Definitely Maybe – Oasis (review)

British guitar music had taken a backseat to United States grunge in the early 90’s as it sought to regroup after the failure of shoegazing bands to capitalize on the phenomenal but brief success of the Manchester-led dance rock genre in the late 80s. Bands like Blur had taken the first steps back into the consciousness but when Oasis released Definitely Maybe, they kicked the door in, dragged the plaid shirted usurpers out by the scruff of their necks and packed them off to the airport.

This was a record with guts, anger, humour, and social commentary (albeit hidden in obtuse, druggy lyrics). Few opening tracks by a debut band can rate with the swagger and belief of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” while the first three singles – “Supersonic,” “Shakermaker” and “Live Forever” – encapsulated the band’s range, a perfect showcasing triptych. Laconic, comedic and emotional guitar-driven pop was back and when fourth single “Cigarettes and Alcohol” was released, all bets were off. Oasis were already the biggest band in the world in their heads. Now everyone else would start to believe it too.

Commendations

From the opening track to the throwaway epilogue of “Married with Children” – with perhaps the greatest comment on the music they were replacing: ‘your music’s shite, it keeps me up all night’ – Definitely Maybe is a chin-out strut down the alleyways of Britain’s rock heritage. Much was made of the band’s love of the Beatles but Definitely Maybe is much more than a Fab Four rip-off and it’s lazy to suggest so.

Liam Gallagher’s fondness for the Sex Pistols is clear on his vocal delivery on “Bring it on Down,” while, at the other end of the scale, “Digsy’s Dinner” in almost musical hall in its jauntiness.  Re-recorded on the behest of Creation label boss Alan McGee who said the first version lacked the ‘attack and immediacy’ of Oasis concerts, the band decided the only way to replicate their live sound was to record together without soundproofing between individual instruments. With Noel Gallagher overdubbing the guitars in post-production, a powerful yet cohesive and proficient onslaught was created. This can be heard best on the rumbling, ominous “Columbia” and the balls-out yet beautiful “Slide Away” – one the band’s best and most underrated tunes, described by Liam Gallagher as ‘a rocking love song.’

Oasis were the antitheses of Nirvana’s ‘I hate myself and want to die’ philosophy and this positivity in the face of hardship that the band espoused is most keenly felt on the luminous “Live Forever” and the nihilistic soundtrack to the party at the end of the world which is “Cigarettes and Alcohol.” Whatever mood you’re in, however your day is going, there is a track on Definitely Maybe which will not only match it but will speak to you, counsel you and assure you that everything will be alright. This is a debut album which convincingly and authentically covers every emotion and many of life’s common stories in about an hour of music. It was a remarkable achievement and a high point that Oasis tried and failed to reach again during the following 15 years of their career.

Next Steps

Unless the Gallagher brothers put their differences aside or run out of money (or both), it’s unlikely that we’ll ever hear these songs played live with Liam on vocals and Noel on guitar beside him or be blessed with any new material from Oasis again. Those who lost faith in the band towards the end may say this is no bad thing. But putting Definitely Maybe on and turning it up loud not only reminds me what we’ve lost but also makes me thank God that they managed to get out of a council estate in Manchester in the first place.

First published on: Puluche.com

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The Queen is Dead – The Smiths (review)

Britain was a country divided at the time when The Queen Is Dead was released in 1986. The end of the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85 had left much of the north of the country battered, bruised and on the poverty line while the south was still in shock at the strong-arm tactics of Margaret Thatcher’s government. The Smiths, ensconced in Manchester writing the follow-up to 1985′s Meat is Murder, couldn’t help but feel the anger and resentment of the North and instead of making blunt musical statements like some generational mouthpieces had chosen to do, they channeled that anger into a collection of songs laced with the band’s barely concealed acidic distaste for the ruling classes.

From the opening sound bite, a snippet of the World War I song “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” taken from the 1962 British film The L-Shaped Room, The Queen Is Dead sets an atmosphere primed for attack after acerbic attack on the hereditary power structure and class system in Britain, albeit assaults sheathed in lilting, heart-rending ballads and pithy, witty pop gems. It’s an album barely concealing its loathing of the concept of privilege in a time of oppressive Conservative rule. Morrissey and Marr both say that the album that followed in 1987, Strangeways Here We Come, was the band’s peak but in comparison to The Queen Is Dead, it’s too over-produced and the cutting edge has been blunted in both the delivery and lyrical content. On The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths managed to retain the frantic, low-fi approach of their eponymously titled debut and the bleakness of sophomore album Meat is Murder, but delivered a rounder, more confident collection of songs.

