Friday, 5 June 2015

Album Review:Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?


There is something to be said for the slow-burning, hard-won success, rather than overnight fame.
For over a decade the Hot Chip have been a consistently great live act, along with string of strong albums behind them seemingly gaining wider popularity with each one with a style that brings together LCD Soundsystem's wordy indie dance music, with Prince's funk and love of classic pop and electronic music. Since 2004's Coming on Strong the band have hardly put a foot wrong and have even managed to bother the UK charts with some of their bigger singles like Ready For The Floor.

With the group's sixth album Why Make Sense?, which has a title that is surely a nod to Talking Head's concert movie Stop Making Sense, Hot Chip are starting to feel like an established part of the British music scene, more so than just about any other band that has emerged over the last ten years.

Huarache Nights kicks of the album, with Hot Chip in dance floor mode. Built around a chunky bass sound, Alexis Taylor's familiar soft, soulful vocals enter, though vocoder vocals provide the big hooks, as robot voices chanting 'Replace us with the things that do the job better' hinting at an automated future. Why Make Sense? starts with a big dance track, but it's not the best representation of the sounds of electronic soul and funk that lies through the albums heart. The following track, Love Is The Future, with it's playful, retro synth chords bouncing about a light shuffling beat show more of the influence of late 70's and early 80's. The group even fit in a guest verse De La Soul’s Posdnuos before the chorus emerges for the song's finale, backed by disco ready strings, a sound which reappears throughout Why Make Sense?.

Started Right has a keyboard sound straight out of Superstitious era Stevie Wonder, as the band prove to be as versatile in taking cues from measured pop as they do with obscure dance records.
In fact the band seem to shine in merging disparate sounds into a coherent, catchy whole as tracks like Easy To Get effortlessly mixes up guitar funk before acid bass lines take over for the songs outro or the album's title track, which seems to carry echoes of prog rock and Brian Eno's early solo records with its huge drum stomp and building synthesizer arpeggios.

The band's second single from the album, Need You Now, might well be one of the band's best single to date. The track is equal parts a throw back to classic house euphoria whilst not sounding too far away from the likes of Disclosure. Set around an irresistibly powerful vocal sample from Sinnamon 1983 track I Need You Now for the album's big hook whilst Taylor's vocals compliment perfectly with a quiet desperation in the verses.

It's the personal and simple messages that stand out on an album that is a little leaner than a lot of their other releases and better for it. Touches of other influences emerge all over Why Make Sense? but the is a sense of honesty and a lack of cynicism that Hot Chip have kept throughout their career, that helps set them apart.

Album Review:Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp


There are many musicians that talk of laying their soul bare. Katie Crutchfield is a songwriter who doesn't need to say it. Named after a creek near her childhood home in Alabama, the recorded output of her Waxahatchee project has been entwined in memories, hardships and relationships.

Talking about her latest album, Crutchfield revealed "The title Ivy Tripp is really just a term I made up for directionless-ness, specifically of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something of today”. She may count herself as part of that directionless generation, but she comes across as anything but. Releasing three albums since 2012, the intimate bedroom recordings of American Weekend, her breakthrough Cerulean Salt and now Ivy Tripp her latest collection of songs.

She still bears the sounds of her former band P.S. Eliot, filling Ivy Tripp with irresistible and scrappy pop punk alongside the intimate singer/songwriter fare. Tracks like Under A Rock and the grungy Poison come across like a mix of Riot Grrl and The Pixies, brimming with attitude and hooks. In the album's second half tracks like piano balladry of Half Moon and Summer of Love see Crutchfield pared-down to just one instrument with her voice.

The playful, lovestruck bedroom pop of La Loose really stands out. Backed by a swinging drum machine beat and keys it's sweet enough to give you a toothache, in a good way. Air feels like a more powerful sentiment at the albums centre. A mid-tempo almost-rock-ballad, but it's done on Katie's terms. Distorted keys bolster the track's bold, soaring chorus, along with some Kim Deal style 'oohs' backing her up. Ivy Tripp's additional instruments and touches of layered vocals show a move into slightly more sophisticated productions, but it's never too distracting.

