AOTM – July – ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee | Reviews | DIY

Jubilee is Japanese Breakfast, (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner … and her band’s), 3rd album. I’ve never got my head around is it a band or is an artist but from now on I will refer to Japanese Breakfast as ‘her’ as Zauner is clearly the driving creative force behind Japanese Breakfast.

I nearly chose her 2nd album, ‘Soft sounds from another planet’ as album of the month back in 2017. If I had, you guys would have said ‘it’s ok … but it’s nothing special’ and I probably would have never considered double dipping and choosing her again. So all in all, I am glad I didn’t and I get the chance to introduce you to Jubilee instead. Soft Sounds was a solid, consistent 12 tracks of shoegazey niceness with occasional flourishes that caught you by surprise but were soon gone. Jubilee is almost the exact opposite. On Jubilee, the flourishes are to the fore, the melancholia is still there but it’s wearing better clothes and it has adopted a few new personas. It’s a brighter, poppier, classier affair with massive mainstream chops but don’t assume that’s it’s all surface.

For those that don’t know, much of Zauner’s creative career has been defined by her relationship with and the loss of her mother. Her music was and still is deeply touched by this experience. Her book ‘Crying in H Mart: A Memoir’ is a deeply personal reflection on the pain of growing up, losing her mother and … Korean food. It made no.2 in the NY Times Non Fiction Bestseller List in April 2021. The fact that this album is called Jubilee is massive. It points the way and hints at what to expect and represents a significant metamorphosis, musically and seemingly personally for Japanese Breakfast. There is a 40 minute podcast interview with Michelle Zauner by actor Minnie Driver that I would strongly recommend listening to that explores this in much mored detail and with a very delicate touch – https://open.spotify.com/episode/3LWPCfflisFbPsQqdvRBtd – be warned, I found it very moving but I do think it frames the album beautifully.

Back to the music, Jubilee is a 10 track, 37 minute album. Thank you Michelle. Great start.

Paprika, the opening track literally marches in, heralding the opening of the album with military snares and heralding horns. It’s a proud statement of arrival, perhaps of re-birth following her loss and grieving process? Perhaps I am reading too much into that but it seems beyond coincidence.

Lyrically the album is SOOOO strong and Paprika has some of my favourite lyrics;

How’s it feel to be at the center of magic
To linger in tones and words?
I opened the floodgates and found no water, no current, no river, no rush
How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers
To captivate every heart?
Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every wor
d’

Through the remaining 9 tracks Zauner introduces us to Synth-Pop, British sounding 90’s Indie (Belle and Sebastian, perhaps even Camera Obscura?), haunting stadium ready ballads and even a nod to her shoegazing back catalogue. It would have been easy for the variety of styles and influences to result in a messy, patchy album. However, this isn’t the case. There is a thread, a spine running through the tight running time and I think perfect track sequencing. For me, the thread or spine is the genuine emotion, the feels, that drive each track. I believe every word and I feel every note. The brighter, poppier uptempo tracks are some of the most emotionally and significant. That significance comes from top notch, classy song writing.

For this 1st time ever, I feel strongly enough about each song to want to walk through the nine tracks that follow Paprika one by one;

Track 2 ‘Be Sweet‘ is pure pop perfection. One of the strongest tracks by any artist this year. It was my entry point into the album when it was released back in February. It was on a long list that I created with Guy and should have been my selection when we chose tracks for each other a few months ago. It’s a bit 80’s, it’s a bit cool, it’s lyrically intelligent and I love that propulsive bass driving the track forward.

Track 3 ‘Kokomo, IN’ trades, funky 80’s pop for 90’s British indie. An acoustic guitar gives way to harsh string plucks and then to dramatic sweeping string accompaniment. It’s melodramatic, moody and most definitely ‘pretty’. It’s sits next to ‘Be Sweet’ perfectly despite it’s decade-difference in reference points.

Track 4 ‘Slide Tackle’ has been highlighted as one of the weaker tracks in a few reviews … I don’t get it. It’s one of my favourite tracks. It opens like a track from Twin Shadow’s debut album. It’s as if ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Kokomo, IN’ had a baby together … and that baby played the saxophone?

Track 5 ‘Posing in Bondage’ surprise surprise, Joey love’s the dark one about death. I think this is a beautiful track. It’s the first down-tempo, ballard (ish) track. Spending some time with the album’s lyrics reveals, surprisingly, that there are a lot less lyrics than you might think! When written down, the lyrics look sparse but when woven into the fabric of the track they take on heft, Posing In Bondage is a great example of this in action and one of my favourite tracks. The killer line for me in this track is much discussed in the Minnie Driver podcast …

‘When the world divides into two people
Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to

Track 6 ‘Sit’ considering that Zauner is often described as a shoegaze artist, there isn’t a lot of it on this album. The exception is ‘Sit’. It’s got a droney, fuzzy guitar that sits (pardon the pun) just behind a very non-shoegazey vocal that sits higher in the mix than you’d expect. Its not a standout track but I think mostly because it’s on such a strong album. I’m in no way offended by it and enjoy it as a simpler pleasure.

Track 7 ‘Savage Good Boy’ … and we’re back to brighter, poppier sounds and melodies. It’s a well humoured, gender-role subverting, piece of perfect pop that is hard to ignore. It show cases Zauner’s ability to tell complex stories, simply and with impact.

I want to make the money ’til there’s no more to be made
And we will be so wealthy I’m absolved from questioning
That all my bad behaviour was just a necessary strain
They’re the stakes in the race to win

It’s hard to think of catchier song about mankind driving itself into the apocalypse. If you can think of one please let me know.

Track 8 ‘Hell’ – another track that focuses on the theme of loss but done with beautiful pop melodies, lovely backing vocals, Bontempi-like synth flourishes and a big dose of horns. It flies by in two and half minutes but the oddly Morrissey-esque lyrics stick in the mind for much longer.

Track 9 – ‘Tactics’ – Zauner is at her vocally-breathiest, over a string driven, charismatic track. The opening swoon of strings should come as a surprise given the orchestration of the rest of the album but it doesn’t. Once again, the fluidity of the album’s movement from style to style is impressive. I assume this to be a big old lovesick love song to her husband and quite beautiful it is too.

Track 10 – ‘Posing for Cars‘ – If Paprika was a literal fanfare to start the album, then Posing for Cars is a definite ‘farewell wave goodbye’ to close and highlights the perfect sequencing of tracks on this album. It is a well considered finale that builds and grows in a stadium rock stylee, the first nearly 3 mins being free of percussion. But as the song grows it introduces strings, bass guitar and finally a screeching lead guitar solo that feels odd and perfectly in keeping all at the same time. The track is double the length of most of the tracks and for me closes out the album perfectly.

The critical response to this album has been largely very positive with a MetaCritic score of 88% with plenty of 100% reviews. Whilst I don’t think it’s perfect, I do think it is special. It’s very easy to consume and connect with. Its available on many levels. It can be background music, music to work to but I think best consumed when you can give it the attention that I think it deserves. I would be very surprised if I end up listening to any other album as much as this. This will feature highly in my 2021 top 10.

AOTM June: Skyzoo – All the Brilliant Things

At best we will choose a hip hop album for our album of the month yearly, and it’s for good reason. Hip Hop is at times hard to approach, and hard to find time to listen to away from your kids as 4 middle aged fathers.

For me there’s more of an issue. I remember when I first heard the likes of Nas, Common (Sence) and Rakim. Each song was a lyric twisting journey into their world. As time passes I find it harder to find MC’s that blow me away with their word play. I often wonder is why latter generations of MC’s are less focussed on this? Does it matter anymore? The genre of Hip Hop is a bit confusing these days. I find it hard to understand how much of the hip hop that ‘the kids’ like these days is listenable. Misogyny, violence and criminality seem to be more prevalent than ever.

