Album Review: Cage The Elephant – ‘Melophobia’

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What do ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Mr Brightside’, and a million others have in common? Undeniable, irresistible choruses – a great chorus is the essence of great pop. Catchy doesn’t guarantee quality (see: ‘Moves Like Jagger’) and there’s no need for perfect songs to be chorus-led or even hummable (see also: Kid A). But we can all agree that a sky-high chorus, enclosing a hook big enough for all the gods to hang their coats on, works wonders.

Cage The Elephant don’t think so. Melophobia means ‘fear of music’ – but it might as well have been called chorusophobia. Stepping away from their grungy, alt-blues sound into wider experimentation, their third album is crippled by incredibly generic choruses and forgettable riffs.

 Gone is the grunge-glitch of Thankyou Happy Birthday and the Southern swagger of their debut, with many tracks sporting gentler instrumentation and Matthew Schultz reigning in most of his trademark howls. And in this pop-rock incarnation, Cage The Elephant could use the kind of choruses that ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’ and ‘In One Ear’ did so well. Single ‘Come A Little Closer’ is a fair representation of Melophobia’s flaws –a Babyshambles-style bassline and hushed vocals potter along pleasantly enough, but soon a chord-step kicks in and a basic “anthemic” chorus hamstrings it entirely. A by-the-numbers knockoff, it might get some airplay, but no-one is ever going to lose their voice screaming it. Similarly, ‘Halo’ starts like an American ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, but thanks to a simplistic, banal chorus quickly descends to a depressingly Fratellis/Pigeon Detectives standard.

‘Teeth’, easily the record’s best track, brings a hurricane of feedback, thrash, and distorted vocals. Here, at last, they are recognisably the band who crowdsurfed clear out a Reading tent. Cocksure, Schultz demands “Are you into the beat?!” as Black Lips-worthy guitars churn. A stuttered, bum-note outro and “Aw, shut up and dance”; more like this, and I might have done.

A further nail in the coffin is Melophobia’s terminal struggle for depth; in Schultz’s words, “super inner-reflective songs”. This striving for profundity too often results in immature, faux-meaningful lyrics, typified on ‘Telescope’ – “Time is like a leaf in the wind / Either it’s time well-spent or time I’ve wasted / Don’t waste it” – if ‘Adam’s Song’ moved you to tears, you’ll love this. Alison Mosshart clocks in for the stripped backed White Stripes fuzz-n-thump on ‘It’s Just Forever’, as does a rare hook (yippee!). It’s stolen from the Strokes’ ‘Juicebox’ though, so does it still count? Mosshart’s vocals chime well with Schultz’s, but again the lyrics are dismal (“Maybe we can die together, laying side by side / Even in the afterlife, girl you’ll still be mine”).

It’s a confused effort, with the songwriting faults, misguided lyrics, and the foolish sidelining of their greatest weapon (Schultz’s voice) assassinating the vast majority of tracks. Next time, scrap the cod-philosophy and concentrate on the tunes.

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Album Review: Paul Haig – ‘Kube’

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Thirty years ago, he was the founder, songwriter and frontman of cult post-punks Josef K. Today, he’s releasing an album that veers from extra-terrestrial glitch to instrumental hip-hop and electroswing. Paul Haig has never been a conformist, so it’s unsurprising that he continues to stretch himself whilst his contemporaries dwell on former glories. Kube, his eleventh solo LP, amply showcases his extreme versatility, covering everything from plastic funk to minimal techno with the kind of unashamed chameleoning worthy of Bowie.

Thematically, regardless of specific genres and influences, Kube is dominated by the sounds of space, and above all, of aliens. On the excellent ‘Cool Pig’, incomprehensible robotic vocals unite a ringing piano intro, an old school hip-hop beat, and a rising synth chorus that has more than a touch of happy hardcore lurking in its DNA. All this, backed by the kind of sound effects that 1990s plastic spaceships used to emit. Ridiculous as it sounds, it works. Equally bizarre are the echoing, liquid beats of ‘Dialog’ – a chaotic soundscape with vocals that seem to sample Ian McKellen reading The Prisoner scripts from within a Martian sandstorm.

From what I’ve written so far, you might not think that Haig is a man who believes that less is more. The Martian beats are intense. But there’s another, completely different, side to Kube that’s less space-techno, more space-jazz! This is intergalactic music, still spacey, but with “world music” influences replacing the electronic beats. ‘Four Dark Traps’ brings tribal tom-toms and didgeridoos, while ‘It’s In’ is all waves of keys and jazz cymbals with little stabs of funk bass and intercuts of taking off planes. The unfamiliar end result is hypnotic, a weird marmite-and-cheese mixture that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Strangest of all is ‘All of the Time’, a weird combination of the album’s internal weird combinations. Lounge music, almost Richard Cheese-like vocals ooze over minimal glitch and a robotic choir. The whole ludicrous affair is topped off with some funky slap bass. It sounds like something that the Star Wars Cantina band would play.

To close, Haig offers us two lengthy instrumental pieces that once again manage to both contrast with, and yet entirely compliment, everything that has come before them. The slow, dubby ‘Torn’ is like a lunar take on ‘The Pills Can’t Help You Now’, while ‘Pack’ collects yawing, seasick synths and micro-percussion to forge interstellar trip-hop.

Find your Air Jordans, kick back, and trip out to these odd and utterly original space jams.

Album Review: Holy Ghost – ‘Dynamics’

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When indie-disco duo Holy Ghost released their debut LP in 2011, they were widely dismissed as late-comers to the party. James Murphy had just called time on LCD Soundsystem and the glory days of DFA’s dance-punk reign were over. Holy Ghost! was well-received, but it was clear that whatever their talents, they weren’t going to revive the scene alone.

