Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, podcast

Podcast Episode 29 | Ab Soul | Herbert

Our first AOTM episode in 2023 finds us exploring Ab Soul's 'Herbert' in Part 1 and we focus on New Music for 'Spin It or Bin It' in Part 2.Part 1 | Album of the Month | Ab Soul | HerbertIt's Nolan's choice this month and he's taking us to his spiritual home – Hip Hop with Ab Soul's late 2022 release, 'Herbert'. For once, we're all coming to this artist pretty fresh . Nolan's been banging on about the singles from this album for like 6 months so giving the album some extended love seems a natural choice.If you've not heard it, we think it's well worth a listen …Go listen to the album – HereGo watch some videos – HereGo buy some merch – Here Our discussion focuses on how we'd describe the album, mental health, suicide and how these topics impact the album, the length of the album, the bangers and of course we touch on a few of the clangers too.We mention a few things that we'd highly recommend checking out, so here are the links;YouTube interview with Charlamagne Tha God – HereGQ interview – HereJoey's alternative, 10 track playlist that focuses on the bangers – HereGuy's alternative, 11 track playlist that focuses on the narrative – HerePart 2 | Spin It or Bin It | 'New Music' (Nov '22 onwards)We all pick a tack based on a theme and present to the rest of us to ask the simple question, Spin it or Bin it? The theme this month is a simple one 'New Music'. The only rule is that the track has to be released after November 2022. We chose albums from as far a field as Doncaster and Russia.David chose – 'Nothing Left to Loose' by Everything But the Girl Nolan chose – 'Like a Heart Won't Beat' by Skinny Pelembe  Joey chose – 'Let's Hold Our Hands Together' by Kito JempereDavid chose – 'Gorilla' by Little SimzNext MonthDavid is in the hot seat for AOTM and he's bringing Rozi Plain's new album 'Prize' to the table. We're all getting stuck in and seeing how we live with the album for a month or so. In Part 2, 'Spin It or Bin It?' will be a good one too … the theme next month is Protest Music.We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/
  1. Ep 29 | Ab-Soul | Herbert
  2. Ep 28 | 2022 Top 10 Albums + Top Tracks
  3. Ep 27 | Sudan Archives | Natural Brown Prom Queen
  4. Ep 26 – Hot Chip – Freakout / Release
  5. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights

Our first AOTM episode in 2023 finds us exploring Ab Soul’s ‘Herbert’ in Part 1 and we focus on New Music for ‘Spin It or Bin It’ in Part 2.

Part 1 | Album of the Month | Ab Soul | Herbert

It’s Nolan’s choice this month and he’s taking us to his spiritual home – Hip Hop with Ab Soul’s late 2022 release, ‘Herbert’. For once, we’re all coming to this artist pretty fresh . Nolan’s been banging on about the singles from this album for like 6 months so giving the album some extended love seems a natural choice.

If you’ve not heard it, we think it’s well worth a listen …

  • Go listen to the album – Here
  • Go watch some videos – Here
  • Go buy some merch – Here 

Our discussion focuses on how we’d describe the album, mental health, suicide and how these topics impact the album, the length of the album, the bangers and of course we touch on a few of the clangers too.

We mention a few things that we’d highly recommend checking out, so here are the links;

  • YouTube interview with Charlamagne Tha God – Here
  • GQ interview – Here
  • Joey’s alternative, 10 track playlist that focuses on the bangers – Here
  • Guy’s alternative, 11 track playlist that focuses on the narrative – Here

Part 2 | Spin It or Bin It | ‘New Music’ (Nov ’22 onwards)

We all pick a tack based on a theme and present to the rest of us to ask the simple question, Spin it or Bin it? The theme this month is a simple one ‘New Music’. The only rule is that the track has to be released after November 2022. We chose albums from as far a field as Doncaster and Russia.

