Another music mad week for our contributors as we welded our ears to headsets and took another listen to an eclectic bunch of new releases. As usual we selected a handful of random New Borns to share with you, so what do we have?. Damon Albarn releases Everyday Robots, a long-awaited debut from a clever man who has done so much for modern music, while Ms. Kelis teams up with TV on The Radio to release her most ambitious album to date and we take a listen to the Space Project Compilation featuring Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, Beach House and Youth Lagoon and finally we made some time to share the over the top happy album by Utah rock pop clan, Neon Trees.
Artist_ Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn is a musical chameleon and the hardest working man in the industry for that matter. He finally releases his debut album Everyday Robots to much media anticipation and as the title suggests, it carries heavy lyrical connotation of a changing world and one that is growing detached from its natural existence. The on-again-off-again front-man of Blur, curator of globally phenomenally successful Gorillaz, once lead vocalist of supergroup The Good The Bad & The Queen and writer of a few modern day operas, (breathe) he now works with Mr Brian Eno and the CEO of XL Recordings to create an album that quietly draws upon a healthy musical past.
Fast-forward quickly to track 3, Lonely Press Play and you will hear simplicity at its best. A cracker of a song that pitter patters into the most gorgeous piano progression and oddly placed samples before Damon drifts in with “Arr….rhymthia…” and the song plays out so modestly it really does define Albarn as a very fine modern songwriter. Accompanying strings weave into another delicately placed chorus that will see this track as one of Damon’s finest contributions to his take on modern music. Big call I know, but on first listen, it’s an instant hit, you can’t deny it.
Okay going back to the top now, the album opens with title track Everyday Robots and it is indicative of the message that runs through this album, telling the story of our sliding demise into an electronic humanity that is somewhat ironic if you think about what Albarn has contributed to with the advancement in the way we understand and interpret music (Gorillaz). “We are everyday robots on our phones, In the process of getting home, Looking like standing stones, out there on our own, Where everyday robots in control, are in the process of being sold.” Enough said but so true. Funnily enough, I first listened to this while waiting for a tram and as these lyrics sang out, I looked up to see exactly that.
There are some real sombre and dark moments on this album with tracks like Hostiles, You & Me, Photographs (You Are Taking Now) and The History Of A Cheating Heart. These tracks are slotted in irregularly throughout the album and help provide a real sense of substance, especially when you listened to them next to tracks like Mr Tembo.
This upbeat and “Country House” influenced poppiness has Albarn singing about a baby elephant that he met in Tanzania who had just been orphaned by its mother, so he sung to it and then ended up writing a song about the animal. Cute enough in story and cute enough in song, oh how Albarn has changed from the days of mad mad blur days. Despite the songs cheesy sing-a-long feel, it identifies with the fact that Albarn isn’t taking himself too seriously.
Throughout Albarn’s career his lyrical content has often referenced his town of London and he continues this with tracks like The Selfish Giant (guest vocals thanks to Bat For Lashes) with its beautiful chorus that sounds more like a lullaby while Hollow Ponds references Albarn’s visual documentation of how his city he knew has changed, almost like a reading from a very personal diary. “Modern Life was sprayed on to a wall, in 1993”, and I recall somewhere video footage of Blur doing exactly that, at time of release of Modern Life is Rubbish.
Brian Eno assisted final track Heavy Seas of Love that has Albarn singing baritone before heading into a completely addictive and care-free chorus with handclaps to boot. It’s a welcoming final track to an album that is a somewhat emotional rollercoaster. This is album that will win many fans for Albarn and prove that without all the trickery, the supergroups, the highly supported production team, he can write an album that is honest, uncomplicated and quite precious. A great debut for a man that has already does so much.
Artist_ Horse Thief
The folk revival is alive and well, my friends. Of course, we all know of the mainstream success stories of Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and The Lumineers, and although I don’t foresee Horse Thief hitting the Top 40 charts very soon, the Oklahoma City five-piece, with Texas beginnings, have produced an incredibly solid record, and success is certainly in the future. The 11-track Fear in Bliss is a lyrically beautiful, emotion-evoking album with a melodic sweetness that leaves you comfortably gratified.
