Archive

Music Review

Death and loss aren’t necessarily new or ground-breaking themes within music. Death has been something that’s been sang about since the dawn of vocal music and the idea of loss is a recurring narrative within genres such as the Blues. They’re also two concepts that human beings encounter over several points of their lives and, death specifically, is something that we can all agree is something that carries significant heartache and sorrow to each of us when we come across it in our lifetimes.

Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a musical chameleon; he has released everything from Folk to Hip-Hop to impenetrable Electronic albums to Orchestral tributes to a train route in New York to Christmas albums. Despite his unwillingness to stand still in a genre for more than one album at a time, he has retained the reputation of being one of the truly great songwriters of his generation. His last major release was the schizophrenic and deeply intriguing “Age of Adz” which was, to put it mildly, a bombastic anxiety-ridden journey into the mind of Sufjan (who had just recovered from a mysterious debilitating illness). After a few sporadic releases, a new album was announced at the start of this year which was to serve as a tribute to his mother and step-father; Carrie and Lowell.

The story of Carrie Stevens is one of tragedy. She left the family when Sufjan was just a year old and lived a life that was marred by depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism, reappearing sporadically at random points in time before disappearing again. According to Sufjan’s recent interview with Pitchfork, she also spent several years on the street, homeless and alone. On the flip side, he also notes that she was funny, caring and loving according to relatives and from his distant memories. Carrie died in 2012 and before her passing, she and Sufjan spent time together. As a result of enduring the experience of witnessing the death of his mother, who was effectively a stranger to him, the concept of this album came into fruition.

Carrie and Lowell is the polar opposite of Age of Adz as it’s considerably more minimal in its sound. There is less emphasis on experimentation with sounds and more focus on gorgeous acoustic orchestrations to provide the genuinely heartbreaking lyrics with centre stage. It’s a platform for Sufjan to relay some of his finest and most personal songs of his career with the album serving as his grieving process (which isn’t specifically embedded in just sadness).

The opening track “Death With Dignity” is so beautifully arranged, with finger picked guitar and simple piano. It feels somewhat sparse, with its lyrics centred around the feeling of emptiness we can feel when someone dies and that lack of knowing where things will get better. It’s a taste of what’s to come with complex and gut-wrenching verses.

I forgive you, mother, I can hear you
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end

That feeling of emptiness and regret are further conveyed on “Should’ve Known Better”. Sufjan divulges further into the relationship (or lack thereof) with his mother and the inescapable feeling of wishing you had done more for a person before it’s too late. Whilst it’s possible to dwell on these feelings of regret forevermore, we can’t change what has been done and must live with our prior decisions.

I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling

A key theme throughout Sufjan Stevens albums and songs is faith and religion, most overtly in his stunning folk album “Seven Swans” (which, by the way, shows that it is possible to make Christian music that’s popular with the masses). On “Drawn to the Blood“, Sufjan questions just why such a personal tragedy could happen to him despite his strong faith in a higher power (“For my prayer has always been love, What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?”). It’s a really effective track where the sense of betrayal is evident and that temporary questioning of his faith feels so real. This is also something that isn’t something we’d typically see in his earlier works and is a sign that this is a far more personal and “real” album in comparison to his earlier releases.

The one song that truly broke my heart on the album is “The Fourth of July” which documents a conversation with someone in their final moments of life. Having lost family members, it’s in some ways that final conversation I would’ve wanted as it offers at least some form of comforting or closure during such a tragic moment. One of the more crushing lyrics is when Sufjan’s mother (who is essentially our narrator on the track) is apologetic for leaving her son at such an early age.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

This song in particular resonated with me mainly because of just of lines like that. It’s simple and effective lyricism over such sparse instrumentation that convey the utter emptiness of the situation that make it just that little bit touching. It’s probably his most emotional song since “Casimir Pulaski Day

Considering how frantic his previous album was, the minimal soundscapes and prolonged instrumental outros that appear on a few songs are really effective. Take for example “Drawn to the Blood” which has over a minute of melancholic synths and string arrangements which allows the power of the lyrics to sink in. The same can be said of the title track which has a minute long solemn outro. It’s something you rarely see in a lot of music which is a real shame as it certainly adds depth if used.

