Album Review: Werkha – ‘Beacons EP’

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If you’re in the business of making eclectic, influence-crunching electronica that’s rooted in live instrumentation, being invited to tour with Bonobo is quite the seal of approval. It’s not hard to see how 22 year old Tom Leah caught the attention of his simian soundalike; there’s more than a passing resemblance in Werkha’s layered instrumentation and pattering beats, but like any decent opening act, Werkha packs more energy and dancefloor draw than the blissed out whirls of Black Sands or The Northern Borders. Elsewhere, another big name endorsement comes from Gilles Peterson, which is not overly surprising given Leah’s interests in jazz, Afrobeat and soul, amongst others.

Beacons kicks off with ‘Lapwing’, a jitter blend of jazz sax and soulful house that calls to mind the louche electro-swing of Parov Stelar’s work. If Jeeves & Wooster were on the dancefloor today, this would be entirely classy enough for their jazz-age cool.  Underpinning it all lurks a fuzzy, ambient bass, tying the track together with a delicate, crafted feel. (It also has an endearing video starring middle-aged yoga enthusiasts – bonus points).

 

‘Moving with the Nuisance’ is slightly less successful in its jazz reappropriation, as an electric guitar stirs over a dubby, distorted beat and T.E.E.D. style layers of micro percussion. The vocals are slightly too generic (“Put your hands up if you came to party”) and the jazz/house fusion a little too laboured.

The pace is soon ramped up again though, as the EP’s apex arrives with the excellent ‘Sidesteppin’’; a soulful house cut that is dominated by Bryony Jarman Pinto’s pure, unprocessed vocals. It’s a irresistibly crisp, silky track that builds into a solid groove, with a crunchy synth line and a beat that carries off the chorus’s claim – “I can feel my body rockin’ side to side!”.

From there, Beacons takes a slide down into the dark, with dubstep trumping jazz as the foremost influence on display. ‘Tempo Tempo’ brings a slinky, beat-driven open of clinking chimes and cymbals before succumbing to a dominant wonky synth pulse. Thankfully, this is on a different continent to aggressive brostep though; Leah commented recently, ““Since the bastardisation of the term dubstep, I have been keen to demonstrate that it doesn’t all have to sound like robots being sick” – mission accomplished. Smart, sexy and minimal, this is far more interesting than Skrilly and co.

One for those searching out unconventional grooves, Beacons is certainly an impressive calling card for Werkha. Skipping across genres carelessly, stitching his multiple interests, the EP heralds an undeniably original sound. There is a risk of lapsing into slightly bland, dinner party music – but if it’s good enough for Bonobo and Four Tet, that might no longer the criticism it once was. Next time around though, it would be nice to think you’d bother to interrupt someone mid-sentence to ask what was playing.

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Album Review: Breton – ‘War Room Stories’

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Thanks to their current inverse status, in both popularity and innovation, it seems that more and more “indie” records have been picking up dance music’s mannerisms – while Breton’s sound in 2012 called to mind Tom Vek and few others, their relatively unchanged sound sets of a chain-reaction of indietronica associations this time around, from Everything Everything and Two Door Cinema Club to Foals’ Holy Fire and recent James Blake.

Resolutely electronic but retaining an “indie” sensibility, faintly industrial, melancholic; Other People’s Problems  was everything you’d ever hoped Kele Okerree’s solo exploits might be –  the tragic romance and earworm hooks of early Bloc Party transposed into a dance-centric setting. At the time, an awful lot was made of their being a “multimedia collective” from “South London” who “squatted” in an “abandoned bank” – a great press release has the power to drown a great record. That their current blurb includes the phrase “distinctly un-hipster” is telling in itself. Forget the myth-building and ignore that it was recorded in an old Soviet radio station; Breton have an aggression, a droning abrasiveness, that just about justifies their “being a dickhead’s cool” swagger. They make electronic music with indie overtones, not the other way around, and in so doing, still manage to stand out from the crowd.

The excellent ‘S4’ is closer to their early Blanket EP in its production’s ferocity, as off-kilter drums skitter across police-kicking-your-door-in bass, while the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra lend the band their effortless ambiance of class and Roman Rappak sings a hook straight off Silent Alarm. Similarly fierce is the Chemical Brother-infused, witch-house stomp ‘Got Well Soon’, which brings brain-scrubbing repetition and Breton’s trademark walls of bass together with the edgy, brooding indie of the Maccabees’ ‘No Kind Words’. The gloves are off and it’s genre-meltingly good.