They present some of the best pop songs from their repertoire here and while more commercial in feel, they have lost none of their early bite. The Queen Is Dead set the bar impossibly high for bands wanting to create politically agitated, socially aware, and emotionally fraught pop songs. Even The Smiths couldn’t reach those heights again. It was such a product of its time and the perfect storm of genius, circumstance and zeitgeist that it has the feeling of being created in seconds; an alchemy forged in fleeting moments of magic. Johnny Marr famously has problems playing his own riffs from this album these days. It’s as if something beyond the power of all the players involved took hold during this album’s recording, forever sealing the impossibly brilliant into 37 minutes, never to be replicated.

Commendations

The Smiths have a reputation for being doom-mongers and while many of their lyrics explore the darker side of human nature and society, their greatest strength was always the combination of the bleak with the uplifting. The best examples are on The Queen Is Dead.  “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” for example, has the sweetest chorus about complete devotion but is delivered in the most morbid and twisted choice of words possible: “And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die…And if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well…the pleasure and the privilege is mine.” Then there’s “Vicar in a Tutu,” a story of a deviant priest told over a jaunty rockabilly soundtrack, sounding like a show tune from a perverted Elvis film from a parallel dimension. It’s unabashed in its transvestism and carefree in its sexual ambiguity while rocking along in a macho musical style. It’s weird, funny and massively inspired.

“Cemetry Gates,” one of the best songs not only on this album but in their entire collection, is a marvel; the perfect combination of pace and swagger, of Morrissey’s intellect and delivery melded with Marr’s skittish guitar. And what comes next? The unassailable, incomparable “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” Johnny Marr wanted an explosive, searing single to announce the band’s return and insisted on this instead of “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” He was spot on. This tears out of the gate and sprints away on the guitarist’s choppy chords while Morrissey basically speed-yodels his way through the song.

Listen closely to The Queen Is Dead and you will be treated to some of the best lyrics ever: “And in the darkened underpass I thought ‘oh god’ my chance had come at last but a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask” from “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” There are countless highlights. There have been very few British artists who have come close to matching The Smiths for lyricism in the years since this release.

The music behind the lyrics is sublimely paradoxical as it seems so clearly rooted in the mid-80′s yet is also contemporary. This is probably because of the huge influence Johnny Marr has had on all those who grew up watching him strangle unearthly noises from his cherry red Gibson ES-335. Marr rehabilitated the guitar for the generation of British bands who emerged listening to this album. His jittery, complicated runs lay down a blueprint for the acid jangle strings favored by bands like Happy Mondays which would fuse dance and rock in the tail end years of the 80s while his choppy chord changes and chugging rhythms would be replicated throughout the Britpop period a decade after The Queen Is Dead was released. His take on rockabilly and garage can be heard today as an influence in bands like The Vaccines and Howler. All in all, this album still inspires and challenges in every way to this very day.

Next Steps

The Smiths released Strangeways Here We Come a year after The Queen Is Dead and it’s remarkable to see the change that 12 months made; Strangeways… has some luminous moments but with the band coming apart at the seams it would be their last and that tension can be felt throughout.  Seen by many – Morrissey and Marr included – as their best work, Strangeways… seems a huge step from The Queen Is Dead but it’s progress is purely in terms of production quality. It is certainly a more textured record but, in this writer’s opinion, these layers smothered them. Morrissey would go on to have a successful solo career while Marr would retain his legendary status as the enigmatic guitarist with stints in The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, as well as his own band Johnny Marr and the Healers. Bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce would spend a lot of time suing Morrissey and Marr in a long-running royalties dispute before resuming their careers as session players and for-hire touring musicians. The continuing acrimony of the band’s split means that their much-hoped for reunion remains as unlikely as ever. But they also said that about the Stone Roses…

First published on: Puluche.com

 

Oh No, I Love You – Tim Burgess (review)

Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson once famously said that the reason Manchester produced so many great bands was because the kids from that city had the best record collections. Despite being born in the Manchester suburb of Salford, Tim Burgess actually grew up 24 miles away in the sleepy Cheshire town of Northwich. Evidence suggests, however, that The Charlatans front man carried that Mancunian eclecticism in his DNA. His back catalog shows that he has never been afraid to dig into his own diverse collection in his work with The Charlatans, albeit with mixed results – 2001′s funk powered Wonderland was surprisingly excellent whereas the cod-reggae and dub of Simpatico five years later was as uncomfortable in parts as listening to a bunch of stroke victims attempting hip-hop. Burgess has also used his solo work and collaborations to stretch his artistic wings.