There’s little resolution or hope provided on the climactic song “Blue Bucket of Gold” as it raises more questions than answers. Nobody fills that void following the loss of his mother and there’s no sign of anything good coming in the future. This understated track is the complete opposite of the 25 minute grandiose “Impossible Soul” which concluded The Age of Adz. The lyrics drift away in a sea of instrumentals and we’re left pondering our own thoughts and feelings on loss with no conclusion really being given to us.

I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks and whilst it touched a nerve with me from the first listen, it struck me a little harder recently. I awoke last weekend to hear some particularly horrible news that had happened to a friend of mine from way back when. When I revisited this album again after hearing this, the songs hit me like a punch to the stomach as they perfectly encapsulate those cycle of emotions you go through when you lose someone you love.

Carrie & Lowell is a remarkable album. You very rarely get such an insight into an individual’s personal life that you get on this album and even when you do, it’s rarely as beautiful and tragic as this. Whilst the themes of death and loss aren’t new, such a well documented and crafted journey into the concept of death and the grieving process is worthy of praise. As a result of such a personal tragedy, Sufjan Stevens has released the finest album of his career to date, and has immortalised his mother with such a touching tribute.

I’ve been a fan of James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem for years now, maybe just shy of the release of their 2007 opus “Sound of Silver”. They’ve gone from being simply a band I like to my favourite band to ever exist.  From their hugely danceable and glorious self titled debut, to the aforementioned Sound of Silver to their stunning send off album This Is Happening, they provided their fans with a truly consistent and varied trilogy of albums that had a lot of party tracks with a few emotional songs thrown in to boot.

When my life was going through a particular rough patch (and I’m talking incredibly rough patch), their song “Us v Them” was a song that helped me see these times through. It’s moment of joyous explosion at 3:15 is something of beauty that made me smile every time I heard it. It’s one of my favourite musical moments by an absolute mile.

Simply put, LCD Soundsystem were one of the most important bands I ever listened to and one that has remained close to me after several musical taste transitions.

When news broke that This is Happening was to be their final album, I was gutted. Why would a band at their absolute musical peak break up? Afterall, their music was transitioning from simply being ‘dance’ music to something with a  deep emotional core. Thankfully, I saw them on that final set of gigs when they played the O2 academy in Leeds back in 2010. In what was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best gig I’ve ever attended, they showed that whilst their albums were stellar, their live performances were  beyond most (if not all) of their contemporaries. It therefore made sense that the band went out with a bang and the biggest gig they ever staged; a 3 hour and 41 minute au revoir at a sold out Madison Square Garden.

 

This gig, the build up and aftermath are documented in “Shut Up and Play the Hits“, a film that takes fans of LCD on one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. Documenting the band’s lead singer James Murphy life over a period of 48 hours (before, during and after the band’s final show), you get a rare insight into the mostly enigmatic lead singer’s life and in contrast to his music, it’s oddly normal and a little mundane. He walks his dog, gets a cup of coffee and gets a taxi…and nobody seems to recognise him. This anonymity is something he yearns for in the interview that’s interspersed within scenes of Murphy before/after the gig and clips of the gig itself. Fame isn’t something that Murphy wants as it seems to only be a burden to him.

Some of the more visually spectacular moments of the entire film involve clips of crowd members at the gig, in particular the one person who showed the degrees to which this band have touched some it’s fans. The 16 year old LCD Soundsystem fan who is caught twice within the film bawling his eyes out was a moment within the screening I attended where the audience seemed to be divided; one half saw it as hilarious that this kid loved this band so much that he weeped inconsolably whilst the other half saw it as a perfect example of what the band meant to someone. After all, this was their final gig, if you saw your favourite band perform their final ever show, surely you wouldn’t be remiss of a few tears or a moment of sadness?

