ‘Private Party’, as a fat, rolling beat bounces underneath bubblegum pop synths; a natural companion to the what will inevitably be this summer’s omnipresent tune, the all-out disco strut of ‘Get Lucky’.

Elsewhere, another crucial element of 90s RnB is represented, with two featured rappers repping hip-hop’s influence on the scene. ‘This Could Be Home’ sees Wasner joined by Florida’s singing-rapping TT The Artist on a slice of day-time disco, her bubbling hip-hop contrasting with Wasner’s noodling, sighing vocals. Even more fun is ‘Cadillac’, easily the album’s stand-out track. All of Dungeonesse’s best components come together fantastically, as a tropical synths chime over a funk beat, layered over with rich, looping vocals (again, think Mariah or Aaliyah). Baltimore’s DDm provides some pumped pop-rap verses, with production worthy of Will Smith’s early rap records. Forget straight outta Compton, this is straight outta 1997. Goofy and playful, it is the least contrived of the album’s tracks – less a calculated homage than a playful riff on the RnB theme.

For all its glitz and shine, Dungeonesse feels slightly ingenious – a rather contrived leap onto the “summer of disco” bandwagon. Though they are quick to proclaim their love for the 90s artists who have so clearly inspired them, you can’t help but think that this was more of an academic exercise than a labour of love. Their press release sights their admiration of “the mechanics of what makes a hit song”, and that’s just what this is. A little mechanical, a little bit RnB by numbers. That said, there’s no way you’ll care about any of that when it blasts out in a club or a car any time it’s over 20°C… or when you’ve recently read one of those “You Know You’re A 90s Kid When…” lists.

Album Review: Scanners – ‘Love Is Symmetry’

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Frantic, clattering twee and brooding, minimal rock? Soaring folk to dance-inducing synths? Camden five-piece Scanners aren’t ones to limit themselves to one niche genre, and on album number three, Love is Symmetry, they have covered most of the mainstream genres – rock, pop, folk and  dance are all here, albeit conforming to a consistently indie blueprint. Self-produced and recorded, this is the sound of a band full of ideas and successfully realising all of them.

As you could probably guess from their soundtrack credits (which include Skins, Shameless and One Tree Hill), Scanners specialise in somewhat brooding, kooky indie, and despite the success of their multi-genre experimentation, they can certainly still smash these out with the all the aplomb of Win Butler or Karen O.

‘When They Put Me Back Together They Forgot to Turn Me On’ has the delicate piano and gothic choirs of a Danny Elfman score (think Edward Scissorhands rather than The Simpsons), before a frenetic chorus scrambles in; a Long Blondes-esque monotone clashing wonderfully with frantic yelps over a broken, scatter-fire rhythm. Elsewhere, on the equally mammothly titled ‘Today Is The Tomorrow That They Promised Yesterday’, it’s rather more minimal as cool guitars cut through sci-fi whirls and bleeps, backing dubby bass and a sharp, anti-consumerism rant (“How about a new TV / what not to wear, what not to be … That’s all, did you think that there was more?”). Similarly, opener ‘Love Is Symmetry’ begins with finger-picking, mirroring the calm precision of the xx further with Daly’s enunciated whispers. But then the chorus blazes in, and sunburst synths herald the song’s core; desert indie, sultry vocals worthy of Debbie Harry, and shimmering waves of echoing cymbals. It’s euphoric and unashamedly big.

Repping Scanners’ electro-pop inclinations is ‘Control’, dominated by insistent, bubbling synths and vibrant, irrepressible energy. In terms of the calmer, folkier turns, single ‘Mexico’ only further showcases Scanners’ vocal versatility, as Daly switches into sunny Americana, in contrast to ‘Love Is Symmetry’’s silky menace or the upbeat bounce on the dancey ‘Control’. Like a combination of Karen O’s Where The Wild Things Are work and Surburbs era Arcade Fire, it’s gorgeous, all soaring harmonies and jitter acoustics.

There’s one more genre leap left in Love Is Symmetry though, and finally Scanners throw themselves wholeheartedly into some indie tinged post-punk. ‘My Streets Are Always in the Shade’ sees Siouxsie styled vocals over a gothic, Cure referencing riff; all sexy, noir rock. Better still are the clattering drums and grinding, buzzing drone synths of ‘I Couldn’t Help Myself’, which again seems to owe a debt of inspiration to Blondie.

Given the sheer range of Scanners’ inspirations and experiments, it’s all the more impressive that they manage to jam everything into a short, sweet 45 minutes. There’s not a missed target. Undoubtedly, it’s their best album so far – more urgent, and more challenging, both for the band and the listener. United by strong melodies, kinetic percussion and Sarah Daly’s stunning, versatile voice, Love Is Symmetry is an astonishingly varied album that manages to avoid any hint of confusion or incoherency despite its ever-changing sounds.