Boy oh boy was I excited when I was assigned this as my first review for the Wandering Lamb. Born and raised in a suburb of the Midwest in America where the radio was dominated by (shitty) country-pop, this first LP by Horse Thief is simply refreshing. It evokes feelings nostalgia, sunny autumn drives down the highway and summer hikes through the dry hill country, but it does so usingintelligent, thoughtfully composed music that doesn’t mention a tractor or a Ford F150. The mild country influences of this psych-folk band are portrayed wonderfully in their Bella Union debut; they take the best aspects of the genre, fuse them with some faint psychedelic elements and use them with grace and subtlety.
Aptly named, Fear in Bliss beautifully juxtaposes pleasant, delicate melodies and hooks with rather melancholy lyrics, giving the album a feel of gratified acceptance. Although a thirty-one second introduction track releases the record, the opening of the first full track, “I Don’t Mind” is the only introduction this album really needs. Start with an upbeat and twangy melody, add some building percussion and heavy Broken Social Scenesque guitar, and the excitement will build and eventuate throughout the track. The ending lyrics, And we will not last forever/ but I don’t mind epitomizes the tone that frontman Cameron Neal sets throughout the rest of the record.
Influence from labelmates Beach House and Fleet Foxes shows, with “Human Geographer” using syth-organ tones and slight layering of vocals to create a sense of comfort and security despite the scepticism, and doubtfulness, and plea for truth portrayed in the lyrics. Add to that the country influence mentioned earlier and you have “Dead Drum”, one of the strongest tracks on Fear in Bliss. An infectious chorus and simple bridge, the lyrics leave you yearning for just one more round of chorus before the end, but still leaves you satisfied although it never comes. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself on a long car trip, headphones in, arid earth racing by, sun beaming down, leaning your head against the window and lazily singing along. Another standout occurs two tracks earlier, with the slowed down, acoustic plucking of “Already Dead”. The most vulnerable and intimate track, where, at the end Neal puts his vocals on the line with no instrumentals behind it, and my oh my does it pay off.
What this record lacks can’t necessarily be defined. Horse Thief sets itself apart from folk-rock heavyweights by adding that psychedelic element, rather than relying on foot-stomping banjo solos, but their sound is not necessarily… new. Their numerous influences mix together to make this album very enjoyable, one that can easily be listened to over and over again, but their sound doesn’t necessarily have that level of distinction to make them truly shine, yet. The catchiness will grab enough attention though, and I’m excited to see what this band has in store for the future. Expect to see them as a regular on the major festival circuit in the coming years.
Album Title_ Food
Label_ Ninja Tune
Genre_ Ballad, Indie Pop, Melodic, Soul
Moments Of_ Santigold, TV on the Radio, Blood Orange, Solange
Stand Out_ Jerk Ribs, Bless The Telephone
It has been more than 10 years since Manhattan based singer Kelis released the Grammy nominated and boy-bringing single ‘Milkshake’ onto the world. In that time she has worked with numerous different producers and almost completely reinvent her sound. Not only does the album and song titles reminisce of home and Momma’s cooking (Kelis is actually a qualified chef having trained at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school), but the R&B turned indie/soul songstress is bringing a smoother and broadened spectrum of sounds on this newest release. Interestingly, she is now signed to British electronic label Ninja Tune, emphasising the reinvention and progression into the artist Kelis is today.
From the opening mumbles of a young child inviting you in for a home made meal, you can almost anticipate the mixed bag of goodies about to unfold. Many critics have hypothesised that Dave Sitek’s (of TV on the Radio fame) production influence has played a big part on the overall sound and feel of the album. The construction of the songs largely revolved around Kelis constructing vocal melodies and Dave filling in on piano, recording in the producer’s home studio. The first single from the album ‘Jerk Ribs’ is a soul pop ramble full of swirling horns, atmospheric strings and jaunty bass melody. Kelis’ voice retains the smoothness but at times raspy tones that we are all familiar with, but almost sounds a bit lost in this new territory.
At most the album in it’s entirety provides enough variation to ensure a complete, if not repeated listens. Other album tracks following the formula of the single include the romantic ‘Forever Be’ and upbeat ‘Cobbler’ (many of the songs continue with food references for names). The first real slowing in the pace comes with acoustic guitar ballad ‘Bless The Telephone’, something you would have never of heard on a Kelis release ten years ago when she was busy collaborating with rappers and making dance floor hits. Another curveball follows with ‘Friday Fish Fry’ with the opening guitar riff paying great homage (plagiarism?) to the great Link Wray and his mega hit ‘Rumble’. Ironically another song on the album shares the same track name, however isn’t the one to sport this riff. Despite this, the song proves as a solid swinging chorus, annoying wood block doinks and spoken word interludes. Singalong, call-and-response and more horns establish another decent but not necessarily innovative radio friendly number.