I came across Skyzoo in 2014 through his collaboration with his New York collaborator weight Torae. Instantly I was a fan. His word play and commentary put him amongst the hip hop heavy weights that I love. The more you listen to his lyrics the more layers to his lyrics you discover. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 90’s made him a student of some of the greats such as Biggie to Jay-Z and it shows. He has an uncanny ability to bring you into his world and keep you there. I was hooked and instantly delved into previous releases which included a heralded mixtape produced by 9th Wonder, followed by his debut album on 9th’s Jamal records (home of Rapsody amongst others) and later releases on two of my favourite labels; Duck Down Records and Mello Music.

You can find music from Skyzoo over the last 20 years, but the last 10 have seen him at his best. Releasing at least an album a year, it’s hard to find any weak piece of work among them. It’s understandable why he’s become one of the most respected underground MC’s around the globe. From working with boom bap super producer Apollo Brown to hip hop general Pete Rock, Skyzoo’s output is diverse and more-ish.

So this brings us to his latest effort, ‘All the Brilliant Things’. Like last month’s St Vincent album, it comes with a theme. This is an album about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Not only highlighting the change but also the world Skyzoo has grown up in, why he loves it, the memories, the stories and the dreams.

My notes for this album have been extensive. I was lost for words, how do you encapsulate the plethora of Skyzoo and what he does to this album? Lucky I read an interview with him where he described it perfectly. He said ‘My music has always been a combination of a few things: storytelling, motive, and intention’. That narrative rings true with another Brooklyn native that I love, Spike Lee. In fact there are cross overs throughout between the two. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Spike Lee movies.

I love hip hop albums that set the scene for the album on the first track and ‘Free Jewellery’ does it to a tee. Skyzoo dives in from the start. Weaving, layering, and provoking thoughts with each line. Amongst the journey he dips his toes into the irony of the critic’s interpretations his world whilst at the same time gentrifying it themselves.

‘So don’t mistake me, yo, I don’t do this for Complex

Nor a Pitchfork or any other facade

Where the culture is determined while chugging a PBR

And telling you how to represent all of the shit that you made

While they move in your building with their roommates’

‘Culture-ish’ is another remarkable track. Full of recollections…

‘I was buying art, my friends was buying dope.

I went and made friends with rappers that was buying both’

….was the line that caught my ears, but every line in the song is spotless. I’ve spent so much time getting my head around the layers of lyrics. He reminds me of Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt. From Brooklyn or not, you’re pulled into his world (then and now) as you sit ring side in Skyzoo’s world in Brooklyn.

There are lyrics throughout outlining changing worlds. In line with the theme, but not blatantly. ‘The Scrimmage’ looks into money and how it’s made, old and new and it’s ruthlessness. I love the track lyrically, but when the track finishes with a clip of two people talking about being removed from their neighbourhood, it makes you listen again…. Because he was talking about it the whole time.

Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, but since its inception the New York boroughs all battled to own the top spot. Brooklyn arguably has a strong claim for the top spot. Jay-Z, Biggie, Sean Price, Yasin Bey (Mos Def), the list goes on. That mixed with exceptional graffiti artists and their influence on me is the reason Brooklyn has always facinated me. That fascination of Brooklyn for me and so many others may just kill where that fascination comes from; it’s soul. This album concept is well overdue.  ‘Bed-Stuy Is Burning’ is not only the stand out track on the album but one of the best hip hop songs that has been released in recent memory as Skyzoo delves into the world he loves and how it’s crumbling at his feet.

‘To whom it may concern, don’t let this happen to you

True to what you heard, they want this back like a loop

They gave you a curb and kept you back on the stoop

And now what they prefer is to help you pack when you move’

There are few reviews on this album, but many podcast interviews with Skyzoo. From a fan point of view some say it’s his best lyrically rounded album while some say it’s too long and the beats could be better on many tracks. I don’t disagree with either to a point. Personally I think that this is an album that when digested the four of us will use as a reference point for many albums in the future as this in its’ bones has the feels. The song by song justification and the ability to continually discover with each listen. Its’ long term importance to all of us is unseen but on different levels this album is important to all four of us and is worth everyone digesting. I’ve stayed in New York three times for work, once in Brooklyn. I’ll take Brooklyn and day of the week. It’s mind kind of place. It’s cool. Like east London is cool. The hipsters came in and made it cool for the middle classes. But at what cost? This album is about that cost. About a changing neighbourhood. This message transcends globally.

One of most common narratives on the blog and on the podcast is album length. ‘All the Brilliant Things’ is 14 songs long and just over 55 minutes which is standard for a hip hop album. At first I considered that the album could drop the middle three or fours tracks, but lyrically they’re growers and some of the best on the album.

The more I listen to this album the more I discover. Will it be perfect to the lesser hip hop fans? I’m not sure. I love it because it’s out and out hip hop that also delivers on a social commentary that we should all digest.

JUNE AOTM: Daddy’s Home – St Vincent

St Vincent aka Annie Clark, has been a major part of my musical landscape for the last decade. I latched on to her first album, Marry Me, in 2007, and immediately loved its slightly wonky sensibilities wrapped up in brilliant songs, and it’s been a mostly highly rewarding experience seeing her career and her ambitions grow with every album. She’s now pretty close to being a bonafide star – certainly an indie star anyway – and I saw that first hand as she effortlessly and brilliantly headlined the End of the Road festival a couple of years back. My wife, Caroline, absolutely adores her too – maybe even more than me – so she’s an artist who has been played to death in our house over the years.

But I’ve long ago come to realise that she’s a Marmite artist. Many friends to whom I’ve recommended her have come back with a blank look on their faces – they don’t ‘get’ her at all. I do kind of understand it – her sound can be very angular and jagged, and she wields her incredible guitar playing (more on that later) like a weapon. She’s wilfully, unapologetically arty, and it can often feel like she’s hiding herself behind a series of different personas. She can make obtuse decisions – like starting an album as brilliant as Strange Mercy with a track as hard to listen to as Chloe in the Afternoon. She seems to delight in setting fire to her previous incarnation, and I can see that might feel frustrating to an artist you’re trying to invest. Me, I fucking love her. I love trying to find the real Annie hiding, sometimes in plain sight, in her songs. I love the way she paints a picture with a song. Just try and listen to Year of the Tiger (also on Strange Mercy). It’s like a little movie.

Funnily enough, me and Annie’s first real musical differences came on her biggest album to date, the behemoth that was Masseduction. Recorded with hot shot producer Jack Antonoff, he of Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift album fame, it was a radical departure to the angular, electronic indie rock of her previous work. It was unapologetically pop with a capital P, with more nods to Kylie and Robyn than her indie peers. It was a critical and sales hit, along with single Los Ageless, and opened her up to a new audience (and led to those festival headlining moments). Friends who don’t like Annie C have complained they find her a bit cold. I never felt that at all until Masseduction. It just didn’t connect with me. It felt a little calculated, and it was – well, just a lot less original than anything she’d done until that point. She was trampling on much more familiar territory and I just couldn’t get as excited.

So when I heard that Annie was channeling 70s rock and Bowie on the new album, then frankly, I was chomping at the bit. I wanted to hear something more organic, something more emotionally connected. And I wanted to hear that incredible guitar back up high in the mix. We should mention her guitar playing for a minute. If you haven’t seen her life, it’s hard to quite grasp how good she is. She’s Prince-level good. She’s UNBELIEVABLE. I think she’s probably the most talented guitar player of her generation.

Pay Your Way in Pain did nothing to dampen my excitement. What a fucking song it is. And what an opening track it is on the album. It’s a proper rock song, and it sets up that mixture of emotional pain and retro irony quite beautifully. And then the came the new look for the record. Blonde wig, leather jacket. All very playful, all very Annie Clark. But also this extraordinary backstory about her father’s incarceration (which by the way she has NEVER mentioned up until this point!). Daddy’s Home? Nudge nudge wink wink. And then came the 5 star reviews, and lots of them.

