Posted in Album of the Month, podcast

AOTM – October – Hot Chip: Freakout / Release

For anyone that’s ever seen me at a Hot Chip gig (yes, even that one) and just how excited I get by that band, it’s probably about as much of a surprise as hearing I picked Metronomy’s Small World for Episode 21. But however much Hot Chip’s 8th studio album, Freakout/Release, felt like an obvious pick for me, it’s not the slamdunk that it might seem. For starters, it presented me with a quandry for the podcast: I’m an unashamed Hot Chip nerd, a lover of the band since their first album in 2004, so how objective could I be and frame this as a discussion that gave the subject its due without letting personal feelings overbear it? Also, there were other choices in play, not least the amazing Cheat Codes from pod favourites Dangermouse and Black Thought. It’s such a dazzling album with all the vintage feels, oddball samples galore, and conscious, layered flow (not to mention some amazing guests) that it’s a 2022 Top 10 shoe-in. But does anyone want to listen to 4 guys agreeing how good something is for an hour? I wasn’t so sure.

So Hot Chip wasn’t just a lazy pick, and the more I listened, the more it raised a lot of questions that are relevant to my music DNA, and why we do the podcast: how we grow up with bands (and them with us), how artists develop over the years, how and why we connect with them and the effects on music of the inevitable march of time. After all, when I’ve listened to every one of the band’s albums dozens and dozens of times (and for this album, all 8 in one day, just for research purposes!) and seen them tour every one of them since The Warning, I am probably reasonably qualified to consider those questions. To me there’s been subtle but noticeable changes in tone and lyrics that bring me back to those queries each time. For me – if we’re putting it out there – there’s 3 ‘acts’ of Hot Chip: the spiky, jolting first two albums, then an almost impeccable run from Made In The Dark, via One Life Stand, to In Our Heads, and then further shift from Why Make Sense? to the current day. From oddball nerds (a press label as much as anything, and one they probably hate) to underground darlings to a British institution with a dedicated global following. All of this despite only one UK top 10 single (Ready For The Floor) and album (Made In the Dark). Enter their first new album in 3 years, do things feel different? It’s a cliché to say lots has changed since their previous album, A Bath Full Of Ecstacy, arrived, but lockdown and the pandemic has put an indelible mark on society, so it’s not a surprise to hear the band talk about its influence on Freakout/Release and how that made them strive to search for a sound that they wanted to play live.

I probably should admit there’s part of me that connected with the band back in the mid-00s as I saw them as not trying to be cool, just doing their thing, looking like a strange collection of ‘guys with synths’ and making some amazing music, but without any real ego. I was never (am never, will never be) one of the cool kids, a perennial fan of music, DJs, art, clubs, gigs, festivals that wanted to get on the inside but was always peering (metaphorically and literally, sometimes) over the fence at the action, trying to get behind the rope. Hot Chip were one of the first bands I’d seen that looked both totally normal but also really cool, but much more like me and people we knew. I doubt they liked the ‘nerd’ tag (who would?) but against all of that, managed to cultivate a furrow that was very much their own, musically and beyond. Yes, they’ve done themes and colourschemes for some tours and albums, but a lot they’ve done just by being themselves. And how can you not be cool by playing every festival out there, DJing in all the good clubs, and seemingly getting to do it your way throughout? It’s the dream, right? (and disclosure, I’ve meet a few of them in a musical and fan capacity, and guess what? They’re lovely, sound people, so do meet your heroes, at least sometimes).

So what do we know about the album? Like its predecessor, it’s an album where the Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Al Doyle, Felix Martin and Owen Clarke have allowed external producers into the inner sanctum, and like A Bath Full, it’s yielded interesting results that aren’t always visible at first glance. While Bath Full was lauded as positive statement on connection, joy and music’s ability to foster both of these things, (with the late Cassius and production wizard Phillipe Zdar‘s influence writ large and hailed by the band, alongside xx producer Rodiadh MacDonald) the new album feels, at first listens, as a bleaker affair. Where Bath Full wrapped up the listener in a cloud of positive warmth and gentle, existential questions, the backdrop to Freakout/Release’s creation seems to have tipped the band over into far a more introspective, fraught and anxious headspace (if the track titles were your first entry point, then you may baulk at ‘Down‘, ‘Broken‘, ‘Not Alone‘, ‘Guilty‘ and ‘The Evil That Men Do‘). But as with most of Hot Chip’s work, it’s never as binary as this, and while heartbreak preceded its recording – with long-time live addition Rob Smoughton’s near-death illness and Zdar’s passing – and global turmoil surrounded it, hearing the band talk about its making would bely the obvious assumptions that this is a bleak, lockdown album. It’s also interesting hearing Goddard and Taylor talk about the influence of live cover Sabotage over its making, something played out in both the rawer feel of some tracks and also the distorted, dry vocals used, which feels far out of the Hot Chip comfort zone.

Because while Goddard and Taylor have been open about how much the shadow of lockdown loomed over it, a two-pronged narrative emerged: the desire to make songs that they wanted to play in front of festival crowds, even if they didn’t know when that would happen, and a search for connection in music when isolation ruled our lives. Elemental stuff, and very much in tune with how I want to experience music (perhaps a big reason I have always chimed with their work). And on wading in, there are a few things that don’t feel like classic Hot Chip to me immediately: Down’s leaning closely on a sample – 1:42 into the Universal Togetherness Band’s More Than Enough – the isn’t unique (Why Make Sense’s Flutes is the obvious previous nod) to the band but having it on a lead single seems a departure when it’s so core to the song’s feel, which is as disco as they’ve ever got, and as full of Doyle’s guitar licks that it could be a different band to the likes of Shake A Fist’s jagged electronics (even though when you relisten, guitars come up a lot more than I remember across their catalogue). The title track also feels much more raw and messy than their polished, electronic pop sound, with the band passing the unfinished track through the brains of legendary duo Soulwax to get the right vibe. It’s a raucous, scuzzy, almost punky track, that seems very much at odds with the band’s sound, and, as it turns out, a real outlier. You’re left feeling it could’ve been so much more interesting to hear more of this, but would it dilute Hot Chip’s ethos so much they risk alienating the core of devoted fans that have been with them for so much of the journey? We’ll never know. But it’s a step into the unknown somewhat. And I like it.

There’s also a question about how much Goddard and Taylor’s hegemony has been loosened and how much solo and other band projects can and have influenced the band’s own output? Al Doyle’s ‘other band’ being LCD Soundsystem and the influence he’s now had on James Murphy’s outfit (writing a clutch of songs for their last album) has – to me – markedly led to his guitars and a ‘rockier’ sound come more into Hot Chip’s world in recent albums. When LCD split, Doyle and university friend Felix Martin formed New Build and scratched another musical itch. Taylor has released many keyboard and piano-based solo work and Goddard’s work as 2 Bears, and a solo album has solidified his own musical identity away from this outfit. Has a more egalitarian approach meant a richer tapestry for Hot Chip’s work, or diluted some of the magic that earlier albums found? Does the recording of Freakout/Release in Doyle’s new studio (‘Relax and Enjoy’) mean the band is more content to experiment or is that just a factor of being together for so long? This ‘third act’, from Why Make Sense certainly feels like something has changed. The question is where this leaves the band itself, and how those that buy the music feel about it.

So for this album, all isn’t quite fallen into place, for me. The problem perhaps with the programming of the album from here is that with second single Eleanor – a straight up PSB-style shimmering pop banger and earworm about love and loss – sandwiched between the two other ‘radio tracks’, it leaves the album with a challenge to maintain the momentum after 3 singles grab all the attention at the start. And perhaps this is where others have struggled with it, too. When I’ve dived in, I already know the 3 tracks off by heart so I either want to get past them to connect with the rest of the album, or when I have gone from track 1, it’s like a ‘before’ and ‘after’ between the opening stanza and the rest. It feels a particularly odd thing to do, and while it’d be reductive to wonder if there was a worry about the album’s staying power had led to this track order, I find it hard to entirely shake. And that’s a real shame, as there truly is a lot to like from Freakout/Release, but it’s hard to manoeuvre around this music ‘speed bump’ for a long while.