Soothing and lullaby-like final track ‘Dreamer’ boasts a simple instrumentation and a happy-go-lucky nature, reminding us that ‘If all was up to me, we’d be naked climbing trees’. It’s enough to make you think you just finished a huge portion of home cooking and were wrapped up in your own fluffy, warm bed.
In all, if you were an old fan of the R&B and hip hop flavoured singer of her last four albums, you could be forgiven for picking up this newest album without having listened to any new material. You may however, be pleasantly or confusingly surprised. She will definitely be winning and losing some fans with this release. Whether that be a new found indie-cred or an appraisal for bringing some new-school soul, this will definitely leave a few ears eager (or hungry!) to hear if she can replicate these sounds live on stage this July at the Splendour in the Grass festival. Will she ignore the early sounds in preference of this new sound? Surely she has to please the fans and play the hits. But will this mash up of genres suit the huge festival stage? We can only anticipate and see what she has in store for us all.
Artist_ Neon Trees
Album Title_ Pop Psychology
Label_ Mercury Records, Island Records
Genre_Indie Pop, Synthpop
Moments Of_Talking Heads, Walk The Moon, Fun, Grouplove
Stand Out_Sleeping With A Friend, I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends)
They’ve covered ‘The Biebs’ and Ben.E King and they hail from the perhaps unheard of Provo, Utah. But for alt-neo-new wave pop quartet Neon Trees the notoriety their music has afforded them no longer requires them to cover other artists. They have assuredly arrived. With the release of their third album Pop Psychology we see them saturated in all things pop, from hair to primary colours to synths. The outcome? Altogether pretty tasty.
Aesthetically, they’re all block colours, blazers and intermittent bouffant hair, think hipsters on ‘roids (yes, that did occur to me off the bat). But what this most definitely is … is well, throwback hour. In particular front man Tyler Glenn, I am reminded of a young David Byrne with all those wonderfully block coloured sports coats and suits that he so effortlessly struts in. Secondly, in the tradition of the White Stripes and The Carpenters, these guys have a female on percussion in the form of Elaine Bradley, so double snaps there. But what you may not know about pop quartet Neon Trees, is that all of whom happen to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or the slang term ‘Mormons’) which may or may not be altogether that fascinating. However, the fact that Tyler came out in Rolling Stone earlier this year may pique your interest slightly. Glenn did give a rather candid expose, which conveniently coincided with the release of ‘Pop Psychology’ (just saying). But since when has sexual orientation had any bearing on the quality of a great ditty? Also, say what you will about the man and that revelation or its “timely” inception – whether or not it’s coincidence or ploy, at the end of the day I take my hat off to any band that puts a life size brain on their album cover and writes lyrics about how desperate your partner’s mates are.
Now ‘Pop Psychology’ is the third offering from Neon Trees and these kids are nothing if not a quirky bunch, and don’t get me wrong, I do digs the quirk. Plus anyone who can support and hold their own against The Killers generally has my vote in the bag. Quite probably you’ve stumbled upon their relatively mainstream hits such as ‘Your Surrender’, ‘Everybody Talks’ or the terminally catchy ‘Animal’. They are stand alone tracks and genuinely, solid catchy pop songs that zing with energy yet thought provoking enough as not to seem shallow. The first track on Pop Psychology is ‘Love In The 21st Century’ it’s kind of an homage to their older stuff which is upbeat, wordy and quintessential pop. ‘Sleeping With A Friend’ is a highlight for me, not just for the introspective lyrics but a pretty smashing video too, all Miami Vice meets leopard print. ‘I Love You (But I Hate Your Friends’) well, how can we not love this song, the title speaks for itself and we’ve all thought it to ourselves at one point or another (you had me at ‘But I Hate All Your Friends’) and ‘First Things First’ is a miasma of synth and head – nodding percussion. But it’s also vibrant and toe – tapping, a plethora of synth and good feeling, which really is the general tone for this one.