The ramshackle Pavement style riffs on the track simply titled < don't gel so well, the drum beat that rolls about like an improvised drum solo doesn't help it, though there is a charm to how it barely holds together. Bonfire closes the album it's most interesting experiment. A bare bones track marches on a steady drum beat and two chords but carries a tension in the thick, low murmurs of distortion that fill the track with before almost breaking into feedback before the track's abrupt end.

Waxahatchee sings 'You see me how I wish I was/I'm not trying to be seen' over an electric hum of keyboards on Ivy Tripp's opening track Breathless. Ivy Tripp's the songs are short and personal, the musical equivalent of diary entries as if they were made in the same moments that inspired them, and you feel they would have been written whether anyone would be listening or not.

It's easy to see something of yourself in these deeply intimate tracks but even on a surface level it's easy to like the sugary sounding scrapbook of DIY punk and emotive folk. Throughout Ivy Tripp there is an honesty that cuts through all the noise and a strength in the delivery that reveals Katie Crutchfield to be a quietly powerful songwriter.

Album Review:Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves


Signing to a major label has long been seen as signing a death sentence for your creativity. The artist narrowing their gaze and refining their sound for mass appeal, rather than rather than pushing out and exploring. Modest Mouse proved that rule wrong with their major label debut. 2000's The Moon & Antarctica was their most ambitious album yet, sprawling off in multiple directions and abandoning their lo-fi sound for a number of studio experiments that were no more palatable. Songs obsessed over the afterlife and the cosmos whilst tracks like the grand star-gazing Stars Are Projectors, still one of the bands defining moments, revealed an ambition that could be described as anything but selling out.

Their debut This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About set out lead songwriter Isacc Brock's M.O. of mixing the literate with the emotional delivered with a vocal range that went from a half spoken croon to a Frank Black-style feral yelp whilst the band's sound was defined by limitations of being a three piece recording in small studios. When Good News for People Who Love Bad News came out in 2004 the band made a push towards the mainstream, with cleaner production and a fuller sound. The move paid of for the band as the album went platinum in America, a rare achievement for an indie rock band, spawning big singles like Float On but still kept much of the band's charm intact.

It has been eight years since the last Modest Mouse album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank's nautical-themed rock and in those intervening years rumours persisted of abandoned recording sessions and collaborations with the likes of Big Boi (apparently this is still going to happen). Despite setbacks and problems, the bands sixth album Strangers To Ourselves has finally emerged and despite the time between releases feels familiar right away.

Strangers To Ourselves certainly isn't short of this bigger catchy moments either, the album's first single Lampshades On Fire seems to strike a similar tone to the bands big singles like Dashboard and Float On with a refrain of ba ba ba's it's not afraid of going after a simple hook to pull you in. The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box will surely be released as a single at some point, scratchy guitar lines scrap against Brock's erratic, tumbling vocals before the track brings in almost Steve Reich xylophone rhythms before ending in a reversed guitar solo. It's an example of the bands willingness to experiment in a studio going right, but unfortunately it's one of the only good examples of it on the album. Elsewhere, there a few too many studio tricks thrown in that just feel unnecessary.

Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996) seems like a misstep, mining the kind of jagged, angry funk that the band have developed over the last few albums. The song focuses on the dark true story of a serial killer but it's easy to to get distracted by the needless production including a baffling pitch-warping vocal effect that Brock uses through the song.

Lines like “If there's some point to this then which one is mine” on Pups To Dust see familiar lyrical themes like life and death carry over into these songs, not always with the same subtlety as in the past but Brock can still deliver them with a real sense of weight. Strangers To Ourselves gets away with mixing a lot of different styles, unabashed pop sing-a-long Wicked Campaign and ramshackle camp fire folk of God Is An Indian And You're An Asshole shouldn't work but really do. Sugar Boats is a rock song for a strange and twisted circus led by a bouncy bass line and squealing horns. It isn't a complete success but is a little better than it should be thanks to it's nervous and manic energy.

