Tagged: Album of the month

MAY: No Shape by PERFUME GENIUS

Firstly, the hugest of apologies for the lateness of this month. It’s been a bit of month, so please forgive me.

So, onto PERFUME GENIUS. I had half-remembered that his previous album, Too Bright, had featured as an AOTM on these pages, but looking back through, perhaps that didn’t happen. Certainly, for a few of us, that album was a first real introduction to him (Joey, I know you’ve loved him for ages). And perhaps for some of us, he’s still a mystery.

If Too Bright was a progression from his interesting but sometimes noodly earlier work, No Shape is a giant leap forward into a whole new cosmos, a world of widescreen emotion, of huge songs, aching torch songs and whopping choruses. It is, whisper it, a pop album. And I say that with the hugest respect. Making interesting arthouse pop is one thing – constructing a whole album of cracking songs with amazing hooks and heartstring-tugging sequences is something else. Yes, I love this album. Yes, I REALLY love this album.

It’s not often I play an album 10 times in a row over a course of 3 days. It’s not often that I know straight away that I will playing this album for years to come. It’s not often that I rewind a few of the songs and play them again and again. I can’t think of the last album that had five songs in a row that were all so good, I was almost overwhelmed (Track 2: Slip Away to Track 6: Wreath).

So what is in this crazy alchemy that works so well. It’s not a radical departure from Too Bright in many ways – that bold camp vision of leftfield, celebratory gay pop music is still intact; it’s just bolder, brighter, sunnier. But what has really changed for me is the songwriting. The hooks, the melodies, the whole production – it’s next level shit.

I’ve been at a rather hippyish wedding of an old uni friend in Somerset. She suggested we all bring guitars and instruments down for a sing-song, which we duly did. Alex (Batesmith) brought a book of pop tunes, that had many a 90s classic in there. The biggest hit, singalong wise, of the rather bleary late night, was, surprisingly enough, Erasure’s A Little Respect. The next day, driving back on the long drive up to Leeds in sheet rain, we stuck on the Erasure song, and we were stunned by how good it was. We ended up listening to nearly the whole of their greatest hits. Fuck me, they knew how to write a pop song. If people rightly laud the Pet Shop Boys, why aren’t Erasure mentioned in the same breath? I wonder if they felt a bit too brash and less cool. But in songwriting terms, they wrote about 10 stone cold pop classics.

Why am I mentioning them? Well, there is something of their love of melody, of finding rich emotion in the camp candyfloss of pop tunes, that is right here in this album. Indeed, some of the chord changes are even reminiscent of ABBA. Again, I come to praise, not to bury. Of course, there is also some darker elements, some more oddbeat, slow burn peculiar songs of weird intensity, like Choir and quite a bit of the album’s second half. But I defy anyone not to play Wreath or Just Like Love, and not just smile at the sheer, indefatigable joy of pop music, in all its garish glory.

Perfume by name, Genius by nature.

April: Interplanetary Class Classics – The Moonlandingz

So, we come to April’s Album of the Month.  There aren’t many bands which start life as  songs on a concept album but that’s what we have here.  Sheffield’s Eccentronic Research Council released Johnny Rocket, Narcissist & Music Machine… I’m Your Biggest Fan in 2015 which slipped in an introduction to a fictional outfit called The Moonlandingz.  Fronted by Johnny Rocket (aka Lias Saoudi from Fat White Family), the story of the band’s rise and a fan’s obsession with the lead singer was narrated throughout by none other than Maxine Peake.  From there, the The Moonlandingz project gathered pace as Sean Lennon got on board to take care of production duties (this was post-Lennon witnessing a Fat White Family show at South by South-West in 2014, from which he bestowed the six piece with the accolade of their being one of the best live bands he’d ever seen).  Describing themselves as a semi-fictional outsider Ouija pop group, singles spawned: Sweet Saturn Mine which had already appeared on the Johnny Rocket album (promotional video starring the aforementioned Maxine Peake) and a precursor to the album collection at the back end of 2016 Black Hanz.