Broken’ is a beautiful song that talks about how to reach out and help someone, Taylor’s wistful vocals intertwining with the leads, and mined from real-life experience of feeling helpless at others’ suffering. It’s definitely a good example of where the band is: talking about emotion, heartache, wrapped up in lush, layered instrumentation. They’ve always done this heart-on-sleeve well, and it’s particularly well-twinned with Taylor’s vocals, but in recent albums, it’s more overt and none more so than this one. They seem ever more confident perhaps after years of doing this, to be upfront with such subject matter, even if it’s at odds with the tracks’ musical feel. This dissonance – to me – is brave, but often effective for the band (think ‘No God‘ on the previous album or ‘One Life Stand’). As a result, ‘Broken‘ isn’t a song that you’d feel would be in their early work, but there’s still a lineage back to the 80s synths that inspire them. With every album, there’s still nods to their touchstones: Prince, Kraftwerk, Robert Wyatt, Prefab Sprout or hip-hop and r’n’b from the 90s. It’s just that with maturity and age their sound is much more layered and complex than the austere, almost angular feel of Coming On Strong or The Warning. I have hugely enjoyed this progression (however subtle) but I also feel that some of that pure dancefloor energy has ebbed away as a result. But at 47, it’s not as big an issue as it may be for trying to hold the attention of the kids, coming up from behind.

Not Alone’ is a great example of Goddard and Taylor’s lyrics and vocals in motion together. Ever since they started making music together at school, there’s a certain alchemy that feels very much theirs. I can’t think of another band in the UK that employs two male vocals that operate mainly in falsetto or high ranges they way they do, and it’s one reason that – despite so many claiming others sound like them – they still sound so unique to me, inhabiting their own musical space so effectively over 20 years as others come and go around them. I get that it’s also a reason that some find them grating; if it’s not a style you can get on with, it’s going to be hard to love them (like I do, at least). It’s also another track that feels quite introspective and, well, sad. And perhaps this strain through much of the record is why it may be beautiful, and may envelop in the headphones as fantastically-constructed electronic pop music, but may ultimately not quite have the propulsive zip of previous albums.

Hard To Be Funky’ is a track definitely I wasn’t sure of at the outset: the lyrics jarred a bit and it’s ‘Alexis’ slow one’ (think White Wine and Fried Chicken, Slush, Look After Me, In The Privacy Of Our Love) but as you get past the pace, it’s an interesting question about the meaning of ‘funk’ – music that’s so core to what Hot Chip do, and that is so associated with sex and sleaze, and how this means so many different things to so many people. I also really like how Lou Hayter comes in as a point of difference, and it’s a collaboration that just works and brings something different. I always enjoy how any band opens up to this (look at how effective Porridge Radio’s appearance on Small World worked for Metronomy). ‘Time’ is about as ‘dancefloor’ as the album gets, which is – at least partly – a shame, but I’m glad it’s on the album. It does pick up the pace where the album starts to feel a bit out of gas. Similarly, its segue with ‘Miss The Bliss‘ is needed to keep this up. It’s actually a really lyrically simple track that speaks to supporting others – again borne out of the solitude of lockdown – and feels much closer to Goddard’s own solo work than anything else on the album, even featuring Goddard’s brother and various family members in the group for the choral vocal. It’s an uplifting and sweetly personal moment.

Perhaps I can’t entirely get on board with the programming – and am unable to think exactly how I’d change it – but I do salute individual tracks. ‘The Evil That Men Do‘ is another outlier for Hot Chip: an overtly ‘political’ song about toxic masculinity and male privilege that starts as a light call-response between Alexis and Joe ‘beg for forgiveness / bear witness / be humble‘, before opening up with piano and a lovely bridge that drops into Cadence Weapon’s flow, which is another welcome collaboration. A nod back to Posdnous’ much loved verse (by me, at least) on Love Is The Future‘, from Why Make Sense? With a band that’s so steeped in hip-hop as influences it’s great to see it literally land on an album, and makes me wish there was more of it in their catalogue. It’s also another example of really dry, effected vocals (with the title track) where it’s an attempt to strip back the angelic tones of Taylor past the halfway mark as the track almost splits in two as Cadence’s flow leaps in. The contrast is so strong it’s almost jolting, but it really works for me.

The album closes with two of the stronger tracks: ‘Guilty‘, which feels like a live classic already. It leapt out on first listen and still sticks out. Musing on the difference between dream and waking consciousness, it’s playful and fun lyrically ‘when you see a finish line / does it end up your nose‘? There’s a real 80s funk feel to this, and it carries into the uplifting closer, ‘Out Of My Depth‘. Hot Chip do have a thing for statement closing tracks (Why Make Sense, or Bath Full’s No God, not to mention One Life Stand’s Take It In) and it’s an attempt to perhaps take the darker subject matter of Freakout and land on a more hopeful note, that sadness and emotion is not to be avoided but you can come out the other side intact: “Then I’m in my darkest room / But I’m careful not to enjoy it / All too much, but as I leave / It will be helpful to have endured it.” In many ways it’s one of the biggest nods to this being a far more ‘grown up’ album than their early work, and god knows we love ‘grown up pop’ ™.

So what to make of it this against their canon and – more importantly – the rest of music in 2022? It’s left me feeling slightly adrift of where I’d expect to be. Is this the first album I haven’t fallen for yet from the band? Will I eventually do that? Does every band have a finite shelf life and is this where we are finally heading here? Locking into the themes of how the band themselves can keep making music that has meaning to them – and to us – it genuinely feels strange not to have fallen for a Hot Chip album after a few listens for the first time. Even uncomfortable. I question myself, as much as I do the music. Does it say more about me or the band? Is this just a really good album but sits in comparison to other fresher, more inventive albums this year? It can’t hold a candle to Steve Lacey or Joy Crookes, or the power of Kendrick? But does that matter? Doesn’t it just really matter if it connects and I like it? And life life in general, am I just overthinking it?

For me, music has always been about feelings and connection. Every album before this from the band has had tracks that I feel deeply about. Some of them for reasons I can’t even put my finger on. Brothers is a track I can’t help but well up when I listen to. Written by Joe about this brother, I can’t obviously help but reference my own twin and how much he means to me. Or Night And Day’s little ‘Iknowyou’rethinkingaboutme’ line makes me want to jump out of my chair (and their videos? I could write a whole other blog about their genius). Or Let Me Be Him (from In Our Heads) chokes me up. And Melody Of Love cannot fail to moisten my eyes. Forget logic, it just subconsciously works. I cannot tell you how and it does not matter. Music is about connection for me, so to listen to Freakout/Release and think ‘this is lovely’ for a good chunk of it, doesn’t quite feel enough.