His debut solo album, 2003′s I Believe, was a product of living on the West Coast of America and indulging in his love of Gram Parsons (along with a fair amount of Colombia’s finest export). It was scatterbrained but euphoric mixture of country rock, folky pop and even hints of disco. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t but he somehow managed more hits than misses. All in all it didn’t really seem to matter. It was the sound of a musician reveling in his freedom and having a lot of fun while doing so. Nine years on from all that and there’s still more than a hint of Americana on his second solo effort, Oh No I Love You, which is unsurprising when you consider it was recorded in Nashville with longtime Lambchop producer Mark Nevers at the helm, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner providing lyrics and members of Clem Snide, Factory Floor and My Morning Jacket aiding and abetting on the musical side. However, while Burgess seemed to be in thrall to his adoptive city of L.A. on I Believe, in some cases sounding like he was actually auditioning to become a Flying Burrito Brother, it’s a quintessentially English delivery that he brings to Oh No I Love You, onewhich somehow manages to hold its own in the face of the American influences dominating the music. If that sounds as though this could be a somewhat schizophrenic, conflicted and muddled album, you’d be one-third right.

The notoriously flighty and unpredictable singer has once again managed to confound and surprise, the result being an album varying in styles and directions, but bizarrely this is his most cohesive, warm and refreshing record in years. Whereas I Believe came across as a little too affected in parts, Oh No I Love You is a sincere album, an honest record but not an earnest one. With jaunty piano lines and celebratory New Orleans horns throughout, it’s a joyous celebration of a record in parts and heartfelt and authentic in others. A relaxed Burgess applies the finishing touch to most of the songs with vocals which sound assured and confident and yet effortless and cool at the same time. (Admittedly, he struggles on a few). He sounds like a man at ease on songs such as “The Doors of Then” and you can almost hear a satisfied smile underpinning album opener and lead-off single “White.” Despite sounding more comfortable on the lighter songs, Burgess still manages to sound slightly miscast on songs such as the string-laden “Hours” where he dubiously takes on the role of a torch singer, and “Tobacco Fields” which, for all its dark, introspective beauty, drags on at a snail’s pace and provides too many challenges that his voice fails to meet. He seems completely out of his depth for 80% of “The Economy” but this is his worst offense. Oh No I Love You is strange, full of contradictions yet beautiful. Much like the man himself.

Commendations

Opening with “White” could be seen as a masterstroke as its infectious Hammond-drenched, brassy stomp is the perfect example of what the album appears to have been conceived as – a fusion of  Americana and the influences from the singer’s upbringing, like northern soul, Motown and sixties pop. It’s playful and bouncy with an uplifting melody and rousing pulse. Burgess sounds like he’s improvising over the top of the sumptuous orchestration which is left to do the hard work of driving the tune. But rather than set the tone, “White” remains the high watermark, not because the other songs don’t match its quality but because nothing else sounds like it and so cannot be compared to it. It is top in a league of one.

It’s followed by the strumming alt-country of “The Doors of Then” which could be the soundtrack of every rose-tinted memory one has of cornfields and lovers. It also manages to stay true to the formula of combining the English sound (of the Kinks, this time) with the countrified twang of the American south. But where “White” created a mad, euphoric new hybrid of these styles, “The Doors of Then” harks back to I Believe‘s fascination with the Byrds, among others, only with a touch of Carnaby Street. “A Case for Vinyl” maybe labors the point of the title a little by adding crackling acetate effects but as a song, it’s a slow burning, atmospheric ballad that – for the most part – Burgess pulls off with aplomb. He struggles a little with the pace, straining as it drags his voice to uncomfortably high and plaintive places, but there’s no denying the heart of the song is honest and strong.

“The Graduate” starts by tricking the listener with a riff reminiscent of “1969” by The Stooges before sliding off into country territory again. It takes yet another bizarre turn in its lyrics: “We met by Shepherd’s Bush, the hat you wore was ridiculous…sitting on the bus, laughing at the both of us…” This London imagery sits awkwardly with the bending, twanging steel guitar but the melody on which the words glide is pitch perfect for this bluegrass-swinging sixties mutation. As mentioned above, “Hours” is something completely different altogether. Emotional bursts of violin, rousing John Barry-esque orchestration and a smokey vocal conjure up images of romantic montages from the love stories of 60s cinema. It does have a disturbing touch of karaoke about it, however, which fails to make it completely convincing but full marks for bravery! “Tobacco Fields,” as mentioned previously, has a dark majesty at its core but its pace is a little too pedestrian and rather than eliciting a truly deep emotional wrench, it veers towards the soporific. The album comes back to life with “Anytime Minutes” which is a great example of Kurt Wagner writing a pitch-perfect vehicle for the singer’s loose vocal style while harnessing the rustic vibes that flow through the veins of the Nashville outside the recording booth.