The verdict? It is a slight departure from their earlier material most definitely but there is some good stuff to be found in here. Glen’s vocals are better than ever and despite the fact that there hasn’t really been any new ground broken here its upbeat, whimsical and playful. There is real intent in the direction of this album (if the titled hadn’t given it away already). In my opinion? Neo – new wave has never looked so damn good.
Artist_ Various Artists
Album Title_ Space Project
Label_ Lefse Records
Genre_ Experimental, Ambient, Shoegaze, Psychedelic, Electronica, Downtempo,
Moments Of_ MGMT, Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse
Stand Out_ Spiritualized – Always Forgetting With You (Bridge Song)
This is an exciting album. Not literally as it is the complete opposite of energetic, but the concept is. The project consists of taking actual sounds made by the Voyager 1 & 2 – launched by NASA in 1977 and still functioning – as they float through space and giving them to a list of artists (such as Beach House, Youth Lagoon, Mutual Benefit, The Antlers, Blues Control, Benoit & Sergio and Porcelain Raft to name a few) to make music with. The result is a beautifully integrated and haunting piece of work that doesn’t just fade into the background like a lot of atmospheric music does, thanks to the Voyagers; the songs are filled with mechanical bleeps and hums that tug at your consciousness and – thanks to the choice of artists – become something infinitely more than just nice space music.
Each song is typical of their respective band, and as singles go they are pretty good. But as a collective in the Space Project they all bring something special to offer a coherent and thought provoking album. There are a few slow moments, but that gives us moments of reflection on what this album concept is doing; as we listen to actual sounds of space mixed with man-made sounds, which is music? What is it like up there? What is it like down here? Why did I not notice my pants were on backwards today?*
*Actual thought while listening to album – maybe should also categorise in self-help genre? It’s doing me good.
The album opens with Porcelain Raft’s Giove, definitely not a single. But a perfect and ominous choice; almost like the initial take-off for a space voyage. Then our ears are pulled effortlessly into The Antler’s Jupiter, a strange track; a lone brass piece echoes over weird mechanical frog-sounds that must be the Voyagers, but only makes me picture ant-like aliens clicking their angry pincers. Still, it’s an interesting track. Luckily Mutual Benefit lightens the mood (slightly) with Terraform, beautiful.
Spiritualized’s track is the standout song, epitomizing what the project is all about, and I think. Here is the enjoyable part of listening to this album: trying to figure out which sounds are sound bites from space, and which are made by the bands. Bleeps, fuzzes, jangles – Always Forgetting With You (Bridge Song) opens with the atmospheric buzz that doesn’t usually precede a love song, but the opening bars that come next makes me wonder if this is a cover of Spandau Ballet. I love it. A song full of longing, it fuses together the ideas of space as lonely, huge, a little bit terrifying and incredibly puzzling, akin to the human experience. As Spiritualized murmur melodies on the loneliness of love, are we hearing shoegaze psychedelia or space? Is there really a big difference? This album says we are just as lonely and detached on this inhabited planet as the Voyagers are as they drift through the universe – how fucking dismal, and how fucking beautiful.
Of course, there is Youth Lagoon’s Worms, a whimsical and melancholy ode to life and love in space; the line “I might be a bit deranged but I’ve loved you for decades” swims around my brain for days after. Is Trevor Powers an astronaut in this song? It seems to me like a nod to Bowie or Elton John’s endeavours in capturing the lonely spaceman’s psyche. I really like how this album looks at the psyche and space – the infinite universe in one’s mind? I could go all Degree in Arts on this shit, we could be discussing the themes and ideas and meanings for days.
Beach House’s Saturn Song has this tinkling piano riff in the background that pokes into my ears, swelling around the white noise and eerie vocals. Each song seems to have something a little bit different to pick up on, yet the artists were well chosen to flow into each other, letting us focus on the space oddities (geddit?) that lie behind each track.
This is a great album, but one you have to know the context of – half of the excitement is hunting for the Voyagers’ sound bites, it’s what keeps you hooked to the slow moments. Without that we have a nice ambient album with a few good singles tied in. It’s the knowledge that we are actually listening to the universe, as well as these artists and their songs of love, loneliness, and being, that makes it so haunting and beautiful.