Another moment of crowd induced goodness (besides a GREAT cameo with a crowd surfing Aziz Ansari) is the binary opposite of the crying fan; it was the couple gleefully dancing together without a care in the world. It showed what an LCD Soundsystem show should be about which is having fun. Yes, there’s going to be sad emotional moments, but what the band really represent live is having fun and losing your inhibitions.

The last half an hour or so of the film gets pretty deep. Whilst the band’s break up was amicable, reality begins to sink in and you can see a genuine sense of loss and regret in James Murphy’s eyes. He even expresses that his biggest regret was splitting the group when they were still hugely popular and still making great music. You can see this in one of the film’s great moments where Murphy visits the band’s warehouse, surrounded by equipment, alone. Pictures of the band from the earliest moments to the present day are interspersed with this moment as Murphy cries. It’s a tough scene to view as the realisation begins to sink in to him and the viewing audience that LCD Soundsystem are no more. Maybe it won’t mean as much to non-fans watching, but I found it a bit of a difficult scene to get through, same goes for the gut wrenching performance of Someone Great.

There are a lot of great concert films out there, but the best (apart from the all-concert Stop Making No Sense) don’t tend to focus on the gig itself. Gimme Shelter has several great performances throughout the film but the story of the concert and the tragedy that ensued is as captivating as the music if not more. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is mainly brilliant because of the journey Dave goes on to put on the show and inviting people. Shut Up and Play the Hits features snippets and songs from the MSG show shot with some high quality cameras as it looks phenomenal, but it’s the footage before/after the show that make the film so memorable. Sure, it could have done without the somewhat pretentious interview (which features about 95% Chuck Klosterman and 5% James Murphy), but in the grand scheme of things, that’s only really a small critique.

Shut Up and Play the Hits is out on DVD/Blu-Ray on 8 October 2012. A further incentive to buy it is the bonus feature of having the ENTIRE NEAR FOUR HOUR gig as a DVD extra. Trust me when I tell you that it’s one of the great farewell gigs you’ll ever see; there’s Arcade Fire, Reggie Watts, Shit Robot,  45:33 playing in it’s entirety and the Twin Peaks opening theme.

At the tail end of 2010, me, my housemate Benny and some of his friends from home went to Constellations, a great one day festival at the Leeds University campus (which, if you’ve never been, is absolutely gigantic). Apart from maybe seeing Broken Social Scene, Four Tet and Los Campesinos! I went in with a relatively open mind with the idea of seeing some different up and coming bands throughout the duration of the day. After a fun hour Los Campesinos! set and a massively underwhelming Four Tet “Live” performance (avec many loops and whatnot, it was good…just not very fun) in a mostly empty Stylus, myself and Benny chose to see a group that people had been talking about for a while and a band I’d heard a lot of noise about that day; Sleigh Bells.

They were playing in the smallest venue in the union to a packed out crowd and engrossed them when they both entered the stage and unleashed their own slant on noise-pop. The size of the room was a huge factor in the experience I felt that night as it maintained their sound to such a degree that I feared the windows were on the verge of shattering. For such a minimal exterior, the volume the two generating was overwhelming and even Benny (who’s seen his fair share of loud music live) was pretty blown away by it. To this day, it’s in my top 3 live gigs I’ve attended. When I got back that night, I downloaded their album Treats and fell in love with it. It’s a really loud and abrasive album with Krauss’ sweet vocals complementing the fuzzy guitar/general noise Derek Miller produced. To this day I thoroughly enjoy the hell out of the album and I can’t say that about many others.

Then, a year or so after that experience at Constellations, a hype video for their next album “Ring of Terror” appears online and the best way to explain my reaction is “totally OTT fanboy” in the sense that I watched it a few times in a row and realised that I had to wait 2 miserable months until it finally got released. Something that really caught me off guard was the fact that the sounds on the teaser were far denser and heavier than anything off of Treats and it had a great sense of menace about it. Shit got even more real when the first song off of the new album was put online.