The wonderfully-titled “The Great Outdoors, Bitches” is a strange but fantastic creature, a bizarrely paced mixture of trombone, conga and drum machine. It shouldn’t work but somehow it does…unlike “The Economy” which tries to tackle a serious subject but with Burgess straining at a range where only dogs can possibly hear him while a cacophonous mixture of free-form jazz and indulgent guitar noodling do battle below, any attempt at credibility is sadly lost. There’s redemption in the final track, “A Gain,” which has the building melancholy and barely-constrained desperation of Final Cut-era Pink Floyd. It takes a while to get to where it needs to be a great song – much like many Floyd tracks – but get there it does. It succeeds in successfully book-ending the album in direct contrast to the euphoric opening of “White” and gives pause to reflect on the journey of high points and missteps the listener has been through to reach this finale.

Next Steps

It could be argued that I Believe was an album Burgess made for California alone, a druggy love letter to his new paramour which unintentionally found its way into the hands of others, Oh No I Love You is the sound of a man standing up and making a record for everyone. It might not be to everyone’s tastes but at least he’s trying – and for the most part, he’s succeeded in making an accessible, breezy yet satisfyingly oddball record which adds to his extending reputation as an artist who continues to turn left when you think he’ll turn right. So when it comes to predicting his next steps…it’s anyone’s guess. Acid jazz with heavy metal overtones, perhaps?

First published on: Puluche.com

Battle Born – The Killers (review)

The Killers have always been big. Even when this writer saw them in a tiny Cologne bunker just after the release of their debut album Hot Fuss in 2004, they were already well-equipped to storm the stadiums of the world. The songs were huge, the sound was massive and Brandon Flowers’ belief was gargantuan. It would be two more years of threatening the structural integrity of cellars and bars (at least in Europe) before The Killers would get the chance to play venues which could physically handle their music. And just when they reached this level, they upped the ante with Sam’s Town. Hot Fuss had been brash and ballsy, with a hint of the operatic which would start to creep in over time, but with Sam’s Town, the Killers took those songs down the gym and put them through a serious muscle-building regime. The 2006 vintage Killers was a steroid-pumped behemoth of a band, rolling through 159 shows, five continents and 28 countries in just over a year, culminating in headlining shows at Madison Square Garden and Glastonbury. The scope of the music, the image of the band, and the possibilities before them exploded exponentially. In three years, they’d become one of the biggest acts on the planet.

But as well as reaching stadium rock’s zenith, they seemed to have lost many pieces of what made them unique on the way. They’d gone from fresh, young and hammy pretenders to bourbon-soaked, impervious penthouse playboys…misplacing their sense of irony and fun on the way. With 2008′s Day & Age, along with the back catalogs of Springsteen and Bowie which the album obviously drew on, Flowers discovered an inflated sense of importance which lacked the self-awareness which had made the sequined posturing not only acceptable but pleasingly palatable in rock’s mid-decade dullness. The Killers were in danger of falling victim to their own success and ending up another bloated AOR corpse on the highway to what-could-have-been. Thankfully, Brandon pulled back from edge just in time. Putting the band on hiatus, he went away and came back with solo album Flamingo in 2010. While patchy in quality, Flamingo at least saw The Killers front man return with renewed humility. While still overly dramatic in places, most of his songs displayed a control which his band had been on the verge of losing.

Now, two years after taking stock, The Killers are back and not only are they back in control, they’ve managed to hit on a formula which allows them to theatrically soar as before but remain tethered to the earth. Battle Born is expansive and panoramic but it’s shorn of the flabbiness that had gathered on their lithe frames with Day & Age. With that album, Flowers asked pretentious questions such as “are we human or are we dancer?” If Battle Born asks one question it could be “can regression be a positive thing?” The answer is a resounding yes, if by regression one means going back to a time before an aberration was committed and starting again from a point where things were almost perfect. Battle Born is the child which should have come from the union of Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town. It’s melodic, it’s strong, it’s powerful – but more importantly, it appears to have learned from previous mistakes. The Killers could never do stripped-down, they could never do lo-fi, but Battle Born is about as compact as they could possibly hope to be. After pulling back from the abyss, The Killers have found a restrained majesty in what they always did better than anyone else. Be under no illusions, Battle Born is a triumph and a more than welcome return to form.

Commendations

“I’ve gone through life white knuckle in the moments that left me behind…refusing to heed the yield…” The opening line of the album sets the tone as Brandon Flowers makes it known on “Flesh and Bone” that he’s had time to take stock of what’s gone before and has realized that, rather than being a spaceman floating high above the rest of humanity or some indulgent preacher passing judgment, he’s one of us. A human, not dancer, culpable and mistake-ridden. It’s a rip-roaring opening track which is both self-analytical and celebratory. The Killers seem to be reveling in the fact that they’ve found themselves again while holding their hands up to previous misdemeanors. There’s no wallowing here as “Runaways” proves. The second track is textbook Killers, a tale of star-crossed lovers fleeing a sticky situation told in rousing Springsteen fashion. It’s goose-bump inducing stuff. “The Way it Was” follows and continues the theme of doomed romance. This is pure and unadulterated 80′s power ballad territory but instead of going into pastiche overdrive, the band takes the foot off the gas and let the message linger and fade. The restraint from that finale bleeds into “Here With Me” which is brought to you by our sponsors at Zippo. This one comes with lighters aloft as standard. It teeters just on the right side of cheesy, proving that they haven’t lost that quality of plucking the heartstrings with just enough power not to snap them. “I don’t want your picture on my cellphone…I want you here you with me,” Flowers sings. “I don’t want those memories in my head.”