  1. David chose – ‘Nothing Left to Loose’ by Everything But the Girl 
  2. Nolan chose – ‘Like a Heart Won’t Beat’ by Skinny Pelembe  
  3. Joey chose – ‘Let’s Hold Our Hands Together’ by Kito Jempere
  4. David chose – ‘Gorilla’ by Little Simz

Next Month

David is in the hot seat for AOTM and he’s bringing Rozi Plain’s new album ‘Prize’ to the table. We’re all getting stuck in and seeing how we live with the album for a month or so. In Part 2, ‘Spin It or Bin It?’ will be a good one too … the theme next month is Protest Music.

We’ve been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/

Posted in Album of the Month, podcast

Podcast Episode | Top 10 Albums & Top Tracks of 2022

Our first AOTM episode in 2023 finds us exploring Ab Soul's 'Herbert' in Part 1 and we focus on New Music for 'Spin It or Bin It' in Part 2.Part 1 | Album of the Month | Ab Soul | HerbertIt's Nolan's choice this month and he's taking us to his spiritual home – Hip Hop with Ab Soul's late 2022 release, 'Herbert'. For once, we're all coming to this artist pretty fresh . Nolan's been banging on about the singles from this album for like 6 months so giving the album some extended love seems a natural choice.If you've not heard it, we think it's well worth a listen …Go listen to the album – HereGo watch some videos – HereGo buy some merch – Here Our discussion focuses on how we'd describe the album, mental health, suicide and how these topics impact the album, the length of the album, the bangers and of course we touch on a few of the clangers too.We mention a few things that we'd highly recommend checking out, so here are the links;YouTube interview with Charlamagne Tha God – HereGQ interview – HereJoey's alternative, 10 track playlist that focuses on the bangers – HereGuy's alternative, 11 track playlist that focuses on the narrative – HerePart 2 | Spin It or Bin It | 'New Music' (Nov '22 onwards)We all pick a tack based on a theme and present to the rest of us to ask the simple question, Spin it or Bin it? The theme this month is a simple one 'New Music'. The only rule is that the track has to be released after November 2022. We chose albums from as far a field as Doncaster and Russia.David chose – 'Nothing Left to Loose' by Everything But the Girl Nolan chose – 'Like a Heart Won't Beat' by Skinny Pelembe  Joey chose – 'Let's Hold Our Hands Together' by Kito JempereDavid chose – 'Gorilla' by Little SimzNext MonthDavid is in the hot seat for AOTM and he's bringing Rozi Plain's new album 'Prize' to the table. We're all getting stuck in and seeing how we live with the album for a month or so. In Part 2, 'Spin It or Bin It?' will be a good one too … the theme next month is Protest Music.We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/
  1. Ep 29 | Ab-Soul | Herbert
  2. Ep 28 | 2022 Top 10 Albums + Top Tracks
  3. Ep 27 | Sudan Archives | Natural Brown Prom Queen
  4. Ep 26 – Hot Chip – Freakout / Release
  5. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights

It’s that time of year again, we dust off David’s scoring-algorithm for the end of year review. This is the one we look forward to and we hope you enjoy it.

This month, in Part 1 we run through our collective, This is Not Happening Top-10 albums. In Part 2 we all introduce our Track of the year.

Part 1 | 2022 This is Not Happening Top 10 Albums

So, there’s for of us. We all independently chose our Top 10 albums. This data is fed into deep learning algorithm that considers all of the knowns and most of the unknowns and create a singular, collective This is Not Happening Top 10. Its a controversial approach but its as fair as we can make it. 

This year only 2 albums were chosen by all 4 of us. Only 3 albums were chosen by 3 of us. However, the Top 10 feels more ‘shared’ than we’ve ever done. I think it’s a really solid top 10 and we should be proud of it.

Our number one is an absolute belter! We can hold our heads high with this one.

Part 2 | Tracks of the Year

How do you sum up an entire year in one track? Is it even possible? Two, important  questions, to which our answers are; ‘with difficulty’ and ‘yes’. We chose 4 tracks from 4 different genres. There’s more than a whiff of melancholy that links our Top tracks but we think is kind of fitting for one of the oddest of years.

