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?

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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.

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Album Review: Cave Singers – ‘Naomi’

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Remember back in 2004? We were beginning to recover from the sheer shock of indie’s regeneration after a decade dominated by grunge, nu-metal and pop-punk; Bright Eyes, Death Cab, and a whole host of other bands featured on the O.C.’s soundtracks, were dominant. Seattle quartet Cave Singers’ brand of warm, somewhat earnest indie-folk harks back to that West Coast golden age, and the tradition of sun-drenched, mellow guitar-centric indie.

In fact, the past clients of Naomi’s producer give a fairly solid run-down of the band’s influences; the Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Modest Mouse amongst others. The band members themselves are mostly veterans of other similar acts, with former Pretty Girls Make Graves members and a Fleet Fox in their midst. Rather more folky than any of James Mercer’s output and far less frantic than the majority of Modest Mouse records, but yet less harmonic than Fleet Foxes and their ilk; there’s something in the tone of the guitars, the warmth of the bass, and Pete Quirk’s vocals, that is inescapably part of the wider West Coast indie heritage.

Inevitably, much of the album sounds very similar. The instruments’ tone remains unchanged, and there’s a consistent “up-down strum, up down-strum, chord change!” pattern to the guitars, alternated only with careful, chilled fingerpicked lead lines. It’s a bit like listening to an early Death Cab record, but with Layne Staley singing vocals on an exceptionally mellow, blissed-out day. Unlike the carefully enunciated lyrics of James Mercer or Ben Gibbard though, the lyrics take rather a backseat, simply washing over the listener– even though the band (or at least, the press release) put a lot of stock in the album’s lyrical themes. Perhaps on paper they’re pertinent, but in practice they are too subdued to stand out. Of the similar sounding cuts, single ‘Shine’ is the best, with a pleasing lolloping, looping hook, some nice harmonica playing and Quirk’s voice sounding  richer than anywhere else on Naomi.

That said, the second half of the album is noticeably better than the first, with more memorable, individually discernible songs, and a wider variation in style. With ‘Easy Way’, at last things are shaken up a little, with rockier percussion, slightly more crunch in the rhythm guitar and more of a snarl in the vocals. In the past, the band has said that they never intended to play folk – perhaps this is the direction they should pursue in future. However, ‘Northern Lights’ – easily the folkiest track on the record, with hints of Dylan and straight-up campfire sound to it – is another success. Finally, closer ‘When The World’ brings tambourines, fuzzy bass and angst as Quirk moans “You’re like a leaf that blows away”. It’s got more momentum than the whole first half of Naomi; a bluesy, folk jam where the Cave Singers finally achieve what they’ve been hinting at for the past eleven tracks.

Arguably much of Naomi’s problems are caused by the tracklisting, as there are many early tracks which fuse into each other, which, had they been alternated with some of the later, more distinctive songs, would have probably shone in their own right. Ultimately though, they don’t commit enough to the sonic range which they eventually bring to bear, focusing too much on middle-of-the-road indie-folk.

All-Time Great Albums; The Libertines – ‘The Libertines’ (2004)

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Favourite albums are a deeply personal, almost private thing. It can be difficult revealing them even to close friends due to the sheer strength of feeling invoked. Somebody who really, honestly doesn’t get David Bowie, Nirvana, the Beatles – and they’ve tried and everything – is that someone who you want to be in your life? Of course, as compatible tastes don’t necessarily guarantee best friendships, neither do different opinions by default spoil them – but it’s easier to leave it unsaid. Talking about something you love and cherish with someone who thinks it’s overlong, pretentious, or not as good as the debut can be deeply stressful.

But, whatever, I refuse to believe anyone can flat-out deny the merits of my favourite album, so I’ll say it loud and proud. If I really, truly, can only choose one, then it’s The Libertines, the gorgeous tale behind the breakdown of one of the best English bands of the last decade. Of course, it was easy to fall in love with the Libertines, both album, band, and everything they stood for. Any teenager worth their scowls could crave everything they embodied; broadly, sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The gang mentality, the intoxication, the clothes, the endless quotable interviews. And they could back it up, with killer live shows, the famed guerrilla gigs, and two stand-out albums.