And there’s another, bigger, more important factor at play here: the band is older, lives have changed, families and other responsibilities, as for all of us, emerge. How much of that feeds into the music directly and how much of it is osmosis? It must surely permeate. None of us are in clubs like we used to be, and yet I miss their really big dancefloor bangers (as I also understand that it’d be odd for nothing to change). Think One Life Stand, or Hold On, or perhaps Shake A Fist, No Fit State or Huarache Lights. And I don’t really see that vibe here, for all the musical lushness and inventiveness. Again, does that matter? I still love dance music, and clubs – even if I’m rarely in them – and so having a Hot Chip album that doesn’t quite bang as much as others feels, well, sad. But perhaps it’s another facet of developing as a band, getting older, shifting subtly into areas that feel more removed from where you were ten years ago. Who am I to tell the band it’s not their right to do that, but is there a point where it starts to depart from me, personally? Because I know that even if this album never quite gives me the feels I’ve had before, I know when I see them live, it’ll be as good as it’s ever been with all their catalogue behind them. Because, they are a fantastic live band. It’s often overlooked but to me they are one of the best live bands around, an expanded 7 piece (with Smoughton and drummer Leo Taylor) that can recreate anything from the studio with added vigour and snap on tour. Where will I be? Down the front, singing, shouting, and crying, and I’d never have it any other way.

I worried when I first heard this album and read the press it hit me that perhaps this could be their last album? Maybe it was a reaction to some of the lyrics “Music used to be escape / Now I can’t escape it” (on the title track) and talk of the difficulty that surrounded making it, and perhaps leapt unguardedly to the wrong conclusion, because these things are never to be taken as read, as Taylor has talked about this time around. I don’t think that’s the case any more (especially given their packed touring schedule) and I sincerely hope they are around for a long time yet, but it’s hard not to worry about myself and my taste here as much as the band’s output and wonder where this will all end up. Because I’ve fallen in and out of love with bands before, but this is the first time my adult life coincided with a band I’ve loved from the start (I was ‘only’ 29 when The Warning arrived, and it’s been almost 20 years now since) where I’ve still never seen that desire wane. When that’s finally loomed, even if it’s not how it’ll play out, it shakes you and who you are.

So while Freakout/Release may not have left the mark on me of some of the other Hot Chip albums of the past, I’ve come to appreciate it far more lately than I’d first expected. It’s also made me think about how our relationships with bands and their music evolves, and perhaps accept that nothing lasts forever. That if things do change, I’ll always have a huge catalogue of tracks to pick from and revel in that still hold their lustre to me. I don’t get even half the number of albums I love from this band with many others, so it’s also given me some welcome perspective about great it is to love a band for as long as this. And that’s why I’m going to take the album at face value, enjoy it for what it is, stay in the moment for as long as I can, and look forward to the day when I see them live on their next tour. I’ve been lucky to have them around.

Hot Chip – Freakout/Release
Posted in Album of the Month, podcast

Podcast Episode 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights

Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

After a little summer break we're back! We get deep into our Album of the Month, Steve Lacy's Gemini Rights in Part 1. We dig a little deeper than most pods and make sure we've spent LOADS of time living with the album.  In Part 2 we have one of the best 'Spin It or Bin It' that I can remember – we each bring a track and ask each other 'Spin It or Bin It?'Part 1: Album of the Month – Steve Lacy's 'Gemini Rights'It's David's choice this month and he chooses the intriguing 'Gemini Rights'. Its a tight, punchy album which gave us loads to discuss: Tik Tok, the tension between joyous music and often bitter lyrics, the influence of gender and sexuality on this album and the age of massive change that we're living in.The chat references loads of music and we highly recommend that you check out the following if you're not familiar already;Raphael Sadiq's 'Instant Vintage'   Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange'Prince's 'Purple Rain'… and my big shout out – Serpentwithfeet's 'Deacon'Part 2: Spin It or Bin It – New Music (tracks from June 2022 onwards)In Part 2 we get into one of the best Spin It or Bin It? that we've had. We each bring a track that meets a different brief every month. This month is simple – 'New Music'. We then ask each other the binary question 'Spin It or Bin It?' and then choose a track of the month from the 4. Here's our choices … Guy's choice is Romare's 'Quiet Corners of My Mind'Nolan's choice is Danger Mouse and Black Thought's 'The Darkest Part'Joey's choice is Ela Minus and DJ Python's 'Parajos en Verano'David's choice is Sudan Archive's 'NBPQ (Topless)'Next MonthGuy will be running the show and hosting the discussion on Hot Chip's 'Freakout Release'. Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that's not enough for you then there's 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We'd love to hear what you think. 
  1. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights
  2. Ep 24 – Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
  3. Ep. 23 – Hurray For The Riff Raff – Life on Earth
  4. Ep 22 – Big Thief – Dragon, New Warm Mountain …
  5. Ep 21 – Metronomy – Small World

After a little summer break we’re back! We get deep into our Album of the Month, Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights in Part 1. We dig a little deeper than most pods and make sure we’ve spent LOADS of time living with the album.  In Part 2 we have one of the best ‘Spin It or Bin It’ that I can remember – we each bring a track and ask each other ‘Spin It or Bin It?’

Part 1: Album of the Month – Steve Lacy’s ‘Gemini Rights’

It’s David’s choice this month and he chooses the intriguing ‘Gemini Rights’. Its a tight, punchy album but gives us loads to discuss Tik Tok, the tension between joyous music and often bitter lyrics, the influence of gender and sexuality on this album and the age of massive change that we’re in.

The chat references loads of music and we highly recommend that you check out the following if you’re not familiar already;

Part 2: Spin It or Bin It – New Music (tracks from June 2022 onwards)

In Part 2 we get into one of the best Spin It or Bin It? that we’ve had. We each bring a track that meets a different brief every month. This month is simple – ‘New Music’. We then ask each other the binary question ‘Spin It or Bin It?’ and then choose a track of the month from the 4. Here’s our choices …

  1.  Guy’s choice is Romare’s ‘Quiet Corners of My Mind’
  2. Nolan’s choice is Danger Mouse and Black Thought’s ‘The Darkest Part’
  3. Joey’s choice is Ela Minus and DJ Python’s ‘Parajos en Verano’
  4. David’s choice is Sudan Archive’s ‘NBPQ (Topless)’

Next Month

Guy will be running the show and hosting the discussion on Hot Chip’s ‘Freakout Release’.

Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;

If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that’s not enough for you then there’s 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We’d love to hear what you think. 

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, New Tunes

SEPTEMBER: Gemini Rights – Steve Lacy

There are certain genres of music that I just can’t get enough of – Girl Groups of the 60s, 70s folk rock, Noughties Scandi electro pop, Native Tongues hip hop, basically anything French. Bring me more of any of these, and I’ll lap it up. And right up there with my absolute fave genres is what I’d call wonky R&B. It’s definitely R&B but it’s got a little kink in there – I’m talking everything from Miguel to Greentea Peng to Lucy Pearl to Solange to – yes, of course – Frank Ocean.

Some of those artists you could almost call soul music, and of course the line between soul and R&B has always been a difficult one to draw. But what you can hear is where that wonky R&B draws its inspiration. We’re talking 70s Curtis Mayfield at his most rootsy-ish, bit of Sly & The Family Stone, but perhaps the cornerstone of these influences is early 70s Stevie Wonder – and in particular, that incredible trilogy of albums that ran Talking Book – Innervisions – Fulfilingness First Finale.

What made those albums so groundbreaking wasn’t just the Moog synths, or Stevie’s ability to push the sound of soul music forward. It was also that they were deeply musical and driven as much by melody as they were by grooves. They expanded the language of soul/R&B and freed it up in such a profound way that they essentially became the template for so many artists who followed. Just like the shadow The Beatles have cast over rock since they recorded, I think Stevie did the same for R&B. Prince, surely the greatest innovator that followed Stevie, was clearly hugely inspired by that template – and he was just as comfortable singing an out and out pop song (Raspberry Beret) or a slow soul jam (If I Was Your Girlfriend) as he was writing a groove (Get Off).

I am SUCH a sucker for music influenced by these artists – that mixture of soul and groove and melody but also a bit of experimentation and oddness, just like Prince and Stevie had, is absolute catnip to me. To say that this album falls right into the centre of that universe is possibly even an understatement. If someone could have created an album for me, it would be this one. So I’m aware that my response is a personal one – well of course it is, all our responses are – but I don’t necessarily expect everyone to feel the same as I do!

