Gold Soundz: Songs for the Summer

Posted in Feature, List with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2015 by David Hall

Summer has definitely, belatedly made its way even to the UK, which you can tell probably most reliably not from the weather outside, but when you see releases like this being made. Obviously this is money-grabbing of the most blatant variety, those aren’t summer hits any more than any other time of year; they aren’t season-specific. Which begs the question, just what is summer music? Would any of us actually know? Well, in an attempt to answer this never-asked question, I sought out some albums that would actually suit a nice day rather well. Sometimes there’s no telling what will happen to a record in a new context, and the only way to find out is to throw it in the pool and see if it sinks or swims. So let’s get this particular witch trial underway:

Warpaint – Warpaint

Warpaint’s confident self-titled second album stands out as music perfectly suited to a stiflingly, paralysingly hot day, which demands barely a toe-tap or a laconic head nod with closed eyes. Plumbing its hazy, druggy depths proves almost mirage-like in the heat, bassy swells washing over the listener in great droning waves. ‘Keep It Healthy’ begins the album brightly with melodic guitar lines, a pleasant morning with dawning sun that hasn’t quite gotten its claws into heating the earth just yet. Compare that with the atonal and sticky twilight of ‘CC’, which pours viscously like molten magma from the listeners’ speakers with almost perceptible heat. Lead single ‘Love Is To Die’ cavorts about the listener mockingly, circling a coastal bonfire at midnight, chanting and flitting out of the moth-ridden darkness. There’s also more than a hint of feverish threat in the death march of ‘Disco//Very’, which forges aimlessly onwards into the heady evening, verses and choruses melting and melding into one another thrillingly. The overwhelming sensation however is fearsome midday heat in Warpaint; you can almost hear the buzzy chirrup of cicadas in ‘Biggy’, its keyboard riff emerging from a blanket of heat haze, whilst ‘Feeling Alright’ falls asleep in the shade, vultures circling overhead.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon

The lengthy evening shadow of Woodstock looms large over Joni Mitchell’s third album, from the brightly sparkling curtain pull of ‘Morning Morgantown’ through to the thrumming, throbbing keys of Woodstock and the existential nursery rhyme closer ‘The Circle Game’s choral chant. It’s a sparsely arranged album, sounding particularly in the title track like a slow drive through the Californian desert, lonely humanoid cacti gliding by in scrubland by the secluded roadside. Though sparing and often unadorned, Mitchell’s material is heady and perfumed, such as on the gorgeous title track. ‘Morning Morgantown’ is the most perfect capturing of a summer dawn as is imaginable, a charmingly and seemingly earnest paean to the possibilities of a new day. However, ‘Woodstock’ is much more arch, sun scorched and serious, almost apocalyptic at times in its imagery – “I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky” Mitchell sings – but ultimately hopeful in its assertion that “they were turning into butterflies above our nation”. Even the atmosphere of ‘Rainy Night House’ and its interspersed choir and cello, suggests a dusky summer evening thunderstorm rather than autumnal downpour. To paraphrase Mitchell herself, sunlight streams through curtains of ‘Conversation’s setting, her open-tuned chords sounding effervescent and thriving. Plenty of Mitchell’s output, particularly her early-to-middle period exemplified by the later Court and Spark, invokes the sunshine of the American west coast.

The Avalanches – Since I Left You

First and foremost, Since I Left You is quite simply an incredible album. It’s like the best party you’ve ever been to, and everyone has been invited. From the moment you press play, it never lets up for a moment. It’s as full of ideas and self-reference as its copious use of samples suggests, motifs recurring throughout like it is its own little self-contained universe. Track after track tagteams in, each bringing with it their own distinct personality, like ‘Two Hearts In 3/4 Time’s cut-and-paste vocal melody bleeding through ‘Avalanche Rock’ into the juddering, jungleish, almost blaxploitation-flavoured ‘Flight Tonight’, before bass dips in and out of ‘Close To You’ as if being heard through the walls. As a whole, Since I Left You is a big, open-sounding record, easily enough so to be a played at an outdoor party at great volume and be equally pleasing to all ages. It’s a sunkissed, optimistic thrill to dip casually in and out of (the bouncing beats of ‘A Different Feeling’ into ‘Electricity’ prove to be highlights, and quite rightly form the spine of the album), or to listen through.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

From the quietly percussive videogame soundalike intro of ‘Get Innocuous!’, Sound Of Silver album stretches its limbs up to a cloudless, frighteningly blue sky. The opener is soon swarming around, all clattering drums and multitracked vocals, then peeling itself back before crowding in once more. Throughout, James Murphy’s sophomore LCD record proves a very urbane album. It reeks of uncomfortably overheated concrete, of opened windows breathing out the hot air from within and shines with the fierce glare of steel and glass under a summer sun. Sound of Silver longs for night to fall and for the city’s dingy nightspots to open; it feels busy, populated. The informal party atmosphere tells tales of a misspent but regret-free youth, most notably in ‘All My Friends’, which along with ‘Someone Great’ and ‘Us V Them’ flanking it, elevates the album to a genre and period classic. The production is about as crisp as seems possible, each instrument on ‘Time To Get Away’ focussed sharply enough to cut yourself upon even as the track clutters. Finally, ‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ feels like a late night or early morning train ride home anywhere in the world, spent but already reliving the previous evenings’ exploits.

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Radiohead have always harboured a tendency to create soaring music, often hiding this light under a bushel; frequently very well, as on The King Of Limbs, which really only breaks out into the open on final track ‘Connector’. So, perhaps deservedly given the glacial atmosphere of albums like King Of Limbs or the chilly Kid A, they have earned themselves something of a maudlin reputation. To suggest In Rainbows is Radiohead’s summer album then? Surely not. And yet it works. It’s a record on which the band decided to go as full-on pop as they’ve ever been, sounding natural and full of enjoyment. On ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, Yorke describes the all but alien environ of a club – like, a nightclub, with people smiling and having a good time and stuff – over a danceable rhythm section with looping, whirling guitar parts encircling his vocal. ‘Reckoner’ stands as the highlight of the album, its monolithic, triangular upswells of strings creating giant blocks of sound in a desert-like atmosphere. ‘House Of Cards’ follows in its churning wake, again with eastern-sounding strings and a spacious, yawning mix suggestive of gigantic panorama. ‘All I Need’ sounds sunburnt and migraineous, fully realising the bands’ intention to mirror the overwhelming sonic concussion of a band playing loudly in a small room. Rumbling bass synth impels Yorke’s voice to loom over the track, who in turn seems to recognise and stoke the sweltering atmosphere, “I’m an animal, trapped in your hot car” he sings in a cloying, and disarmingly unrequited lovelorn lyric. Following up from Hail To The Thief’s form-finding swagger, In Rainbows found Radiohead in loose but immediate form, and suits long, warm days beautifully.

The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Track after track from The Field’s much-praised debut album lolls in on the breeze, like hearing a distant radio playing loud but broken snippets of songs, somewhere off in a housing project window. ‘Everday’ for example cuts and pastes Fleetwood Mac’s polite radio pop of ‘Everywhere’, drawing out from a harsh, hacking synth until Christine McVie’s vocal is whisked into a constant, looping hook that throbs and pummels and never lets go. ‘A Paw in My Face’ stretches Lionel Ritchie’s treacly ‘Hello’ into gorgeous, bleeping techno, ending as an authentic-sounding early 90’s slow jam rather than the lampoonable mid-80’s radio ballad of the original. Centrepiece ‘The Deal’ is minimal techno loving life in the open air, freed from bedroom laptops into a world of lawn sprinklers and dizzying heat.

Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene

It’s hard to choose just one record from the Canadian supergroup’s catalogue to sum up that summertime feeling, as all do it so perfectly. I’d love to go with the often-overlooked Forgiveness Rock Record, if only because it presents an opportunity to give that album a well-deserved day in the sun. The real winner however must be their second eponymous record, which is every shade of summer, from blissed out (‘Our Faces Split the Coast in Half’), through joyous (‘7/4 Shoreline’), to sweet and smiling (‘Swimmers’). Each track is a near-whitewash of vying noise, a roaring cacophony, constantly on the point of clipping. ‘Ibi Dreams of Pavement’ features Kevin Drew’s half-shouted vocal struggling to be heard above the shrieking squall of drums, synthesizers and brass, relentless and near-blinding. ‘Superconnected’ comes on like a rush of heated air, even the tempo rocketing after a much-needed midsection lull including the simmering, shimmering ‘Swimmers’. The saturated sound of Broken Social Scene perfectly encapsulates the heady, giddy thrill of the season. Days spent so long in the searing sunlight that your head throbs, that your sight is funnelled with brightness when stepping back indoors. It’s a time of overwhelming, endless-feeling possibility, a sensation that Broken Social Scene’s work encapsulates joyously.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

A jammy, noodling affair, Kurt Vile’s fifth solo album is like the most pleasant of commitment-free summer days, which starts when it starts and just keeps pressing onward irrespective of time. The opening title (ish) track stretches on endlessly towards the horizon for nearly ten minutes, seeming both longer and shorter like some sort of perspective trick, its riff repeating hypnotically and ploughing through half-formed solos and drawled verses, at once impressionistic (“Don’t worry about a thing, it’s only dying” Vile sings at one point) and at times smartly focussed and astutely observed, “I gotta think about what wisecracks I’m gonna drop along the way today”. Song titles are repeated like mantras, Vile venturing out in verses only to return to the touchstone, punning and messing with the words playfully. ‘Goldtone’ is a case in point, with its morphing chord sequence spiralling outwards like a galaxy as Vile explores the lyrics’ phonetics, all strange annunciations and unexpected rhymes and declarations. Again like the album as a whole, it feels improvisational, informal and open-ended, just as the season it represents and celebrates should be; Pretty Daze is as pretty and meandering as a summer stroll.

Sufjan Stevens – Come On Feel the Illinoise!