Raising the stakes again is “A Matter of Time” which could have come straight off Sam’s Town. It’s a sinister rocker, a chugging tale of dark obsession from the grimy underbelly of Las Vegas: “There’s a panic in this house and it’s bound to surface…Just walking through the front door makes me nervous.” Pulling back once more, adding to the well-paced ebb and flow of the running order, is “Deadlines and Commitments” which, while a competent inclusion, has the feeling that’s just here making up the numbers. It’s Fleetwood Mac-lite and the only real drop in quality. Thankfully, “Miss Atomic Bomb” arrives to lift the level to exemplary again; a teenage tale of “making out with the radio on” under the neon lights of Nevada’s city of sin. It’s anthemic and epic, like Joshua Tree-era U2 – all frantic verses dropping into breathless breaks before rocketing skywards into chiming choruses. “The Rising Tide” has elements of that Hot Fuss confidence and naivety – there’s strands of “Mr. Brightside’s” DNA woven through it as it builds into a crashing finale – but this is underpinned by the new maturity and control which reins in the pretentiousness of old. This maturity and control is most evident on “Heart of a Girl” which could be The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” if Lou Reed had favored satin rather than leather. The Killers of old would have layered on about eight extra tracks on top of what’s presented here and it benefits greatly from that restraint in production. What comes next, “From Here on Out.” is pure E-Street pop; it’s blue collar optimism in the face of bullies and oppressors – and it’s great.

The proof of any Killers pudding is in the eating of the last morsels. There are few bands that fall victim to the epic grandeur and indulgence of a massive finale in the way The Killers do. If Battle Born the album was going to be exposed as a false dawn its cover would have been blown by the end song of the same name. And while “Battle Born” borders on the preposterous at times, it has fewer of the dragged-out theatrics which have closed previous albums. It’s a clattering rock finale with Dave Kuening’s chiming guitar runs echoing those of The Edge, while Ronnie Vannucci’s drums and Mark Stoermer’s bass try and anchor the whole thing down. It fades out and then back in on a piano coda, but instead of using this as a cue to bring in the big finish, the keys quietly retreat again as the album ends.

Next Steps

Now they have rediscovered their mojo, one hopes that The Killers will continue to learn from their previous mistakes. Battle Born will no doubt shoot them back into the stratosphere and necessitate another mammoth world tour, taking in the world’s enormodomes, but hopefully it won’t blow their minds – and egos – like it did last time. It seems unlikely that Brandon and Co. will let things get to that level of craziness again, especially after seeing what can be achieved – in terms of quality material – from embracing humility. One wonders though, what The Killers can hope to produce after this. It would be a beautiful full-stop if they decided it was as far as they could go.

First published on: Puluche.com

Lonerism – Tame Impala (review)

Tame Impala – by which one really means the band’s creative force Kevin Parker – continues to do things their/his own very idiosyncratic way. Despite the acclaim that began with a number of courageously out-there EPs and which went global with the release of debut album Innerspeaker in 2010, Parker and his troupe of Aussie psychonauts go about their business as though they are still huddled over battered moogs in a bedroom far from the eyes and ears of the rest of the world. Born out of the hugely creative underground alt-rock community in their hometown of Perth, there could have been few more remote places in which Tame Impala could come together. Not only cast to the farthest point on the coast of Western Australia but also isolated from that city’s mainstream society within a thriving sub culture, it was a miracle in itself that Parker’s music ever got heard in his own country, let alone around the world. But get heard it did and not only that, the music dreamt up in those shared houses and remote beach communes of Australia’s most western tip got under our planet’s skin. It tapped into something dormant, something which had been sleeping since the 60s dream died. Tame Impala sounded like nothing which was around at the time of Innerspeaker’s release. In fact, they sounded like nothing which had strode the earth in the previous 50 years.