So. Steve Lacy. Not a rock star name, certainly not an R&B name! I really liked The Internet, particularly their album Hive Mind. Sprouting out of the pretty out there Odd Future collective, they did a nice line in a forward thinking R&B jams, that, coupled with their sexually liberated/queer vibe, made them feel fresh and interesting. Steve joined the band half way through their life (they’re still going, but haven’t put out a record since 2018), and immediately added a missing layer to their sound. He then made a solo album, Apollo XXI in 2019 that I admired more than I liked. I found it frustrating – he was exactly the kind of artist I liked, and I willed myself to enjoy it, but there was something missing. You ever done that? You know the artist is capable of making something you’ll love, but somehow they haven’t delivered.

In all honesty, I wasn’t loving the look of many of the new releases when it came to this month, and then I noticed Steve Lacy had a new album out. And then I heard Bad Habit. And I was like – OK, THIS is the music I was hoping you’d make, Steve.

But nothing prepared me for how much I was going to LOOOOOOVE this record. What is that I find so beguiling about it?

  • Massive genre hopping? TICK
  • Sunny melodies mixed with angsty lyrics? TICK
  • Sexually ambiguous AF? TICK
  • Several genuine bangers? TICK

Opener STATIC is a perfect intro to the album – lyrically odd and personal, a weird mix of yearning, resentful and self-loathing (pretty much the album’s themes in a nutshell), before it ends with this beautiful cascading melody and incredible (5? 6?) part harmonies.

And then – oh boy – then the album gets going proper, and for me, Track 2 – 6 are the best sequence of songs I have heard on an album this year and better than most in any year. HELMET is Stevie meets Prince funky, with a giant slice of emotional angst thrown in. MERCURY, maybe my favourite song on the album, is a delicate Bossa Nova number with incredible harmonies, and a beautiful melody. I’ve probably listened to it 50 times already! BUTTONS is a Prince style slow jam with falsetto and lyrics of yearning and regret. BAD HABIT is a fucking slow banger with a refrain that will stick in your head for weeks.

(A sidebar: This got me thinking about great sequences of tracks and here’s 3 that immediately sprang to mind:

  • Tracks 2 – 6 (Slip Away – Wreath on Perfume Genius’s No Shape
  • Tracks 3 – 6 (Revival to Desire Lines) on Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest
  • The Opening 3 tracks of Mos Def’s The Ecstatic
  • 2 – 5 (Lost Ones to Doo Wop) on Lauren Hill’s the Miseducation...

A good discussion for a show sometime?)

Brother Joey has already suggested that he thinks the album falls off after this (though he also admits he hasn’t quite had time to connect with it yet). I’m not on board with this. BROTHER CODY is a strange, ethereal tune but I love it as a giant leftfield turn, full of gay desire and 80s synths. But my god, I love AMBER so much – I initially dismissed it as a bit of a filler, but it’s now completely won me over, not least that incredible moment where it moves from solo ballad to an entire choir of voices coming in. It reminds me of Frank Ocean at the absolute top of his game. It literally gives me goosebumps every time I listen. Give it some time and I hope it’ll do the same for you.

Then we’ve got another giant album highlight, SUNSHINE, a gorgeous sunny slab of delight, love Foushee’s voice on this, and the whole dreamy vibe.

Finally, we end GIVE YOU MY WORLD, in which Steve plays out his Prince obsession in a pure slow jam vibe. How much you dig this will depend on how much you like Prince style slow jams, but for me, what better way to close the album?

And then it’s over. 35 mins. That’s another big plus. What a statement and what a tight, lean way to express it. 35 mins, and then I go back to the beginning and press play again.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is currently my album of the year, and I’d be astonished if anything tops it. I doubt you’ll feel quite the same as me, but I hope this little gem of an album has got under your skin….

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, podcast, Tracks of the Month

Podcast Episode 24 – Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

After a little summer break we're back! We get deep into our Album of the Month, Steve Lacy's Gemini Rights in Part 1. We dig a little deeper than most pods and make sure we've spent LOADS of time living with the album.  In Part 2 we have one of the best 'Spin It or Bin It' that I can remember – we each bring a track and ask each other 'Spin It or Bin It?'Part 1: Album of the Month – Steve Lacy's 'Gemini Rights'It's David's choice this month and he chooses the intriguing 'Gemini Rights'. Its a tight, punchy album which gave us loads to discuss: Tik Tok, the tension between joyous music and often bitter lyrics, the influence of gender and sexuality on this album and the age of massive change that we're living in.The chat references loads of music and we highly recommend that you check out the following if you're not familiar already;Raphael Sadiq's 'Instant Vintage'   Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange'Prince's 'Purple Rain'… and my big shout out – Serpentwithfeet's 'Deacon'Part 2: Spin It or Bin It – New Music (tracks from June 2022 onwards)In Part 2 we get into one of the best Spin It or Bin It? that we've had. We each bring a track that meets a different brief every month. This month is simple – 'New Music'. We then ask each other the binary question 'Spin It or Bin It?' and then choose a track of the month from the 4. Here's our choices … Guy's choice is Romare's 'Quiet Corners of My Mind'Nolan's choice is Danger Mouse and Black Thought's 'The Darkest Part'Joey's choice is Ela Minus and DJ Python's 'Parajos en Verano'David's choice is Sudan Archive's 'NBPQ (Topless)'Next MonthGuy will be running the show and hosting the discussion on Hot Chip's 'Freakout Release'. Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that's not enough for you then there's 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We'd love to hear what you think. 
  1. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights
  2. Ep 24 – Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
  3. Ep. 23 – Hurray For The Riff Raff – Life on Earth
  4. Ep 22 – Big Thief – Dragon, New Warm Mountain …
  5. Ep 21 – Metronomy – Small World

Our last Album of the Month (AOTM) was the beautiful ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff. This month the  This Is Not Happening crew tackle Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’  head on! We get stuck right into this challenging album in Part 1 of the pod. In Part 2, we play ‘Spin It or Bin It?’ where we judge the tracks that we’ve chosen for this month’s theme.

Part 1 – Album of the Month

This month it’s Nolan’s choice, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ . We discuss the album in length, favourite tracks and their impact on us and other music fans and if there is a missing track from this album. 

We want you to have access to great conversations about great music – here are some links to some of the best content on this album that we’ve consumed;

  • A great ‘explainer’ article from Ambrosia for Heads  – read here
  • NYT’s Popcast Podcast Episode (this one is great for a Kendrick Sceptic view) – listen here
  • Great Tempo Tribe Podcast conversation – listen here
  • A shorter listen at 22 mins – the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast – listen here

This was one of our toughest albums to think and to talk about … but we hope you enjoy it.

Part 2 – Spin it or Bin It

In the second part of this episode we get stuck into 4 tracks representing this months theme – ‘LA Tracks’ – or favourite tracks from LA based artists. We all pick a track,  introduce our track and ask the others the painfully binary critical question; ‘spin it’ or ‘bin it?’ 

We try not to go super-obvious on our track selections each month … this is what we chose to represent LA;

  1. Joey’s track selection is – ‘Chum’ by Earl Sweatshirt
  2. David’s track selection is – ‘Twelve Thirty’ by The Mamas and the Papas
  3. Nolan’s track selection is – ‘Runners’ by Evidence ft. Defari
  4. Guy’s track selection is – ’86’ by Truncate

Next Month

Episode #25 will be with you soon – Guy will be guiding us through ‘We’ by Arcade Fire one of is favourite artists ever … what could go wrong? Have a listen to the album and  share some thoughts with us on the blog or on our Insta.

Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;

If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that’s not enough for you then there’s 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We’d love to see what you think. 

Posted in Album of the Month

June AOTM: Arcade Fire – We

Sometimes when I agonise over choices for albums I try and deliberately pick something out of my comfort zone. Try Yves Tumor (less memorable) or Genesis Owusu (a knockout). Other times I regress to the mean, such as realising I could only pick Metronomy when Small World came around, even if I knew its reception with the group would be mixed. After that pick divided opinion, I had no obvious picks until mid-March when, out of nowhere a new Arcade Fire single dropped. Of course, this wasn’t quite the surprise: the band had been talking about a new album since 2020, but it did begin to feel like many of my favourite bands had teamed up to make 2022 the year all their new music arrived. Not just Metronomy or these guys: Hot Chip released a new single ahead of a long-awaited follow-up to Bathful of Ecstasy this summer. All I need now was an LCD and Radiohead LP (well, we had The Smile) and I had the full set. 

But when I clicked on ‘The Lightning I / II’ to listen, it was with trepidation. Because Arcade Fire’s last album was… well…. Not very good. This was a band I’ve loved since Funeral arrived to such a frenzy in (my god) 2004. Indie darlings that made music with not just two guitars, a drum kit and a bass, but violins, piano, keys, accordions, strange percussion, organs, and yes, the famous hurdy gurdy. When that was distinctly not cool. Yet, it worked. An American/Canadian collective, the band made sprawling albums that didn’t really have singles – staggeringly, only Rebellion (Lies) from back in 2004 made it into the UK top 20, and none impacted even in their own country – but were big, thematic statements that worked as a whole, from Funeral’s ramshackle tales of childhood and rural life, through Neon Bible’s dystopian statement on capitalism, through the Suburbs’ Grammy-winning take on middle American ennui.

Their work with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy divided opinion, but I loved Reflektor’s shimmering dance-pop-rock and up to that point every single album they made topped the half a million mark in sales, making them out as one of the few crossover bands that still made proper albums, still did what they wanted and yet headlined everywhere from Glastonbury to Lollapalooza (and who I’ve been lucky enough to see a handful of times myself). They are an incredible live band. One – for me – that of the modern era you have to see because there are so many of them, doing so many great things, and there’s real artifice and immersion in their live experience. I’m already excited about adding Manchester to gigs at the Roundhouse, Hyde Park, The o2, Victoria Park and Sonar.

All of this on an indie label – Merge (home to Caribou’s Andorra, and other indie darlings and famed guitar bands such as Waxahatchee, Dinosaur Junior, Tracey Thorn, Camera Obscura, Eleanor Friederberger, Ibibio Sound Machine, Bob Mould and Lambchop) through much of that career staked them out as a group that, despite being catapulted into stadiums, retained that grounded, principled, inventive core that still hung together, even as they worked with Bowie and released music produced by James Murphy. It was just…. Things really did go a bit south. In 2017 they decamped to Columbia’s major label musical and released Everything Now, a (supposedly) bold statement on consumer culture and the internet. The problem was, where previous work had confidently dealt with addressing broad brush themes such as capitalism and wealth, rural communities, suburban life and then crossed over the concepts with amazing, crowd-swelling music that somehow felt personal but celebrated arena-sized singalongs, this was as close to a huge band rolling a dud as I can remember. Everything Now was a big, ham-fisted misstep that scraped past half previous sales. And I say this as someone who absolutely adores this band. I can recall only a few songs from that album, and it has aged like iceberg lettuce alongside the timeless feel to the likes of Wake Up, (AntiChrist Television Blues), The Suburbs, Sprawl II, Afterlife, Keep The Car Running, Rebellion (Lies) and Here Comes The Night Time. Sure, tracks like Electric Blue and Put Your Money on Me had all the melodies, but their sentiment was empty and the connection the band seemed to be able to hypnotically form with their listener was mostly absent. The less said about the likes of Infinite Content or Chemistry, the better. Perhaps, for once, they overdid their promo campaign, with its po-faced, repetitive message. We’ll never know how much pressure they truly felt making this album, or where, perhaps the pressure of major label living pushed them, but into their 40s, it felt like a bit of an event horizon. 

So where does We stack up in their canon? The singles The Lightning I / II and Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) certainly felt like a pronounced step back to the pre-Reflektor sound (and for all that I loved that album, many fans did not). The former’s piano and acoustic / synth lead over heartfelt lyrics “We can make it / If you don’t quit on me / I won’t quit on you” with songwriting partners, husband and wife, and lifeblood of the band (now Win’s brother Will has recently left), Win Butler and Regine Chassange combining as of old, tugging at those heartstrings and staring into each others’ souls before the song changes up into a new gear, evoking Funeral as much as anything. And Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) finding Butler in tender mood, singing to his child, and feeling immediately personal in a way that much of the last two albums weren’t. I fell in love with these tasters, and had such high hopes. But I also worried this may be ‘the Small World’ effect though, with two great singles and an album that was markedly different to that first look – though of course I loved that record – and left many fans somewhat deflated. 

First impressions? Mixed. Alongside the much more honed 10-song, 40 minute album that felt a subtle acknowledgement of their recent over-long and sprawling efforts, this was a far tighter, more focused record. No surprise given they had Radiohead producer/god Nigel Godrich in charge. But while the music was immediately fantastic, its two-side, earnest concept perhaps felt the band hasn’t quite rid itself of the need to make some high statement. Each album now seemed to have a ‘theme’, an ‘outfit’ and while part of me salutes the art-rock sensibilities of a band that wants their music to have meaning, and the balls to wrap it up in statements about the world, life and humanity, it works best when it’s subtle and not written in ten foot high letters with accompanying shiny text. The two sides ‘I’ and ‘We’ and some fairly clumsy track titles – ‘Age of Anxiety’ is very much what we’re living in but do we need to have a song title to emphasise it? – and some equally clunky lyrics – it’s taken me a long time to not wince when ‘Unsubscribe’ (in End of the Empire IV), and you wonder if a lot of the recent criticism of the band would have been softened if their method was slightly less overt. Because they are (in my opinion) earnest, heartfelt people, who care, and are not embarrassed to say it – their often unpublicised charity work in particular sets them out from a lot of contemporaries – and their songs are all around connection to each other and the world, and work best when it’s intertwined with the music and not stamped on the front before you press play.

The good news is, the more you listen to We, the more this fades into the background, and a really good, uplifting album emerges from the bold pronouncements. I’ve been listening to this for weeks on end and it’s an absolute joy to have in my life. I’m aware I may be partly or largely alone here, but I also say – like any of our AOTMs – this needs time and dedication to get the rewards. Because this is a band that is all about connection and when they are at their best they feel like you’re connected with them, their music, and each other. As an example, I still have a real visceral connection and reaction to the lyrics in The Suburbs, that only amplified when I became a dad: “So can you understand / That I want a daughter while I’m still young? / I want to hold her hand
And show her some beauty before this damage is done / But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask / Then send me a son.”
And in their best moments, they make you feel like their songs are written for you. It’s how I feel with so many great songs, and with many of the band’s previous best, from Reflektor, Sprawl II, Intervention, Wasted Hours, and so many more. These are songs that evoke primal emotions in me, and that’s what I search for in music, and why I’ve loved Arcade Fire’s music for the best part of two decades. You can’t manufacture that feeling (yes, the feels) and for them it’s there, and has always been there.