Twee, but never overbearingly so, Come On Feel the Illinoise! is painstakingly researched, a lush and vibrant concept album exploring the geography, communities and history of the state of Illinois. Nothing short of a tour de force, it’s spirallingly lengthy and stands as the pinnacle of Stevens’ career; it took him five years and a dramatic shift in both direction and approach to properly follow up. Even tales of cancer death, religious cults (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’) somehow manage to sound at once uncomfortably specific and personal, but also expansive and macrospective. If it’s expansive you want, Illinoise has that aesthetic in spades. Segueing in and out of characters, places and landmarks throughout its considerable running time, this is an album that demands a free afternoon or a long journey, to sit and be appreciated in full. Track-by-track however, Stevens is also generous with the hooks and choruses, with earworming chord progressions and lovely, lapping melodies that wash like sunlight onto painted walls. ‘Jacksonville’s, sawed, scale-hopping strings give way into banjos and wandering, tremulous guitar lines and pattering drums before brass pogos the track into a pleasingly ornate chorus. Also muscular in places, instrumentation towering around Steven’s trademark barely-whispered vocal on the bristling, anthemic ‘Chicago’, choirs rising and falling along with flutes and woodwind, marching band cymbals crashing like breakers all around. In amongst all this grandeur and splendour, moments like ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting…’ and the breathtaking, eerie ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ provide goosebumps, a darker, more overbearingly intimate Sufjan Stevens explored further in this year’s exceptional Carrie & Lowell, further signposting how vast and vaulted Illinoise was by comparison. It’s an album of scorching, state-sized beauty.

Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

Like Broken Social Scene, many of the 90’s alt-rock icons’ five albums would be welcome on a summer playlist, reflecting the Californian locale of the bands’ surroundings. However it’s their charmingly shambling, and correctly acclaimed, debut Slanted and Enchanted that crackles most brightly with almost solar-powered energy. The untutored, gleefully-pounded drumming of ‘Summer Babe’ opens the album as it means to go on, guitars buzzing full of warm distortion. ‘Loretta’s Scars’ jangles more, Malkmus and Spiral Stairs finding a beautiful range of textured tones for their guitars to occupy throughout Slanted, ‘Zurich is Stained’ played almost entirely cleanly for example. Melodic, high-fretted bass hovers delightfully over blankets of distortion on ‘Jackals, False Grails’, its bashed-out drum track and frenzied soloing recalling an image of sunlight breaking repeatedly through a canopy of tree branches. ‘Our Singer’ sounds frazzled, ‘No Life Singed Her’ appropriately fried and frayed around the edges, there’s barely a track that doesn’t imbue some kind of warmth. Malkmus’ drawling, free-associating wordplay mesh with his infantile, sing-song vocals is sweetly addictive and permanently optimistic-sounding. As mentioned, most if not all of Pavement’s output stands up as excellent summer material. The alt pop of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a fantastic soundtrack to a sunny day, the more structured material making for a slightly more coherent listen, with more dynamism and more build-up and release of tension. Away from the obvious single cuts ‘Range Life’ and ‘Cut Your Hair’, ‘Stop Breathin’’ and ‘Gold Soundz’ provide the keening, sun-bleached moments of uplift on Crooked Rain. Even their eclectic Wowee Zowee! middle period and more restrained and studied later records retain the same shambling, slacker mood than makes Slanted and Enchanted such a summer delight.


The ‘Blurred Lines’ Verdict: A Dangerous Precedent?

Posted in Feature, Music, Pop culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by David Hall

You can’t fail to have noticed this past week the outcome of a lawsuit from the family of late Motown legend Marvin Gaye, who sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for copyright infringement. The outcome was newsworthy because the judge in the case found in favour of the Gaye estate; turns out Williams and Thicke intentionally and wilfully ripped off ‘Got To Give It Up’ in 2013 ubiquito-hit ‘Blurred Lines’, for cold, hard profit.

Generally the verdict has been interpreted as setting a dangerous precedent, basically due to the tenuous nature of the similarities between the tracks. Highlighted in court were just two instances of simultaneity, totalling some 3 or 4 seconds of play time, and Gaye’s long-standing set-opener ‘Got To Give It Up’ (admittedly due to an injunction) wasn’t even played in court.

This article makes some good points, although it paints something of a doomsday scenario for future cases along similar lines, particularly highlighting the ‘top line melody’ argument, which seems to have been somewhat bypassed in last week’s proceeding. Usually when it comes to legal wrangles, the go-to basis for contesting similarities is that Song ‘A’s memorable, jump-out melody line is conspicuously re-appropriated at a later date by Song ‘B’. The reason why ‘Blurred Lines’, well… blurs the lines, is that the similarities between it and ‘Got To Give It Up’ are more to do with the production, the genre, the feel of the song than familiar melodies. These, say the many voices decrying the verdict, are all things you can’t really copyright.

The problematic precedent that this case sets is that it has heretofore been notoriously hard to prove or disprove copyright infringement – or plagiarism, call it what you will – between one song and another. In simple terms, there are only so many keys, scales and chords to combine in western popular music until, sooner or later, two configurations will almost certainly overlap.

“Pharrell and Thicke are far from the worst offenders”

Before now, it has been entirely plausible that a songwriter might simply ‘do a George Harrison’ and copy a song without realising it.

Hearing a song by 60’s girl group The Chiffons years earlier, Harrison unintentionally copied the melody for breakthrough solo single ‘My Sweet Lord’. His “subconscious plagiarism” is a completely understandable argument, one the Beatle readily admitted to in later years. A song wormed its way into his subconscious, and when writing a melody for ‘My Sweet Lord’, it simply bled through into his own work.

Was he inspired upon hearing a song or just simply swipe a melody? Well, Harrison ingeniously (or cunningly, depending on your perspective) pre-empted Michael Jackson’s purchase of the Lennon/McCartney back catalogue by buying up the rights to ‘He’s So Fine’, sort of answering that question himself. Arguably the first but definitely not the last time money was simply thrown at such a problem.

Which puts me in mind of a similar situation which arose between Coldplay and Joe Satriani a few years back, and the maudlin British pretentionists being sued by the latter guitar great. Satriani claimed that the melody line from his track ‘If I Could Fly’ was mercilessly ripped off four years later by the Coldplay single ‘Viva La Vida’. And listening to each track, the evidence seems pretty damning.

So damning in fact that the case had to be settled out of court in a payment to Satriani, seemingly after some chest-beating from Coldplay’s lawyers. This video seems to imply even shadier rug-sweeping dealings, but although a very interesting, thorough music theory-based dissemination, no actual sources are cited with regard to those claims, and I can’t find any supporting evidence for this.

My main problem with the ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict, and hence the main point of this article is that Pharrell and Thicke are far from the worst offenders, for once in the latter’s case. But are Coldplay the devil incarnate? Surprisingly not. If Coldplay did genuinely intend to plagiarise Joe Satriani in the way it appears, they quite frankly could have done a better job of it. In my own opinion, it’s much more a Harrison-esque case that the principal songwriter (the band are credited equally) had probably heard the melody and assimilated it into his memory. Maybe it was playing in the background in a bar or a shopping mall; perhaps they didn’t even know they’d heard it.

All of which begs the question; who are the worst offenders? Well, let me put it like this…

The advertising industry will be worth $600 billion this year. But advertisers still manage to scrimp on rights for the use of licensed music, no matter how many times they get called out on it.

Americo indie bluesters The Black Keys got infamously touchy on the subject of their music being used in such a way, launching multiple lawsuits against US companies for unauthorised use of their tracks. Not taking the hint, a further commercial used a ‘sound-alike’ track. The ‘Keys again didn’t take too kindly to their music being ‘interpreted’ in such a way.

Meanwhile some advertisers are eager to buy into having an epic, sweeping soundtrack on their product as one would find in a highly-polished nature documentary, at a fraction of the cost. The kind of soundscape you’d get from… oh, say Sigur Ros, who years ago signalled their dissent by posting this exhaustive list on their blog, of sound-alike tracks closely mimicking their music without actually using the original tracks.

If all of this seems like ancient history, you need only reach for the remote control to catch this currently-running advert for wholesome breakfast cereal Cheerios from evil corporation Nestlé.

Which blatantly, brazenly rips off signature Vampire Weekend track ‘A-Punk’.

Compare and contrast the fiddly intro riff, clean upstroked guitar chords and the airy synth-flute break in both tracks and challenge yourself to not find similarities.

There is also this very thorny issue surrounding this Aldi advert which seems to use a Teenage Fanclub B-side without permission. ‘Kickabout’ by the Scots originally sampled an earlier track, which Aldi have also lifted, then stuck over the top of a Fanclub-esque backing track without acknowledging or indeed paying them.

But an indie-labelled band will hardly be able to afford the funds to challenge these instances in court, so are reined in to disgruntled blog posts and Facebook statements.

Will the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling therefore have an effect upon the rampant – and if not illegal then certainly immoral – use of advertising music in the future then? The answer seems to be a resounding ‘perhaps’, with even industry insiders urging a more cautious, arguably discreet approach going forward.

“Perhaps the thought that there are consequences to the underhand misuses of creative material will cause a juggernaut of an industry to apply the brakes”

The headlines will tell you that the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling is a terribly bad thing for the music industry. That this will be a gateway for copycat lawsuits to stampede through, whenever two songs are in the same key, or use a similar tempo, or were recorded in the same studio. A creative compensation culture, to probably not coin a term.

I’d argue however that it’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps the thought that there are consequences to the underhand misuses of creative material highlighted above will cause a juggernaut of an industry to apply the brakes and analyse itself momentarily. So far from a dangerous precedent, it could well present an empowering future prospect for previously put-upon musicians. Sure, it has so far cost Pharrell and Thicke over £5 million to find this out. But in the long term, it could well prove far more costly not for those who are inspired by artists, but those more who mercenarily pickpocket them.

A Stance On Spotify

Posted in Feature, Music, Pop culture with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2015 by David Hall

The perennially hot topic of Spotify refuses to go away and put in another round this week, with Björk asserting that her leaked new album will definitely not be making an appearance on the music streaming platform.