The Libertines was a triumph. Recorded with Mick Jones’ live, scuzzy aesthetic, it dripped sincerity, wit, desperation, and love. Sonically, it was the accumulation of everything the band had worked on, and the driving, tight rhythm section provided a base for the duelling frontmen, their guitars, and their exchanges of accusations. From the fast, straight-up punk of ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ and the careening, out of control ‘Campaign of Hate’ to the acoustic beauty of ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’, it was relentlessly catchy and beautifully crafted.

And underneath it all lurked the drama, the “story” of Carl and Pete, Pete and Carl. It started from ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’’s very first line, “And ending fitting for the start, you twist and tore our love apart”, and the scathing response, “You got it the wrong way round, you shut me up and blamed it on the brown”. Accusations, reasoning, pleading; the disintegration of their enviable friendship was laid bare for all to hear – and all over a track that could drive dancefloors wild.

 Beyond their usual question-answer lyrical interplay, on the Libertines only a handful of the songs were Barat/Doherty co-written, and so the two frustrated frontmen exchanged barbs song by song. For Carl’s self-deprecatingly titled ‘Last Past On The Bugle’, Pete’s cajoling ‘Don’t Be Shy’. Immediately following the revelatory, confessional ‘The Saga’ (“A problem becomes a problem/when you lie to friends / when you let down your peopleI aint got a problem, it’s you with the problem”), the desperate, Carl-penned ‘Road to Ruin’ response (“How can we make you understand / All you can be is here in your hand”).

With closer ‘What Became of the Likely Lads’, they had the ultimate last word. The flipside of the love-hate displayed in ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, it was an elegy for all they, and we, had lost. “Oh what became of the likely lads / what became of the dreams we had / what became of forever / well, we’ll never know”. 

Album Review: FIDLAR – ‘FIDLAR’

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Ever since Drake’s ‘Motto’, kids around the world have been, both seriously and ironically, justifying their every dumb move with shouts of “YOLO!”. But a four-piece skate-punk band from L.A. have come up with an alternative life-philosophy acronym, and named both their band and debut album in its honour. And FIDLAR (which stand for “fuck it dog, life’s a risk”), with their carefree, hedonistic lifestyle and scuzzy, furiously catchy tracks, is looking a far more appealing core belief than the douchey machismo of YOLO.

Easily identifiable as influenced by big brother bands like the Black Lips and Wavves, and with more than a little in common with contemporaries the Bleeding Knees Club and Ice Age, FIDLAR is scuzzy punk-rock with an evident underlying pop sensibility. With all the skate/surf-punk influences of Los Angeles, backed up by the driving sound of San Francisco’s garage rock scene, the album is sun-drenched, hazy, and the perfect musical accomplishment for getting wasted and living for the moment.

Very much aficionados of the “write what you know” school of thought, the album’s central themes are drink, drugs, surf, skate, and girls. Though the sound is almost as limited as their lyrical range, they’re excellent at what they do – you’ll get little more than manic, chugging barre chords over the precise, driving rhythm section but the scrappy hooks will be in your head as soon as you first hear them. It’s genuine, honest, and though a little repetitive, unashamedly fun.

‘Stoked and Broke’ whirls along at break-neck speed, channelling the Black Lips and early Green Day, as Zac Carper slurs words soon to be adorning the exercise books of fifteen year olds everywhere – “I just wanna get really high, smoke weed until I die / There’s nothing wrong with living like this, all my friends are pieces of shit”. Later, on ‘Max Can’t Surf’ (re-recorded from their earlier EP), the pace slows but the sentiment remains. The last time you heard someone shout about “two packs a day” with the same venom, it was similar good-time layabouts the Beastie Boys, whilst in the hooky, surf guitar there’s more than a passing resemblance to the Beach Boys.

 Perhaps the most representative track is the self-explanatory ‘Wake Bake Skate’, a breakneck thrash with a Misfits-esque bassline (and more succinct lyrics; “I’m so fuckin’ cheap and I’m so fuckin’ broke and I don’t have a job and I don’t have a phone / Don’t have a life and I’m always stoned”). The only real point of contrast is in the album’s closing, secret track, when Carper sings “I’m spending all my cash on cheap cocaine, and I been wasted almost every day / I don’t know what to do, it kinda sucks being twenty two”.

