Sunday, 31 March 2013

Recommended Albums: March 2013

March may be the month where album releases have really started to get tight. Most of these choices are either pretty odd or relentlessly heavy (or both), and all are memorable. Looking at April's release schedule it may cross your mind to look at March as the calm before the storm, but the albums and singles here are all top drawer stuff, so check them out if they appear interesting:

clipping - midcity
A name-your-price album/mixtape from an incredibly noisy hip-hop trio. I'm really enjoying the songwriting and tight lyricism clipping are bringing here, and admire the new ground they've found between the Death Grips, Shabazz Palaces and Jeremiah Jae influences.

David Bowie - The Next Day
A startlingly solid late-career album from one of popular music's most celebrated figures. Bowie may not be reinventing himself quite so freshly as he did during his astounding 70s run but draws from his many strengths already amassed to create the best kind of retrospective.

Hookworms - Pearl Mystic
The debut album from Leeds-based Hookworms is a nigh-on flawless foray into modern psychedelic rock, written and produced masterfully by key member MJ. If this doesn't break the top 10 albums of the year, 2013 will be especially rich in musical quality.

Gnod - Chauderlande
More of a compilation than a proper album, Chauderlande collects the six tracks that made up Gnod's two Chauderlande LPs and repackages them onto one CD. Still these tracks are absolute monsters. "Tron" and "Genocider" in particular are likely to be the heaviest psych rock opuses you'll ever have the pleasure of encountering.

Inga Copeland - Don't Look Back, That's Not Where You're Going (EP)
These are the first three solo tracks Inga Copeland has released, although they feature production from DVA and Martyn. They sound like highly twisted dance-pop tunes, with killer vocal hooks and squelchy basslines. If you want your brain scrambled, and for others to wonder why, choose this one.

Pete Swanson - Punk Authority (EP)
30 minutes of relentlessly harsh techno noise that doesn't forget the emphasis on rhythm and repetition. Each Pete Swanson release seems to be a honing of this formula, and with Punk Authority he may have produced his strongest results yet.

Next month expect new albums from the Knife, the Flaming Lips, James Blake, the Haxan Cloak, Phoenix and more. Tracks from some of these albums/EP's can be found on my latest monthly mix Culture Shock (check the channel from tomorrow).

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Single of the Week: Vampire Weekend - "Diane Young" / "Step"

Vampire Weekend are the band you may feel like punching at times, what with their gravel-handed approach to, well, everything. But they remain just agile enough to sidestep your misguided blows - that deserves credit. This double-A single, which takes two tracks from their upcoming third album Modern Vampires of the City, isn't too far removed from the band's regular territory, but even that seems to reach a pretty far distance. "Diane Young" is the faster of the two. I'm not sure if Vampire Weekend have been goofier than they are during these three minutes, but they've certainly come close. Thankfully they pull it off, with it being too loony to make it sour: Ezra Koenig's modulated Buddy Holly-ism's and a dangerously catchy inclusion of synth horns are the most characterful elements of this appeal, alongside the stuttered, rudderless instrumental section. The other side, "Step" is the steadier song. Producing a lyric video for this song may not have been a good idea, as Ezra's words aren't the most poetic or coherent, yet like Stephen Malkmus he has a way of making that factor not matter. It's still a pretty, carefree ballad with a strong melody, and I imagine it will translate well in a live setting. I don't this group are about to drop off any time soon.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Album Review: My Bloody Valentine - m b v

Whatever way you look at it, I really don't need to do this review. The Metacritic page for m b v, the new album from shoegaze pioneers and critic/fan faves My Bloody Valentine currently hosts 44 professional reviews, none of which rank the album below 6/10, and there have been innumerable other professional, semi-pro and in particular fan-written and videoed (see YouTube) insights into this critical hallowed ground. My two cents aren't going to be particularly gripping, or notable, or controversial. But here goes.

When the superlative-enticting Loveless, what was thought for years to be the last My Bloody Valentine album there'd ever be, was released on pre-Oasis Creation Records in 1991, I had yet to be born. So I'm not able or willing to approach this review from any substantial point of longing or nostalgia, or weightily fluctuate between belief and doubt in the skills and intentions of one of modern music's least understood reclusive geniuses; in short, no 22-year wait for me. This idea seems to be the first thing many of these reviews contain. Forgive me for deconstructing a little further, but the other main attribute to these pieces is their willingness to tell the reader a story, as the event that happened to them, in many cases less than a day before publication, needs to be framed as a highly significant cultural event. Do these people imagine that when people bring up the questions "where were you when the Twin Towers collapsed?" or "where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?", they'll be able to pipe in with "what do you remember about when that My Bloody Valentine album crashed the internet and we all sat there clicking the Refresh button waiting to get onto the site at midnight?"?