The latest in a long line of responses to Vulnicura’s unplanned release saw the Icelandic auteur cite reasons of “respect” as her motivation to stay away.

Her other albums remain available on Spotify.

Björk labelled the streaming service “insane”, joining a list of high profile artists such as Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift omitting their music from the Spotify library.

I get where Björk is coming from.

“Spotify isn’t making music more accessible, but is in fact introducing a new level of discrimination”

The most convenient soundbite culled from the interview “It’s about respect,” seems somewhat packaged for our consumption, but it’s one that I can get on board with. Björk in fact makes a couple of different points in the incriminating interview, which was apparently culled from an exchange with her manager. I both agree and disagree with certain aspects of what she has to say, but at least she’s doing so refreshingly free of hyperbole.

My only bone of contention is Björk’s assertion that, “It’s not about the money,” seems to somewhat tie her in knots, but she manages to undo herself with her ‘respect’ comment. She just about gets away with it. I would contend in fact contend that it is all about the money, and that streaming services such as Spotify isn’t making music more accessible, but is in fact introducing a new level of discrimination into an already murky industry.

And don’t get me wrong, I think Björk makes a good point; a far better point than Fleet Foxes’ bleating did a few years back. As Dave Grohl sort of nearly said, if you don’t like your product selling for the price it sells at, fuck off. Find a different industry, there’s plenty out there.

No, to her credit, Björk is far more measured and cerebral about it. Sure, her comments are a little airy-fairy around the edges, a little soft on detail, but she seems to genuinely have an artistic problem with it. What makes Björk, Yorke, Grohl and even young Swift simultaneously more and less believable is that I doubt any of them experience money worries.

Obviously, they don’t have to pander to anyone in making up their paycheque. But then again it could be argued that such comments smack slightly lofty perchism, an untouchable artist flipping their two cents down from their ivory tower to the huddled masses without necessarily knowing a thing about what they’re on about.

To be sure, it’s a little of both. But first and foremost, I see listeners feeling the pinch as customers being the main problem. Tune out for a second if you wish, but bear with my thought experiment here.

To utilise Spotify in the way that the company’s predictably slick advertising suggests would cost a bare minimum of £9.99 per month. But hey, you want your music on the go, right? You’ll be listening using your phone then of course. If you really can’t live without knowing, this dude pretty comprehensively breaks down how much bandwidth streaming your music demands. But cutting a long story short, you essentially need unlimited data from your mobile provider to rely on music streaming as your main listening source. What, £20? A little less if you find a good deal. And I guess you’re gonna want the good stuff on tap, not waiting for apps to load or your 3G signal to pick up. Let’s charitably say you can pick up a mid-range iPhone 5S on an unlimited data contract for £30 per month. That’s forty you’re spending on Spotify already, champ; £480 per year, minimum. That’s not counting other downloads, the occasional CD you pick up, or your increasingly voracious appetite for vinyl. If you’ve got over £500 to spend then best of luck to you, but for me and I would suggest that for a lot of people, myself included, that’s a significant chunk of cash.

Music has never been about segregating people. Getting into a situation where it’s method of delivery is doing so, I would suggest is extremely negative to say the least. Certainly, any commodity is either something you can afford or not, music included, but Spotify seems to be pricing all but the more affluent listeners out of its market.

Despite their founder’s slightly spoiled brattish, dummy-spitting, toy-throwing statement aimed at Taylor Swift’s Spotify bow, the platform seems just as poor value on the artist’s side.

A wade through this some might say intentionally lengthy and complex document offers up the information that Spotify claim to pay out an average of about $0.007 per song per play. Or about 0.07 cents per song per play. So the average 12-track album would earn the artist just over 8 cents, which in the current exchange rate equates to around 5p. Uck. But wait, who listens to albums anymore? Only nobody, grandpa! Get with the times man! The kids all stream music by track these days; God, you’re so embarrassing.

This being the case, let’s go straight to the top and take for example the most-streamed song in the UK last year, Clean Bandit’s inexplicable minimal synthpop keyboard riff with song attached ‘Rather Be’, clocking up a whopping 39.7 million streams in 2014. Why, at $0.007 per play, that’s $277,900 in the bank! Not too shabby! #boom #sorrynotsorry

Yeah, 39.7 million streams. Across four streaming formats. With royalties split between four band members. Only two of whom claim writing credits in the song. Which featured a headlining collaborative artist. And I doubt the band will exactly be top of the pile once their record labels takes a cut, plus the produc-… you see where I’m going here… Maybe that’s why they took that awful, awful (I mean seriously painfully awful) Windows phone ad.

I’m not professing to be some sort of statistics genius, and I’ve wilfully ignored Spotify’s own artist page as far as possible due to the hefty weight of vested interest you can see in the form of all those glowing bright green graphs. I’m also quite aware that artists make money from other streaming services; advertising revenue from YouTube plays, for example. But to me, the sums just don’t seem to add up. Viewing Spotify as just one aspect of a multi-faceted music delivery system in which you stream some music, then buy or download those tracks or albums which you really like, also fails for me entirely.

“the membership-style method of payment is divisive in what should be an inclusive setting. It’s pricing consumers out of music”

It’s not just about money for bands in that regard, or indeed out of the listener’s pocket, but I think that returning to the two central tenets of Björk’s original argument, respect and money, are irrevocably intertwined.

It’s all bound up in numbers that don’t seem to meet in the middle. Listeners are being fleeced, either expected to subscribe to a conceptually limited streaming service, or to augment that library with further purchases. It’s like assuming every Netflix subscriber will either throw away all their DVDs and Blu Rays, or be often forced to also buy them if they really, really like that new Will Smith movie. Between what’s best for the artist and what’s best for the listener, Spotify falls cleanly through a very large gap.

So my stance on Spotify can be summarised as essentially this; I know it’s not all their fault. Everybody is out to make their respective sums of profit from the music industry – it’s a business like any other – and always have done.

But the membership-style method of payment is divisive in what should be an inclusive setting. It’s pricing consumers out of music, which is a pretty low blow for artists and the public alike.

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Liverpool Guild of Students – Monday 16 February 2015

Posted in Live, Music, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by David Hall

Perhaps the word ‘legendary’ is overused, but it seems appropriate in the case of The Jesus and Mary Chain. The band retains a definite mystique to this day, something a cut above acts treading the nostalgia circuit with one founding member, or the stadium-stomping dinosaurs they shared theatres with in the 1980’s. Maybe it’s their sparse studio output which makes them such an interesting proposition; with just six albums to their three-decade career, their output feels distinguished in its rarity. Maybe it’s their apparent willingness to implode at the least provocation. Stories of their chaotic, drug-fuelled early live shows, the band standing with their backs to the audience wringing sheets of feedback from their amps for just twenty minutes before storming offstage and prompting riots are shocking even today.

At any rate, a February 2015 performance from the… well, legendary… Jesus and Mary Chain feels like something of a relaunch for the Liverpool Guild of Students. Following a revamp totalling £14.5 million, the venue reopened in November 2014 to host acts such as Jamie T and Example, and now looks forward to welcoming Placebo, Ryan Adams and Catfish and the Bottlemen shortly. There’s an echoing element of recommencement for the Mary Chain themselves, returning to the stage tonight following a near-three-month hiatus in their touring schedule.

Mountford Hall – Liverpool’s second-largest gig venue – certainly looks the part, still all but smelling of new paint, though poorly signposted with many wandering lost in search of the toilets. Even as tonight’s support act Bathymetry take to the stage, I look forlornly towards my former regular spot on the right-hand wall by the side door, now rearranged with the bar moved into the main hall and occupying this position. Following a cancellation from Eagulls (perhaps conscious of early JAMC gigs being punker than punk, but also evidencing that frisson of tension seemingly permanently associated with the Scots), tonight’s support slot has been hastily arranged with an emerging local act, as with every other UK tour date this month.

2015-02-16 20.07

Although Bathymetry are a bit of an odd pairing with tonight’s headliners – all melodic basslines, funny rhythms and jazzy 3/4 time signatures – they’re more than worth checking out. Just don’t baulk at ‘Goblin Fruit’s Christina Rosetti-inspired lyric first time around and enjoy guitarist Ariel’s high capoed, hand-strummed technique at times taking on more of a textural role.

Promoting the thirtieth anniversary of their seminal debut – another overused yet appropriate term – tonight’s Jesus and Mary Chain performance consists of a short set of hits and curios, followed by Psychocandy played in its entirety. At least, that was the plan. But what should have been a short, punchy and explosive mini-greatest hits set feels overlong, plodding and at times a little under-rehearsed.

The band enter, shambling through wafts of smoke with the barest acknowledgement to the considerable but not sold out crowd, singer Jim Reid arriving at centre stage and dolorously explaining tonight’s format. With his microphone levels characteristically way down, Reid might as well be talking into a gale both here and in between songs. Still, the band offer up powerful takes some of the Mary Chain’s more anthemic material, opening with ‘April Skies’, followed by ‘Head On’. But from there any gained momentum is lost; the band stand around awkwardly as guitarist William Reid seems to have a tuning issue, but does little to sort it. “Are we gonna play something or are we just gonna stand here all night?” Reid the younger spikily but pertinently asks in the needless, endless pause between ‘Head On’ and a consequently defanged ‘Psychocandy’ as the crowd grow restless. This is followed by an updated version of ‘Up Too High’, from the band’s 1983 demo tape; the original is an embryonic, ill-advisedly synthy Depeche Mode-light moment, its live incarnation sounding far more impressive. Nevertheless its obscurity assures a lukewarm response. It was a low, but one the Mary Chain managed to pull themselves out of from then on.

Pedals are appreciably trodden on as the band switch it up into ‘Reverence’, sounding much more menacing than its studio version, Reid snarling its nihilistic lyric over a hypnotic bassline, before going full-on white noise with ‘Upside Down’ to end the beginning.

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The band return after a short break, those audience members heading for the bar finding their visit over-ambitious and missing ‘Just Like Honey’s timeless, chiming intro. The Mary Chain return to the stage and confidently do their signature track the justice it commands; restrained and beautiful, it’s almost magisterial.