“Born to Lose” is by far darker than anything off of Treats with lyrics dealing with harsher issues. It’s pretty safe to say that this sophomore album is delving far more into the human psyche than their debut which, despite being a pretty damn great album, was awfully cold and emotionless. An example of the chirpy nature of Born to Lose can be seen in the opening verse (for your convenience, see below).

Heard you say suicide in your sleep
Just get on with it you were born to lose
Will you hang like the moon from a rope in your room
Oh you long for it, you were born to lose

The change in sound is a fine progression; they’ve used the experiences from their [apparently rush-released] last album and moved their sound one step further into the unknown. Put on some decent headphones and listen to the track below.

I can only hope that Reign of Terror lives up to my expectations and also that the band top their previous live performance when I see them again this Spring in London. I have a mighty suspicion that 2012 will be another fantastic year for the duo

http://reignofterror.tv

Everyone once in a while you get a duet that’s so utterly perplexing that you have to hear it to believe it. Jimmy Paige and P-Diddy, Nick Cave and Kylie and erm…Chris Waddle and Glenn Hoddle. The newest addition to this confusing collab group is the odd pairing of Metallica and Lou Reed which, on the surface looks like 2 completely different sides of the musical stratosphere, but when you think about it they’ve got quite a lot in common with each other. Both Lou and Metallica have floundered in the latter part of their careers, making music that even their most ardent fans shied away from, despite the fact that they both made pretty stellar works in their early stages. Secondly, both come across to many as a bunch of miserable arseholes (especially Lars Ulrich and Lou) with very little positive to say at any point. This album has been hyped up (as seen below) as something pretty special, but when is that not the case?

Well, I don’t really know what to say. My original intention with this review was to do a track by track review, but after writing 500 words on the first 3 songs and venting more anger than I have in a long time, I gave up on that concept. Before I start this, let me just say that you get the sense from that Rolling Stone video and other interviews that both Lou Reed and Metallica really believe this album is great and that everyone should enjoy it and treasure it forever. The few songs I’d heard previously had left me…perplexed to say the least and the idea of venturing on the whole album wasn’t all that appealing. 5 tracks into my song-by-song review, I gave up and went back to something that made more sense to me.

Lulu starts with Brandenberg Bridge which features Lou Reed singing like an old man who’s lost his false teeth and is just crooning with his bare gums. He sings says the line “I would cut my legs and tits off when I when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski in the dark of the moon”  which gives you an idea of the calibre of lyrics you can expect on this album. The highlight of this opening track and probably the whole album is James Hetfield doing his best “James Hetfield shouting” when he yells “SMALLTOWN GIRRRRRRRRRRL” for three minutes whilst Reed sings in the incoherent manner of…well Lou Reed in the 2000s. Perhaps the album picks up and that was the worst song on the album; maybe it’s all up from here. WRONG. IT’S NOT.

The second song is “The View” which features some lazy Metal music from a once great Metal band combined with Lou Reed saying words such as “And in a coffin your soul shaking, I want to have you doubting, Every meaning you’ve amassed, Like a fortune” and my immediate thoughts were “Jesus Christ, this guy was once in the Velvet Underground; he once sang Walk On the Wild Side. Now he just sounds like a vagrant drunk mumbling incoherently to squirrels”. Our Hetfield shouting session in this song features him bellowing “I AM THE TABLE” which if the lyric sites are correct, is supposed to be TABLET. At this point, had you received this as a gift from someone, your brave face would have deteriorated into confusion like it was a sick joke your friend was playing on you.

“Pumping Blood” is no better. In fact, it’s features Lou at his talking best, talking away about blood, swallowing a large cutter like a coloured man’s dick as well as waggling his ass like a dark prostitute. For Seven minutes.

And that’s where I gave up listening.