There are so many moments of this on the album of me. And even though it’s got faults, my overriding feeling is joy and release when I lock the headphones in and leave the rest of the world behind for 40 minutes. I have had a hard time of late, and this album has been a real solace for me. Age of Anxiety has…. well, it’s a good opener but the opening piano chords link irreparably to another song and band I can’t now shake and that’s put a dampener on it a little for me (and apparently has Father John Misty ‘on handclaps’). I’ll let others see if they pick this out the way I have. But while it’s a little obvious lyrically, what we get with We is that overriding ability for Arcade Fire to write great tunes. There are hooks all over the place here (as @misterstory might say) and when the drums kick in and the energy goes up a notch, I just can’t help but we drawn in. Rabbit Hole is an unexpected banger, full of nods to Bowie (‘Plastic Soul… yeah’) and shows some of the evolution of the band in recent albums to embrace synths as well as guitars and accordions. It really does it for me, like Sprawl II on a great big pill and some strobes. End of the Empire, while opining witheringly but delicately on the ‘fall’ of the United States, is such a great example of the band’s skill, and how they start slow with mournful piano and then just uplift more and more, and there’s a real ‘Suburbs’ feel on this. And its second part, once you get over ‘the unsubscribe thing’ it’s a really beautiful song. There’s a cosmic feel to some of this, perhaps a concoction of Godrich’s work with Radiohead and a hangover from some of their best work with Murphy.

But it’s on the second side (‘We’) that the album really elevates, with The Lightning I and II, and Unconditional I and II, a pair of pairs (if you will) that show the band at their best, and most personal. Lookout Kid is a track I fell in love with at the start, and it’s now a song my daughter loves and asks me to put on. So it’s an added personal connection, but it’s how Arcade Fire’s alchemy works too, somehow seeming to have written songs directly for you and that resonate with what you are feeling. As a father with a young daughter, it feels so aligned with so much of my emotions and brings tears to my eyes every time I listen. That is all you can want from music, after all. Part II surprisingly brings Peter Gabriel into the mix and it really works. It’s a rousing end to the album, which has a soft and glowing coda in We, with its simple arrangement and ability to slow us down and signal the album is over. Musically, it ticks so many of my loves for the band, but I know it’s only how I feel.

The other intriguing narrative here – and one we will probably touch on in the podcast – is, over the course of their music career, that well-trodden path from small-town gigs to stadium rock, and how that affects a band and their output, and how that changes how they see themselves and we look back at them. You can’t be the same people – even if you are married to the other singer and writer of the band – over 20 years, 6 albums, and an arc from small-town band to global rock stadium superstars, fighting to retain as much of what made you that fascinating proposition in the first place. I can’t think of many bands that have what they had back when, or that have currently progressed through this curve like Arcade Fire have. I’m willing to fight for this, too. They have been at times world-beating, and at others, seemingly off course and unsure of themselves. How do you write songs about your ‘Neighbourhood’ when you don’t live there any more? You can’t, of course, but I think they’ve maintained a lot of their character and style – despite many missteps – and We gets them back towards where so many want them to be. Of course, we don’t get to dictate where a band goes, or what music they make, but there’s something vital about being with them on that journey as they grow and change with us. It’s no coincidence that so many of my favourite bands of the last 20 years – Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, Metronomy – are around my age or so and I’ve taken that same journey with all of them. It’s what welds us to these artists, that connection, feeling part of their story and their own arc and changing with them.

It’s why I love this band, and why I always will.

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, podcast, Tracks of the Month

Podcast Episode 23 – Hurray for the Riff Raff – Life on Earth

Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

After a little summer break we're back! We get deep into our Album of the Month, Steve Lacy's Gemini Rights in Part 1. We dig a little deeper than most pods and make sure we've spent LOADS of time living with the album.  In Part 2 we have one of the best 'Spin It or Bin It' that I can remember – we each bring a track and ask each other 'Spin It or Bin It?'Part 1: Album of the Month – Steve Lacy's 'Gemini Rights'It's David's choice this month and he chooses the intriguing 'Gemini Rights'. Its a tight, punchy album which gave us loads to discuss: Tik Tok, the tension between joyous music and often bitter lyrics, the influence of gender and sexuality on this album and the age of massive change that we're living in.The chat references loads of music and we highly recommend that you check out the following if you're not familiar already;Raphael Sadiq's 'Instant Vintage'   Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange'Prince's 'Purple Rain'… and my big shout out – Serpentwithfeet's 'Deacon'Part 2: Spin It or Bin It – New Music (tracks from June 2022 onwards)In Part 2 we get into one of the best Spin It or Bin It? that we've had. We each bring a track that meets a different brief every month. This month is simple – 'New Music'. We then ask each other the binary question 'Spin It or Bin It?' and then choose a track of the month from the 4. Here's our choices … Guy's choice is Romare's 'Quiet Corners of My Mind'Nolan's choice is Danger Mouse and Black Thought's 'The Darkest Part'Joey's choice is Ela Minus and DJ Python's 'Parajos en Verano'David's choice is Sudan Archive's 'NBPQ (Topless)'Next MonthGuy will be running the show and hosting the discussion on Hot Chip's 'Freakout Release'. Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that's not enough for you then there's 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We'd love to hear what you think. 
  1. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights
  2. Ep 24 – Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
  3. Ep. 23 – Hurray For The Riff Raff – Life on Earth
  4. Ep 22 – Big Thief – Dragon, New Warm Mountain …
  5. Ep 21 – Metronomy – Small World

Last month we shared our thoughts on ‘Dragon New Mountain I Believe In You’ by Big Thief.  This month This Is Not Happening stays in the broad genre of ‘Indie’ with Hurray for The Riff Raff’s ‘Life on Earth’ which we get into a deep discussion about in Part 1. In Part 2, we play ‘Spin It or Bin It?’ where we judge the tracks that we’ve chosen for this month’s theme.

Part 1 – Album of the Month

This month it’s Joseph’s choice, ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff. We discuss the album in length, favourite tracks, what other artists’s energy we can hear in this music … and what has become the killer question for us; ‘is the production engaging or disengaging ?’ Big scenes on this pod guys!

There’s some great bits to link you to this month too;

In the second part of this episode we get stuck into 4 tracks representing this months theme – ‘Minimalist Grooves’. We all pick a track,  introduce our track and ask the others the painfully binary critical question; ‘spin it’ or ‘bin it?’ 

After last month’s Spin it or Bin It ‘fiasco’, this month is a little calmer and another great chat. It’s a bit more of a love-in than last months with lots of ‘Spin Its’ but a couple of ‘Bin Its’ in there too.

  1. Nolan’s track selection is – ‘In White Rooms’ by Booka Shade
  2. Joey’s track selection is – ‘Dance’ by ESG
  3. David’s track selection is – ‘Cranes in the Sky’ by Solange
  4. Guy’s track selection is – ‘Weak Become Heroes’ by The Streets

Next Month

Episode #24 will be with you soon – Nolan will be guiding us through Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers by Kendrick Lamar and WOW, there’s a lot to talk about there! Have a listen and  share some thoughts with us on the blog or on our Insta. Its hard not to have an opinion on this one.

Posted in Album of the Month, New Albums, podcast

May Album of the Month: Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

For May I was dead set on Pusha T’s “it’s Almost Dry’. It’s pretty impressive and has met all of my expectations. It’s perhaps my favourite album of 2022 thus far. All the stars were aligned, until Kendrick Lamar announced he was releasing new material in mid May after a 5 year hiatus. Sorry Pusha, sometime you need to make a sacrifice and this was an easy decision. 

Before we get into the new album, I think we need to remind ourselves how impactful he is. You would be hard pressed to have missed the evolution of Kendrick Lamar over the last 12 years. Through ’Section.80’, ‘good kid, M.A.D.D. city’, ’To Pimp a Butterfly’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘DAMN’ not to mention a plethora of guest appearances and film soundtrack anthems he’s created a vast catalogue with something for everyone it seems. 