So what did I feel when I started to listen to the whole album. Initially, I was just so, so happy. I loved it almost immediately. It was exactly what I was hoping for. Perhaps more downbeat and slow than I was expecting, but it seemed to wear its heart on its sleeve as much as you could ever hope from a musician who’s often been careful to cover her tracks.

The big surprise was that this was also made with Jack Antonoff. Who’d have thought it? In fact, the two of them recorded quite a lot of the album between them. Did Antonoff allow Clark to find that musical voice she was looking for, did he just give her that freedom? Or was there still something a little bit calculated about it? That was the only nagging thing I had in my head now and again as I listened.

And then…the backlash started. I must say, in the interests of balance, that it’s hardly that much of a backlash – as of today, it still has a whopping 86 on Metacritic. But there were a couple of extraordinary reviews – one from Pitchfork that seemed to damn it with faint praise, as well a much more damning piece on Slate that argued that this was her worst album, comparing her unfavourably to fellow pop chameleons Prince and Bowie. Both of those articles contain some pretty unbelievable accusations (Pitchfork – it’s racially insensitive for St V to mention Nina Simone alongside white artists. Slate – she’s actually never been that good a lyricist. That latter one made me laugh out loud. ARE YOU FUCKING JOKING ME, MATE?).

The whiff of double standards on female musicians, particularly singular artists with their own vision, hangs heavy in the air. And I don’t think that for a second that Annie Clark is asking to be compared to Prince or Bowie. But let’s leave some of the stupidity of some of the worst comments, and ask the tricky question – have they got a point? Is this album the real deal, or is it a kind of well-executed pastiche of a kind of mythical musical past? I suspect that as a collective, we’re going to end up on different sides of that question. I can’t wait for the pod!

My own experience is this. There are a few obvious big, brilliant belters – Pay Your Way, Down, Melting of the Sun. Down might be my favourite song on the album. And some have called The Melting of the Sun a bit clunky. I think it’s utterly glorious – a straight down the line love letter to those who’ve paved the way for her. And the analogy of the patriarchy melting like the sun is delicious.

But actually, on repeat listening, it’s not the 70s pastiche, or the sitar playing (though I LOVE the sitar playing!) or the Bowie schtick that’s sticking with me. It’s the songwriting. And it’s the smaller songs that have come to be amongst my favourites. Down and Out Downtown is just beautiful, At The Holiday Party is sad and compassionate, Somebody Like Me feels like Annie reckoning with herself and her personas in a really moving way. And right in the centre, the extraordinary Live in the Dream. Yes, it owes a hell of debt to Pink Floyd, and also to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in lyrical theme, but I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve listened to that one track to death and I find it genuinely moving.

There are odd things about the album that jar a little. I think the sequencing is odd – I’d have put Live in the Dream later in the album, maybe pulled Down further up. For me, the title track, Daddy’s Home, is the album’s weak spot, and it’s a shame it’s sequenced as Track 3. I think this the one time that the nudge-nudge sexy/existential pain 70s vibe just doesn’t quite work. She’s hiding behind the song and it’s not telling us anything about the real story of her father’s incarceration. It feels a little cheap to use that as a sell. That’s a shame.

But the rest of the album? I’m not seeing a persona. I’m seeing a real human being singing about real human things – disappointment, love, dead-end careers, loneliness, the death of a friend. The things that Annie Clark’s detractors accuse her of – being angular, being difficult, hiding behind a persona – I honestly don’t think that’s true of this album, title track aside. In the end, the songs speak loud and clear. And if you’ll excuse me now, I’m just going to play it again…

Episode 10 – The Weather Station – Ignorance

Ep 13 – Skyzoo – All The Brilliant Things This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

Episode 13 of This Is Not Happening stays in NYC with Skyzoo's new album All The Brilliant Things following up the 70s palette of  St Vincent: Daddy's Home.  The much-respected Brooklyn  MC's 7th album finds him  writing a paen to his changing city, gentrification and history. It's a beguiling work that Nolan brought to us get deep on as we move into season 2 of the podcast. There's playlists that run alongside the episode here.  In the second half of the episode, we talk tracks of the summer, with a favourite from us that reminds of us the warm months. Our longlist is here, see what we thought of the picks:David – The Millennium – To Claudia On Thursday Joey – Clive Field Marshall – Island In The SunGuy  – Metronomy – The BayNolan  – Black Sheep – Summa Tha TimeJuly's album of the month and all our new tracks, playlists, and chat from the past decade or more can be found on our blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. Head down there and hopefully you'll like what we're talking about and if you do, we'd love to hear from you on the socials (links below).Episode #14 takes us into the summer and is Joey's chance to bring us a classic slice of modern pop with Japanese Breakfast's Jubilee. The next episode will be landing before the end of August. This Is Not Happening:Created by Joey, Nolan, Guy and David.Produced and Edited by Guy and Nolan.Twitter: @thisisnothapngInstagram: @thisisnothappeningpodEmail: thisisnothappeningpodcast@gmail.comReviews: http://www.ratethispodcast.com/thisisnothappening
  1. Ep 13 – Skyzoo – All The Brilliant Things
  2. This Is Not Happening – Season 2 Trailer
  3. Ep 12 – St Vincent – Daddy's Home
  4. Ep11 – Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
  5. Ep 10 – The Weather Station – Ignorance

Episode 10 of This Is Not Happening finds us sticking with female artists but switching from the UK to Canada with the Weather Station’s Ignorance.  Tamara Lindeman’s group released its 5th album in 2021, and it marks another progression from folk-tinged songwriting to full-blown grown-up pop that touched on so many of our big influences. We all went on a journey with this, with Joey at the helm. We also put together an ‘inspired by’ playlist to sit with the album

In the second part of the show, we jumped off the deep end by picking a new track, secret santa-style for each other! Here’s the longlist, but the four we chose are:

David – Nolan chose: Brother Ali – Sensitive.
Guy – Joey chose: Howlin’ – Bind
Joey – David chose: Charlotte Adigery – Bear With Me (And I’ll Stand Bare Before You) 
Nolan – Guy chose: Vagabon – Water Me Down (Pancy Remix)

April’s album of the month and all our playlists, new music and discussions from the past decade or more can be found on our blog at www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we ‘re talking about and if you like it, we’d love to hear from you. Socials are below. 

Episode #11 will be digging into the kaleidoscopic debut from Genesis Owusu: Smiling With No Teeth . An Australian-Ghanaian whose melting-pot influences have created one of the most fascinating and memorable albums of the year. Coming to you before the end of May.

This Is Not Happening:
Created by JoeyNolanGuy and David.
Produced and Edited by Guy and Nolan.
Twitter: @thisisnothapng
Instagram: @thisisnothappeningpod
Email: thisisnothappeningpodcast@gmail.com
Reviews: www.ratethispodcast.com/thisisnothappening

May AOTM – Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth

Genesis Owusu’s Gold Chains.

Where to begin, with an album that’s such a multi-layered, sonically ambitious, lyrically dense and deep affair? That is, mind-bogglingly, a debut? From an artist that 3 months ago, I’d never even heard of ?(more fool me) How did we get here with May’s album of the month, and This Is Not Happening’s 11th episode? Ten days ago, it wasn’t even my month to pick.