Though it’s a realist final note, it’s a five-in-the-morning, comedown reflection, rather than a real decision to change. At a time when I, along with everyone I know, madly scrabble to find paid employment, it’s refreshing to hear someone standing up for the ideals of getting fucked up and not worrying about what the future might bring. 

 

 

Album Review: Foals – ‘Holy Fire’

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Take the nervous energy of Antidotes, the blissed-out instrumental beauty of Total Life Forever, and add a pinch of rock and roll grit, lashings of luxuriant production, and all the confidence that comes with making an album which is the sum of all your past achievements. Foals are back, and Holy Fire is so good that second titular word could easily have been another, more explicit, four-lettered word.

It begins with a slow, languid show of force – ‘Prelude’, an introductory instrumental, which casually shows off a glimpse of what is approaching. It’s a thoroughly confident move and, despite the potential for an epic jam, one that is carefully restrained. Next, the tropical guitars and jittery ADHD percussion of first single ‘Inhaler’ heralds much of what is yet to come. A crunching rocky riff is laid over the tropical indie, which calls to mind Friendly Fires or ‘Shuffle’ era Bombay Bicycle Club, and Yannis brings out a Jack Black-impersonating-Robert Plant wail – it’s a belter.

It’s a hell of an opening, but impressively Holy Fire manages to keep to its own high standards. ‘Milk and Black Spider’ is an absolute earworm, with dizzying spiralling guitars conjuring visions of wide, expansive skies (which should be good for their Coachella appearance). Elsewhere, ‘My Number’ is equally catchy, an unstoppable bubblegum pop-rock lilt which leaves you confused – should you disco dance or head bang?

And it’s not only the hooks that work well. Foals proved irrefutably on Total Life Forever that they pretty good at ambient instrumental beauty, and none of that has been lost in the intervening years. ‘Bad Habit’, the album’s first real breathing space, is a remarkably upbeat ballad, despite its grim lyrics whilst closers ‘Stepson’ and ‘Moon’ are elegiac and emotive, though understated.

Full of huge hooks, instantly memorable lyrics and with rich, honeyed production, Holy Fire’s echoing drums, fingerpicking, and beefed bass come together to form an excellent album. Though they’ve thrown in everything they have, Foals have managed to avoid overstating and have had the confidence to showcase their range of talents. A good year for different, intelligent guitar-driven indie so far.

 

Single Review: Tribes – ‘How The Other Half Live’

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I’ve followed Tribes’ progression closely; unfortunately I’m one of those suckers who gets drawn in when writers whip out the oft-used hype of indie bands “being the next Libertines”. They were one of the first bands I ever interviewed, and I’ve seen them go from tiny, ill-attended gigs, to the NME Awards tour, to rapturously received festival sets. Whilst debut Baby had its ups and downs, it was anchored by some gigantic riffs, solid playing and undisguised ambition; from their very first video – a Camden roof-top gig – Tribes have been dreaming big. Now, barely a year after their debut, the second round begins – first single ‘How The Other Half Live’ is the forerunner, with album Wish To Scream scheduled for May release.

Immediately, it’s a notably different style from past stadium-grunge tracks like Pixies-apeing ‘Sappho’ or the crashing choruses of ‘Whenever’ and ‘We Were Children’ – in fact, by the time Jonny Lloyd sings the first line, “We need a change of direction”, it’s obvious that they’ve already taken it. The guitars are cleaner, the grunge crunch is gone, and if anything, the whole thing sounds quite a bit like Oasis.

But then, halfway through, the track swerves direction again, plunging into a squealing solo and a distinctly blues ambiance. Tribes have consistently proclaimed the Stones as one of their key influences, but this is the first time it’s been audible on record. Johnny gives us a nice Jaggeresque stuttering vocal, and with a little feedback, it’s over. Alongside the whimsical, almost pyschadelic ‘Wrapped Up In A Carpet’, the only other album track available so far, it makes Wish To Scream an interesting proposition. It seems Tribes’ influences have only got more diverse whilst they are certainly still aiming for the big-time. 

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.

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.