From early 2010 he has been surrounded by hype. Back then, backed by Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q (with their Black Hippy supergroup), they started making serious waves with their unique West Coast sound. When Kendrick released Section.80 he had my attention straight away. ‘HiiiPower’ is still one of my favourite songs. Funny enough he reminds me a bit of Pusha T on that track and a few others on the album with his flow. It was only a matter of time until he found himself on a major, and Dr Dre’s Aftermath (through TDE Artists) was a natural home. Differing from other Aftermath artists, Lamar blazed his own trail without the ever present cross pollination of Aftermath artists that we’ve come accustomed to throughout their catalogue. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ pushed Kendrick into the forefront of not just hip hop but the music industry. ‘Swimming Pools’ became a summer anthem, ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ was a radio hit and ‘m.A.A.d city’ set foundations in hip hop that Kendrick was a serious contender as an MC. 

Kendrick teased us with his fierce flow in 2014 with a verse on ‘It’s On Again’ with Alecia Keys from the Spiderman soundtrack. Little did we know that that taster was nothing like what he was working on. He was about to move the nets. When Kendrick released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in 2015, it felt like he flipped music on its head. Was it hip hop, or was it a jazz album? It was the most creative album that broke the main stream in recent times and showed the world the layers that Kendrick was able to achieve. Not only musically, but also as a performance artist as he took the presentation of his live show to what felt like uncharted territory for a hip hop artist. The album wasn’t without faults. I still find it his least approachable album. Though it gained acclaim and opened him up to a new audience, it was a far step from his first album. The surprise release of Untitled brought many Kendrick fans back into the fold. We all got it, he still wanted to make the music that we loved, but the tracks on Untitled didn’t fit into what he was trying to do on Pimp a Butterfly. An album of rejected songs that were miles ahead of most albums… sort of insane, and very cool. 

By the time DAMN was released in 2017 Kendrick was an established artist that seemed to have found this nonchalant confidence that made the album arguably his best to date. By that point he had won Grammy’s, the Pulitzer Prize, and almost every other music related award. 

So his new album, where do you start? Well he’s taken a page from Big Thief and released an 18 song, 73 minute album. He starts with the album with the line ‘I’ve been going through something’… has he ever. There’s lots to go at!

I’m still digesting the album. Like many, I’ve spent the last week digesting (what I thought was) the lead single ’The Heart  Part 5’. The lyrics and the video are amazing and so important…. but the track isn’t on the album. This guy sits in a different space!

It’s hard to name an artist that has evolved and pushed boundaries as much as Kendrick, especially within hip hop. On this album we find a rounded Kendrick that musically blends the feels of both DAMM and TPAB. Lyrically his confidence is apparent throughout. His thoughts are honest, complex and at times uncomfortable. He has a voice and he uses it. He faces into some tough subjects; religion, addiction, infidelity, relationship struggles, queerness and so much more. Hip hop gives an artist a platform to delve into subjects perhaps different than other genres and he does this masterfully. 

N95 is the lead single. What a single! I’m trying to figure out what track I would share with someone as a good catchy track on this album to start? It’s tough. They’re all really deep. They all have layers. Sampha laces ‘Father Time’ with a lovely hook, but the song is beautifully honest. Perhaps too honest for some. On the flip side ‘We Cry Together’ is really hard to listen to at first, but also has a beauty to the bleak honesty. Unapologetically honest. Is anyone else like this in music? This is an album of two halves, and it being a digital only release it the moment lets you forget this is a double album. The first half cuts deeper the the second, but needs to be there for the second half to fully work.

I wrote some bullet points the other day about Kendrick when I was listing to his back catalogue: 

  • Kendrick is honest
  • Kendrick lets you into his mind, not just his world
  • I don’t think anyone really knows Kendrick Lamar through his music
  • Kendrick is an anomaly   

… my view still is the same after listening to the album for the first 5 times. 

Lamar has stated that ‘he is not the messiah’, but he does have a voice and a message. He has extreme influence on numerous generations, and all levels within those generations. People listen to Kendrick. Kids, mums, dads, grandparents. There is A LOT to digest with this album. And many will take the time to do so. Isn’t it wonderful that someone is making music that is so complex that everyone wants / needs to listen to? 

I look forward to all of us digging into this and everyones thoughts. There’s a lot to go at. Ive not even touched on who is Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers? Nor have I talked about the well thought out and controversial guest appearances? 

Posted in New Albums

New Arcade Fire

There’s something really exciting about new music from artists you love, and with the pandemic (supposedly) ‘over’ there’s a ton of albums coming, from Kendrick to Hot Chip, and of course my favourite Arcade Fire.

This really feels like a nod back to the old school of Funeral after Everything Now. Bring it on.

Posted in Album of the Month, podcast, Tracks of the Month

Podcast Episode 22 – Big Thief – Dragon New Mountain I Believe in You.

Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

After a little summer break we're back! We get deep into our Album of the Month, Steve Lacy's Gemini Rights in Part 1. We dig a little deeper than most pods and make sure we've spent LOADS of time living with the album.  In Part 2 we have one of the best 'Spin It or Bin It' that I can remember – we each bring a track and ask each other 'Spin It or Bin It?'Part 1: Album of the Month – Steve Lacy's 'Gemini Rights'It's David's choice this month and he chooses the intriguing 'Gemini Rights'. Its a tight, punchy album which gave us loads to discuss: Tik Tok, the tension between joyous music and often bitter lyrics, the influence of gender and sexuality on this album and the age of massive change that we're living in.The chat references loads of music and we highly recommend that you check out the following if you're not familiar already;Raphael Sadiq's 'Instant Vintage'   Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange'Prince's 'Purple Rain'… and my big shout out – Serpentwithfeet's 'Deacon'Part 2: Spin It or Bin It – New Music (tracks from June 2022 onwards)In Part 2 we get into one of the best Spin It or Bin It? that we've had. We each bring a track that meets a different brief every month. This month is simple – 'New Music'. We then ask each other the binary question 'Spin It or Bin It?' and then choose a track of the month from the 4. Here's our choices … Guy's choice is Romare's 'Quiet Corners of My Mind'Nolan's choice is Danger Mouse and Black Thought's 'The Darkest Part'Joey's choice is Ela Minus and DJ Python's 'Parajos en Verano'David's choice is Sudan Archive's 'NBPQ (Topless)'Next MonthGuy will be running the show and hosting the discussion on Hot Chip's 'Freakout Release'. Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that's not enough for you then there's 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We'd love to hear what you think. 
  1. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights
  2. Ep 24 – Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
  3. Ep. 23 – Hurray For The Riff Raff – Life on Earth
  4. Ep 22 – Big Thief – Dragon, New Warm Mountain …
  5. Ep 21 – Metronomy – Small World

Last month we shared our thoughts on Small World by Metronomy, all 9 tracks and 35 minutes worth. This month This Is Not Happening ups the ante with ‘Dragon, New Mountain …’, all 20 tracks and 80 minutes worth.  In part 1, we deep dive into the density of Big Thief and Part 2 we play ‘Spin It or Bin It?’ where we judge the tracks that we’ve chosen for this month’s theme.

Part 1 – Album of the Month

This month it’s David’s choice, ‘Dragon, New Mountain …’ by Big Thief. Three of us love Big Thief and have much more than a passing relationship with the band … whilst one of us is a Big Thief virgin. There was SO much written about this album as soon as it came out including a number of 100% reviews.  As always, we take a slower, more considered approach to criticism, living with this album for a couple of months and letting it really settle in before we reflect and share our views.

You don’t have to look to far to find interviews, reviews and videos on Big Thief and this album but some of the content that we consumed and discussed in part 1 can be found below;

  • The metacritic review page is always a goo start and can be found here
  • This is a great listen – ‘Out On The Line’ Podcast 
  • Really insightful take on the album – ‘Taking it Down’Podcast
  • If you love them … or not, this one’s got you covered -‘NY Times’ Podcast
  • A great article in Vulture – read it here

Part 2 – ‘Spin it’ or ‘Bin it?’