Next Month

If we’re honest, we’re not 100% sure what we’ll be reviewing. Every year there are albums released later in the year that we miss or simply don’t have the time to get our teeth into. So Nolan will pick one of these albums and we’ll all spend the holidays getting stuck into that with our families (if it’s vaguely appropriate for very young or very old ears).

Posted in Music chat, New Tunes, podcast, Spin it or Bin It, Tracks of the Month

Song for an Entrance | Joey

This months’ theme is ‘entrance music’. We all pick our event or occasion (for us to enter) and a track that suits both us and the occasion (and hopefully something that the other brothers want to ‘spin’, rather than ‘bin’).

I’ve considered a number of different occasions but have picked a very specific event for which I’ll probably need to paint you a picture.

The setting for my story is a powerlifting gym in any unfashionable northern town, pick any, it doesn’t really matter. It’s about 20 mins off the M62 or perhaps off the M61 (again, it doesn’t really matter). It’s on the 2nd floor of the old mill building above a carpet warehouse, the paint’s peeling off the walls and it smells like, well, it smells like a powerlifting gym. There’s just enough room for a handful of family, friends and training partners. They’re either standing against the walls between squat racks or perched on benches.

You’re at your first powerlifting competition, except that word doesn’t really matter, nobody’s competing against each other, just themselves. 18 stone veterans, 7 stone first time teenage lifters and everything in between. Everybody cheers for everybody. Nobody wants to see anyone fail any lift.

Each lifter is allowed 60 seconds to make their lift. Lifters can choose their own music. Anything (but it’s mostly Metallica). So you get a maximum 60 seconds of your chosen track … but in reality you probably don’t want to take that long.

It’s not really ‘entrance’ music as you’re probably just walking from the corner of the room to the lifting platform. It’s not much of an entrance. But your track is your own personal hype-man, slapping you on the back and screaming in your ear. It plays for the time it takes to cinch your belt, chalk up and hit the smelling salts, approach the bar and go through your well practiced max deadlift ritual.

The track has to make you feel something visceral and it has to do it quickly. It has to connect in a way that taps into something real. Something physical. It’s not necessarily about all-out aggression (though it often is), it could be a head nodder, a party anthem or … it could be Tanaka 2 by Joey Valence and Brae featuring Logic;

When I first heard this track, I did what any self respecting friend should do and sent it straight to Nolan. His immediate response was ‘This is a proper Joey track, how much could you lift to this?’ My entrance music and my setting was chosen in one what’s app response.

I’ve hit all of my lifetime best lifts to one of two tracks – Ante Up by MOP feat. Busta Rhymes or Hip Hop by Dead Prez. But what’s the point in picking the obvious tracks that we all know?

I’ve gone for Tanaka 2 as it ticks all the big-lift-boxes. It’s an immediate shot of adrenaline straight into the central nervous system. Massive early 90s vibes with obvious nods to Beastie Boys but also slabs of Public Enemy Bomb Squad production tropes all wrapped up in a contemporary (El-P influenced ?) beat. It’s got a great guest-verse by Logic but the main vocal punch is delivered by Joey Valence in verse 1 and given the 60 second lift limit we won’t need anymore than that.

And also, it’s a brand new music release which is how we like to roll on the pod where possible.

Posted in Album of the Month

AOTM | Sudan Archives | Natural Brown Prom Queen

… and the award for the best album title of 2022 goes to … Sudan Archives ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’.

Sudan Archives, AKA Brittany Parks, is a 28 year old, musical force of nature from Cincinnati, Ohio but now based in LA. Natural Brown Prom Queen is her 2nd album and it’s getting significant and well deserved attention from the press, live audiences … and This Is Not Happening. This album is a rollercoaster ride, it’s wild, frenetic, original, chaotic, ridiculously high energy, high concept, totally individual, ambitious, and above all massive fun. It fuses Pop, R&B, Hip Hop, Dance, sounds of the 90s, early naughties, contemporary times … and perhaps even the future.