Maybe it is a victim of it's eight year gestation; the album covers a lot of styles but never manages to pull these threads together as a whole. For all the tracks that work there are more than a few that just pass you by, tracks like the opener Strangers To Ourselves and Coyotes just never give you enough to latch onto. Given all the talk of abandoned recordings, it could have come out much worse. Strangers To Ourselves still feels disjointed and it's runtime of nearly an hour doesn't help. It may feel unnecessarily dense and disparate but amongst the varying offerings the album does have enough high points to keep Modest Mouse fans happy - especially if they've enjoyed the bands 2000's output - and reminds you why they can be a special band.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Album Review:Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin


Obaro Ejimiwe's profile seemed to rise rapidly following a Mercury Prize-nomination in 2011 for his debut album under the name Ghostpoet, Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, losing out to PJ Harvey for the award. He had some releases to his name, including work with pop experimentalist Micachu, defining his sound with electronic production as half-spoken vocals that saw him straddling somewhere between singer songwriter, producer and alternative hip hop, a sound he continued to define for his 2013 follow-up Some Say I So I Say Light alongside working with Damon Albarn and The Streets.

For his third album Shedding Skin, his touring band have gotten a look in on this album, replacing the electronic textures and beats of his previous album, relegating them to a supporting role behind the drum kit and guitars. Whilst every other songwriter is going down the vocals and beats path laid out by the likes of James Blake, it's interesting to see Ghostpoet taking a different path.

The whole album with the addition of a full band feels like a bigger collaborative piece of work, drifting into new sounds like the hints of psychedelic soul in the energetic opening track Off Peak Dreams and dream pop creeps in X Marks The Spot. The album is bolstered with appearances from Lucy Rose, Etta Bond, Nadine Shah and Maximo Park front man Paul Smith adding to the voices and characters that carry Ghostpoet's dark narratives.

Shedding Skin creates a personal, intimate feel, guided by Ejimiwe's low key mellow vocals. X Marks The Spot cultivates this mood over it's quiet bass pulse before breaking into a dream pop chorus of paired male female vocals. The back and forth argument between the capable vocals of Nadine Shah carries it the drama of a relationship that's run out of steam as Ejimiwe just sounds tired as he singsI don't care anymore”.

The title track keeps the drums to a minimum leaving more space to be filled by it's eerie tones and haunted repetition of the line “You think you know me/You'll never know me”. That Ring Down The Drain Kind Of Feeling sustains the dark sound with it's looser late night trip-hop swathed in murky vocals, echoing guitars and cold keys that chill like the midnight soul of early Portishead.

Yes, I Helped You Pack's darker rock conveys a domestic relationship crumbling with more than a little echo of Radiohead in it's ringing minor key guitar lines and creeping electronic echoes, an influence that seems to be weave through much of Shedding Skin, especially on tracks like the synth-led Better Not Butter.

Following advice given by Brian Eno, Ejimiwe recording an album quickly, Shedding Skin feels like it's benifited from that approach. It's focused body of work with a few small surprises. The more ambitious piano-led album closer Nothing In The Way shows there are more than a few novel tricks to Ghostpoet's song writing. It's a welcome shake up to Ghostpoet's sound that may pay off further when performed live, imbuing his song writing with a palatable drama as he paints vivid pictures of social ills and disintegrating relationships.

Album Review:BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul


BADBADNOTGOOD were at risk of becoming an academic minded jazz group, forming at the Humber College jazz program in Toronto. It's Hip Hop's gain that the three piece's jazzy covers of hip hop, electronica and video game soundtracks that they posted to Bandcamp got them the attention of the likes of Tyler, The Creator and led them to working with Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown.

Having already worked with Wu-Tang member RZA on the soundtrack to Man With The Iron Fists, the group have now collaborated on a full length album Sour Soul with Ghostface Killah, a rapper who has held the reputation of one of the best storytellers in Hip-Hop, earned during his time as a member of the newly regrouped Wu-Tang Clan and over a number of acclaimed solo albums like Fishscale and Supreme Clientele.