In the second part of this episode we get stuck into 4 tracks representing this months theme – ‘Not on Spotify’. We all pick a track,  introduce our track and ask the others the painfully binary critical question; ‘spin it’ or ‘bin it?’ 

This month was a little more ‘free form’ than usual … but an amusing listen none the less!

  1. Guy’s track selection is – Prassay – Krvsin
  2. David’s track selection is – Nick Drake – I Was Made to Love Magic
  3. Nolan’s track selection is – Pharoahe Monch – F You
  4. Joey’s track selection is – Joanna Newsome  – ‘81

Next Month

Episode #23 will be with you soon – Joey will be leading the discussion on ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff. If you get the chance we’d love you to have a listen to the album before next month, perhaps share some thoughts with us on the blog or on our Insta. This albums getting a lot of positive attention and we think it’s going to be in a few year end lists.

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, New Tunes

AOTM: ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff

This is actually the 2nd time that I’ve introduced the This is Not Happening family to Hurray for the Riff Raff. In 2017, I chose ‘Pa’lante’ as my track of the year, and wow what a track that is. Check it and the stunning video out here. Since its release, this track has become an Anthem for Puerto Ricans the world over. The album that it came from, ‘The Navigator’, received significant critical acclaim and attention and announced Alynda Mariposa Segarra to a much wider audience than they had previously.

But let’s pause a second to understand how Hurray for the Riff Raff got to this point. Whilst I don’t want to get caught into a detailed history of their life, the backstory is important to understand them and this album. Alynda grew up in the Bronx, estranged from her birth parents she grew up with her aunt and uncle in a 14th floor, claustrophobic flat. She has Puerto Rican heritage which we’ll come back to shortly as this is another touchpoint in understanding them as an artist. Alynda has spoken openly about her teenage realisation of how small she is (5ft 2) and how little space she took up in the world. She reflects on finding the punk scene, the music, the clothes, the hair and the make up and wearing them as a kind of armour to protect her from the realities of her life in New York. At age 17 Alynda ran away from home.

Alynda found like-minded ‘run-away-kids’ as she describes them, on the road whilst travelling the length and breadth of the country riding freight trains. This is a time that in some interviews she makes sound like an amazingly poetic bohemian existence and in others, a dangerous time where survival was the most important daily task. It was at this time that they started to play in bands, learn instruments and write music.

Alynda finally settled in New Orleans and started to record self released music in 2007. The genre of this music is best described using the catchall of ‘Americana’ – fusing traditional American folk with notes of protest, punk and more traditional blue grass instrumentation and style. Their first label-released album was in 2011 with 3 others following between then and 2014. Alynda speaks of a dissatisfaction with the lack of representation of her Nu Rican heritage in her music which perhaps explains the 3 year gap before the release of the Navigator. And we’re back to where we started. The Navigator is a proper rock album, a love letter to her New York experience and the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Despite the critical acclaim and attention, there has been a 5 year gap between the Navigator and the AOTM ‘Life on Earth’. That 5 years is demonstrated in a not-insignificant shift in the sound of this new album. This is also their first release on Nonesuch Records. It feels like the album sounds as it does, at least partly due to the relationship between Alynda and the producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten and many more). This partnership works. Alynda has spoken in interviews about the encouragement that they received from Brad to explore and to release previously held beliefs about what they were as an artists. If you fancy reading a little more about Mr. Cook this Pitchfork interview is a good read ‘Is Brad Cook your favourite indie band’s secret weapon?’ The production is both low-fi / low-key but also feels very polished at the same time. Alynda’s voice sounds amazing on every track, as much to do with her incredible voice but still, it has been recorded beautifully.

In a podcast that I will link later in this write-up, the podcast host uses a lovely turn of phrase ‘I hear the energy of … in this album’. This is a phrase I will shamelessly steal (now and undoubtedly in the future too). I think it’s a lovely way of saying ‘I can hear the energy of these artists without the any single track, or the album as a whole, ever sounding exactly like them’. For me, I hear the energy of 70’s New York, Lou Reed, U.S. Girls, Patti Smith, Blondie, Stevie Nicks, Arcade Fire, Japanese Breakfast, Violent Femmes.

So what is this album? It’s a ‘tight as a drum’ 11 tracks, 40 mins of fiendishly catchy, guitar driven (but richly instrumented) 3-4 minute tracks. There is some seriously radio friendly vibes on this album but its SO not a sell out pop album. This is a pandemic album, I am not sure if it fits the ‘lockdown’ album tag, but i think it speaks strongly to the paranoia and claustrophobia of the last 2 years. The lyrical themes are world weary, often dark, rarely truly uplifting except for the album closing ‘Saga’ which while it is uplifting its about choosing to thrive rather than simply survive. To sing so beautifully about such dark themes in a pop song reminds me of U.S. Girls and Japanese Breakfast at their best. The thrive vs. survive motif really reminds of the sentiment of last years ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast and I am very happy about this.

Alynda describes this album’s sound as ‘Nature Punk’. And I think I get that. It has a lot of natural, acoustic sounds. There are a few synths providing atmospheric drone to a number of tracks but otherwise this is an album of acoustic guitars, pianos, simple drum kits, all sorts of percussion and even woodwind and some lovely horns popping up here and there. The result, overall, is that this is a very percussive album. One of the reasons I described their backstory is because I can hear the rhythm of the freight train living in many of these tracks. That chug, chug sound of the tracks can be found on some tracks in an acoustic guitar and in others the percussive use of the piano. The street performing run-away-kid-band background can be heard in the really simple kick drum and snare drumming … I don’t think there is a single cymbal on the whole album?

In terms of standout tracks … well there’s not a weak track on the album. No, they’re not all radio friendly indie bangers. There are beat-less, self reflective tracks that break up the ‘poppier’ tracks. But ‘Pierced Arrows’ is the obvious stand out single …

… but ‘Pointed at the Sun’, ‘Rhododendron’ and ‘Saga’ are not far behind in terms of radio-friendly memorability. ‘Rhododendron’ is my favourite track but I also love ‘Precious Cargo’ which explores the migrant / refugee experience and what awaits them when they arrive in the US.

I think this album is so accessible. It’s so easy to listen to and easy to consume multiple times in one sitting. There are of course layers, really engaging with the lyrics helps to open a new layer to the album. However, as always, learning more about the artist helps you to really get into the layers that lie below. With this mind, and because I am more of a listener than a reader, I am linking a few podcasts below that if you’re that way inclined, will help you to get even more out of this album.

I hope you enjoy the album as much as I am enjoying it. If this isn’t in my 2022 top 10 then it will have been a great year of music. But I suspect this will be right up there, it feels like it’s been hand crafted just for me.

Some things to listen to;

The following is a straight up, great chat between 2 guys about this album, it’s an interesting take on the record – Blind Tiger Record Club Podcast

This is an interesting interview with Alynda recorded in March this year, following the launch of the album – Launch Left Podcast

This one is a great listen, recorded back in May 2020, this is an interview on Radio Menea, a podcast about music from Latinx artists. The conversation covers a lot of background from Alynda’s life that sets the scene for the conversation on the Navigator but there are nods to the music that we hear now on Life on Earth – Radio Menea Podcast

Now this one is a little different. This is an interview with Alynda from a podcast called Living in This Queer Body that is described as ‘a podcast about barriers to embodiment and how our collective body stories can be bring us back to ourselves’. It’s not a straight up and down chat about music, it’s a spiritual discussion about the human condition … I found this one to be the most revealing in understanding Alynda as a human and an artist – Living in This Queer Body Podcast