If you’ve not yet heard the album, have a listen here (other streaming platforms are available).

Two pods ago, David chose ‘Topless’, the first single off the album, as his selection for ‘Spin it or bin it’. I think we all ended up spinning it but we had an interesting discussion in getting there. Topless is a brave choice for the albums’ first single as it is so divisive, I can’t imagine anyone not having a pretty strong opinion about this track. I said something along the lines of ‘this is either the best or the worst track that anyone has chosen for Spin it or bin it’. Making your mind up about the track is a lot easier if you only listen to it, when you watch the video too, it’s close to sensory overload. Therefore, I’d recommend you first listen to the track here but you can also dive straight in to the video here …

There’s a lot going on isn’t there? While this track isn’t wholly representative of the album it does point you in the right direction.

The album is 18 tracks and 54 mins long. As Nolan has pointed out, this is pretty much standard Hip Hop / R&B album length these days. But also, this kind of length has caused problems before when we’re digesting previous albums of the month. It’s much easier to digest a tight 35-40 minute album if you’re tackling a new artist or something that’s not your natural musical tastes. Brother Guy, I’m thinking of you here. And the 54 mins of this album can hardly be described as ‘easy listening’. There is so much going on here that it asks quite a lot of the listener, even if this does fall into your natural wheel-house.

For me, the 18 tracks on the album fall into 3 different phases of the album. This is something that we’ve discussed quite a lot on Whats App and I am sure will be a central point of the pod. But here are the ‘phases’ as I hear the album.

Phase 1: Track 1 (Homemaker) to Track 8 (OMG Britt)

Phase 2: Track 9 (Chevy S10) to Track 13 (Do Your Thing)

Phase 3: Track 14 (Freakalizer) to Track 18 (#513)

With such a long album I often get interrupted when I listen and don’t get as many ‘all the way through’ runs with the album as I’d like. Therefore I tend to chop the album up and the above has begun to feel like a natural(ish) division. I don’t think for a second that Ms. Parks designed it like that but it’s the reality of my listening experience.

In short, the first 3rd contains all of the singles – Topless, Selfish Soul and OMG Britt. As with so many albums these days, it’s front loaded with the hook laden, immediate attention grabbing (perhaps not ‘radio friendly’) singles. Let’s take a quick minute to talk about Selfish Soul. This is a mega track. It’s got a similar attitude, vibe and bounce to ‘Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ and like that track is close to impossible to sit still to. But, it’s also weird AF. Or perhaps ‘wonky’ as Brother David would put it. It also touches on subject matter that I’ve never heard covered like this before.

As we always do, we love to share brilliant content from other blogs, websites and pods … I MASSIVELY encourage you to listen to the Song Exploder episode on this track which you can listen to here. It’s fascinating listening to Brittany talk about the recording process – her working alone in her home recording studio and sending the track to producers and remixers who do their thing, totally independently and send it back to her. She then picks and chooses what she likes and what she doesn’t. Whilst I am sure it’s not a unique approach its certainly not a common form of ‘collaboration’ that I’ve come across. However, you can definitely hear the hand of many creatives in this album … but their input seems to be moderated and modulated by Sudan Archives to create the final product that we hear and is totally hers.

One more track to call out from this first third … only cause you’re going to hear us speak about this so much more on the Pod is OMG Britt. David and I love it but Guy hates it with a passion I’m not sure I’ve seen before (sorry Nolan not sure what you think about it yet). Sudan Archives is at her spikiest and most aggressive on this track but for me, it’s a total banger.

So what about the 2nd and 3rd ‘phases’ of this album?

Phase 2 turns to more ambitious tracks of greater scope and scale. Chevy S10 is the perfect example. At over 6 minutes it’s the longest track on the album by some way. This song itself has as many phases as the album, all quite unique, equally ambitious and intriguing. This track reminds me of some of the longer, more experimental College Dropout Tracks in its complete ignorance of the rules that govern so much music in the Hip Hop / R&B genre. Also, I hear shades of Pyramids by Frank Ocean here too?