Two years on, Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel have sorted out their timing. Riding the highs and lows of the ever-churning oceans of nostalgia and influence trends is no mean feat, but what goes around tends to come back around – slick 80s disco influences are once again dominating. Murphy himself is back, an unmistakable presence on Arcade Fire’s new Reflektor output. The exposure that Drive brought Chromatics and College lingered long, bringing a synth-pop resurgence and then, thanks of some French guys in robot costumes, disco-influences were again everywhere in the summer of 2013. And if you liked all of those guys, you’ll probably like this.

Dynamics doesn’t pretend to be the result of a searing insight; Holy Ghost are happy to wear their influences on their sleeves (indeed, the album art is unashamedly 80s). They remain as good as they ever were with a hook, and there’s no denying that this is an album that’s fun and supremely danceable – well, what else would you expect from DFA? The excellently named ‘Dumb Disco Ideas’ serves as their manifesto, a sprawling 8 minute jam laden with Soulwax liquid bass and a cowbell bridge; regardless of contemporary trends, it’s a single that would make a statue tap its toes. Elsewhere, opener ‘Okay’ brings a synthpop riff worthy of early MGMT, though it’s employed in far more understated surroundings; the walking pace verse “I’m not falling over, but I’m not quite sober / I’m not gonna take this, when I get home” – like mouth-to-mouth and ‘Stayin’ Alive’ – is just the right tempo and entirely catchy enough to determinedly mutter to yourself as you concentrate on the tricky task of getting your key into the lock at 7am. If you still haven’t sorted it out, the relentless spinning waltzer of ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ will console you on the doorstep with its italo-house splurge, it might even help patch the LCD hole in your heart.

But not everything on Dynamics is built straight on the foundations of Holy Ghost’s past releases. ‘It Must Be The Weather’ is the best of the different approaches, bringing spacious, paranoid pop that owes as much to Prince as it does Kavinsky and his ilk. The grim, addiction-detailing lyrics are an album-high too; “I call my guys and say ‘Have you got the news?’/He says ‘Yeah dude, the rumour’s true’/I fall back down the stairs into my favourite place” – suitably Less Than Zero. Equally dark is ‘Don’t Look Down’ – a skittish throb that updates the stalker’s tale within ‘Every Breath You Take’.

With Dynamics, Holy Ghost have struck a careful balance between revisiting their mid-00s origins and playing with new ideas within a similar arena. As they insist on ‘Okay’, “It isn’t over!”.

Album Review: Moby – ‘Innocents’

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From the first swell of warm, gliding synth, this is unmistakeably a Moby record. The spacious soundscapes and disjointed, house-lite percussion could have been lifted from his coffee-table hit Play – it seems we’re going to be partying like it’s 1999 again.

But, maybe in a bid to avoid the mass commercialism that rendered Play so overexposed despite its brilliance (though being the first album in history to have every single song licenced for commercial use didn’t help), Innocents is a less radio-friendly affair. On opener ‘Everything Rises’, the epic swell that previously would have led into an ad-friendly hook destined to launch a million products now simply pushes on, a gentle, looping tsunami of epic synthwaves over those familiar, jutting beats. Later, ‘Saints’ brings the album’s biggest drum-line, pure 90s house, and the synths take off in a hymnal ascent. The indecipherable vocals echo, and another classic Moby hit is born.

That said, much of it is unrecognisable. Anthemic joy dominates the middle of the album, with the Wayne Coyne featuring ‘The Perfect Life’. A bounding euphoria coupled with overblown choral backing and a George Michael-worthy guitar sashay: in isolation, I would never have guessed this was Moby. The lyrics are classic Coyne misdirection, providing that Morrissey/Marr double-whammy of a jubilant melody backed by dark words. Though the first verse deceives with twist-and-shout contentment, soon the content becomes clear: “Little Mikey steps everywhere / Knives in his pockets, bullets in his hair / He has nothing to live for, nothing left to say … Spoons and foil are all he needs, a bed and some china, a lighter and some speed – it will sing you to sleep and it will hit you awake”. Well, all that ecstatic elation had to come from somewhere I guess.

Less in-your-face exultation, but still strongly Flaming Lips-reminiscent is ‘Almost Home’, a woozy, enveloping ambience featuring indie-folker Damien Jurado. The tone is exactly Play, but the hooky drops are no longer present. Elongated and leisurely, it’s more suited to sighing than dancing. Elsewhere, Inyang Bassey guests on the prowling ‘Don’t Love Me’ – a creeping blues jam laden with chips of organ and guitar chirrups and wahs over a beastly beat that calls to mind the lighter side of Elephant.

There follows a plunge into melancholia. Mark Lanegan lends his deep, gravelly presence to ‘The Lonely Night’, a country-influenced lament layered over a generic “Moby” beat. It’s lyrically facile (“So tired wondering around and starting over / No garden grows here now, just a one-leaf cl-ooooh-ver”), but lowers the intensity in time for lengthy coda, ‘The Dogs’. Amidst the meditative pace and whining synths, Moby tells a tale where all his darkest high-vegan prophesies have become reality: “Hope lost to fear and nothing was clear when we lost it all / This is how we tried, this is where it died, this is how we cried, like the dogs left outside”.

So whilst the 90s flavour is strong and those distinctive synths and chord progressions have returned, this isn’t a simple rinse and repeat. There’s a huge range of styles on display, but Innocents remains a remarkably cohesive and creative record, thanks both to Moby’s instrumentation and to the album’s conceptual feel. Not just for dinner parties and Eminem disses after all.