One gets the impression that it’s all still a little too surreal for Parker, all this fame and adoration. It still baffles him that his music takes him around the globe, allows him to play his bedroom grooves to increasingly large audiences of rabid fans, and inspires the world’s press to clamour for his thoughts and opinions. Here is a young man who is lauded by a Who’s Who of rock royalty, whose music inspires cultish devotion from those who should have seen it all and done it all. And yet, here is a guy who took himself and his friends off to a small Paris apartment, away from the glare, to write and record an album called Lonerism. It’s remarkable that Parker and his cohorts still consider themselves to be loners in the face of such a gathering tide of acclaim, that they have remained grounded until now. It will be unfathomable if they can keep it up after this record gets out. A similar animal to Innerspeaker but of a more subtle stripe, Lonerism is going to be everywhere. It will permeate consciousness and bleed into other dimensions. Where its predecessor was a collection of weird, tripped-out flights of fancy and ballsy psych-rock workouts, Lonerism has given Tame Impala the wings to fly in their own airspace – and it’s far from this world. There is freedom above these clouds, expansive panoramas conceived in the mind and released through this transcendental music. Where Tame Impala stopped and started to great effect on Innerspeaker, here they fly seamlessly through Lonerism, over and through its epic selection of soundscapes with the abandon which only the gloriously unconscious can achieve.

Commendations

The album opens with “Be Above It” and immediately there are initial palpitations of fear. The frantic, panicked drums and speed-freak paranoia are accompanied by the panted refrain which raises worrying questions: has Kevin Parker taken his love of psychedelia to the level of immersing himself in a lysergic nightmare which has frazzled his mind? Thankfully though, these fears are unfounded. When the song regains its balance and finds its center, it quickly becomes a breathy, Motown-tinged jaunt through hazy pop. The pace quickens with “Endors Toi” which is a space rock wig-out but again, after bursting through the stratosphere with all rockets firing, the song eases back on the throttle and we’re soon floating above the earth again in a Parker-piloted shuttle heading for Planet Groove. Here the Tame Impala head honcho channels John Lennon in his Sgt. Pepper finery, all braids and epaulets, dreaming wistfully in a Lucy kinda way as the intergalactic chugging guitars and cosmic drums take you far above the planet.

“Apocalypse Dreams” as a title suggests a morbid, end of the world vibe but once more, Parker throws a curve ball and focuses more on the dreaming than the destruction and delivers another slice of cosmic, Motown-influenced dream pop. It’s a song which makes you feel like you’re floating in an isolation tank filled with extremely strong weed vapours while recollections of a lover’s whispers of reassurance stroke your mind. In all these new songs, Parker’s voice operates as a guide on the soundwaves, leading you through the stories he weaves in lullaby tones but the music behind it all is equally mesmerising. Effects blow in and out, synths echo and fade, the guitars bend impossibly all over the musical spectrum and the bass and drums get locked into unshakeable grooves, whatever the time signature – which vary from moment to moment on most tracks, leaving the listener to trip and stumble through songs like “Mind Mischief.” Up next is “Music to Walk Home By” which should come with a disclaimer: If you walk home listening to this track, you may not make it. Even sat in the security of a well-padded chair, tethered to the tangible reality of a stereo system via headphones, I was floating away. Had I been on the street, I would have wandered past my house, out of town, through the fields… Perhaps only the coast would have stopped me. I was utterly transported into a swirling, hypnotic soundscape, through ebbing and flowing colours, following Parker’s lilting refrain like the call of a psychedelic siren.

“Why Won’t They Talk to Me” has Tame Impala pawing at terra firm but not for long. Even with an upbeat bass and drum line which was made for absent-minded head nodders the world over, Tame Impala can’t help themselves. Soon you’re three feet off the ground again, following the strands of muted organ and skittering effects like a cartoon cat floating along on the waves emanating from a freshly cooked 2-D chicken.  Once you touch down again in time for the exiting reprise, it’s your moment to dance. The song hits its stride as it returns to earth, chugging into the distance and a fist –pumping finale. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is a beautiful, wistful Beatlesesque tune which soars along on a mid-tempo bass line which McCartney would be proud of; all subtle runs and high notes exploring the possibilities inhabiting the expressive vacuum under Parker’s high-flying vocals. “Elephant” is the stand-out track, mainly because it breaks from the untethered, ethereal dreaming of what’s gone before to stomp along like the titular pachyderm in a pair of glitter boots. It’s glorious glam rock which sounds like all great songs do – like it would be a blast to play. Every Impala is in the zone here, whereas most times they seem to float around each other in the general vicinity of the main coda, adding layers and colours of their own. “Elephant” follows a simple, throbbing blueprint and it’s a thrilling piece of music which is enhanced by the rolling, tumbling lyrics: “He took the mirrors off his Cadillac because he didn’t like it looking like he looked back…”

Next Steps

My only criticism would be that Lonerism lacks the diverse punches which punctuated its predecessor. Lonerism is beautifully crafted and a pure vision; all the songs fit seamlessly together but “Elephant” aside, it feels like a long sunny afternoon, when you’re high as a kite, lying in the long grass. Time drifts by as easily and pleasingly as the shapes forming in the clouds that float in the blue sky above. This is all well and groovy but one feels as though it could do with more of the jarring, acid-freak moments the band’s debut threw up from time to time, jolting you out of your pipe dream to ask “where the hell are we?” or  “what’s going on, man?” Lonerism seems content to just recline and say, with a mellow grin, “it’s all good, brother.” It takes you out of your body on a wonderful flight but a little more turbulence would have been welcome.

