Album Review: Tensnake – ‘Glow’

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Imagine an album that was the result of a night of passion between Random Access Memories and Settle, one whose heritage contained the 2010 hit ‘Coma Cat’ and oozed deep disco. Of course, Nile Rogers is it’s cool great-uncle, Jacques Lu Cont babysat it, and it looks up to Moderat, Lindstrom and Pharrell Williams just as much as Prince and Michael Jackson. A little spoilt, a good dancer, weighed down with high expectations after this drawn-out, hyperbolic comparison. Born the 10th March 2014 at Synthesiser General: Tensnake’s first LP, Glow.

Though it isn’t as quite as good (and certainly won’t make as much money) as Disclosure and Daft Punk’s 2013 giants, their DNA looms loud in the 80s funk guitars, UK Garage beats and the sheer dancefloor pop appeal strewn through the record. And like it’s chart-topping ancestors, Glow is infused with dance music’s past, paying homage to funk, house and disco as it ranges from pounding intensity to inane club-pop. It’s even got a meta-‘Giorgio by Moroder’ bit. Wisely, since he is neither French nor yet universally revered, Tensnake doesn’t try the philosophical robot angle, but mocks his work: the vocals insist “I’ve been listening for ten minutes already to this Tensnake shit. What the fuck are you guys talking about. I know, but whatever, I don’t need any twinkly, 80s, c’mon-lets-wear-a-tanktop-shit-fucking-rah-rah-rah-shit. I just want something hard, I just want big bass like, wah-wah-wah, like dubstep, like club step, like electro”.

Intermittently the strident 80s pop and the 2-step vibes come together in hugely fun disco flourishes, as on the pulsing ‘Good Enough To Keep’ or 2-step flavoured ‘See Right Through’, both of which sport excellent, diva-worthy deliveries from Fiora. This isn’t house for skanking or eye-rolling or gurning, but for all out, probably-will-be-embarrassed-later, committed boogieing. Other potential soundtracks for montages of silly discoing include the Michael Jackson-referencing, funk-laden ‘Selfish’ and irresistible slink ‘Love Sublime’ (feat. Nile Rogers! Of course!), which takes the minimal disco of ‘Inspector Norse’ and blends in a vocal line worthy of Kylie.

With all these references to juggle, you might be wondering whether Tensnake risks losing his own sound under those of his influences, but there are careful, contemporary clues scattered throughout and 2014 rises clearly through the callbacks and tipped hats. There’s a hint of trap in ’58 BPM’’s intro before it becomes a slow-burn 80s ballad, an EDM wobble amongst ‘No Colour’’s Discovery synths and hip-hop beat, that anchors Glow in the present. Occasionally, the cheese gets away from Niemerski, but on the whole, it’s fantastically produced, hip-friendly dance fun.

Forgive me one last link to R. A. M. and Settle…  This is yet another dance album that avoids the pitfalls of stringing together separately conceived singles. Just like the aforementioned, regardless of many collaborations and genre switches, Glow makes complete sense taken as a whole. From the stretching bass muscles and flexed synths of the uplifting warm-up ‘First Song’ through to the Hawtin-worthy repetitious build of ‘Last Song’, this is a real escalation in Tensnake’s sound. Dancing is awesome. It’s sexy, it’s fun – we can stand to do more dancing!

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Album Review: Destroyer – ‘Five Spanish Songs EP’

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Dan Bejar has never been a predictable man. A serial genre-chameleon, under his Destroyer guise, he has churned out everything from acoustic indie to ambient and experimental electronica. If you were to pick an “indie” band to put out a Spanish-language covers EP, Destroyer would be second only to Damon Albarn.

 After the British accented, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker…” name-dropping of 80s soft rock Kaputt, it’s no surprise to see Bejar don another genre, persona, and even a new language. All of the tracks on Five Spanish Songs are Sr. Chinarro songs originally, but instantly everything from the production, sheer pop hooks, and tongue-in-cheek vocals shouts Destroyer. That’s not say the pose isn’t convincing – with such an authentic accent, this could easily be a Castilian imposing his lyrics into Destroyer compositions.

The laid-back, Californian lounge vibe that dominated <i>Kaputt</i> lingers, as electrics ripple over delicate acoustic strumming and Bejar continues with the morning-after-excess quality, although he’s swapped the playboy coke tales for mythical Spanish warriors and religious processions. Opener ‘Maria de las Nieves’ brings a glistening, lounge riff over gentle acoustics, as Bejar laments “Maria of the Snows”, his troublesome ice queen. A melancholy, fragile earworm, bringing early Elliott Smith to mind both sonically and lyrically – such praise is not lightly given. “Esterilizantes con alcohol, practicantes de una rara religion / Como una monja bella, a ver que dice ella” (Sterilized with alcohol, practitioners of a strange religion / A beautiful nun, let’s see what she says).