‘Just Like Honey’ is talismanic, almost characteristic of aspects which impress so much tonight. The JAMC are more than capable of holding back, and producing gorgeous moments such as the ‘60s girl group intervals of ‘Cut Dead’. ‘Sowing Seeds’, after a false start, is equally shimmering, although dismissed as “some sort of fucking jazz version” by a wryly-smiling Jim Reid after he got the key completely wrong. But the main draws are of course the tempestuous swirls of noise such as ‘In A Hole’ or ‘Never Understand’, all but their most strident chord changes cloaked in squalls of feedback. The frequent monitor whistles just add to the atmosphere of the gainy sound, always teetering on the very brink of control, threatening to plummet at any moment into a hellish cacophony but never quite doing so. William Reid rakes the strings of his guitar right on the bridge, stalking up to his amps and thrusting the instrument at them, producing tortured howls of feedback from the equipment. Even thirty years on, it’s exhilarating stuff. Meanwhile little seems to defy Jim Reid’s inscrutable gaze, who mostly props himself up on his microphone stand. At times he wears the semi-apologetic look of a man who has stepped into your eyeline as you chose bananas in Tesco. At others he’s the epitome of the aloof frontman, looking smart in all black, barely able to make himself heard over his brother’s shrieking guitar but seemingly not caring.

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I find a certain correctness to Psychocandy, an appropriateness if you will. Everything from the title up seems to fit into a niche perfectly, describing the record’s bittersweet nature; it’s aggressive bubblegum, abrasive pop. It’s like sugar coated with… I don’t know, sulphuric acid, but Psychocandy is a pop record at heart, just like the JAMC are a pop band. There’s a similar inevitability to the Mary Chain sound; as if every chord change could only have happened one way, as if every lyric has only the rhyme they chose. It’s simplistic, primitive stuff and rightly influential on almost every noisy indie band of their day (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and Pixies to name a few), or on the dubious genre of shoegaze as a whole. Whether it’s the cut-‘n’-paste drums, channel upon channel of guitar or barely comprehensible lyrics, there would certainly be no Loveless without Psychocandy and even more so Darklands. Perhaps that record will also receive the thirtieth anniversary tour treatment in two years’ time.

So The Jesus and Mary Chain shamble off the Liverpool stage as they did coming on, Reid Snr. managing to stumble over some equipment onto his hands and knees upon exit. Please note that a ‘You Trip Me Up’ joke placed here would be trite and tasteless. The accident however seemed symptomatic of a gig that wasn’t a disaster, but a little beleaguered sounding in places. Far from perfect then, but there isn’t a lot of work to be done by the band which should see them sharpen up for the remainder of their dates.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love [Album of the Month; January 2015]

Posted in Album, Music, Review with tags , , , , on February 4, 2015 by David Hall

No Cities To Love

Stop me if I’m wrong, but the decade-long gap marking Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus really hasn’t seemed that long. Actually with creative projects like Portlandia, Wild Flag, Corin Tucker Band and Quasi keeping their fanbase occupied, the period has fairly skipped past. With tension possibly eased by their split always feeling more like a placed bookmark than a fallen guillotine, the Oregon three-piece’s welcome return was marked with a new album to begin the year. Immediately, No Cities To Love has asserted itself proudly as an exceptional entry in the catalogue of one of America’s most vital alternative acts.

As Sleater-Kinney have so successfully refined and subtly reinvented their sound on each album, No Cities prompts a question from the very first listen; which version of the band has been captured here? The retro, rootsy denim jacket-wearing The Woods version? Or perhaps mark One Beat, loose, genre-hopping and brimming with confidence. Maybe their feral beginnings, or their taut alt rock middle period, exemplified by the couplet of The Hot Rock and All Hands On the Bad One. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s none of those; not quite, anyway. Instead we’re treated to another subtle but distinct metamorphosis.

No Cities To Love marks an uncompromisingly leaner, tauter incarnation of the band, who have produced an unmistakeably bold and listenable record. Longtime Sleater-Kinney producer John Goodmanson collaborates once more to coax a more nuanced sound from the trio than during any of their previous work together. There isn’t an ounce of fat on the album, none of its ten curtly-titled tracks lasting past the four minute mark. It’s a lean, spirited, clever listen; this is a smart, savvy, and very switched-on version of riot grrl. What’s most impressive about No Cities however is that the album sounds full of singles, potential set-opening songs and firebrand tracks bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

‘Price Tag’ is a perfectly understandable choice as the album’s opening, with searing dual vocals that soar throatily in the chorus, Corin Tucker hitting gorgeously vibrato-infused notes that rattle with passion over Janet Weiss’ propulsive rhythm. Nevertheless, there are other tracks bristling with energy which could arguably have lead off the album far more readily. ‘Price Tag’s awkward hammered-on riff improves with each listen and its socio-political commentary centring on retail jobs feels welcome with the recent rise of zero-hour contracts, all unfamiliar territory in terms of lyrical themes. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of previous opening tracks such as ‘Start Together’, ‘The Fox’ or Dig Me Out’s incendiary opening salvo. That’s no indictment to say that ‘Price Tag’ isn’t the strongest track here, more reflecting the potency of the following nine.

Holistically it’s as if the reins have been taken off the band and they can make every song compete with the last for the title of most ecstatic and unrestrained. ‘Surface Envy’ for instance orbits thrillingly around its staircase tumble of a riff, resolving itself into a picked open-sounding chord progression and clashing cymbal hits. It’s a clarion call and would make an excellent set opener to their live show, “We’ve got so much to do; let me make that clear” Tucker demands as Weiss’ hi-hat creeps open and the track winds up into a rallying cry of a chorus, “We win, we lose; only together do we break the rules”. As declarations of unity go, ‘Surface Envy’ is pretty unwavering. Similarly the existential musings of the title track recall the bands’ hitherto loftiest watermark ‘Get Up’, the airy verses of ‘No Cities To Love’ revelling in their starry-eyed lyricism, “a bright flash, my body is a souvenir” Carrie Brownstein sing-sighs, before making an even firmer and more outward-gazing declaration of alliance, “It’s not the cities, it’s the weather we love/It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love” Brownstein and Tucker both finally rejoin, seemingly with a nod and wink.

A historically bass-free band, S-K nevertheless continue to find new and inventive ways of finding lower registers in their sound; some familiar, such as downtuned guitars or Weiss’s frequent tom hits, some unfamiliar. Goodmanson wrings a depthy, distorted growl from ‘Fade’s guitar tracks for example, but ‘A New Wave’ also makes the grand gesture of slamming a bassline right in your face, in a jokily high-timbred post-punk motorik riff. Bass has been used and hitherto undisguised so far, but is shoved right up front on ‘A New Wave’, everything but bass, drums and voice dropping out for its furious verses. Frazzled, distorted guitars frantically chop away occasionally until the chorus unfurls and Brownstein’s solos duel in the fadeout, unique in each channel.

Elsewhere bass is featured less prominently, as in ‘Fangless’, which also brandishes an updated, more restrained drum sound from Weiss’ kit and technique than Dave Fridmann’s trademark open-mic’d The Woods interpretation managed. Bass in ‘Fangless’’ verses chugs the track onwards through staccato, argumentative guitar lines until a seemingly endless chorus is launched into. Brownstein takes over on vocals as Tucker steps backwards, slashing wildly at her guitar following Weiss’ lead, who whisks the song up into a thrashing, full-on rock-out.

The band’s lyrics are stronger than ever, check out ‘No Anthems’ (“I want an anthem/A singular anthem/An answer and a force” Brownstein and Tucker rowdily duet after a strutting verse) for clear evidence of this. ‘Gimme Love’ is slick, soulful, bluesy, heavy, at times all at once, a little like the album in microcosm, Tucker’s voice wild and primal yet rich and beautiful. ‘Hey Darling’ recalls the scaling lead guitar work and half-spoken, half-sung chorus of ‘Oh!’, but even that One Beat standout doesn’t go for the sucker-punch ‘Hey Darling’ manages, its chorus melody sung wordlessly in the outro for one of the record’s many stand-out moments.

Finally, just when you think No Cities has surely given up all of its secrets and settled into a big, mid-tempo scorcher as a finale in ‘Fade’, the band defy all expectations. Contorting into a tempo change, call-and-response guitars ricocheting off each other; “Unbelievable masquerade/ Never revealing your truth” both vocalists chime in falsetto, resounding across a clattering, complex drum part. Sleater-Kinney have classically specialised in great closers (check out ‘Sympathy’ on One Beat, or ‘The Swimmer’ on All Hands as notable examples), but here they truly excel themselves. “Oh, what a price we have paid/ My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end” Brownstein shivers plaintively over the album’s dying embers, her voice cracking exquisitely.

As previously mentioned, No Cities To Love marks a subtle metamorphosis, a honed, clutter-free version of the Sleater-Kinney sound. There’s a dash of the wig-out bombasticism they learned on the previous album to enjoy, like the gleefully struck chords in ‘Fangless’’ middle eight. There’s also an effortless air to the whole affair, strongly recalling One Beat, but there are also highly-strung moments that render No Cities if not bipolar then certainly revelling in its light and shade. The band seem more assured of themselves than ever, their reunion album feeling joyfully baggage-free and is all the more of a treat for that.

Manic Street Preachers – In Retrospect

Posted in Feature, Music, Review, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by David Hall

With the upcoming release of Futurology, remarkably the Manic Street Preachers’ fourteenth studio album, now seems a good time to rank their albums from worst to best.

Know Your Enemy
know your enemy
There’s no getting away from the fact that Know Your Enemy is a bad record, for my money the only one in the Manics cannon. Their sixth album came at arguably the crest of their commercial wave, a year after their standalone single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ topped the UK singles charts. In what must be the closest thing to a Situationist stunt a major label band could pull off, the single was deleted upon its release day. Refamiliarising the Manics with their previous alt rock leanings, ‘Masses’ was a useful signpost towards Know Your Enemy’s overall direction, if something of a decoy as the latter album probably represents the biggest dropped ball of the band’s career to date.