First published on: Puluche.com

Observator – The Raveonettes (review)

There are very few albums released in the wake of an admission of serious substance abuse by its principle songwriter which sound anything other than a product of its environment. Even when the music survives – and even soars – unscathed by the human chaos which swirled around its creation, the personal maelstrom can usually still be found buffeting the listener via the lyrical content. In the throes of  personal depression and propped up on booze and drugs, the Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner hoped that by upping sticks and moving from New York to record Observator in L.A. a bit of sunshine would filter through the heavy curtains hanging around his life and his music. Instead, while producing a handful of songs which hint at progression and growth, the Danish duo’s sixth studio release hums with the disorientation and displacement of being removed from home – and more critically – from oneself.

Recorded in just one week at Sunset Sound Studios with Richard Gottehrer at the controls, Wagner and partner Sharin Foo have made a record that draws heavily on their previous work and usual influences such as grungy 1950s rock, peppy 60s girl groups and 90s shoegaze, but one feels that if they had taken more time to both deal with their personal demons and do justice to the good songs which lurk beneath the surface, Observator would have been more than just another Raveonettes album. It certainly has elements of a record which could have lifted them far above the many reverb-and-hooks bands which have sprung up since their debut a decade ago. Unfortunately, the promise contained in the few stand-out songs is never fully realized. Wagner has spoken of the dread and despair he faced in L.A. which affected his songwriting. Instead of finding the healing light he was looking for by the Pacific Ocean, he returned to the life of the night owl. As such, even when there are uplifting and thrilling moments, they pass like a fleeting high to be replaced by what is an enduring and dreary sadness which permeates this whole collection of songs.

The Raveonettes have never been a happy-ever-after band; their beauty comes from their disconcerting epic sonic fuzz and the uncomfortable yet mesmerizing contrast of Foo’s dreamy, haunting voice and the barbed stories of doomed affairs in seedy motels and Lynchian dystopia it delivers. Fans of this blueprint will be glad to know they don’t deviate from the game plan they established on prior records but given the possibilities that songs such as “Observations,” “Sinking with the Sun” and “Downtown” offer, anyone hoping for more will soon see that the chance was there to make a great record but external factors conspired to produce a pretty ordinary one.

Commendations

Despite the personal turmoil which this album was created in, it will be – on the surface at least – a comfortable album for Raveonettes fans mainly because that vintage garage fuzz and arrangements inspired by the Everly Brothers and Phil Spector which has been the band’s stock and trade still survive. The production is still reliably lo-fi but the vocals are set lower in the mix than usual, making the lyrics hard to discern at times. One gets the feeling that the content is being hidden self-consciously at times, perhaps too raw and too dark for even the band’s liking.

There is a very introspective atmosphere throughout with Wagner employing a piano for the first time on a Raveonettes record. On opener “Young & Cold,” the keys offset the dirty scuzz of the guitars but instead of lifting it higher, it only serves to add a loneliness to the sound. However, the piano is used to better effect on “Observations,” driving the song down a badly-lit interstate at midnight, surrounded by the misfits and freaks the night provides with comfort. The first single from the album is a sparse and beautiful song; a restrained highlight. “Curse the Night,” however, is a prime example of the many blown chances Observator is guilty of. The chiming chords and lilting vocals set the stage for potential greatness until an overly-affected breathy chorus comes in and spoils it all. Neither haunting nor childlike, it just sounds like Sharin Foo has a sore throat. In the same vein, “The Enemy” rolls in on Cardigans melodies and hints of Abba-esque harmonies but is spoiled by Wagner’s lethargy. Repeating the song title over and over again does not constitute a chorus in my book.

Thankfully “Sinking with the Sun” offers another glimpse of redemption. It’s gothic power-pop with a definite nod not only to the band’s beloved Jesus and Mary Chain but also to gritty 90s shoegazers such as Curve and Catherine Wheel. Here, Foo’s vocals hold their own with the fuzzy guitars in a rare triumph of synergy between thrash and songcraft. “Downtown” is perhaps the brightest and most upbeat song on the album – evidence of what could have happened throughout had the album been given more room to breathe and the band more time to recover. It’s the sound of a pair of army boots dancing in a field of daisies; channeling The Primitives and the Darling Buds, it’s shallow chiming guitar pop for the hell of it, a vibe full of abandon and one of too few chinks of light in what is a consistently bleak album. After “You Hit Me (I’m Down)” runs through the various lyrical and melodic styles deployed by Nina Persson over the past 15 years, Observator ends a song too late with “Till the End”. It’s filler dragged out to the bitter end; the scuzzy, overstretched mix working least effectively here, sounding more recorded in a garage than garage in genre. The album would not have suffered had it ended 3’18 earlier.

