Posted in Album of the Month, podcast

AOTM – October – Hot Chip: Freakout / Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast Episode 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Month

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

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

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

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

SEPTEMBER: Gemini Rights – Steve Lacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good discussion for a show sometime?)

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, 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

Hello, 2022.

We’re through the hinterland of Dec/Jan release twilight and there’s some amazing new records out, many of which are from previous AOTM favourites. So here’s a little rundown from @whyohwhyohwhy of some picks.

Arlo Parks – Softly

A bit of a change-up, musically. Pace, a bit of a breaks/d’n’b feel and a big piano. Lovely.

Yard Act – Fixer Upper

It’s hardly novel to big these guys up, but this is a great track and brilliant lyrics.

Snail Mail – Valentine

I stumbled across this in my search for a Feb AOTM (before we Album clubbed it) and it’s really great guitar music, in the way that a lot isn’t around any more. The album is worth really checking out.

Mano Le Tough – Either Way

It’s like the album never really stopped….

The Weather Station – Endless Time

They did a new song. No one knew they were doing it. We all win.

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 Music chat, New Tunes

Denise Chaila – ANSEO

Irish rappers are still a pretty rare breed, though by all account it’s a fast growing scene. But even those that break out, like Rejjie Snow, end up relocating to the US, and let’s be honest, sounding 100% American.

I first heard Denise Chaila via the unbelievably charming and catchy Chaila tune last year, berating those who can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce her surname.

I love that she’s got her own distinctive voice and flow, and she’s not just trying to sound like an identkit US rapper, and it’s just so enjoyable to listen to.

But this new track, ANSEO, feels like a step further forward. A proper intro track to her world view and her vibe over a fantastically beefy beat, mixed with the whole chainmail and swords video, it feels like she’s just waiting to blow up. Which is surely what’s going to happen to her….

Her debut mixtape is here: https://denisechaila.bandcamp.com/album/go-bravely and it’s full of bangers. Denise Chaila: say her name!

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.