I was down for June, but @davidhallison‘s love for St Vincent meant we switched it up – as we have before – and instead of a month to choose an album I had a week, at a stretch. This is enough to induce seven days of anxiety, let alone having stung myself with Yves Tumor in Episode 3: an album that the critics loved, that I picked out of a big big hat, wanting to wilfully choose something I wouldn’t usually go for. In the end, I just didn’t love it, even though there were some uncut gems on there. So I sifted through over a hundred new albums released since January, trying to find something that stood out to me. I struggled, not wanting to simply pick something random. I even entertained a classic album, deciding that really, if I couldn’t find new music, perhaps I should have a word with myself.

Something made me go back to Smiling With No Teeth, the debut from Ghanaian/Australian artist Genesis Owusu. It turns out I’d read an article on him back in March and that must’ve been a subconscious call-back. How could you not remember – even in the recesses of your mind – someone who proclaims ‘I’m Prince, if he were a rapper in 2020s Australia‘? I can’t have been totally convinced. Perhaps it was my mind telling me that ‘I don’t ‘do hip-hop’. Of course, once I listened to the album, it was clearly not a hip hop album. In fact it is the first album in a long time I’ve really found impossible to pigeonhole, even a dozen listens in. Fifteen tracks, almost an hour (Joey would have to do another lap of his ‘album walk’) and my first impression? I was baffled, a bit overwhelmed. But, most importantly, I also wanted to come back.

And that’s the happenstance way I’ve come to gradually live with this astonishing album. One that opens with the electro ripple of On The Move, hitting you with an Afrika Bambaataa-shaped sledgehammer. Even from the first few listens, what started as bewildering collection of musically inventive, but attention-grabbing tracks, something gets you. It has that undefinable ability that good albums do: to start taking shape and working its way into your subconscious right from the start. Then you hit The Other Black Dog, with its relentless, cycling energy and edge, ‘a tale of black dogs with golden leashes‘ and you start to get an inkling of a theme as you’re still trying to wrap your head around it as a whole. ‘Oh, depression’, you think, like Arlo. But what you’ll slowly realise is that it’s much more complex than that. Because the ‘Black Dog’ isn’t just depression, on an album that touches on some heavy themes: it’s a reclaiming of a racist term often used as a racial slur against Kofi Owusu-Ansah throughout his life. Its double meaning gives it extra resonance once you grasp that. You can read many things about the artist and his music, (and you should, because he is a person who is magnetic when he talks about his craft) but I always want a few tilts at the album before I started gaining context, to simply take in the music, without prejudgement.

Genesis Owusu – The Other Black Dog

Because, before you start to get to exist with the lyrics, the music leaves quite the early impression. It’s hard to see a genre that’s not covered: the aforementioned electro and pulsing beats, then Centrefold’s silky r’n’b that nods at everything from Frank Ocean to The Internet via Outkast, paired with Waitin’ On Ya, with its vocoded, 90s-esque stylings that felt the strongest connection to Super Rich Kids, and I Don’t Need You’s scuzzy guitar-vocal interplay that feels every inch a modern pop record. Drown, which is as if lifted from an 80s teen classic soundtrack, its rasping guitars and pulsing synth bass notes, lifted by guitarists Kirin J Callinan’s vocals. By the end of ‘side one’ (because it really does feels like a ‘proper’ album in that respect’, I felt like I’d gone on a car chase through the last 40 years of my musical existence. There was a lot to unpack. And yet, as you feel you have a handle on the most modern of ‘urban pop’ (is that even a thing?) albums, it takes a darker turn.

The ‘side two’ of Smiling With No Teeth, even without the lyrical connections, turns south. Gold Chains‘ echoes vintage N.E.R.D. but drips with metaphor ‘When it looks so gold, but it feels so cold inside these chains‘, subverting the macho hip-hop culture and appearance with a frail soul. The album’s title track swaggers along a pared-back Rhodes and harmonies, all Frank Ocean again, but with a bleakness attached, while I Don’t See Colour, with its congas and toms that feel all throwback 2000s Timbaland/Pharrell doesn’t disguise any more, with the lyrics starting to come so to the front of the mix that it’s impossible to ignore: “When you see the black man, its riots and terror
But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient
“. And as the album progresses, the music sits further and further back, leaving you no escape from the message: its hooked you in, and now you’re going to listen. Because this is an album that takes the messages of black consciousness, racism, oppression, and burns the lived experience into the listener’s brain. You will not escape, because you cannot.

Black Dogs punk feel shouts straight-up racism and painful, paranoid memories of everyday aggressions. Whip Cracker takes it up ever further notches, pared back to only a kick drum and unconcealed anger: “Whip your hands / whip your ass / Whip your man’s whip / This ain’t the 50s, you ain’t talkin’ shit / Know your place, know your role / ‘Fore you get tripped / You ain’t no masters / Your place has been flipped‘, and when the guitar and bass rides in, it sounds like Prince, but with Killer Mike’s flow injected. A subversion not even across two songs, but in the middle of one. And this is, remember, a 23-year old man with so much material to work from, because – starkly, and unadorned – this is the reality for black people everywhere. And his statement, and its power, is something visceral to behold amongst the musical alchemy.

Genesis Owusu – Gold Chains

There is some respite, with Easy‘s familiar-sounding 80s patterns, and A Song About Fishing may sound like a closing credits track, but the fishless lake is Owusu’s existence casting itself into a life without happiness. This is the beauty of the album in one perfect example: hooks and melodies to love, with a lyrical message as bleak as anything can get. If No Looking Back sounds like an anachronism, it is. Originally the album closer, its 60s-soul was felt way too positive and sugar-coated to really end the record, which is why Bye Bye exists: an edgy, but 80s-soul and funk-flecked nugget that slips in bleakness aplenty: “How do I breathe with my hands on my own throat?”.

It’s often the case I go – as many do – on a journey with any album. But this in an odyssey. A fable. Even as you try to consume the album’s kaleidoscopic nature, its melodic whirlwind, its length, it takes investment to start to see the dust settle. It’s a good half a dozen listens before songs start to emerge from the storm, and when that happens, it’s a beautiful experience, because you can’t but admire the talent on display. And as with the album’s narrative, there’s a story behind its creation: from mainly working across EPs and singles with beats and computers, Owusu wanted a looser ‘jammed’ feel to the album, so enlisted a collection of brilliant musicians – Callinan on guitar, World Champion’s Julian Sudek on drums, and Andrew Klippel, label Ourness’ founder on keys and house producer Touch Sensitive on bass – and went through six days of mammoth sessions where inspirations were played to the band, and songs were sketched out from the jams and lyrics worked on. Plucked from the best of 50+ hours, out of which the songs emerged. It’s a hugely ambitious method, and one that, without the talent and filter to make it work – both from the superlative talents of the group of musicians to thread it together and its leader to distil that into its final form – could’ve easily resulted in an overblown, confused effort that sunk without trace. But once you read about Genesis Owusu’s life, inspirations and hear him talk about what his music means to him, once again, Smiling…. seems more and more likely as a result.

The music is only half the story. As a first-generation immigrant into a country with a troubled racial history, his inspirations came from a palette of video games – lauded Xbox title Jet Set Radio Future melted my brain‘ as a kid – hip-hop – Lupe Fiasco’s wordplay and namechecking Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly as his favourite album (and an obvious thematic touchstone) – and a desire for identity. A kid who decided rather than assimilate, to be his own person, mixing african prints with streetwear (and copping the abuse for it), living with that conflict from the outside world. With this backdrop, the album is something that draws from all of it. I’m an interview he recently stated: “all my favourite songs aren’t singles, so making an album was massively important, and I’d wanted put all of who I am into it“.

