Posted in Album of the Month, New Albums, podcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ep 22 – Big Thief – Dragon, New Warm Mountain … This Is Not Happening – An Album Of The Month Podcast

Last month we shared our thoughts on Small World by Metronomy, all 9 tracks and 35 minutes worth. This month This Is Not Happening ups the ante with 'Dragon, New Mountain …', all 20 tracks and 80 minutes worth.  In part 1, we deep dive into the density of Big Thief and Part 2 we play 'Spin It or Bin It?' where we judge the tracks that we've chosen for this month's theme.Part 1 – Album of the MonthThis month it's David's choice, 'Dragon…' by Big Thief. Three of us love Big Thief and have more than a passing relationship with the band … whilst one of us is a Big Thief virgin. There was SO much written about this album as soon as it came out including a number of 100% reviews.  As always, we take a slower, more considered approach to criticism, living with this album for a couple of months and letting it really settle in before we reflect and share our views.You don't have to look to far to find interviews, reviews and videos on Big Thief and this album but some of the content that we consumed and discussed in part 1 can be found below;The Metacritic review page is always a goo start and can be found hereThis is a great listen – 'Out On The Line' Podcast Really insightful take on the album – 'Taking it Down' PodcastIf you love them … or not, this one's got you covered – 'NY Times' PodcastA great article in Vulture – read it herePart 2 – 'Spin it' or 'Bin it?'In the second part of this episode we get stuck into 4 tracks representing this months theme – 'Not on Spotify'. We all pick a track,  introduce our track and ask the others the painfully binary critical question; 'spin it' or 'bin it?' This month was a little more 'free form' than usual … but an amusing listen none the less!Guy's track selection is – Prassay – KrvsinDavid's track selection is – Nick Drake – I Was Made to Love MagicNolan's track selection is – Pharoahe Monch – F YouJoey's track selection is – Joanna Newsome  – '81Next MonthEpisode #23 will be with you soon – Joey will be leading the discussion on 'Life on Earth' by Hurray for the Riff Raff. If you get the chance we'd love you to have a listen and perhaps share some thoughts with us on the blog or on our Insta. This album's getting a lot of positive attention and we think it's going to be in a few year end lists.Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that's not enough for you then there's 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We'd love to see what you think.  
  1. Ep 22 – Big Thief – Dragon, New Warm Mountain …
  2. Ep 21 – Metronomy – Small World
  3. Ep 20 – Album Club – Modern Classics
  4. Ep 19 – Joy Crookes – Skin
  5. Ep 18 – Our Top 10 Albums of 2021

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

Part 1 – Album of the Month

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

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

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

Part 2 – ‘Spin it’ or ‘Bin it?’

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

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

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

Next Month

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

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

April AOTM: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

Ah, the double album. What a complicated thing you are. How many double albums would make a better single album? Well, all of them, you could argue. But I think that, at its best, a double album that can offer something so much richer, shaggier and more honest about a band/artist and where it’s at than a nicely curated single. I’m thinking Sign ’O The Times. I’m thinking Tusk. And, of course, I’m thinking The White Album.

What do all those albums have in common? They’re sprawling. They’re free-wheeling. They encompass quite a few different genres and sounds within one record. Sometimes, they’re a sound of a band creaking at the edges, or falling apart. Oh, and they probably have a track or two we could do without. Not even the die-hardest Beatle fan (and I speak as one) would cry many tears if Wild Honey Pie or Don’t Pass Me By had failed to make the White Album final cut.

So where does Dragon (please don’t make me type out the full name of the album, which I’m sure we all agree is a fucking abomination of a title) sit amongst this? I guess we have to first acknowledge the extraordinary rise of Big Thief. The Brooklyn based quartet seem to have hit a crazy sweet spot somewhere between Americana traditionalists and indie wunderkinds. They encompass both the hipster Brooklyn where they live and the rural Minnesota and Texas of Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek’s childhoods. Over the course of 5 increasingly confident albums, they’ve gone from new kids on the block to Grammy nominations and critical adoration. People FUCKING LOVE Big Thief. I’m one of them.

I first came across them about 5 years ago when I saw a Tiny Desk concert. The sound! The intensity! I was immediately smitten:

And yes, despite that, there is something elusive about them. I love them, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why they seem to do this stuff better than any of their contemporaries. Throw a rock in Brooklyn, and presumably you’d hit someone from an Americana indie band on the head. Is it just the songwriting? The passion of Lenker, and the interplay between her and Meek? Their appeal is hard to quantify. And as they’ve got bigger, there’s also been the beginnings of an inevitable backlash, a kind of ’what’s so special about Big Thief?’ This excellent NYT podcast does a good job of exploring this, especially as the host is one of those doubters: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-enigma-of-big-thief/id120315823?i=1000552637027

So what about the album? Christ, where to start? Well, it feels both like a progression from the excellent U.F.O.F. and Two Hands albums, and a giant leap forward – and perhaps also sideways, up, down, and in several directions at once. The variety of the songs is a bit dizzying, and it takes quite a bit of time to digest. Indeed, I still tend to listen to either the first or the second half of the album in one sitting, which is perhaps a strong hint that it’s almost TOO rich at times. In fact, if I’m being honest, I was confused about my initial response, and that was partly because the band had been slowly leaking songs onto Spotify, and EVERY SINGLE one of those songs were astonishing – so the more rag-tag, messy nature of the album felt almost like an anticlimax at first.