For me, the second phase contains some of the strongest tracks on the album, ChevyS10, Copycat and Flue are super strong tracks and TDLY is sparkling in it’s oddness and is great example of the violin playing that Sudan Archives has become famous for. This phase ends with the only skit on the album which I can take or leave but its only 50 seconds long and feels like it fits.

The final phase of the album doesn’t let up in it’s vast array of styles and genre influences on display. Freakalizer marries a lovely early 90’s beat with nu-soul early 2000’s vocals in a catchy, funky track with a bunch of vocal hooks. We then move to two, perfectly crafted slow jams (Homesick and Milk Me) before we move to the final two tracks, Yellow Brick Road and #513 that both remind me of late 90’s early naughties R&B and perhaps even Trip Hop influences (particularly #513) but alway with a contemporary twist or nod.

If you can’t tell, I think this album isn’t far off being perfect. I wouldn’t lose a single track and I don’t think I’d change anything about the sequencing. I love the massive list of influences that I can hear here. I love how they’re blended so well. I love the zero fucks given to genre rules and tropes. I am not sure if I’ve heard such a confident presentation of someone doing exactly what they want to do since ‘Smiling with no teeth’ by Genesis Owusu. I think I’d argue that Sudan Archives has achieved an album with a greater level of consistency. But I also appreciate that this is less accessible than ‘Smiling’ and I know for a fact that for one of us on the Pod, this album has been a struggle.

It should be an interesting discussion. Look out for the Pod episode dropping mid November wherever you get your podcasts!

Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, podcast, Spin it or Bin It, Tracks of the Month

Podcast Ep. 26 | Hot Chip | Freakout Release

Our first AOTM episode in 2023 finds us exploring Ab Soul's 'Herbert' in Part 1 and we focus on New Music for 'Spin It or Bin It' in Part 2.Part 1 | Album of the Month | Ab Soul | HerbertIt's Nolan's choice this month and he's taking us to his spiritual home – Hip Hop with Ab Soul's late 2022 release, 'Herbert'. For once, we're all coming to this artist pretty fresh . Nolan's been banging on about the singles from this album for like 6 months so giving the album some extended love seems a natural choice.If you've not heard it, we think it's well worth a listen …Go listen to the album – HereGo watch some videos – HereGo buy some merch – Here Our discussion focuses on how we'd describe the album, mental health, suicide and how these topics impact the album, the length of the album, the bangers and of course we touch on a few of the clangers too.We mention a few things that we'd highly recommend checking out, so here are the links;YouTube interview with Charlamagne Tha God – HereGQ interview – HereJoey's alternative, 10 track playlist that focuses on the bangers – HereGuy's alternative, 11 track playlist that focuses on the narrative – HerePart 2 | Spin It or Bin It | 'New Music' (Nov '22 onwards)We all pick a tack based on a theme and present to the rest of us to ask the simple question, Spin it or Bin it? The theme this month is a simple one 'New Music'. The only rule is that the track has to be released after November 2022. We chose albums from as far a field as Doncaster and Russia.David chose – 'Nothing Left to Loose' by Everything But the Girl Nolan chose – 'Like a Heart Won't Beat' by Skinny Pelembe  Joey chose – 'Let's Hold Our Hands Together' by Kito JempereDavid chose – 'Gorilla' by Little SimzNext MonthDavid is in the hot seat for AOTM and he's bringing Rozi Plain's new album 'Prize' to the table. We're all getting stuck in and seeing how we live with the album for a month or so. In Part 2, 'Spin It or Bin It?' will be a good one too … the theme next month is Protest Music.We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/
  1. Ep 29 | Ab-Soul | Herbert
  2. Ep 28 | 2022 Top 10 Albums + Top Tracks
  3. Ep 27 | Sudan Archives | Natural Brown Prom Queen
  4. Ep 26 – Hot Chip – Freakout / Release
  5. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights

We’re back again this month with our usual format. In Part 1 we go deep on Hot Chip’s latest album, in Part 2 we play ‘Spin It or Bin It’, where we choose a theme and each bring our choice of tracks. This month the theme is ‘Dance-Pop’.