But Owusu didn’t want it just to be about the music: working in multiple media, with fashion, song, art, video. They’re all “tools for expression, of me to the fullest extent”. Music is really important but it’s “just the soundtrack, when I’m “trying to make the whole movie”. An all-encompassing artistic vision at this age and stage of a career that its hard not to be wowed by, supported by some striking videos to the album. Playing out the dual-Black Dog metaphors : with depression the ‘internal’ spectre and racism it’s ‘external’ partner, they’re sometimes wrapped up further in a break-up or love song theme, sitting at times as a character within that structure, a three-layer approach that demands time and dedication but reaps big rewards. The whole album is an exercise in taking musically dazzling methods then wrapping the lyrics into it so seamlessly, that it takes considered effort – and in this case, my actual reading of so much of the lyrics – to really get under that surface. But it’s stealth, a trojan horse effort that serves as a double-whammy when those words truly hit.

Genesis Owusu – Whip Cracker

And they are an uncomfortable listen, but they are vital. I can’t possibly identify with much of that lived experience, but the energy, the anger, the rage that drips from the verses is impossible to ignore. Cast against the soul majesty of Sault, or Arlo Parks’ odes to angst-ridden teenage existence as a person of colour, and even RTJ’s nihilistic brutalism, this feels like it trumps even that. There is no sugar-coating, no desire to. But the unfiltered nature is as powerful as anything around it: “They passed the time / She gave her lies / He gave his life / Paid the price / In flashing lights / To gain his rights” in Easy. Dealing with the black dog as depression – something I can connect to far more – whether as a comment on gang culture clichés or the alpha-male assumptions of his appearance: “All my friends are hurting, but we dance it off, laugh it off / Scars inside our shoes but we just tap it off, clap it off” in The Other Black Dog, or “My other half that I swore I ain’t miss / Toxic, hundred percent batshit / Took my hand and started holding me down / Flicked thе crown, and said / You’ve got to let me drown“. It’s hard not to feel its impact in that shape-shifting flow.

Owusu talked of making the album he wanted to, free from any self-imposed expectation, with a desire to diverge from the soul/funk beats’n’drums hip-hop of his EPs, and its both admirable that – with all his confessed tumult – he can have the lack of ego and conviction to do that. Also that he can take all these ingredients and still come up with a work of such contrast and confidence as Smiling With No Teeth is, almost in a musical and cultural world of his own making. It feels like an album that could be only made on debut – that time when an artist can come to something with a vision that’s full of energy and unrestricted by critical expectation, or relative worry – but given its fully-formed vision, it’s hard not to wonder at the potential that lies in Genesis Owusu’s music. The message. The hooks. The colour of the palette. And tapping into something vital. Something that’s not just a reaction to the BLM-affected time we live in (in a recent podcast he was asked if that affected how he made the album and calmly explained that this has been a comment on his whole life) but the aggressions that pockmark a young black man’s life, character, mental health, outlook and future. This is, at it’s core, a deeply personal album, with focus and craft stupefying for someone in their early 20s. The justice will be if the album gets acclaim that it deserves when it can’t yet be toured or promoted in the usual way.

And to think I almost didn’t choose it.

April AOTM – ‘Ignorance’ by The Weather Station

Ignorance | The Weather Station

It’s my turn for Album of the Month and as usual, I’ve not found my selection an easy choice. I’ve selected Ignorance by The Weather Station, the 5th full length album from 36 year old, Canadian Tamara Linderman. I wasn’t aware of her music before the single ‘Robber’ was released late in 2020. Her early albums fit neatly into the ‘singer / songwriter’ folk genre but with each successive release her sound develops in complexity and the band becomes bigger along with the sound. A journey that delivers ‘Ignorance’, which is hard to define by genre but it seems that many still refer to her as a folk artist. This feels like an old label that doesn’t fit this album. But on the other hand, does it really matter?

My hesitation in choosing this album was 100% down to the hype. Last month we discussed Arlo Park’s ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ a new, young artist from the UK managing the burden of expectation of being called ‘the voice of a generation’. The hype around ‘Ignorance’ is of a different kind; to come so early in 2021 but to be touted as a contender for ‘album of the year’. It’s a simple, undeniable fact that this changes your listening experience … at least it does for me. I vividly remember my first experience of this album. I had heard Robber, loved it and then saw an early review massively praising the album. I got on it straight away, and loved it. It was a 9/10 for me. I told the crew this was to be my Album of the Month. Can you tell there is a ‘but’ coming? But then, despite its luxuriant scope, scale and shockingly beautiful soundscape, I failed to connect to it emotionally. Which is odd as it ticks SO many of my boxes. The lyrical context and content being one of them. But it still failed to truly dent me emotionally. I found it a little cold and I stopped listening to it as a result.

So why have I chosen it? I’ve chosen it as I’ve gone on such a roller coaster with this album that I thought it would be an interesting choice for discussion with my friends who I know will have an opinion. I have connected more with this album over time. I think it demands close attention, it does sound best in headphones (I know, I know everything does) but I’d argue this is a different album in headphones. It’s so ‘pleasant’ on a surface level that it can be a perfect background music for life but I think due to the fragility or Tamara’s vocals and lyrics, a different level of appreciation can be achieved through a focused, concentrated listen.

So, on to the music? This a 40 minute, 10 track album. Hallelujah! Thank you Tamara. It is SO dense (I mean this in the ‘good way’) that overstepping the 10 track mark might have been problematic. There are a couple of 5 minute tracks but generally we’re in the 3-4 minute track mark … so this must be pop music right? I think the answer to that is ‘yes’ you could go ‘art pop’ if you wanted people to snigger behind your back but I am going with ‘pop music’ and I’m ok with that. ‘Side A’ (by which i mean tracks 1-6) is upbeat and rhythmically driven giving way to a more melancholic ‘Side B’. Regardless of the tone of the tracks there are tons of melodic, rhythmic and lyrical hooks. Let’s get into a few of them.

‘Robber’ … wow. What a way to open an album. There’s an albums worth of motifs, trills, frills, strings, woodwind and spiky yet intriguing ideas in one track (and of course we all know I love a big organ). It’s a surprisingly anxious, urgent and threatening track to start an album with and I think you could argue that it could have closed the album? It constantly threatens to veer off into jazz noise but never quite carries through on the threat.

The album then opens up into 9 more tracks that, while they rarely play with the oddness and complexity of ‘Robber’, there’s a hell of a lot going on. How many influences can you hear in this album? Are they deliberate? Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, Springsteen (Atlantic / Tried to Tell You) and a host of other 80’s radio rock smeared with synths (I can genuinely hear shades of Dire Straits!) but then also the strings and hints of 80’s ‘sophisti-pop’ chucked in for good measure. David will love the disco-tinged-drive of ‘Parking Lot’ and I think we’ll all appreciate the magical backing vocals on ‘Loss’.

There is loads to love about this album; pop hooks with scope, scale, ambition and complexity. An artist playing with a wide sound palette and clearing enjoying the process and the results. I am still yet to fully connect with it emotionally but I can feel that this building slowly over time.

Some questions that I think might be interesting to discuss;

What is hell is this (and as always, does that even matter)?

How do hyperbolic critical reviews impact your experience of an album?

What influences do you hear in it?

What do you think might be preventing my emotional connection (reading a wide range of reviews – I am not the only one)

March AOTM: Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

Whilst most of us are waiting for 2021 to show a flicker of light, you could argue that music hasn’t let us down so far. After kicking of the year off with Bicep’s ‘Isles’ February has delivered another treat; ‘Collaped In Sunbeams’, the debuit Album from Arlo Parks. For transparency, I wasn’t too sure about this album or how to approach it. The cynic in me was slightly concerned about the hype. 

Much has already been written about the creation, but if you have missed the many articles here’s a top-line recap: Around a year ago Arlo Park embarked on writing her debut album as Covid hit. Instead of being whisked away to a glamorous recording studio in LA, New York or London Arlo and her writing partner hunkered down in a B&B in Hoxton and created much of this album as the world seemed to be falling apart. It seems that her focus could not be shaken and the results were fruitful.