That’s not to say there aren’t some good, often great moments; ‘The Convalescent’ harks back to their lyrically-dense days, guitarist James Dean Bradfield finding all kinds of interesting voicings to his chords both here and on the spiky ‘Intravenous Agnostic’. His fine work is also on display in his lyrical debut, a touching tribute to his late mother ‘Ocean Spray’, featuring some excellent textural lead guitar work from him. Co-songwriter Sean Moore’s strident drum riff propels ‘Found That Soul’, and his fills on the aforementioned ‘Intravenous Agnostic’ are startlingly energetic and precise. Mouthpiece and sometime bassist Nicky Wire’s spotlight ‘Watsville Blues’ however is poor, his voice ill-suited to the song and his recycled, endlessly repeated lyrics weak.

Stylistically Know Your Enemy ping-pongs from stripped-back power trio punk (‘Found That Soul’), through lush art pop (‘So Why So Sad’) to a lamentable take on disco (the apocalyptically misinformed ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’), whilst pointedly avoiding the typical trappings of mainstream success. There’s barely a string section in sight. Unfortunately the record isn’t wholly successful even in doing this, with some inaccessibly expensive gear backing up its more avant garde sounds such as ‘My Guernica’s crashing wall of sound outro.

The album is overlong, sporting a running time even outstripping Generation Terrorists, discussion on which to follow, and very much feels so. It isn’t a record that the listener would particularly want to get lost in, its hooks are densely hidden in the unfocussed undergrowth and its standout moments dotted sporadically through the daunting tracklisting. Whilst the opening five tracks are strong, at other times the album can feel a slog, hidden bonus track – a widescreen but faithful rendition of the excellent McCarthy’s ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ – notwithstanding.

In its favour, the record is matched to its artwork well, which is an obscuring squall of noise and colour and words, polemic clashing with dissonant streaked paint on an almost militaristic blue-grey background. It’s actually a fascinating piece, full of impressionistic rawness, frustration (“the fucking picture is almost done” a block of text from the artist reads) and also obvious beauty. A work that Know Your Enemy’s music never quite matches; it was an experiment in how far a three-piece aesthetic could be pushed and a calculatedly far cry from the orchestration of their previous two albums. Overall though? Unlistenable.

Unfairly maligned but perhaps justifiably overlooked in their oeuvre, 2003’s Lifeblood showed the band maturing, and not just in terms of their sound. They went for ‘elegaic pop’ and fell someway short – the whole record feels a little misguided in its attempts at this, as brave an effort as it is – but the highs outway the lows. Nothing’s particularly terrible, it’s just that nothing’s particularly memorable either, which is a shame as Lifeblood remains entirely listenable. The band themselves have stated they regard Lifeblood as something of a misstep that failed to play to their strengths and forced them down sonic avenues unsuited to them. A brutally honest assessment and there’s nothing wrong with experimentation, in hindsight the error came if anything through not taking their overhaul far enough.

Whilst there are subtle but definite synth-based differences in sound, ‘Empty Souls’ for example wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the band’s Everything Must Go or This is My Truth era output. On tracks such as ‘To Repel Ghosts’ and ‘Emily’ the guitar work chimes and shimmers rather than bites, everything sounding just a little bit too squeaky clean. Again, these aren’t necessarily bad songs, ‘To Repel Ghosts’ in particular gallops nicely as it reaches its peak; its ambient section is similarly well done, Bradfield’s spectral voice echoing endlessly as his guitar cycles the song’s riff. Check out ‘A Song For Departure’ and the restrained, Michael Jackson-like rhythm section of funky bass and precise, hi-hat led drum fills. No, seriously. ‘Solitude Sometimes Is’ would have found better favour on almost any other album in their career, a huge, so-earnest-it’s-almost-tongue-in-cheek midtempo ballad which houses power and songwriting prowess. But again, other than its subsidiary touches of electronica, it sounds much more an appeasing nod to experimentation than a Kid A-esque feet-first plunge into waters of questionable temperature.

A toothless mix certainly doesn’t help the album, but that’s really just symbolic of its problems. The band made a conscious effort to ‘grow up’ and to restrain themselves. Nobody could ever accuse the Manics of being an AC/DC ‘make the same album every time’ sort of band, but the accusation that they were attempting to add a further string to an already-overloaded bow certainly sounds well-founded, particularly listening back now. Lifeblood failed to ingratiate itself with the record buying public and sales were disappointing, critics also split on the album’s merits for a second studio release. Perhaps tellingly the band chose to punctuate their studio releases with a near-inevitable greatest hits package Forever Delayed, which forgivably cherry-picked chart successes over cult favourites. In the bigger picture however, it was a continuation of a barren run album-wise and by the end of Lifeblood’s touring cycle the Manics saw a step back down from arenas to theatres.

Gold Against the Soul
Gold Against the Soul
Holistically, the band’s sophomore effort is arguably weaker than Lifeblood. It’s a shoddy, slapdash affair that is only saved by the paydirt of its handful of classics. A rushed-feeling compilation released little more than a year after their debut, with the band needing to prove themselves to an unimpressed major record label, as strange as that may seem contemporarily. They promised to shift 16 million copies of their exhaustive debut; they sold barely 250,000 worldwide and now staggered blinking into the harsh sunlight of that difficult second album.

This is a record from the early-to-mid nineties which (although admittedly isn’t exactly a hotbed of timeless production decisions, hi there Screamadelica) just sounds insanely dated. Bear in mind that this was from the same year as In Utero, Siamese Dream, Rid of Me, Bjork’s Debut, Yo La Tengo’s Painful, none of which have suffered time’s ravages as much as Gold Against the Soul. It’s an ill-considered, genreless record that stumbles from the more bloated excesses of G’nR Californian hard rock, a rattling, baggy-style tinny percussiveness and floral shirt-wearing classic rawk.

The overarching emotion listening to Gold Against the Soul today is frustration. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad it’s horrid. The band clearly knew where the album’s potency lay, and it’s no coincidence that the opening three tracks comprise two Manics setlist staples and one cult classic. These strong tracks are furiously undeniable, ‘From Despair To Where’ snapping from terse palm-muting through whirling, choppy riffs to eventual expansiveness. The slow-building, strangely anthemic ‘La Tristesse Durera’ is strident, confident stuff, Bradfield ranging from falsetto over the bassy intro to his signature roar over swept, rumbling guitar. Moore keeps it on-message throughout, delivering a simple and straightforward ‘big’ sound, throwing in some deceptively complex fills when it counts. Then there’s ‘Sleepflower’, something of a pop-metal cliché in retrospect which now sounds far more fun than was probably originally intended, through which Wire’s lumbering bass work unapologetically crashes. But then there are wasteland tracks such as ‘Symphony of Tourette’ and ‘Yourself’ (livened in parts by a valiant JDB vocal performance, which is in turn hamstrung by the toe-curling spoken word sections) that should really have just been cut adrift to B-side-dom. ‘Nostalgic Pushead’ is just… there. Rather than include 4:15 of silence instead, the band delivered this unfocussed, by-the-numbers stomp whose uninspired and unwelcome chorus feels as if it comes around almost metronomically. The cracks show more than anywhere else on ‘Drug Drug Druggy’, a song which should have been drowned at birth and is lyrically littered with poorly-constructed lines that even Bradfield’s fearless voice can’t dust off. Lines like, “Dance like a robot when you’re chained at the knee, the CIA say you’re all they’ll ever need”, fail utterly to please the ear, and do so without any semblance of profundity. It’s a mess, and something of an achievement for a ten-track album to host filler, but Gold Against the Soul manages a fair amount.

Later on, looking past their flaws which lie mostly in production and arrangement (in almost a trope of its misguided nature, the album bizarrely features M People percussionist and sometime ‘90s kids TV presenter Shovel amongst its personnel), the other two singles ‘Life Becoming a Landslide’ and ‘Roses In The Hospital’ are also strong. It’s telling however that aside from the opener, the only really worthwhile album track is the title track, with its spiralling guitar riff and focussed lyrical assault. As a side-note, it’s baffling to think that this ponderous-sounding album was recorded at the same time as the curt, snarling ‘Comfort Comes’ (see the Life Becoming A Landslide EP or the rather good Lipstick Traces b-side album for easier access), which would signpost their next infamous move.

Generation Terrorists
generation terrorists
The band’s glam-punk debut feels something of a curio today. It sounds almost antiquated, certainly the least recapturable era of the Manics’ existence. That it precedes the verdant aural pastures of Everything Must Go by just five years is just as remarkable, as is the visual counterpiece the album found in the promo video for its most durable track ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. The beautifully photographed clip is a Tokyo-shot paean to alienation, all moody shots of four disaffected youths in the baffling sprawl of a supermetropolis.

So too the youths’ debut, which features a near absence of self-awareness; no pose struck is too camp, no solo too masturbatory, no lyric too outlandishly dogmatic. Production-wise however it’s a record largely inkeeping with the Manics’ sensibilities. Only a couple at most of their studio albums possess what one could term a ‘snarl’, and the slick Generation Terrorists certainly isn’t one of them. It is however decidedly emblematic of the band’s ‘kitchen sink’ phase, further evidence of which can be found in the Heavenly version of ‘Spectators of Suicide’ which features samples, curtains of vast guitar squall, a disconcertingly loud live-sounding drum track and a punishing, vocal-burying mix.