Taking the edge of with ‘302 Watchtower’, War Room Stories also ventures into gentler territory, bringing a trip-hop kaleidoscope of wind chimes and squeaked bum notes to create an immersive stand-alone world within the album. Sliding into ‘Brothers’, things become a little sub-par Foals, with Rappak’s wails demonstrating why he usually sticks to staccato pronouncements, and though the spacious, confident instrumentation is only a stone’s throw from Holy Fire’s gorgeous ‘Prelude’, it feels a little derivative. Likewise, ‘Envy’ appears to be a pastiche of Breton’s past work – their trademark production accompanying the nonsensical, facile rhyme “You’re a tourist, there’s nothing wrong with that / But what you never could have noticed is how your bags were packed”.

At the other end of the spectrum is mid-album deep breath, ‘Closed Category’. A crisp, spoken sample oozes cool, left-hand piano replaces the usual relentless bass pulse and the guitar lines positively shimmer in their delicacy. Though it’s like nothing Breton have released before, it’s instantly recognisable; an unplugged version of their usual rhythmic gymnastics. What War Room Stories makes clear is that the way forward is further exploration and boundary pushing. Unsurprisingly, given both their sound and their ethos, Breton are not at their best when static, but rather forging ahead – cramming the bare bones of their sound into new and unsuspecting genres and influences.

Album Review: La Femme – ‘Psycho Tropical Berlin’

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La Femme: a French band plying us with jangling West Coast surf-pop, undercut with doom-laden kraut-coldwave. It’s as unusual as it sounds – Google “surfpop coldwave” and they’re on their own. Add to that mix a serious dose of wackiness and a general Halloween vibe, and the whole thing should be a disaster. Their debut album Psycho Tropical Berlin sounds like the Beach Boys jamming with the Velvet Underground and Françoise Hardy, covering ‘Monster Mash’ – and though that sentence has to be up there with “Santa, the Armadillo and I” in terms of implausibility, it’s a style that is astonishingly catchy, natural, and flat-out fun. It’s time to surf the coldwave.

Throughout the album, most tracks have the same broad blueprint. A thudding, ominous intro laden with thwacking bass that blooms into sharp, punchy surf guitars. A spooky ambiance lent by droning organs or synths, and yéyé, aggressively rhymed vocals from one of the group’s many femmes. There’s a constant aura of kooky upbeatness – most of Psycho Tropical Berlin could be featured in a zany advert for French cars, wasted in that context but still prompting you to reach for Shazam. A standout is former single ‘Sur La Planche’, a pleasingly repetitive romp through the pleasures of surfing, updated here to be faster, tighter and more synth-dominated. Frantic, glorious and lighthearted, it’s all you can ask surf-pop to be.  Elsewhere, opener ‘Antitaxi’ pushes the 60s Californian influence further, flexing razorsharp guitars and a Theremin whilst slightly menacingly extoling the benefits of taking the bus (“Antitaxi! Prends le bus!”).

Good as these tracks are, sixteen of them would perhaps be too much. This is where La Femme’s odd genre combination comes into its own, as their surf side can be played down, and their other interests pushed to the fore. The excellent ‘Le Blues de Francoise’ is a case in point, demonstrating a more sombre style with not a jangle in sight. Over a haunting organ and subdued strums, a perfect monotone spoken delivery details Françoise’s blues as she sits alone with her tissues and cigarette ends, “pas un email, pas un coup de fil”. The chorus chimes in, and another Femme jollies things along, insisting “Tu n’es pas belle quand tu pleures” . Another gentle success comes in ‘It’s Time To Wake Up’, a slow ballad which captures wheezing synths and soothing organs, calling to mind their compatriots M83. Initially a simple lovesong, it quickly unravels into brilliant post-apocalyptica, as we learn they are together forever, the survivors – “Tout le monde se fait tuer / La silly cause / La guerre était finie – Mata Hari!”.

Though La Femme’s music is often irreverent and their female singers anonymously ever-changing, the women of Psycho Tropical Berlin are packing ideas behind their sultry vocals. Whether or not you can be bothered to translate the lyrics, their manic, rollercoaster pop and fierce hooks should be enough of a draw for the most Anglophone listener. 

Album Review: Bonobo – ‘The North Borders’

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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.

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

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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. 

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.