After a short musical introduction Mono sets the soulful tone for the rest of the album, Sour Soul really begins with it's title track as Ghostface wastes no time dropping lines that would sound rushed in other rappers hands, but here feels natural. Lines like “No technology, this world's corrupt
/They can't feed me food for thought, I won't budge
” drop as an aggressive statement of intent.

Tones Rap is the most obvious example of Ghostface's storytelling style, revelling in performing as a larger than life, amoral pimp, full of complaints and problems but still unable to turn away from his criminal life, ending with the admission “Pimping ain't easy but it sure is fun”. The album is boosting by a varied selection of guests. Previous BADBADNOTGOOD collaborator Danny Brown shows up on Six Degrees on characteristically manic form whilst the down-tempo feel of Street Knowledge is assisted by the gruff but mellow Tree

An obvious comparison would be The Roots but the most obvious touchstones seem to be Bringing in string arrangements that add real warmth to the exploitation movie-era soul, it wouldn't be a stretch of imagination to hear Curtis Mayfield singing over some of these tracks especially when BADBADNOTGOOD get a real chance in the spotlight like on the instrumental Starks' Reality or the lush album closer Experience.

Ray Gun features cult hip-hop figure DOOM and lets us see what the long gestating collaboration between him and Ghostface might just sound like. In fact, the track covers Brazilian musician Caetano Vaeloso's Alfomega, a track that was meant to be used originally on a track with DOOM on Ghostface's album Fishscale but the sample wasn't cleared. The bouncy and quick tempo beat feels more in line with early upbeat music of De La Soul before it ends in a big moment of jazz-laden film score bombast.

It's a compelling collaboration, the flexibility of a live group over samples allows the music more room to build and support the narratives as they unravel or smoothly transition into musical interludes. Ghostface may not be on top of his game here but he definitely has his moments and it could be easy to see BADBADNOTGOOD becoming a mainstay of Hip-Hop album credits in the near future, at least for rappers that are willing to looks outside the current electronic trends for inspiration. BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah have both found something good on Sour Soul, so here's hoping it's not a one-off.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Time Is On Your Side:Life Is Strange: Episode One Reviewed

So many stories begin with a murder, look at Twin Peaks for example; based around the murder of a seemingly perfect high school girl in a sleepy isolated town. It's an effective point for getting a narrative engine whirring. Life Is Strange, a new game from French developers Dontnod, gets it's plot going by having you stop a murder but with a twist as you've already seen it happen.

Max Caulfield has just returned to the small town that see grew up in from Seattle for a photography course at a prestigious school, and reconnecting with people she'd long lost contact with. It's left her a stranger in a familiar place. On top of that she begins to have vivid dreams about a massive tornado looming over the town and with them, the realisation that she can rewind time.

Max's teenage life is already seeming far more complex than my own but Life Is Strange manages to stay grounded and personal. You get glimpses into a lot of character different ideas and agendas within the short chapter and it won't take long till you're picking out favourites and picking sides. The teenage slang comes thick and fast and mostly works though, and i'm in the later half of my twenties so maybe I'm losing my grip on how kids today talk, I don't know if people say things like "sad face" but for the most part it works.

I bring up Twin Peaks because there is more that a passing resemblance to the setting, the small pacific coastal town of Arcadia (and there is at least one obvious reference to David Lynch's show in the game). The game clearly owes a lot to the storytelling of Telltale Games too, you make dialogue choices and actions that split the plot and the game makes these reasonably clear that they will have some future repercussions. What is different is that once you've made your choice you can change your mind, though once the story moves on, usually set by leaving an area, there is no going back.

It also allows you to change some small things too. Here are some of the least spoilery examples: When you talk to some kid with a skateboard he calls you out on not knowing any of the tricks. Rewind time and you can drop words like 'nose slide' into conversation and impress him. Walking past a girl sat at a bench, you see her get struck by a football, rewind time and you can warn her. These moments may not have an impact on the central story but these tools can come into play in similar ways in the games more decisive moments.