But as I stuck with it, every part of it began to grow on me. I started to love the stylistic changes, the random turns left and right. I began to enjoy the journey, the ambition, the blind optimism of committing this many songs to disc and having the confidence to just chuck it out there and let the audience work it out for themselves. I don’t think it’s always an easy listen, and it certainly has some weaker moments amongst many absolutely breathtaking songs.

Before we get into the songs, I want to say that I found it really handy breaking it up into the 4 parts of the album. It really helps make sense of the record and of the sequencing.

DISC 1/SIDE 1

The first few songs set up the schizophrenic nature of the album – CHANGE is classic Big Thief, as astonishing that might be one of the best songs they’ve ever written. TIME ESCAPING is a totally different beast, like a wonky pop song with that strange industrial rhythm section. And then, third track – WTF, they’re doing a really goofy country song, SPUD INFINITY, with a title as daft as the track. It’s certainly bold curation, I’ll give them that! CERTAINTY is a lovely duet that heads back into Laura Cantrell-style modern country. And then DRAGON (the title track) – what a glorious song, like a lost Dolly Parton ballad.

SIDE 2

Opens with SPARROW, which perhaps outstays its 5 minute run time, the first track I felt wasn’t quite essential. But then – boom! – into Cocteau Twins (yes, really!) territory with LITTLE THINGS. Couple of tracks later, FLOWER OF BLOOD sounds like a 80s/90s 4AD band, all feedback and grungy guitars. Next track BLURRED VIEW is a creepy lo-fi thing, with crappy drum machine (or crappy drums!) and Adrienne whispering/muttering darkly into the mic. Repetitive and weird. On we go.

DISC 2/SIDE 3

What an opener. RED MOON is a personal favourite, a proper Lucinda Williams country song that’s robust and cheerful (‘that’s my grandma!’). NO REASON is another astonishing ballad and another highlight, with a chorus that will not leave your brain. This song runs round my head all the time. WAKE ME UP TO DRIVE is a bit of a dirge, but I like its lo-fi energy. But A PROMISE IS A PENDULUM is amazing, delicate and lovely.

SIDE 4

So this is maybe where the album runs out of steam for me a little. Yes, it has one of the very best tracks on the album, SIMULATION SWARM. But I do wonder if too many of the last side’s tracks feel like a retread of earlier material. 12,000 LINES is lovely, but LOVE LOVE LOVE’s crunchy indie is a bit exhausting. THE ONLY PLACE feels like quite a minor tune. BLUE LIGHTNING is a lot of fun and sounds very much like the jam session it undoubtedly is, but by then I’m exhausted! And when I listen on Spotify, I often find myself thinking – oh is this the last song? And it’s not. Not a good sign!

So there we have it. It’s glorious, it’s confusing, it’s a mess, it’s ambitious. I guess the big question is – why did they make a double album? My guess is that they wanted to stretch their wings. They’ve made glorious single albums that work as a whole. They’re clearly prolific – look at the fact they released TWO albums – both amazing – in one year in 2019. They seem to me, on listening to this, that they’re just bursting with ideas, and they wanted to try out as many as possible. Whether that works for you will depend on how much you like ’em in the first place, and how tolerant you are of all these experiments, some of which are pretty free-wheeling.

For me, it works. It’s a wonderful album with some of the best songs of their career, but perhaps it just outstays its welcome a tiny bit. Having said all that, are there many songs I’d cull? Not really. Could they have made a more succinct single album? Well of course they could. Do I love that it’s a double album? I bloody do. Do I feel like I know the band better as a result? You betcha. Is it an occasionally frustrating listen? Of course it is: it’s a double album.

Posted in Music chat, New Tunes

The Return of Mitski

Mitski – The Only Heartbreaker

We loved loved loved Mitski’s Be The Cowboy in 2018, and she’s back with a new album – Laurel Hell – in February 2022. Before this lands there’s a fantastic new EP, which takes in 3 sumptuous tracks including this upbeat, synth and guitar-pop of The Only Heartbreaker. Roll on next year!

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

OCTOBER: Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

This album is currently or has been number one in over 20 countries. Eilish is genuine, bona fide A list pop star – she sits alongside the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas at the top table. Her clothes, her love life, her age, her gender, her fanbase, her lyrics and her career in general have all been dissected over and over again by the press and also by her fans. This is an album about what that feels like. Perhaps that’s not so strange – plenty of of pop stars have sung about life in the fast lane. But what is strange is what Happier Than Ever represents. Eilish is a pop star who makes pop music. You all know I’ll defend the P word to my death. But what extraordinarily INTERESTING place pop music has gone in the last decade or so. Sure, it’s been heading that way for quite a while – but it’s certainly a long way from the Pussycat Dolls and Girls Aloud to this album. It’s the total antidote to those artists. It’s not manufactured, there is no ‘persona’ that Eilish appears to hide behind, and the entire album is not written by a team of crack songwriters, with a list of producers as long as the tracklist. The whole thing, from songwriting to production, was made by Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas. Not a single other musician plays on the entire album.