I am at a loss for words about this album. It’s hideous and I get the sense that it was maybe Metallica’s intention to make an album that no internet music fan would want to download. This is their punishment to all of us who download music illegally; you wanted this new Metallica album? Well it’s shit and we made it intentionally shit so you’d go out and buy Master of Puppets and Kill Em All to make up for your devious act of peer to peer file sharing. In fact, the more I think about it, the more likely it is that they’re trolling people with Lulu because I honest to god can’t believe there’s anyone in the world who would enjoy this near 90 minutes of shite. It’s not like Lou Reed hasn’t done something like this before, this is the man who gave the world the anti-record troll masterpiece that is Metal Machine Music; an album that very few people listened to, nevermind finished.

 I’m sure there will be people out there claiming that this is avant-garde and these people would be wrong. This is not avant-garde, this is a steaming pile of shit that will hopefully have a backlash on both party’s careers.

My least favourite band of all time is Starship. They recorded an album called Knee Deep In Hoopla which had on that album what may be the musical equivalent of gonorrhoea; We Built this City on Rock and Roll (I hate that song more than anything that came before it and anything that came after it). Had I listened to the entirety of Lulu, I suspect it would have taken the honour of worst album I’ve ever listened to from Grace Slick and co quite comfortably.

My love affair with the music of Lou Reed originally lasted from the first time I heard The Velvet Underground and Nico up until the first side of Berlin which I gave up on, vowing to never return. My Metallica fandom lasted until I finally listened to St Anger when I decided that their albums post-Metallica weren’t worth the time of day. I recommend you do the same.

IN A BRIEF SENTENCE: Lulu sucks, listen to Master of Puppets or Transformer and avoid yourself the anger/confusion this rambling tripe offers. 

A stream of this experience is here, I’ve warned you several times but if you’re going to go ahead and listen, there’s the free and legal way. I wouldn’t want anyone spending money on it.

Thundercat

A True Musical Journey

Brainfeeder is a consistently intriguing record label. It’s home to many unique musicians; The Gaslamp Killer, Martyn, Mr Oizo and, of course, the musical enigma that is Flying Lotus. On FlyLo’s last LP Cosmogramma (which is, without a doubt, a must own album), one of the standout songs was ‘MmmHmm‘ featuring the bassist/vocalist Thundercat, one of the label’s newest projects. It was only a matter of time before Thundercat emerged out of the shadows and released his own album and a year later, we have The Golden Age of the Apocalypse.

The album kind of crept up on me; I’d notice Lotus and other Brainfeeder affiliates shilling the album constantly and the positive reviews on famous music sites, but I never really took it in and processed it. Last night, when I got bored of listening to the same old stuff, I decided to check it out and give The Golden Age of the Apocalypse (I’m gonna start abbreviating that from this point forth) a listen.

I’ve preface this by saying I was not pleasantly surprised. This is because I went in with high expectations anyway; it wasn’t going to be a bad album because Thundercat makes fine bass heavy (in the sense that he uses a lot of funky bass riffs and licks) music that teeters on jazz. It’s produced by Lotus, which is evident straight the way with it’s scattered beats and experimental jazz edge, once again, not necessarily a bad thing, although it kind of detracts away from Thundercat as it sounds like you could be listening to a new FlyLo album. Then again, how do we know what Thundercat would sound like without Lotus producing it, maybe it’d still be as glitchy and as jazzy, maybe this is what Thundercat’s music sounds like.

Anyway, enough of that thrilling and paradoxical debate and on with the review. The sound of this album gives me the impression that Thundercat’s greatly influenced by Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters period (a side note: Head Hunters is one of my top 5 favourite albums of all time) as certain instrument pieces like the drums, bass and especially the keys sound like they’ve been ‘borrowed’ from Head Hunter sessions. TGAOTA shares Head Hunters’ hypnotic sound to a tee, whilst adapting it to the modern age with bleeps and loops. This is some genuine ear candy, with sounds coming from left field and taking you on a musical journey of sorts if you allow it to like the best funk music (a la, Parliament and Dâm-Funk) should.