But it was to be the utterly gorgeous, swooping, majestic single, The Strangle of Anna, which piqued my interest.  I’m a sucker for wall of sound era ballideering and there’s something magnetic and beguiling about this most sumptuous of serenades that just drew me in and made me pick this album for this month.  I’m a fan of the criminally underrated Slow Club as well, and lead singer Rebecca Taylor contributes beautifully here.  Elsewhere, the album itself is a peculiar beast and it’s never what you expect although there is a glam rock, dark and dirty core which The Strangle of Anna aside, it doesn’t tend to veer particularly from.  There’s political commentary in the form of I.D.S. but I’ll be honest, the clever hook concerning forty-thousand years of Job Club could and should have been expanded on.  It feels like a smart idea not taken any further which, given the times we’re in at the moment, is guilty of being an open goal missed.

It’s a consistent record which doesn’t have many down points for me.  I love a bit of filth and up pops Randy Jones from the Village People to star in a twisted T-Rex tale which neatly summarises that pretty much every man from Stevie Wonder to the Sleaford Mods has a “Glory Hole”.  It’s a lipstick smeared, grubby tribute to the back passage and is basically a celebratory four minutes of nasty camp brilliance which you need a shower after enjoying that little bit too much.

A a footnote, not even an appearance at the end by categorically the worst singer I have ever witnessed in real life could tarnish my enjoyment of this album.  The warblings of Sean Lennon’s mum are unmistakable on This Cities Undone and she doesn’t manage to wreck proceedings (unlike the infamous live performance of Memphis Tennessee with Chuck Berry and husband John).  I would love to be one of the people who didn’t slate Yoko Ono but she was horrific at The Park at Glastonbury in 2014.  I thought I’d pop along to make my own mind up (because, y’know, there’s not much worse than an uninformed opinion) but she screamed and caterwauled through a 40 minute set, leaving with a mildly threatening “I love you…” as she wandered off at the end.  So I wasn’t expecting much when I heard she would be making a contribution here and at least they left it to its conclusion where she couldn’t do much damage to this relatively short but interesting collection.

FEBRUARY: Sampha – Process

I first heard Sampha’s “who IS this?!” talents on this very blog, back in 2014, on “Wonder Where We Land?”. It wasn’t an album I really thought was my thing, and even on fifth listen, let alone first, it felt too odd, too patchwork, to take hold. But it did, and it was the incredible “Gon Stay” that pulled me in. But that, despite coming back to the album over the next two years, was all I encountered of the South Londoner until now. Having encountered “Process”, I feel a little foolish for this now.

But if it’s a debut album that’s taken a while to land, then it’s every bit the reward for being teased out. And while it’s a cliche, it’s more than just about the music here, as mesmerising as it is. These days we crave ‘story’, but the tale behind a work for an artist that’s worked with the likes of Drake, Solange, Frank Ocean and Kanye is one worth touching on, because it frames the album like an unseen assistant, a shadow over the lyrics and music that can’t be ignored. The Morden resident was a nascent musician as a child, but his adult life has been pockmarked by tragedy, his existence moving from single parent – his father Joe died of lung cancer in 1998 – to orphaned son, as his mother passed away from the same disease in 2015 in between his second EP and the album’s release.

It’s easy to talk of emotion and candour in music, such is the ubiquity of artists on social media, baring their souls (in 140 characters at a time) but Process feels exactly as that single word befits: a young man coming to terms with his place in the world as he comes to terms with love, life and loss in modern, isolating city life. His own health scares also sit behind the words of the record, and time and again the emotions are front and centre, with that incredible voice not slotting into others’ productions, but acting as another instrument in itself, and sounding the most powerful and piercing that it has yet. “Blood On Me” is a beautiful record, its staccato beats echoing modern hip-hop, but the piano’s chords carry punch, and the words speak of a man spinning close to the edge of control.