As we all worked through 2020 we were treated with the first 5 tracks from the album; Eugine, Black Dog, Hurt, Green Eyes and Caroline.  Black Dog, a chillingly honest song about her friends depression landed on many (including our) Top Ten year end lists for tracks of the year. As David pointed out in our 2020 year end podcast, there was a lot of expectation and hype around her album. 

The album as a combined finished article is very approachable. From the spoken word intro into “Hurt’ Arlo quickly lets you into her world. Her honest lyrics are matched by her likeable vocals of the West London songstress. The pop sounding ‘Collapsed’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Caroline’ flow into each other and are pleasing on the ears whilst lyrically telling stories more in the vein of a poet than a pop star. She weaves stories into songs with ease, making you feel the album is closer to a conversation with a friend than a collection of songs. This is apparent as you move onto ‘Black Dog’, ‘Green Eyes’ and then ‘Just Go’ which feels like a summer jam on the outside and ever so familiar song about relationships to us all (at that age) when we think about our late teens and early 20’s. 

We often speak on this blog and our podcast about album pace. I’d argue this album has been mapped very well. Some reviews have questioned ‘Violet’, and have suggested it perhaps is one of the albums weaker songs. I think the opposite. The Portishead-esk track reminds us not to rest on our laurels and arguably is a nod to some of her less predictable influences such as Radiohead. After a quick break from the expected you’re quickly pulled into the well known ‘Eugene’. It reminds me of Lily Allen. Not just for the vocal presentation and similar West London accents but also ability to welcome you into the story that Arlo tells and Allen previously did on some of her work. This for me carries through to ‘Bluish’ and ‘Porta 400’. 

Like many debutant albums ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ oozes with vulnerability. It reminds me of so many conversations with friends at that time in my life. As a person in my 40’s I can relate to her as her songs remind me of so many things when I was a similar age to her. I think perhaps that’s the magic; her and the allowance into her world. 

It’s hard to read any article that doesn’t focus on the age of Arlo Parks which I struggle with. Many have arguably written their best work at this age; though perhaps this is the point. Is Arlo Parks going to be one of the greats? There is little doubt that poetic lyrics and welcoming vocals are ahead of many of her peers in a similar age group. 

The album is easy to listen to, and has been on constantly in our house. It flows nicely and doesn’t seem to offend any of our ears. I often catch my Hayley and the kids humming along. 

Any hype that this album has received is well earned in my opinion. Will she be one of the greats? I truly hope she can carry on the trajectory she has started on. But she has a lifetime of songs still to write and in the meantime this album has a fair bit of tread on it for me. There are many miles left in it before I’ll be needing the next model. 

FEBRUARY – Bicep – Isles

How do you make an album of memorable dance music when there’s no dancefloor to experience it on? As someone that’s spent much of their life on and around dancefloors since their teenage years, no year feels more alien than this for this reason. I have not danced in public since March and it has never been easy wrapping my head around that. It’s not a problem that northern Irish duo Bicep set out to wrestle with when they took the majority of 2019 off to make Isles, but it’s become the conundrum for most dancefloor-focused music and producers over the past year as the industry grapples with an existential event that could change culture as we know it. Despite this undercurrent of doom, there have been some notably incredible electronic music albums released since March – amongst them Kelly Lee Owens, more than one by Four Tet, Caribou, Roisin Murphy, and Romare – so it’s not the case the Bicep’s second album is a potential outlier, it’s just that it’s so hotly anticipated, such was the euphoria and afterglow that greeted their self-titled debut in 2017. Can anything ever really live up to the hype?

Usually January brings a level of excitement as you scan for new albums, new tours, gigs, and festival dates. This isn’t a usual January. In fact all the hope we felt in the autumn of 2020, with the new year being a chance to kiss the difficult days and grim news cycle goodbye in 2021, seems a distant memory. Gigs that felt a welcome chance to anticipate old joys once more, now just another date pushed back, and the new year feels a cruel repeat of last one. So bringing Isles as an album of the month, its ethos pitched so obviously against the prevailing times, felt less a gamble, more just a twisted joke. Sometimes release dates also force the hand (there’s nothing so unromantic as podcast record dates and time to familiarise yourself with an album enough to make sense of it) and so in the end it was the most obvious option. Despite my reticence of picking an album which felt so against the times, it became clear at first listen I’d overthought the entire thing, and really this was a welcome balm that instantly lifted my mind out of a lot of the low-level shit that occupies it in lockdown life. I can’t put into words how good that feels, or how needed it is.

Hype can suffocate an album, but when listening to Isles the first time, it feels almost perfectly pitched to the current experience of imagined dancefloors, as we all await the real ones. Not because it lacks any potency, or moments of magic that don’t make you wish you were in a sweaty basement with a red light in the corner and a wall of speakers between you and the DJ. Even on first listen, it seems to be an album that sits just as well for ‘home’ listening (headphones, for optimal experience please) as it would sound when – we all hope – we finally get to see it reverberating around a room full of people. Alongside this, its magic also lies in its ability to shapeshift and flit between genres whilst still sounding like one coherent work. This is not a simple feat to achieve. Many impressively produced electronic albums either start impressively, only to slide into ‘ten club bangers’ territory, or just slowly disintegrate by trying to hard to be something they’re not: a messy, incoherent, overambitious failure. Isles isn’t one of these records. In fact, as it flits between changes of pace, time signatures and atmospherics, it manages to pull off being every bit as impressive as its forbear, arguably a more complete album.

Electronic music – and I say it as someone that’s been enveloped by it since my late teens, and dabbled as a promoter, producer, journalist since pretty much my mid-20s until now – is a bewildering scene that is so rich that it’s almost impossible to take in its outer reaches, even for those professionally involved. Even with scenes – house, techno, drum’n’bass – there’s such an ecosystem that being at the centre of it is a 24/7 dedication. Yet when you talk about albums and artists and sounds that manage to break out of that sweaty underground, it has felt – as least to me – that the older I have got, the more homogenous things at the top have felt. Where are the new equivalents and the inventiveness of Leftfield, Orbital, Chemical Brothers, LTJ Bukem, Carl Cox, Dave Clarke, the KLF, and Underworld? Acts that can make captivating music that didn’t just fill clubs but took over stadiums and the top 40 (even as – of course – so much incredible music was still underground and at the fringes)? Perhaps it’s my age, yes, but also the global domination of ‘tech house’ (it’s not tech house, it’s business techno) and EDM feels like while all the money has gone to the top of the pile, a lot of the creativity seems to have been leached from it. Which is why the likes of Bicep are to be celebrated. They do not make music from a template, and it doesn’t really sound like a lot of other music around, certainly not that by a single artist. Isles may not break new ground, but such is the scope for sonic richness in their sound, that there is a lot of mileage to go yet before they need to think about reinvention.

We first encountered Bicep on the blog in 2017 when Nolan posted what would later be singles from their debut, and he brought Bicep as album of the month in Feb 2018. It came on a wave of hype then, just as its successor does, but it feels like it justifies it. The hype is not theirs, after all, and from all that you read of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson – perhaps because of their well-told background as bloggers-turned-DJs-turned-producers – they seem altogether not cut from the same cloth as the private-jet-setting, glitter-cannoned, deep-v-necked ‘techno’ crew whose company they keep in the charts and at festivals. Calling out ‘plague rave DJs‘, talking about how Brexit will hit artists’ ability to tour in the EU, or talking about their perfectionism in even choosing their logo and artwork (self-designed), it’s clear they aren’t just ciphers, but ravers that have much of the love and reverence for the scene that their fans do, too. They understand the culture, and their success is very much their own, so it feels like the connection to the dancefloor, those elements that grab the listener, is very real and unmanufactured.