A stand out track for me was hard to choose, it all seems to become a LSD infused jazz trip, with songs melting into one and other and throwing up glorious sounds that never antagonise or shock the listener. It washes over you and it’s only with repeat listens do you hear all the little sounds and lush instrumentation that are occurring. If I had to pick one or two stand outs then it’d probably be ‘Is It Love?’ and ‘Boat Cruise’. ‘Is It Love?’ is engulfed in soulful vocals, hypnotic drums (provided by Thundercat’s brother Ronald Bruner, Jr) and some truly brilliant basslines, it also ends with the a stripped back rendition of the hook from ‘MmmHmm’ which is never a bad thing. ‘Boat Cruise’ epitomises everything this album stands for with it’s array of sounds and psychedelic jazz feel and looped vocals, it’s an astounding listen that could so easily be the soundtrack to an acid trip.

As I previously said, I didn’t go into this album with low expectations, nor did I expect the album to be an album of the year contender in my eyes. After several listens, I continue to be amazed and blown away by the sound Thundercat produces; it’s like nothing being produced by anyone in either the mainstream or niche genres of any kind. The Golden Age of the Apocalypse is a great album that deserves more attention than it will probably get, but that’s the way of the world. Oh yeah and starts with a sample of the theme song to Thundercats which is still pretty epic in that 80s cartoon way.

A Stream of the album can be found here on the Brainfeeder site. The album is out now.

 

 

Annie Clarke/St. Vincent has always been a favourite of mine; her distinct vocal styles and baroque pop stylings seem so unique and utterly beautiful that you’re often left wondering why she isn’t even more popular than she is. Her magnificent 2009 album “Actor” was made up of songs with mainly dark lyrics sang to a brilliant fuzzy and melodic music. It was an album that experimented sonically and was unafraid of taking the listener down different routes. With the apparent lack of worry about alienating the listener with this risk taking, it’s really no surprise that she’s closely associated to the ever changing Sufjan Stevens.

Two years after “Actor” was released, St. Vincent’s back next month with “Strange Mercy” which it appears will up the ante on it’s predecessor (R&B horns! More Moog! Beck!). A few weeks ago the first single off the album, Surgeon, was available to download to fans who tweeted #strangemercy before becoming readily available on the album’s webpage.

I must admit being apprehensive whenever it comes to hearing the first few new releases by my favourite acts. There’s always the chance that they may mislead you in a way to dampen your excitement for their next album by projecting an unexpected sound that may not be representative (Granted, this can also be a good thing as in the case of the last LCD Soundsystem album).   I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to hear the latest St. Vincent single because of this, but needless to say, I took the plunge and gave it a listen.

And it’s pretty much all I’ve listened to since.

Far more synth driven than most of the songs off of ‘Actor‘ (with the exception of Just the Same but Brand New), Surgeon is one of Clarke’s strongest singles yet. It’s intro alone is worthy of a degree of awe with multiple vocal tracks over a gentle synthetic backbone that simply wash over you, in the same vein as music from the chillwave genre. Clarke often has really strong intros with almost choral vocals sometimes thrown in there to compliment the aurally spectacular  musical arrangements she’s devised.

Her lyrics maintain their brilliance, with some very well hidden allusions to a summer of sexual promiscuity, with an opening line as ambiguous as “I spent the summer on my back“. Combined with the sultry vocal delivery we’re so used to by Clarke and swooning instrumentals (as well as a well paced song that gradually becomes increasingly more frantic and fragmented) and you’ve got one of St. Vincent’s funkiest and intriguing works that’s based all around intercourse. Who knew she wasn’t coy.

All things considered, the quality of this single bodes well for ‘Stange Mercy’ as it shows that not only has Annie Clarke’s music not diminished in quality, but also advanced even further than her previous works. Expect a fine third album from a woman who continues to improve, change her sound and surpass her contemporaries.

Strange Mercy is out September 12th (here’s hoping it gets the amount of press and publicity it deserves). Until then, enjoy the free mp3 from the album’s site and these creepy virals promoting it.

Seriously now, why the hell wouldn’t you get a free mp3 of a pretty great song?  Read More