Today Terrorists feels bloated and pompous, overlong too at eighteen tracks. It’s infuriating, as the chaff is so obvious as to barely need stating; losing the re-recorded ‘Spectators of Suicide’ (sounding, according to the band, like ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’), ‘Repeat (Stars and Stripes)’ and ‘Damn Dog’ would have resulted immediately in a leaner record. It’s interesting to note that the US version features a vastly reworked second side opening with ‘You Love Us’ whilst also pillaging ‘Democracy Coma’ from the ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ single, strangely at the expense of the far more saveable ‘So Dead’ and ‘Methadone Pretty’, whilst keeping ‘Repeat (Stars and Stripes)’ intact. Perhaps I digress in my anorakishness, but you too can play this distracting game; just select twelve or thirteen tracks from the album and its associated b-sides and arrange tastefully. It’s harder than you think to compose your own “Dream Generation Terrorists tracklist” – try it yourself! And I’ll see you next time, ta-ra everyone!
The material from this era was of a high standard, and should you have a go of this activity you’ll appreciate how difficult it is to cull some tracks. In view of this, it’s perhaps understandable that Gold Against the Soul felt so threadbare. There was and is no denying that Manic Street Preachers were a potent creative force at this point, Bradfield and Moore crafting at times unwieldy lyrics into hookish singalongs even on relatively forgotten tracks like ‘Tennessee’ and ‘Another Invented Disease’. At times the lyrics pass into self-parody in their screed-like indignation (“Our lives fade into a faceless sense of void, everything of meaning becomes destroyed”, ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ almost cracks a smile pre-chorus) but whatever criticisms can be thrown from this angle mostly are deflected. They’re polemical sure, but so were The Clash, and nobody derisively snorts “collegiate” at the anointed words passed down to our earthly plane by Saint Joe of Strummer.

Ambitious is a word that springs to mind. As is overreach, but there’s a great deal of success to be found in this youthful grand folly.

Postcards From A Young Man
postcards from a young man
There’s plenty to love about Postcards, and not a lot to dislike. Taken as a whole, the material is strong. And I really don’t know why it isn’t higher on the list, apart from to say it simply wouldn’t be my first choice of an album to listen to. As a cohesive whole it just doesn’t quite grab in the same way as some other records, which is strange given that This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is higher on the list and really couldn’t be considered much of a cohesive whole at all.

Let’s start with the positives then, which are numerous. The album kicks off in assured style with ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’, which smacks of classic Manics, from its guitar motif, avalanching drum fill and string section flourish, diving into a lyrically insightful verse (“do you see the stars or the darkness begin”) and resurfaces into a soaring chorus. Wire’s playful bass fills and vocal interjections later on shows a playful side to a band considered by many to be unrepentant miserablists. From the title track’s seesawing guitar riff and ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’’ inspired Ian McCulloch collab, both combust into deliberately towering choruses, the former with a braying string section and the latter with an ecstatic choir arrangement. The appropriately tumbling opening chords to ‘The Descent’ settles the album into a less eager-to-please frame of mind, but still captivates with its snaking string lines and almost military drumming. ‘Golden Platitudes’ sees the band shamelessly delivering the kind of towering, stately ballad that has become almost second nature to them, consciously playing to their strengths. Both these tracks and the album as a whole has a swagger about it, and can feel effortless at times. Even the slightly less remarkable but no less listenable tracks like ‘Auto-Intoxication’ and ‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ have a sense of seasoned confidence to them.

The main problem is that some tracks veer a little too close to self-parody to be truly memorable, ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ being an obvious case in point. But so too ‘The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever’, Wire’s voice not quite filling the spaces as Bradfield’s does and finding awkward syllables where he wouldn’t. It also manages to shoehorn in some brass, which smacks slightly of the ‘if in doubt, chuck some brass on it’ crutch the Manics have often leant upon in the second half of their career. On a mainly electric album, ‘I Think I Found It’’s wonky mandola intro is a little jarring and ‘Hazleton Avenue’ really is only remarkable for being so pedestrian. Those relatively minor missteps in places do add up to conspire against Postcards being a really great record, teetering as it often does between greatness and mediocrity, but it’s very enjoyable nonetheless. It’s something of a backhanded compliment to describe a band’s tenth album as ‘solid’, so I’ll steer away from that.

This is My Truth Tell Me Yours
this is my truth tell me yours
Slick, widescreen, radio-friendly arena rock was the order of the day here, critics rushing to heap praise and the British record-buying public lapping up the Manics’ fifth album. If Everything Must Go’s alt rock was their breakthrough, the unabashed pop of This is My Truth propelled the band to the top of the UK album and single charts and into the nation’s consciousness. Commendably, it was pop on the Manics’ own terms, with their first Number One Single tackling the Spanish Civil War; a homage to Homage to Catalonia.

However that’s something of a testament to its coffee table status, with the previously leftfield punks edging into the mainstream and with the weighty influence of several successful singles behind it earmarking the record as suspiciously ‘cool’ to eulogise. The album that had every conceivable plaudit levelled at it following its release has if anything had its flaws exposed more and more obviously as the Manics’ catalogue has flourished. This is My Truth is a scattered affair, pinballing between chart-conquering singles and if not quite ‘the rest’, then several tracks which lack direction.

Their well-deserved and forever-delayed (I’m here all week) commercial success came at a couple of expenses; the skippable track count was upped from zero on the past two albums to… well, you decide. ‘I’m Not Working’? No thanks. ‘Born a Girl’? Next. ‘Be Natural’? For me, it’s onto ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’. The record is far from bland – it’s a wonderfully textured affair – but it is effused with all the possibilities at the bands disposal, the washing strings and collapsing percussion on the aforementioned ‘Black Dog’’s outro counterstruck by ‘Nobody Loved You’’s crashing powerchords and strident lead guitar work is excellent. Elsewhere experimental tickboxes are triumphantly and confidently stamped, ‘Tsunami’’s reverberating sitar work sets it up whilst a truly colossal chorus (and of course those “in-between, in-between, in-between, in-between” bits) smashes it out of the park whilst the odd scales and the subsonic bass rumble of ‘My Little Empire’ feels like finding a jewel in the grass. That really says it all however as setting aside from the album’s singles, the remaining tracks can be quite categorised quite easily as successful and unsuccessful.

What This is My Truth does most effectively is prove that a big-selling record could tackle issues of real gravity without censoring intellectualism (‘SYMM’) and could explore poetic emotionality (‘Tsunami’) successfully without resorting to needless sentiment.

Send Away the Tigers
send away the tigers
Three years after the poorly-received Lifeblood and a tour in support of The Holy Bible’s tenth anniversary, the Manics found their feet again with this record. The interceding period saw a clutch of solo records, the diversionary and now almost entirely obscure God Save the Manics EP and a contribution to the Help: A Day in the Life charity album. I mention the latter as in hindsight it seems indicative of the Manics route from the sterile atmosphere of Lifeblood to Send Away the Tigers, a summery guitar rock record. That track was ‘Leviathan’, a short, straightforward, sample-introed feather boas-and all stomper, featuring Bradfield’s guitar histrionics right up front and sees him snarling, cooing and roaring Wire’s hostile subject matters (cold war militant/borderline terrorist group Baader-Meinhof and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, kids!), a world away from the soft-focus of their previous album.

So it was pleasing to see the band return to an unfussy setup free from the convolutions of their previous two albums, the hit-but-mostly-miss experiment of Know Your Enemy and the ideologically flawed Lifeblood. They seemed once more comfortable in their own skin. This embracing of their past would become pivotal for the band from this point on, Everything Must Go no more. The realisation seems to have slowly dawned on them that they need not keep forging ahead with the same approach. Once they “escaped from their history”, but this no longer worked for them and they would have to take one step back in order to make two steps forward. Arguably they ended up making several steps forward, and Tigers pinpoints this sea change in the band. It represents an acceptance of what they’re good at, and rather than continually – some might say belligerently – pushing on doors marked ‘pull’, they seemed liberated from this point.

At a lean ten tracks, the album seems built from the ground up as a re-establishment of a band many had earmarked as a spent creative force. The choruses therefore range from huge – ‘Imperial Bodybags’ is delirious stuff, Bradfield’s voice hitting an almost frenzied pitch at times – to holy-mother-of-God enormous, such as ‘The Second Great Depression’, which is a gigantic sledgehammer of a song from beginning to end, shifting from loud to louder. The title track’s helter-skelter of a guitar riff writhes its wide-eyed way through hook after hook like a child in a sweet shop. Lead single ‘Your Love Alone is Not Enough’ is an undeniable pop gem full of delicious self-reference which fits Nina Persson’s voice like a glove (and is transformed brilliantly in the live arena into a laddish gang-vocal rocker).

There is a real sense of last hurrahism to SATT, a sense of “if this doesnt sell, we might as well pack this in, because we’re all out of moves”. What remains is an escape from check and the sense of abandon, the loss of inhibition, suits the band well. Even the title – a phrase used by late comedian Tony Hancock meaning to escape demons through drink – harks back to this, connotative of dispelling scavengers circling, or of a stay of execution from the lions’ den. Tigers bursts with insistence, “we’re alive” it screams on every track, victoriously so.

Rewind the Film
rewind the film
“I don’t want my children to grow up like me; it’s too soul destroying, it’s a mocking disease. A wasting disease,” opens 2013’s Rewind the Film. It’s symbolic of the record’s sentiment as a whole, addressing middle age as an epoch “caught between acceptance and rage” according to ‘Builder of Routines’, another of the album’s most ear-catching and important missives. Their most recent album really is very good, good enough to nudge it right onto the periphery of their ‘essential’ body of work, which in my mind is comprised of three records.

The highlights come in wholly unexpected places, and are all the more thrilling for that. The guest spots are all equally as inspired as each other, the title track’s cathartic nostalgia and opener ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’’s resigned calendar-glancing both emotional and beautifully performed. But on ‘4 Lonely Roads’, even eleven albums into their career, the Manics throw something entirely unexpected at the listener in Cate le Bon’s vocal. It creates an entirely different atmosphere, at once cavernous and reverby yet intimate, which intricate piano lines and staccato percussion tiptoe around. Even the bombastic elements the band would usually be expected to excel at have been honed, singles ‘Show Me the Wonder’ a brass-led yet minimalist Motownish sketch with a gleefully bashed-out drum part and ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’ a blend of interwoven acoustic licks. As far away from previous performances most kindly described as ‘patchy’, Nicky Wire puts in a commendable shift on lead vocals of ‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’, encapsulating the album’s approach in its keys-led stomp of feeling proud of a fondly-revisited past that is perhaps best visited in nostalgia solely. ‘Builder of Routines’ features a beautiful flugelhorn solo reminiscent of ‘God Only Knows’ of all things, probably the most successful use of an orchestral instrument the Manics have dreamed up in a long streak of swings and misses.