Next Steps

One would hope that the problems Wagner has experienced will be dealt with by the time the Raveonettes decide to go into the studio again. It would also serve them well to take more time when they’re in there because there are moments of Observator that hint at a future full of soaring and inspiring music. It would be a shame for this band to spend the rest of its career making the same record over and over again. They haven’t run out of ideas but time will tell if the new ideas they do have will be given the time and space to become extraordinary.

First published on: Puluche.com

Shields – Grizzly Bear (review)

Just when you thought the success of previous album Veckatimest, and in particular the ubiquity of lead-off single “Two Weeks,” had changed Grizzly Bear from leftfield nu-folkies to baroque pop darlings, the Brooklyn quartet return with a grittier, more muscular record in Shields which manages to ask new questions of their audience while reassuring them with the comforting sensitivities of the past.

In many ways, Shields is a challenging record and a frustrating one, not because of any disappointments or shattered illusions but because it’s an album made by a band digging deep and casting their net wide for innovative ways to confound expectations. Perhaps the complexity of arrangements and uncomfortable time signatures in songs such as opening track “Sleeping Ute” are part of a concerted effort to wipe clean the memory of 2009 vintage Grizzly Bear as the band who soundtracked the Volkswagen commercial played during the prime-time ad break in Super Bowl XLIV. In a bid to distance themselves from that mainstream breakthrough, Grizzly Bear have constructed a beautiful maze of perplexing songs which hark back to the sweeping landscapes of their 2006 album Yellow House, albeit with a more mature – and let’s be honest louder and crazier – collection of tracks.

By going deep into Shields, one is encouraged to follow the musical twists and turns, an 80’s sounding synth track may entice you into a sudden rock-tinged dead end while a pastoral coda may lead you round a corner to find that you’re right back where you started at a hook-driven intro which sounds like Fleetwood Mac. One can get lost in Shields trying to understand its route and making sense of its map. But instead on panicking, the overwhelming urge is to start again, to work out just what the hell is going on and to search for the record’s soul at the heart of this labyrinth with a perplexed smile on your face. This is an album that wills you to solve its riddle. Yellow House played like an interwoven tale and Shields shares that album’s same rich tapestry-like construction where many influences and sounds are knitted together with the recognizable silken thread of Grizzly Bear running through it; the result on Shields is an album which has many fathers but in the end is a child born with its own identity and one that is unique in music at this present time. It’s confusing and it’s infuriating at times – which is surely part of its ingenious ploy to drag you in – but despite this, it’s a thrilling experience. Instead of falling victim to success in the way that a band like Kings of Leon have done, saddled by a hit which then goes on to dictate their future direction, Grizzly Bear have retained their essence, packed it safely away in a well-worn rucksack and have taken it and their audience on a journey via the path less travelled.

Commendations

Shields is by far Grizzly Bear’s most confident album to date and one which is produced pitch-perfectly by Chris Taylor, allowing each band member to inhabit equal space to flex their muscles. As a result, the songs have an expansive, yet charged and intense atmosphere to them. There is room for the usual sensitivities but rather than being overtly tender, here – on the intricate “Gun Shy” in particular – the vocals are more nuanced and empathetic throughout, backed up by a more robust rhythm section and deliberate, assured guitars.

The band’s new confidence is most obvious on “Half Gate,” a song which begins in the territory of typically safe and dreamy nostalgia before rattling to a cacophonically robust rock out finale. Grizzly Bear can still do sprawling epics better than most and two of the album’s stand-out tracks, “What’s Wrong” and “Sun In Your Eyes,” show the band’s skill of sketching out a swirling ballad before ending with the broad brushstrokes of a jubilant anthem. Each is an exquisitely constructed panoramic landscape that dips into every colour on the palette. There’s weirdness here too, injected into songs like “Speak in Rounds” and “Adelma,” which keeps the listener on alert; who would have come to a Grizzly Bear album expecting warped electronica and sound experiments? Amid the maze, however, there are welcome sign posts such as “Yet Again” and “A Simple Answer” which are thrilling combinations of uplifting vocals and stomping, inspiring melodies.

Next Steps

Shields is a fluid, brave and deftly blended record; a winning combination of songs which give the impression that the three years spent ageing them was time well spent. This is a major step forward in the evolution of Grizzly Bear and a true artistic achievement. Should they decide to look elsewhere for inspiration for the next record, it will be anyone’s guess where they may end up.

First published on: Puluche.com