The game uses some familiar metaphors, this isn't the first time a camera has been used to represent a sense of detachment to the world around you, but it still works. Likewise, the game name checks a dozen authors, films, photographers over the chapter but these are people figuring themselves out, finding people and media to latch onto to find who they are.  

Whilst you always have something to do the game doesn't rush you. You have time to explore the environment, talk or observe people around you, take pictures or poke around dorm rooms and houses. These environments are littered with little details about the people, rarely essential but filling out the characters and world. Teenagers are not easy to write. Their lives are filled with little struggles and there is a politics to how these play out. Life Is Strange may go a little too far out of it's way to remind you that this is a contemporary story, with sexting and mentions of Kickstarter, it is best at capturing the moments that never change for teenagers, the cliques, the bullies and the personal drama.

Whilst I can't relate to everything that Max goes through I remember what it's like thinking whether I should stand up to a bully or not, or just laying on a bed smoking weed and listening to music. Life Is Strange nails the small moments so it'll be interesting to see if it can keep them at the forefront as the plot grows and we get to realise the full results of out choices.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Album Review:Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

(Sub Pop)

'Another year, another slew of reunions' the cynic in me wants to think. Undoubtedly there will be plenty more reunions on the horizon but outside those groups that have used it to cash in on a greatest hits tour we've also gotten some great albums in the last few years. Afghan Whigs, Swans, Sebadoh are amongst the acts that have proven in recent years that comebacks shouldn't always be met with negativity. For as many acts that want to make some easy money there are just as many with something left to say.

The much-loved indie punk group Sleater-Kinney are the latest group to reform and have brought No Cities To Love, they're first album in a decade, with them. Formed in Olympia, WA in 1994, the group where amongst the most successful and longest lasting acts to have come from the Riot Grrl scene, taking influence from the indie and punk music from the Pacific Northwest as well as the likes of Pavement and Sonic Youth. The bands sound is also shaped by the interplay between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, both playing guitars and taking on vocals, mixing empowered vitriol with punk energy they created music that had a vital message whilst punk rock as a whole was loosing it's bite.

Since 2005's The Woods and the groups long-term hiatus in 2006 the band went of in different directions. Tucker has released two albums with the Corin Tucker Band whilst Brownstein teamed up with Fred Armisen to create the hipster skewering comedy series Portlandia. Drummer Janet Weiss continued to work with her husband as Quasi and joined Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks as well as working with Brownstein as part of the short-lived group Wild Flag.

No Cities To Love begins with a playful riff and rolling drums but that first track, Price Tag, really hits it's stride with a big defiant chorus that puts stadium rock bands to shame without losing it's edge. Sleater-Kinney shine in these big moments and the album is full of them, mixing the straightforward hooks of The Clash and the jittery unpredictability of Devo. Fangless jerks about with these harsh, lurching post-punk riffs as the vocals delivered with a wild, shouted desperation.

The title track from No Cities to Love is one of the strongest here. An almost pop-punk track showing one of the groups big strengths of putting big, irresistible sing-along hooks amongst scrappy guitar melodies. The huge jagged slabs of dissonant chords that begin No Anthems are pure 90's era Sonic Youth, angry and weird. The tumbling melodies give way to the short and sharp melodic punk centre of the track. Fade channels Fugazi-style emo, which leads the the albums last big chorus, and is a neat fit for Tucker and Brownstein's heart-on-sleeve style of singing.

It's not the kind of punk record that snarls and spits in your face, content to pull you in with passion and melody. In fact the way Sleater-Kinney sits in this unique spot between grunge, indie rock and punk saw them picking and choosing their own space somewhere between. No Cities To Love is lean, it's momentum barely lets up, and makes for a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with Sleater-Kinney as well as a welcome return for long-time fans. It's an album that easy to enjoy just on the basis of it's limitless energy and charm, but there is definitely more to find beneath the surface of it's immediate pleasures. Like quite a few reunion albums it seems to pick up where the band left us and in doing so shows reminds us what was so good about them in the first place.