The mellow, acoustic nature of the album fits both the material and its performers well, neither risking finding the middle of the road. Before recording Lifeblood, Wire stated that the Manics wished to make their Nebraska, Springsteen’s follow-up to his exhaustive double album The River. Whilst it seems unlikely that Futurology will be greeted as the Manics’ Born in the USA, the band seem to have almost unwittingly made an album far more faithful to that template, in the sparse, well-arranged songs and hushed, emotive atmosphere of Rewind the Film. They’ve also brought with them the wisdom of experience; the stories and memories captured here really do feel Springsteenian in their everymanish triumphalism, offset and belied by some ‘it’ll be alright in the end’ hopelessness.

It’s a young album that already feels worthy of repeated revisits in years to come, and may well prove to age better than arguably any of the albums named above.

Journal For Plague Lovers
journal for plague lovers
It’s fair to say that reservations of this album’s concept were widely held and perhaps justified upon its announcement. Dredging back through their history, the band decided to record an album based on lyrics left to them by Richey Edwards shortly before his disappearance and probable suicide. The resultant atmosphere is admittedly a strange one, but also a massive catharsis that propels the album into the periphery of greatness. Any suspicions of a cash-in wringing dry the band’s past and their former members’ legacy were quickly dispelled however by Journal for Plague Lovers’ content. Comparisons with the Manics’ third album were almost inevitable upon JFPL’s release, but to the band’s credit, it’s the two albums’ disparities that are most noticeable.

Edwards’ memory is kindled and celebrated unashamedly, and the mental hurdle of the Manics revisiting his lyrics posthumously after all this time is conquered, Journal For Plague Lovers becomes a touching and fitting tribute. The artwork repeats its use of The Holy Bible’s inverted typeface, as well as another painted cover by Jenny Saville, this time her austere and strongly figurative 2005 portrait Stare. There were no singles released from the album, and other than its dedicated promotional tour in which the Manics played the record from beginning to end each night, its tracks have been retired from live performance. The credits list their missing bandmate as Richard Edwards, the centre spread occupied by a single monochrome photo of him in authorial pose hunched over a typewriter, hair pragmatically short, his tattoo of Purgatory on show. It’s almost as if the band are collectively carrying Edwards’ ashes throughout, as if they are merely a conduit for his words. The lyrics themselves are studied; not quite restrained but certainly showing more metricality than the dense, polysyllabic tracts of The Holy Bible.

Similarly Journal For Plague Lovers lacks the musical flights of fancy characterising The Holy Bible; everything here is terse and succinct, with barely an inch of fat on the album. There are no extensive solos, the riffs are hookish and memorable yet unobtrusive, transmitting and punctuating the lyrics without encroaching upon their spotlight. The guitar work is never boastful, be that ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’’s quick change sustains and pull-offs, the title track’s ringing, open-chorded chorus motif or ‘She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach’’s choppy signature riff. The almost industrial clank of ‘Peeled Apples’’ drum intro, Wire’s lurking bass and Bradfield’s post-punk toned guitar, combine into a chiselled, sickly sexy version Public Image Ltd. ‘All is Vanity’’s atonal intro unfurls into stuttering, blocky riff punctuated with a strident bassline as Edwards’ neuroses are poured forth. Most riffs are found within picked chords rather than the head-on assault of its companion record The Holy Bible and lead guitar is refined into concise fills rather than extensive solos. Perhaps it’s not representative who they are as musicians these days to wring guitar necks and whistle up and down fretboards, but if their comments and teasers of Futurology are anything to go by, a revisit could well be due.

Everything Must Go
everything must go
Let’s face it, these two were always going to be top-two, the only question is their order.

The backstory of Everything Must Go surely must have come from one of the most emotionally exhausting periods it’s possible to imagine a group of friends experiencing, never mind a music group. The psychological torture Bradfield, Moore and Wire must have gone through for all those years, treading on eggshells whilst Edwards teetered on the emotional edge, was above and beyond what most people experience in a lifetime. Dip into literally any Manics biography detailing the years of 1992 to 1995 and you’ll be as shocked at the near-daily scares revolving around Edwards as you’ll be impressed by his bandmates’ courage amidst his fragility.

The fact that the three remaining Preachers didn’t break down emotionally themselves during this time or following Edwards’ disappearance was incredible, that they were then able to produce any work of creativity not far short of a miracle. Then to produce an artistic and career highpoint so disparate to what they had previously done is just as remarkable; with all due respect, it feels like the reigns were taken off and the band were able to spread their wings without Edwards’ baggage weighing them down. His shadow nevertheless looms large over Everything Must Go’s entirety from the sparse cover art with its empty brackets upwards. This sense of bereavement is never more prevalent than on ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’, whose sentiments really stick in the throat, knowing what came next in its lyricist’s life. To the Manics’ credit, there is never the sense that their bandmate is speaking from beyond the grave; this is an intellectually and conceptually transcendent record at times, but never a séance.

You can feel the release and catharsis throughout the album, in the spacious arrangements no longer scrawled over with endless words. ‘Interiors (Song For Willem De Kooning)’ is a bright and optimistic acceptance of such a shift, Bradfield’s voice reaching into a high register as currents of guitars undertow in a climbing chord sequence. Most tracks are so famous that they barely need description, ‘Kevin Carter’’s arch guitar work and canny trumpet use a case in point. ‘Australia’ sees the band in high gear at their bombastic best, all galloping drums and slashed guitars. ‘A Design for Life’ must have a painting in its attic as it simply never ages, sounding as fresh and exciting as the day it was recorded, especially its timeless outro of unadorned drums. Even ‘The Girl Who Wanted To Be God’, arguably the weakest track is kept anchored by its octave-scaling chorus amidst its string-laden storm. Never afraid to experiment with unconventional guitar tones, Everything Must Go’s palette is often overlooked in this regard, from ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’’s trebly distortion to the clean, natural rumble of ‘Removables’.

The Holy Bible
the holy bible
Wire and Edwards’ lyrics found their voices most effectively on The Holy Bible, never before or since has such striking imagery and such a forceful voice been crammed between bars. The lyrics are so dense that the music is actually stripped back, sparse in places with riffs composed of just a few repeated notes or a variation on a scale. See ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ for a salient case in point, a corkscrewing intro guitar riff whirling into Bradfield’s droning, ringing verse notes as he machine-guns his lines. ‘Of Walking Abortion’’s abrasive harmonics and mechanised, chiding guitar fills reflect well the nihilistic lyrical matter, Edwards channelling militant feminist Valerie Solanos’ writings. The death rattle of Bradfield’s jarring guitar intro coupled with Moore’s thundering drum part heralds ‘Die in the Summertime’ more than appropriately.

It’s an uncompromisingly bold, fearlessly audacious record full of stringent creative decisions. ‘Faster’’s furiously pummelling head-down bass drone drives its verses before a slew of self mutilation is spewed out over Moore’s frantic octopus-armed cymbal clashing and gnashing, descending guitar lines elsewhere. ‘Archives of Pain’ fans out from its terse, foreboding bass intro to hammerblowing a staccato chord sequence and ends in a near two-minute guitar solo.

Everywhere you look there is utter, abject horror. ‘Mausoleum’ renders the Holocaust as an incomprehensible, apocalyptic annihilation, such rending of human life as an affront to nature itself (“No birds – no birds, the sky is swollen black” gasps Bradfield, sounding as if he is recoiling in revulsion). The harrowing ‘4st 7lb’ borderline glorifies anorexia and dysmorphia, gouging out its manifesto in the most poetic yet disturbing imagery possible, “I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view; I wanna walk in the snow and not leave a footprint… and not soil its purity”. The churning, broiling industrial krautrock of ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ opens with a chilling reading from the Nuremburg Trials. There’s a nightmarish screed of self-loathing in ‘Faster’. A future of physical degradation and a longing to be snuffed from this world in ‘Die in the Summertime’. Even the Wire-penned lyrics tap into this abject, dolorous atmosphere, the crushing emotions of ‘This is Yesterday’ sobbing, “I repent, I’m sorry, everything is falling apart”.

It’s an unflinching work that picks at scabs by seeming to exalt what it detests most, full of allusions redolent with meaning and dripping with Edwards’ fierce, flawed intellect. The record feels almost skeletal in places, working itself into the ground it’s so busy leaping from one idea to the next, one riff to the next. Song structures are contorted with so much to say in so little time, siphoning its fuel from some intrinsically integral place like a collapsing star or a starving organism.

Even at nearly an hour, the running time simply flies by as the listener is kept rapt. There are no inconsistencies in quality here, no high or low waterlines. It’s a dark, uncompromisingly visceral vision made terrifyingly yet brilliantly real. The Holy Bible is the Manic Street Preachers’ best album not because it taps so successfully into such unspeakable emotions as no other record has, but because quite simply it’s one of the best albums ever recorded.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: In Retrospect

Posted in Feature, Music, Review with tags , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2013 by David Hall

In the wake of a fourth Yeah Yeah Yeahs album about a month ago, a look back over how it fits into their oeuvre seems somehow appropriate. It would be downright remiss not to.

Firstly a brief roundup of where Mosquito took us. I liked it without really falling head over heels for it, and played it repeatedly without really knowing why. Probably because it was an engaging listen on several levels; there is a nice reservoir of immediate standout tracks in there, a pocket of growers with a few songs confusing in their presence. Let’s tackle an example of each category one-by-one, beginning with the beginning and lead single ‘Sacrilege’. The real star of the show early on in the track ahead of the sledgehammering gospel grenade heralds the excellent outro is Karen O’s distant-mic’d vocal stings: “HALO! ‘ROUND HIS HEAD! Feathers in our bed… IN OUR BED!” she bawls before Nick Zinner’s wandersome lead guitar line trickles the listener through the chorus. An undulating bassline kicks in the second verse bringing extra movement, expanding well on the song’s main chord sequence. In hindsight the choral aspect of the song was an eyebrow-raising moment; whilst I presume none of us are idiots and can tell a build when we hear one, think back on the first time you heard that song and think on how much of a surprise it was.