Part 1 | Album of the Month | Hot Chip | Freakout/Release

It’s Guy’s choice this month and he chooses the one of his favourite band’s latest release. It’s always interesting when one of us chooses a band that they love and have loads of history with. 

Listen to the album – Here

The chat focuses around our initial impressions, favourite tracks, the difficulty of maintaining relevance and engagement on your 8th album … and we all have something to say on the sequencing of tracks on this album.

Guy has curated a 28 track playlist called ‘Hot Chip’s Hot Hits’ – have a listen to it here

During the chat there were loads of references to Hot Chip side projects, here are a few links for you to check out;

Part 2 | Spin It or Bin It | We all choose a Dance-Pop Track

In tribute to Hot Chip, the theme for Spin It or Bin It this month is Dance-Pop. Over the course of the month we all create a play list of our favourite Dance-Pop, a shortlist of 4 tracks and then choose a track to delight (or in my case annoy) the team. This month, the 4 tracks were …

  1. Nolan chose – Robyn | Dancing On My Own
  2. Guy chose – Cassius | The Sound of Violence
  3. Joey chose – The Knife | Pass This On
  4. David chose – Soulwax | NY Excuse 

The 16 track playlist of each of our 4 shortlisted tracks can be found here and it’s a belter!

Next Month

I (
Joey) will be running the show and hosting the discussion on Sudan Archive’s 2nd album – Natural Brown Prom Queen

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, 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

Our first AOTM episode in 2023 finds us exploring Ab Soul's 'Herbert' in Part 1 and we focus on New Music for 'Spin It or Bin It' in Part 2.Part 1 | Album of the Month | Ab Soul | HerbertIt's Nolan's choice this month and he's taking us to his spiritual home – Hip Hop with Ab Soul's late 2022 release, 'Herbert'. For once, we're all coming to this artist pretty fresh . Nolan's been banging on about the singles from this album for like 6 months so giving the album some extended love seems a natural choice.If you've not heard it, we think it's well worth a listen …Go listen to the album – HereGo watch some videos – HereGo buy some merch – Here Our discussion focuses on how we'd describe the album, mental health, suicide and how these topics impact the album, the length of the album, the bangers and of course we touch on a few of the clangers too.We mention a few things that we'd highly recommend checking out, so here are the links;YouTube interview with Charlamagne Tha God – HereGQ interview – HereJoey's alternative, 10 track playlist that focuses on the bangers – HereGuy's alternative, 11 track playlist that focuses on the narrative – HerePart 2 | Spin It or Bin It | 'New Music' (Nov '22 onwards)We all pick a tack based on a theme and present to the rest of us to ask the simple question, Spin it or Bin it? The theme this month is a simple one 'New Music'. The only rule is that the track has to be released after November 2022. We chose albums from as far a field as Doncaster and Russia.David chose – 'Nothing Left to Loose' by Everything But the Girl Nolan chose – 'Like a Heart Won't Beat' by Skinny Pelembe  Joey chose – 'Let's Hold Our Hands Together' by Kito JempereDavid chose – 'Gorilla' by Little SimzNext MonthDavid is in the hot seat for AOTM and he's bringing Rozi Plain's new album 'Prize' to the table. We're all getting stuck in and seeing how we live with the album for a month or so. In Part 2, 'Spin It or Bin It?' will be a good one too … the theme next month is Protest Music.We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/We've been writing the blog for years come and have a look – https://thisisnothappening.net/
  1. Ep 29 | Ab-Soul | Herbert
  2. Ep 28 | 2022 Top 10 Albums + Top Tracks
  3. Ep 27 | Sudan Archives | Natural Brown Prom Queen
  4. Ep 26 – Hot Chip – Freakout / Release
  5. Ep 25 – Steve Lacy – Gemini Rights

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.