In fact, the feeling is one of boundary-free music, with Sampha’s soul pouring out unrestrained, even as the clever time signatures of “Kora Sings” or the simple arrangements of “Take Me Inside” cascade into multi-tracked synth and vox like a burst of of colour, despite the darkness of many of the lyrics. The pace may often be slow, but the energy and heft is always there, and even at first listen it’s a beguiling proposition. And for all the tales of suffering and anguish, the truth is that beneath all of it is a hugely talented musician.

The reviews are stellar, because the album has all the makings of a modern classic. A man whose career has been stop-start, halted by tragic episodes that may be the making of him. From all the heartache often comes the best music, and this is a stunning piece of work from a new British artist we should cherish.

DECEMBER: We Got It From Here… – A Tribe Called Quest

Ach, so late on this one. Soooooo sorry.

I mean, there’s not much to say in a weird way, is there? After an EIGHTEEN YEAR gap, and after losing one of the group’s cornerstones and founder members, Phife Dawg, and without much of a contribution from Ali Shaheed, who would be have been surprised if ATCQ would have returned with something a bit tired, a bit old, a bit derivative.

Instead, they rock up with one of the albums of the year and add a genuine new chapter to an already glittering career. Like Bowie’s Blackstar, this album is one you’d be happy to put next to their finest like their debut or Midnight Marauders.

Let’s be clear: they’re not totally reinventing themselves, and there is something enjoyably familiar about hearing that ATCQ sound. But what makes this such a thrilling listen is to hear Q-Tip and the crew sounds so vital, so passionate, so playful and so political.

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. The first four or five songs are all stone cold classics, and almost every contribution brings out the best in everyone – the tracks with Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak are all total standouts. It also rewards repeated plays, and each time I find a new track that I’ve overlooked.

If there’s a criticism, it’s maybe that with it’s a touch overlong, and with the loss of 2 or 3 tracks, it would have been flawless. But actually, there’s not really a track I dislike intensely, and I love nearly all of it.

Welcome back ATCQ. The world missed you. The world needs you.

September: Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

It’s hard to believe that Michael Kiwanuka was being touted as a next big thing a whole four years ago, by BBC Introducing, hot off the back of a fantastic debut single “Home Again”. I loved that at the time but it’s fair to say I’d forgotten about him in the intervening years.

And so while we fretted about the lack of a physical Frank Ocean album, back he popped again. Not randomly: I’d seen him light up Later… earlier in the year with Black Man In A White World, above. It encapsulated why I loved that single back then and – finally – seemed like we may see more of a next big thing, before he became a “whatever happened to…”?

So what do you get with Kiwanuka? It’s not flashy or hip or cool, but that’s the attraction. Sounding like he’s got one foot in Marvin Gaye’s house and one in a smoky basement club in London, it’s modern soul at it’s best. No syrupy production, and while there’s strings, Love & Hate isn’t pastiche, it’s at it’s best an album that’s accessible from the start, with lyrics and a voice that feel heartfelt and powerful.

There’s a lot to love: from Father’s Child with it’s raw, stripped back opening, opening into a chorus of backing vocals and crisp drums. Or Black Man… a track that feels very prescient in today’s world. I’m also a sucker for a long opening track (see Station To Station or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), and Cold Little Heart is a thing of beauty.

There’s nothing showy, but really in a world of artifice, PR, overproduction, compression, auto tune, this feels much more authentic than any of that without ever trying too hard. And lord knows we need some of that. it’s helpful that Kiwanuka is a genuinely lovely person. I just wish I’d seen him at Glastonbury now.

I’m starting to fall for this record after only a couple of listens, and that’s not something I say often. I hope you feel the same.

APRIL – ‘Malibu’ – Anderson .Paak

anderson-paak-malibuFor me, first and foremost this is a ‘soul’ album. There is extensive genre hopping on Mr. .Paak’s second album, but the overall impact as a body of work to me feels like soul.