So if it’s not pop in the old-fashioned sense, then what is it? Well – Happier Than Ever is intimate, downbeat, incredibly personal, political, angry, frustrated, passionate, world-weary, poetic, sexy, goofy and funny. And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s also as tightly constructed as a piece of Swiss watch-making, and it has the best sequencing of any album I’ve heard this year. I’ve tried to find flaws, but dammit, I’m having to look very hard. In short, it is FUCKING AMAZING.

What’s really interesting is what a rich, satisfying listen this is despite the aural palette of the album not really being that wide. Songs tend to come in two flavours – the first is somewhere between synth ballad and pastoral folk (Getting Older, Billie Bossa Nova, Everybody Dies) and sultry, stripped-back grooves with a hint of darkness and even foreboding (I Didn’t Change My Number, Lost Cause, Oxycontin). It’s hardly an upbeat album, but it certainly feels like a more mature and emotionally diverse offering than her first record, brilliant though her debut was by anyone’s standards. So why does this palette work so well on this record? Because it’s a journey. Because each song is a perfect, self-contained composition that’s been crafted beautifully – but then sequenced on a record that takes us through a giant walk through Eilish’s life right now.

We kick off with Getting Older, a rumination on what she’s about to explore through the album – how she can see herself growing, where she’s finding self doubt, trying to process the things that have already happened to her – and then suddenly ending with the bullet of the last extraordinary couplet –

I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna
Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time

And then she does. A toxic (former?) relationship in I Didn’t Change My Number – which she returns to in the title track Happier Than Ever; a secret new relationship on Billie Bossa Nova that’s then referenced again in the incredible NDA, then a beautiful act of self-love and hope in My Future (one of the highlights on the album for me). On we go through lust (Oxycontin), before we really get into the meet of the record – Eilish confronting the abuse that is endemic in the industry. She touches on this repeatedly in Goldwing and the angry, brilliant Your Power. I’m trying to imagine a pop album 10 or 20 years ago that could have a track like Everybody Dies, a song that genuinely explores the fear of death. Sound of the Underground it ain’t.

And then there’s the album’s mid point, a moment turns the question right at the listener on Not My Responsibility do you know me? Really know me? Of course we don’t, despite her sharing herself right in front of us. She lays it out. This is what it feels like to be judged constantly. Would you like me to be quiet? There are plenty of artists exploring the notions of what its like to a woman in this universe, but honestly, I don’t think anyone is working at this level. That’s another thing we should discuss – the lyrics. They’re consistently brilliant, sharp, funny – they elevate the already gorgeously constructed melodies into a miniature portrait of entire story, time and time again.

So how come this downbeat, at times almost folky album doesn’t come over like Taylor Swift’s Folklore? I think the simple answer is that Eilish isn’t using the genre as a crutch to create something slightly artificial. Swift – who I actually really like – always feels like she’s calculated her every more down to the last carefully arranged artfully hung woollen cardigan. Eilish feels like this is the music that’s in her head and has come out of her mouth. The lack of gap between her work and the listener is surely one of the reasons this works so well.

Finally, a word on the production. It’s genius. Those hypnotic synths, that slightly narcotic quality to the washed-out electronic sounds. And then Billie’s voice itself – so close to your ears, it’s like she’s whispering into them. I wonder if she’s used that same crazy Binaural head mic that Perfume Genius used on No Shape. It reminds me hugely of that intimacy mixed with very emotional electronica. God it’s good.

Something to share as we think about our response to this record….For some reason, YouTube’s not allowing me to embed any of the songs from album – but it is allowing to embed this extraordinary conversation below – ‘When Billie Met Stormzy’. Apart from it being a total joy to watch two such engaging stars who clearly have such a love for each other’s work (in particularly, Stormzy fanboying over Eilish is just gorgeous), it’s fascinating to see two artists recognise the other’s care and craft in their work. They’re not where they are by accident. They’re both so talented, they’re almost freakishly so by normal human standards. So it’s easy to think that Eilish might not be the real thing because she’s so young or that she’s secretly propped up a production team. The opposite is of course true, as this interview reminds us – she got signed when she was 14 because she is just INSANELY talented.

Happier Than Ever is, by surely anyone’s definition, one of the albums of the year. Indeed, it might well be my album of the year. I mean, what else could really be this well-realised, this articulate, this full of incredible song, giant hooks, intimate whispers?

Man, I’m overheated, can’t be defeated
Can’t be deleted, can’t un-believe it.

We’d better believe it. Bille Eilish is here to stay for a long time. This is only the next step on her journey, but what a fucking step it is.

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

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…

Posted in Album of the Month, New Tunes, podcast

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)

Posted in Album of the Month, New Tunes

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. 

Posted in Album of the Month, New Tunes

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.