Elsewhere, ‘Babieca’ continues the lounge funk, bringing Chic guitar stabs and overwrought flourishes to pattering finger percussion. Over a silky smooth chorus, Bejar relates Chinarro’s story of El Cid, a medieval Spanish warrior, and much immortalised folkhero. It’s a gentle caress of a song, cleverly combining Destroyer’s trademarks with a traditional Spanish narrative. Those of you who don’t speak Spanish, be warned – bogus attempts at singing along are guaranteed. ‘El Rito’, a song about the San Juan Saint’s day, brings a bizarrely Britpop sound, with a riff straight of Different Class, held together by a folk-stomp backbone: whatever the language, this would catch your attention; as the chorus insists, “Bailarà! Saltarà!” (You will dance! You will jump!). Additionally, there’s evocative love song ‘Del Monton’ (“I looked at the castle and believed Franz Kafka, and I wrote a song that ended in a tavern…”) and ‘Bye Bye’, a Chinarro classic that comes to evoke Bright Eyes in Bejar’s hands.

By transplanting his work into another language, and into songs written by somebody else, Bejar takes the oblique lyrics and “I write poetry for myselfKaputt-approach even further, as many won’t understand a word. But it’s a good test, and one that highlights Destroyer’s sheer musicianship. Regardless of their supporting tropes, the songs prove themselves consistently memorable and enjoyable. It’s another home run for Bejar – a disappointingly short taster that will leave you dreaming of Spain’s mountains and deserts, and longing for more.

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.

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.

 

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: The Neighbourhood – ‘I Love You’

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Historically, combining rap and guitars has had a low success rate. For every Beastie Boys, there are many, many more Limp Bizkits and Linkin Parks. Latest in the long line of those forging indie-hop are The Neighbourhood, though despite their lofty visions and unorthodox genre-merging, they’re really more of a pop band than anything else.

Something of a buzz band, with debut EP I’m Sorry receiving widespread recognition across the blogosphere, the Neighbourhood are nonetheless clearly aiming for mainstream success  – this is shiny happy pop music with something for everyone – polished and catchy, but meaningless. From their British orthography to their monochrome Tumblr-friendly imagery and carefully orchestrated “mysterious” internet launch, they are to all intensive purposes a carefully marketed boy band, superficially combining indie and hip-hop influences with a touch of emo grunge thrown in, but always setting up camp under the all-embracing banner of early teen-targeting pop.

Opener ‘Afraid’ crystallises everything that is good and bad about I Love You. A slow, angsty indie melody plays over a fat hip-hop beat as Rutherford delivers his rhythmic, singing-rapping vocals. Comparable to one-hit wonder Flobots’ ‘Handlebars’, it’s slick, well produced, and fairly appealing. Listen closer though, and the appallingly emo lyrics will wear down the initial attraction; “It hurts but I won’t fight you / you suck anyway / you make me wanna die” is one reasonably representative (and oft repeated) example. As Evanescence were to metal and Sum 41 to punk, so are The Neighbourhood to alternative hip-hop. Easily accessible, with enough angst for early teens and everything challenging cut out; it serves as a simple, easy introduction to the genre’s basic ideas. It’s perfectly acceptable, unrevolutionary, and of course, entirely inauthentic. ‘Afraid’ even features a serious, hushed breakdown, their version of that slow, quiet section of ‘Fat Lip’ that used to seem so poignant – but back then we didn’t know that Deryck Whibley would go on to marry Avril Lavigne.

Lyrically, the album only deteriorates into further embarrassment.  ‘Float’ sees the half-baked antiestablishment metaphor at its weakest, so adolescent-angst dripping that even Rutherford’s slick Cali tones can’t retrieve it – ‘They show you how to swim / Then they throw you in the deep end’.  The pseudo psychedelia of ‘How’ brings hopes of a late-stage change up, but it’s back to the formula as the vocals kick in; ‘How could you question God’s  existence / when you question God himself / Why would you ask for God’s assistance / if you wouldn’t take the help?’ – hold me, Christian indie-rock-rap has landed.

 After the EPs, this is a huge disappointment. ‘Sweater Weather’, probably their most well-known track prior to I Love You is left to close the album – but it can’t undo what’s come before it. Because its subject matter goes no further than California and sex, it’s far more successful than the confused striving-for-profundity that confounds many of its companion tracks. It’s hard to go wrong when California’s your muse (see Phantom Planet, Best Coast, Katy Perry). Lyrically inane, musically unoriginal, and carefully produced in a think-tank, they’re a marketing man’s wet dream, but they are unlikely to be yours. 

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/)