As with my last AOTM (Miguel), Anderson .Paak is a mult-instrumentalist-singer-songwriter with some added rapper-ness for good measure. This is  lot less ‘love-sexy’ (R&B?) than Miguel and I think perhaps an easier listen for Brother Guy? I saw a number of very good reviews for this album but I fully engaged with it when I was in London for a very long day’s work on trains and walking across town. I got to listen to the album probably 4-5 times throughout the day and it put a big fat smile on my face.

This guys singing voice is gorgeous, his singing based tracks feel organically soulful and emotionally driven. There’s a sense of humour running through the album that  really resonates with me. It would take me far too long to reference all of the lyrics that hit home for me because the song-writing is so good and so mature. The album feels very socially conscious without ever feeling preachy. He’s obviously had an emotionally troubled life which he uses for inspiration in a very measured manner, never played for effect or thrust in the listeners face (ears?). Never greater than on the last track, ‘The Dreamer’ tell me you don’t love that track and it’s message?

There’s obvious Kendrick Lamar influences weaved through these tracks. You will hear it when you listen to it initially. I understand that the albums were recorded almost at the same time though so it would be interesting to understand how the artists arrived at relatively similar  places independently. They both worked with Dre extensively on Compton and come from the same music back-yard. As you continue to listen the Kendrick Lamar references soften (or they did for me but perhaps cause I have not listen to Pimp A Butterfly that much) and it blossoms as something quite different.

I hope you enjoy.

MARCH: Chaleur Humaine by Christine & The Queens

So this is a confusing one. Christine isn’t her real name: it’s Héloïse. And she’s not straight, but she’s not gay, or she might be, or something in between. This record was a massive hit in her native France, but that was two years ago, and then it came out in the USA, but that was a slightly different version of the album – and now it’s out in the UK, but that’s a different version from both of the previous one. She’s re-recorded some of the songs in English, but not others, and there are two new songs and two less of the old ones.

As I say, you may already be confused. And just to add to your confusion, I have a copy of the original French version (the song ‘Tilted’, for example, is ‘Christine’ in French, and the Perfume Genius song is just a bonus track). I wanted the French version as I’m currently working with Canal Plus so I’m trying to listen to as much as I can!  Anyway, I will TRY to review the English language version.

All this confusion aside, it all becomes a lot more simple when you listen to Christine AKA Heloise’s debut, in whatever language or form it comes. This isn’t the first female front bit of Euro electro pop I’ve put forward for the blog (indeed, my last offering was the wonderful Susanne Sundför), but when there’s so much good stuff out there, it seems a shame not to share it. This is an extraordinary debut, full of muscular songwriting, beautifully and tautly arranged. It doesn’t feel like a drum programme or a string quartet or a single sung note is out of place. But neither is it overly tasteful or bland. Christine is clearly a woman who’s struggled/struggling with her demons, and a cloud of longing and sadness hangs over many of the best songs (Paradis Perdus, Narcissus is Back). It’s so hard to write pop music of this quality and built with such solid foundations. Hype can be a terrible thing, but Chaleur Humaine is well worth its Pitchfork 8.0 and its Guardian 5 stars.

The only caveat for me is that, having bought the French version (a RIGHT ball ache – via Ebay from Germany!), I do think the original is actually better. Not becuase more of it is in French, but because two of the best songs (Chaleur Humaine and Ugly-Pretty) have been excised in favour of the two songs featuring guest artists. It’s an understandable move, especially considering Perfume Genius having a fanbase in the UK and USA, but actually, they’re the weakest songs. So if you get the chance to check out those two tracks, do add them to your listening experience.

French artists so rarely make a breakthrough into English speaking audiences. I know this only too well from research into the French 60s artists I’m doing at the moment. Gainsbourg barely bothered the UK or USA charts in his lifetime; Francoise Hardy has had one English language hit in her whole 50 year career. Who knows if Héloïse Letissier will succeed where they failed – but on the basis of this, she certainly deserves to.