As for a song that develops upon repeat listens, the Dr. Octagon collab ‘Buried Alive’ – featuring some scintillating production from former LCD Soundsystem mainman James Murphy – slunk up on me from an out-of-context disappointment to near-classic status. It is in many ways a typical Murphy pop song at over five minutes in length, with a sawing guitar riff from Zinner, a rollicking bassline piggybacking on a rolling drum track and O in stalking mode. By just halfway through the song has chucked a crackling intro, moody verse, Doc Oc rap and a chorus at you; it seems there is little else to give. But after calming down into a breath-grabbing wane the track coils to a close with an echoing extended outro where motifs become textures and textures resolve themselves ingeniously into riffs. It’s great work all around, with an oft-underused on this record Brian Chase looping himself to death, O opening up her throat thrillingly later on in the track and Zinner generally working brilliantly with Murphy to create a distinct atmosphere. I’m sort of not quite sold on Dr. Octagon’s rap, as impressively delivered and ingeniously syntactic as it is. The actual content (I believe at one point he rhymes “head” with “head”) I’m still unsure of; it’s a little off-the-shelf, and a welcome if not quite flawless return from the not-so good doctor.

On the negative front, I’d single out ‘Area 52’ which features a desperate opening line showcasing O’s lyrical stumbles in Mosquito. “Message came from outer space, future of the human race” simply deserved crossing out no sooner than it was written. In fact taken as a whole the track is something the band would struggle to find a home for on their past records. The opening drum fill, in a rare wobble from Brian Chase, is awful, heightening the cheesy kitchness of the track to unbearable levels. I’m sure YYY’s would argue that this is the effect that they were going for, but it’s not a pleasant one. O’s ridiculously affected intonation of the word ‘alien’ (“aylee-IN!”) does the track no favours whatsoever. As a representative of one of Mosquito’s more straightforwardly guitar-based tracks, ‘Area 52’ compares unfavourably with some of the more muscular material in the band’s repertoire (try ‘Rockers to Swallow’ from their IsIs EP for size), in terms of tone and content, it’s miles from their peak.

So it’s a troublesome conclusion to arrive at, but let me have a go for you. The bulk of the album frankly sounds like a band listening to a lot of Portishead. There’s a great record in here somewhere, it’s just not a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. Where YYY’s really go for it, the results are often astounding, but the tracks that fall back on former glories come off more often than not as weak facsimiles, ‘Area 52’ being the chief offender. There’s no getting away in my mind from the fact that this is the band’s weakest album, despite its highs. But how does it fit into their overall output?

Well. First off, Mosquito pales horribly in comparison to It’s Blitz!’s rewarding experimentation. Much was made upon its release of that album’s studio-written status, something which is even more striking on Mosquito. Could the band have more closely considered how these songs would sound live, how its track will sit in future sets? The answer is they simply don’t. Check out recent Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ setlists and Mosquito barely figures, even at its own release party. Tracks like ‘Subway’, as effective as they are through headphones, are pretty much unplayable live. Whereas It’s Blitz! sounds like it hasn’t aged a day in the five years since its release. Blitz and Mosquito are clearly sister records, intentional or not, in the same way that Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones are. Each pair are cut from the same cloth; the earlier two punkish and guitar-based, the later experimental, synth-oriented affairs. To it’s enormous credit, there is not an ounce of fat on It’s Blitz!. From beginning to end, it’s an outstanding record that I could heap praise on until the cows come home, and then you’d have a job on your hands getting all those cows down from that praise-heap. Even its comparatively mediocre moments like ‘Skeletons’ are unrequited triumphs, dripping with ideas demanding repeat listens. And although Mosquito reveals itself more and more with each run through, its lesser tracks are simply that. I’m loathe to pick on it, but ‘Area 52’ is a b-side curio at best. The main problem however is there are too many mid-tempo trip-hop-lite mood pieces like ‘These Paths’ (which I do actually rather like, but the point still stands) and ‘Always’, and arguably ‘Wedding Song’, as admirable and fitting a closer as it undeniably is. Meanwhile, ‘Despair’ I’m sure would sound great live, and would have made the perfect closing track on Mosquito were it not for ‘Wedding Song’, which just could not be placed anywhere else on the album. Whilst the track closes the album on a far less strident note than ‘Despair’ would have done “In flames I sleep soundly, with angels around me” is a killer rhyme, which O seems capable of delivering at least once per album. In fact lyrics aside, Ms O provides highlights for plenty of tracks with her delivery, the title track being a particular case in point. When she squares up to the mic, bares her teeth and belts out the “Suck your blood!” lines in the chorus, the song absolutely comes to life. It’s far from a one-off either, the menacingly-delivered effects-laden lyrical hook of “Twelve tongues put a hex on ya,” in the bassy, snowy ‘Under the Earth’ being another instance that springs to mind.

Even at the time I identified Show Your Bones as a misstep, and I’m confused as to quite why it continues to be so well-regarded. To me it marks a point where YYYs morphed into a soundalike; they began to sound like an indie band in 2005 when the market was goddam saturated with the bastards. Whilst both Mosquito and Show Your Bones saw the band retaining an identity of sorts, YYYs are clearly uncertain and non-committal over exactly which direction to take on both records. Caught awkwardly between the noisy, torturous guitar tones of their early material and the experimentation they showed going forwards, Bones was frumpy and indistinct. It seemed a hallmark of a band proud of their aesthetic but wanting to evolve their sound in an era where bass guitar was the enemy. Bands and acts of that ilk generally made up with their four-stringed shoulder-monkey eventually, Yeah Yeah Yeahs more gradually than their peers. Show Your Bones was in fact a terribly misleading album title; it showed nothing of Yeah Yeah Yeahs bones at all, if anything it showed their cladding, their baggage. Fever to Tell was clearly the bones in terms of a blueprint. Wherever O & Co. have taken us since then has been anything but skeletal, frequently brilliant but stylistically at times fantastically wayward. Take their IsIs EP, steering the band towards their minimalist background after the total overload of Show Your Bones. Texturally Bones came across like sensory stimulation therapy compared to the excitingly sparse Fever. Sure, Fever to Tell was of its time (in which as mentioned before, bass was out of vogue and critics went bafflingly mad over bands with odd lineups like The White Stripes’ guitar-drums-vox or The Dresden Dolls’ piano-drums-vox), but for the most part it sounds an awesome departure radically out of step with most that preceded or followed it, even a decade on. The jazz-oriented drum patterns (try ‘No No No’s steel-wristed intro and verse), the frantically tremolo-picked guitar style and cacophonous, effects-saturated tone still sound fresh as a daisy. Of course Karen O takes centre stage (although you couldn’t quite imagine the Vivienne Westwood of indie writing “Boy you just a stupid bitch and girl you just a no-good dick” these days) with her unhinged delivery and gainy vocal tones sounding beautifully deviant. It’s a thick, unctuous coating on an album that already feels suspiciously sticky underfoot.

So where does Mosquito fit into all this? Where the album would imaginably contribute most effectively to the YYYs live set (hi there ‘Sacrilege’, ‘Under the Earth’, ‘Mosquito’), it’s great. And where it doesn’t, there’s plenty to keep you listening (hands up ‘These Paths’, ‘Buried Alive’, ‘Despair’). But whilst the mood pieces are clever, they aren’t particularly engaging, and compare really quite unfavourably with It’s Blitz!’s hooky extravaganza (sorry ‘Subway’, ‘Slave’, ‘Always’). It’s feast and famine in that It’s Blitz! really did spoil us, and unfortunately for Mosquito, whilst it is in the same league, it’s certainly battling relegation. So although Mosquito by no means deserves panning, It’s Blitz! deserves every accolade coming it’s way, and I doubt anyone in their heart of hearts could find a comparable amount of love for the band’s latest effort. Let me also point out that ‘Dull Life’ seemed to me to be the best meeting of early and later YYYs, an avenue the band choose not to explore here. And that’s fair enough. But there was unrealised potential, I feel, in the melding of Zinner’s chordy verses, strident lead sections and relative restraint absent from the tendon-snapping seizure of ‘Y Control’. Karen O was also on spectacular form there, at times whooping, at others keening, shining as a not only a frontwoman but a vocalist as she has done throughout her career. The closest Mosquito comes to repeating this is probably ‘Despair’, but it doesn’t share the same urgency or the immediate production of ‘Dull Life’, bubbling along as it does on a rather Nine Inch Nails beat (I’m thinking of ‘Mr. Self Destruct’, from The Downward Spiral).

Thinking back to YYYs stronger records, it’s almost as if the band know which tracks are the stronger on Mosquito and spend the entire album drip-feeding them to the listener. It feels a preparatory experience, as if easing you into a different era for the band. A lot of the album is very ambient, but where Mosquito diverges from this template it can sound a little too eager-to-please. There’s nothing as spiky or anthemic as their early days, nor is there quite the electroclash death disco of the previous albums’ widely-acknowledged high points. Where Mosquito is thrashing and noisy, it doesn’t feel so with the same abandon as in the past, with the band not quite willing to unleash their full fury. The percussive, delicate diversion of ‘Subway’ is just that, and bafflingly placed second in the tracklisting, inbetween the plainly stronger, more strident Sacrilege and the punchy title track It’s a departure for the band, and seems like a signpost (to proclaim ‘Look at this, there’s plenty more of the same later on!’) that the album would benefit without. Whichever way you cut it, Mosquito is Yeah Yeah Yeah’s weakest album yet. It fails to capture the buzzy, mashup atmosphere of their previous album, or the intentionally primitive arty splatterpunk of Fever to Tell. A broadly hit-miss-hit-miss track record however points to nothing but positive things in the future.

Karen O photo by photographer: DaigoOliva, contributor to Flickr. ( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.