When I first heard them, back on Will Saul’s Aus Music label with Ejeca in 2012, despite a chunk of their subsequent production leaning towards house, they stood out with their insistence on not existing solely four-four. And this thread runs through their music to the present day: it is definitely not house, nor is it techno, and for that reason I’m attracted. For me, the lineage is back right to the rave era, such is the breakbeat influence, but also through other very British scenes of UK Garage, jungle and breaks. Their music is very much modern, but there’s an undeniable link to the grittier, illegal raves as there is to Orbital or Leftfield. I certainly want to believe the tale that much of the sounds that have made them so successful came from the loss of a hard drive that contained a chunk of new house tracks that inspired them to change tack, and ultimately led to the first album’s more uncommon sound. It’s not quite Sub Sub’s Ancoats studio burning down, but sometimes it’s serendipity that makes the story all the more alluring.

So what is a first impression of ‘Isles’? For an album that’s only been out for a few days, it’s hard to form much more than broad-brush reactions. Of course, a few of the tracks from it – the percussive, elastic bleeps of Atlas, the lush, almost orchestral melodies and chopped up vocals of Apricots, and the garage-evoking Saku – have already given us a taste, but really for any album, its about – at least for us on this blog – the whole. What does the listening experience of Isles feel like when it’s still bright and new? There is real life, vibrancy and brightness throughout: even as the familiarity of the existing tracks leap out, Cazenove, nestled in between this trio, stands out just as purposefully, its ‘intelligent d’n’b’ percussive leanings wrapped within wistful melodies and vox pads. Similarly, Sundial, towards the end of the album, will evoke rushes of nostalgia for those of a certain age with its rotating chord patterns, as if pitched for the sunrise moment as the morning breaks and you realise you’ve danced your way through the night, unsure how you’ll get home. Following it, Fir gets as close to trance (cough) as the album dares (less of a surprise when you realise the pair frequented Belfast mecca Shine in the throes of the big-room house and trance scene in the early noughties) with its choral pads, flanged percs and echoing leads. Album closer Hawk is Bicep at their best: bending rasping notes amid swirling, breathy vocals into a cut of pure energy that has me hairs standing up and my eyes misting over with a mix of nostalgia, elation and sadness. Perfect alchemy that shows exactly why they command such dedicated followings.

Amongst the more urgent tracks, there are relative departures that add texture and allow time for breath. Lido is one of these relative departures: a warm, beatless cut that centres around a piano motif, rich pads and choral vocals, perhaps pointing towards an after-party once the club madness has subsided. X and Rever too, following Lido, prolong the release of energy from the album’s opening and closing frenetic pace, and show that its possible to take a line from A to B that’s not a simple and lazy procession of bangers. No album can honestly keep up that pace and remain focused or enjoyable, and it’s a chance to flex some creative fibres, that also make the tracks that bookend this middle section more powerful in comparison. X cascades metallic notes and an urgent tension despite its relatively downtempo nature, and Rever, almost feeling like an extension of its predecessor, again trades in indistinct words and rumbling leads that focus onto the melody. In fact, one theme running through the album, is that, despite voices on many of the tracks, its only Saku where words are discernible, elsewhere used as another melody, instrument or feel: part of the music rather than at the forefront. Likewise the snare hits that never land on drum sounds, more a rim or filtered out hit that gives all Bicep’s work on Isles a clearer sonic precision.

So, as arresting as it is, will Isles take Bicep up another level? With night-time culture so under threat, it’s hard to predict what the scene will look like in a few months, let alone a year. But without somewhere to dance, Bicep have made an album that will get you close to that feeling, even if you have to close your eyes to do it. Because while home listening is never going to come close to the club (the pair actually hired out Corsica Studios for a day to ensure the new tracks sounded right on a properly tuned system) I’d argue that this is an album that can still bring on those emotions whether you’re running to it, walking, on a bus, or just sitting at home, headphones on. The music has a power and potency that connects, and it’s why I’m sure it’ll still sound as fresh after 50 listens as it does after just a few.

JANUARY: McCartney III

Saying that I’m a bit of a Beatles fan is like saying the Pope is a bit of a Catholic. They have been the guiding musical lights of my life. I think The Beatles were a kind of miracle, the greatest creative expression of that burst of working class energy that blossomed in post war Britain. They didn’t just change the course of music, they changed the course of culture and society. I was 10 when Lennon was shot – I remember being really upset, but I also remember that no one else my age really knew who he was. By the time I was in my early teens, I was a subscriber to Beatles Monthly. This, at the time, did not make me cool. It made me square and weird. Everyone else was listening to Duran Duran. I once saved up weeks of paper round money to buy a brick from the original Cavern Club (they were being sold off for charity).

Now here I am decades later, and nothing has really changed. The Cavern brick is framed on my wall. My daughter is called Astrid, not just because we loved the name, but also because of Astrid Kircherr, the Hamburg photographer who was so influential in shaping the band’s look. I have a cat called Ringo. My house is groaning with Beatles nonsense. I vowed to stop buying stupid Beatles tat, but my friends still buy me stuff and honestly, it’s always welcome. Astrid got me a Beatles calendar for Xmas. Of course she did.

Paul was always my favourite Beatle. Partly, I think, when I was young, his songs were the most melodic and warm hearted and easy to engage with. But partly, also, I never really had any truck with the idea that Lennon was the artist and poet, and that Paul was just the tuneful cheesemonger of the band. It was obvious to me that McCartney was the most versatile Beatle. Pastoral ballad? Mother Nature’s Son. Musical hall? When I’m 64. A song about death and loneliness written when he was only 22? Eleanor Rigby. Howling rock n roll, Little Richard style? I’m Down. Giant pop chorus? Hey Jude. Song that literally gave birth to heavy metal? Helter Skelter. Any real Beatles fan could see he was the engine of the band as well as one of its two geniuses. Sgt Pepper? Paul’s idea. Side 2 of Abbey Road? Paul put that together. It’s always a little secret when you meet another big Beatles fan – you both immediately check that you both agree Paul is your favourite Beatle. It nearly always is. John is for the part-timers.

Solo Paul was a different matter. As a teen, I lapped up the albums of the time – Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, and plenty of the Wings stuff, but in all honesty, a lot of those albums have not aged well. One or two good tunes aside, there is a lot of guff on them, and it’s the kind of guff that has haunted his reputation ever since 1970. It was telling that when we all started listening to this new album, that Joey was surprised to hear McCartney rocking out – had he been listening to Queens of the Stone Age, Joey asked? The answer, is, of course, is that it’s the other way round, but I also get that to the casual listener, McCartney’s reputation as a rocker has been lost under decades of Mull of Kintyre and Ebony and Ivory and Frog Chorus.

So yes, his solo work has certainly been a mixed bag. But there are real gems in there. Ram is, I think, his best album and one of the best solo Beatles albums. But McCartney I and II have both got really special places in my heart. They’re both totally solo efforts, with McCartney playing every instrument – as we find him doing here on III. McCartney I is a homespun and folky joy, and McCartney II is genuinely nuts – experimental and electronic and a great reminder that Macca has been a great boundary pusher throughout his life.

I’d heard rumours recently that this new album was a genuine revelation, but I was very, very nervous of suggesting McC III as our album of the month. Macca means too much to me, and I know he means an awful lot less to the rest of you, and means nothing at all to at least one of you! In all honesty, I was worried that it’d be ok but nothing more, and we’d spend the podcast ripping apart my greatest musical idol. Maybe that is what will happen, I don’t know. But this album has floored me. I never ever expected Macca to ever make another song that I really cared about, and certainly not (nearly) a whole album of them. I have listened to this album constantly since it came out. It has wrapped its arms around me and it’s now going to be part of my life forever. It’s the greatest musical surprise of the year.

So let’s talk about what works for me. Firstly, he’s relaxed and he’s himself and it just sounds honest and joyful. I’ve struggled even with the lauded albums of the last 20 years (Egypt Station, Chaos and Creation…) – to me, they sound like a shit hot producer has overproduced some slightly workaday McCartney material. None of them have really stayed with me. I think the lack of producer has completely liberated him. He didn’t even know he was making an album. You can literally hear him in the studio messing around on these songs. And bloody hell, what a musician he is – the drumming on the opening jam! The octave harmonies on Find My Way (and the harpsichord), the crunching guitars on Slidin, the crazy loops of vocals on Deep Deep Feeling.

What I also love is that he’s showing his full range – folk ballad (When Winter Comes), hard rockers (Lavatory Lil, Slidin’), pop song genius (Find My Way), slow tempo melody (Pretty Boys), hell even a song that – as Joey points out – sound like it has a Mac Miller RnB vibe (Deep Down). It’s an extraordinary range he’s showing. The album’s centrepiece, Deep Deep Feeling, goes even further, an astonishing 8 minute delve into tape loops, gorgeous soulful vocal experiments that feels raw and beautiful, and for me, justifies every second of its length. I do wonder if that song might divide opinion big time – it’ll be interesting to discuss.

The other surprising strength is his voice. I remember hearing him sing at the 2012 Olympics and being sad that his voice was clearly ‘going’. Well, he’s no longer trying to hide that. He’s 78. He’s an old man, and his voice sounds gruff and aged, but to me, at least, it’s an integral part of the album’s charm. It was when I was listening to Women & Wives that it hit me – this is very similar to the Johnny Cash albums he made at the end of his life with legendary Def Jam producer Rick Rubin. This is an old man wearing his age on his sleeve. You can hear it in the stoic lyrics of Pretty Boys – he was once one of those boys a long time ago. Not anymore.

Not everything works, let’s be really honest. His lyrics are a mixed bag, and I probably like them a lot more than the rest of you, but I can see that if you’re not digging all 8 minutes of Deep Deep Feeling, you might find them a bit cloying. The Kiss of Venus is a very ordinary song, and the one stinker on the album for me is Seize The Day – a naff sub-Beatles pub tune with bloody awful lyrics about being nice and something about eskimos. It’s a reminder that he’s never that far away from Mull of Kintyre if you’re not careful with Macca. But for me, that’s the only song I actively dislike. There is joy and musical interest to be found in every other tune, though I do also agree the opening jam could lose a minute or two.

I’m fully aware I’m writing as a fan of a man who has defined my life. I can’t imagine what this album feels like to a casual listener, or someone who’s not that bothered about The Beatles (also, what is WRONG with you?!). But I hope there is something in there for everyone, even if you don’t have quite the response I’ve had. Think this could be a really interesting discussion, anyway!

I wonder if this is his swan song. It certainly feels like a last race round the block – a chance for him to flex his musical muscles and remind everyone of his range. Or maybe, even better, this is just what Macca does when he’s locked down – write better songs than anyone else can. The comparison with Bowie’s Blackstar is interesting – obviously Blackstar is a much darker, existential record. That’s partly because Bowie was facing death and he knew it and that’s what he was writing about. But also, Bowie is a more existential soul. Macca is an optimist who believes that things are ‘getting better all the time’. Maybe this is what’s inside him at this age – a man who still wants to be there for you, who still delights in nature and the simple life, but also feels the pain of ageing and being in love. A lot of those kind of things aren’t very cool anymore, if they ever were, but I don’t think he cares about any of that now. He’s done everything. He’s written everything. He’s just the most famous musician in the whole world, jamming around in his studio for fun, and somehow out pops an incredibly coherent album, a last little musical present from the master. I couldn’t be happier about it.

AOTM October 2020 – Sufjan Stevens ‘The Ascension’

Sufjan Stevens' Sprawling The Ascension Seeks Solace in Pessimism | Review  | Consequence of Sound

Well, this is going to be an interesting Album of the Month.

Each one of us on the blog/pod has a history with Sufjan Stevens. Some longer than others, some with more passion than others. But that doesn’t mean that we agree on all things Sufjan. Quite the opposite it appears. And if there was a Sufjan album to force a wedge between our personal preferences … then this is it.

My history with Sufjan was a little delayed given the wave of adoration that followed ‘Illinois’. Apparently I was a little slow on the uptake. Illinois was released in 2005 (gulp). I didn’t get to it until around 2009. I can mark the time well as my wife was pregnant with my first child and we (over) played it to death. She didn’t have the greatest pregnancy and now can’t listen to the album as it is so synonymous with feeling sick and bloated. Not Sufjan’s fault but still. I then bought the Age of Adz the day after my daughter was born. This album marked a seismic change in instrumentation from Sufjan … one that came with a very mixed (and in the case of David, surprisingly aggressive) reaction. I loved it, but hey, I’d just had a little girl. I would have loved most things.

Then came a silly Xmas album in 2012 … and then in 2015 we chose Carrie and Lowell (C&L) as album of the month. And I think we all agreed it’s close to perfection. As albums that I love to cry along to go, it’s right up there with Put Your Back N 2 it by Perfume Genius. It’s deeply personal, beautifully sparse, hypnotically produced and perfectly written.

A bunch of oddities have been released between then and now. But The Ascension is Mr. Steven’s first proper album since then. Much to David’s shock, the album is ‘Electro Sufjan’ again. But I would state that it is a very different proposition to Age of Adz. Age of Adz was full of pomp and theatrical posturing. I get why some hated it. I didn’t and that’s cool.

I think this album is at least as personal and introspective as C&L. Sufjan was moving from New York to the countryside of America and didn’t have access to his banjos, guitars and traditional range of instruments. He has said that he was limited to what he could plug into his computer. For me, this album does feel like he was ‘constrained’. But I am not sure if this is in a bad way. It’s a very different Sufjan Stevens we hear on this album and I am ok with that. Some have suggested it sounds like he’s ‘trying to hard’. I think this album sounds like he’s ‘trying’, i.e. this doesn’t feel 100% natural and feels less than 100% comfortable … but I am ok with this. I think I am getting into this vulnerability.

Let’s talk about its length. It’s long! 80 minutes. Exactly 100% longer than my preferred album length. There are some long old tracks on it too. The longest, America (12 mins) was the 1st single so it’s not like we didn’t have warning. He also shared Sugar ahead of the release date which clocks in at 7+ mins. He also shared a 15 strong track list for the album. So I guess this has to be considered as a ‘double album’ which isn’t usually a good thing.

You have to make a commitment to this album. I think it only makes sense when you do. I’ve practically listened to nothing else for a whole week. And I have been rewarded. I don’t ‘love’ this yet. But I am loving listening to it. As each track starts, I know that I like each one. There are no tracks here that I would remove. This is true for very few albums. Some tracks i like. Some I love. I think a few of my all time fave Sufjan tracks are on this album. He’s a great song writer and he’s doing something very different. I think we should respect that and applaud it.

Sufjan Steven’s is one of the few artists that when he’s reviewed, lazy critics don’t simply list a bunch of people he sounds like … cause he doesn’t. Other people sound like him. However, there are moments where for the 1st time I’ve thought … oh … he’s doing a Thom Yorke thing there (Ativan) or a Caribou drum production thing (I want to die happy and a few others). I don’t think he’s mastered the electronic craft yet and is therefore referencing others but again … I’m cool with that.

There are a few moments where someone should have tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘that’s enough Sufjan’ (i) America should be an 8 minute track, the last 4 minutes? Sorry but no (ii) Ativan should be 4 mins for the same reason.

So. At this point in time. I am very glad this is in my life. I am glad he’s done what he’s done. Oh, and Video Games is such a surprise. Where did that come from? Single of the year? (I can hear all of your screaming at me for suggesting that one).

Commit to it. Give it some space and time. It does deserve it.