Of course I'm exaggerating. I doubt any of these people actually think that this new release, of limited commercial interest, will translate to a larger group of people. I can't know the minds of every music superfan, especially those who have properly reached the end of the 22-year journey and are shedding tears of joy and relief as their fingers hit the keys, but I do know that the days of a genuine event in music are most likely over (even if there have been a few noble attempts recently). Lord knows what the band themselves think about all this fanfare. You can't blame them for avoiding the spotlight; the discrepancy between the instant gratification-seeking "Now!" culture My Bloody Valentine have hungover into and the slow-burning, treated and re-treated to perfection formula they've worked from since 1988 seems to be massive. It's a relief then that m b v takes absolutely no interest in the 21st Century, or any concept of time but its own. It is simply, "the new record".

And not for humility's sake either. With little background information of the record we have no idea how much of it is recent material, or how much of it was written and recorded in the years immediately following Loveless. But it's of no importance. As an album in three parts of three tracks each (for argument's sake), the first section is the most pigheaded towards the idea of radical evolution. Which isn't to say it's ugly and unrefined; in fact completely the opposite: it serves as a reminder of the beautiful anguish of the previous record. The first track, "she found now", ensures the album begins not with a bang, but with a whimper, albeit a pretty, droney whimper. It makes sense that this song is sung by bandleader and crucial component Kevin Shields, whose studio experiments redefined the possibilities for guitar-based music; a radical change that has yet to be matched since (to those unfamiliar with My Bloody Valentine, this cannot be overstated). It's true that it shares similarities with another track that bears his lead vocals, "Sometimes", but this is far from a bad thing. It means that the album has a disarming yet familiar start, that shies away from controversy and comforts the listener into staying put for the remainder of the experience. What's most impressive about "she found now" is the sense of rhythm given by one delayed guitar. Given that Shields recorded the majority of the album by himself, with the exception of Bilinda Butcher's vocals and Colm Ó Cíosóig's drum parts, the track has an extra personal feel; and the listener can feel the meaning of the several years it may have taken to record and release it. The rest of the band appear on the next two songs, which feels like the true reintroduction. Bilinda sings in her signature indiscernible vowels over the solid rhythm Colm musters up for "only tomorrow"; her voice at times shifting up and swooping over Kevin's many buzzy guitar layers (I'm becoming increasingly aware that describing m b v's guitar sounds with words is an increasingly moot point, but believe me when I say the first guitar break here is truly awe-inspiring). "who sees you" completes this initial triptych, and furthers the idea of repeating and expanding on simple phrases from the previous track. On this one the guitars sound the most aggressive yet, which contradicts the paradisal softness of Kevin's vocal (subtly backed by Bilinda, to powerful effect). And two more incredible guitar breaks! Forget the time this music has taken to surface: when this formula can be executed to perfection over and over, I'm thankful to be able to listen to it at all.

The album then decides to break and do something entirely new for the band with its second act. The following track "is this and yes" has no guitars whatsoever, instead led by organic, astronomic keyboards and Bilinda's unusually forefronted vocals. Colm's bass drum is the only other addition to the song, which sounds like it was recorded inside the moon. It's definitely pretty, but to finally delve into criticism there is an issue with its length. Some reviewers feel as though it goes on for too long, like an unscheduled meander through the galaxy, but I'd say the opposite is actually true: I feel that given a couple minutes more it could stumble across something even more spacious and ultimately worthwhile. "if i am" is a little stronger, bringing Kevin and Colm back to the front; with the former dipping his guitar in gracious amounts of chorus, tremolo and flange, but struggles to make a mark when compared to the high quality of material elsewhere. I'd also say something about Debbie Googe's bass here like everyone else, if only because I've neglected to mention her involvement so far (whatever it was), except it really doesn't make a huge impression on me personally. The next track "new you" is a great improvement, especially because it allows for the return of Colm's heart-stopping drum breaks and those floaty, flute-y keyboards. Again Bilinda takes the trophy home for the sensuous doo doo doo's during the outro. Overall this segment of the album was the one that impressed me the least; the vanilla segment of this most Neapolitan record, but chocolate takes m b v somewhere entirely more adventurous and alien.

The opening guitar squeal of appropriately named "in another way" is so unexpected, uncharacteristic and perhaps a little tasteless that more than one reviewer has mislabelled it as the sound of "bagpipes". Three seconds later all is redeemed however when Colm's thunderous drums break through the clouds and lead a pack of loud, lively guitars onto the ravaged earth. It's maybe the most, well, punk rock-sounding song My Bloody Valentine have released since "You Made Me Realise". Thankfully vocals are kept to a minimum, leaving it to the other instruments to jam it out. It gives the feeling that the rulebook has truly been thrown out, for better or for worse. What follows is essentially a three-and-a-half minute studio experiment, "nothing is"; an exercise in rising intensity created using Kevin's choppy, buzzing guitar and Colm's very loud, booming drums, again using that weird "live looping" technique. It may come off as a little banal or worthless, but really I find it difficult to fault. Up to this point, m b v has been arguably everything that was demanded of it: a continuation of the sounds and experimental, involuted and ethereal (ugh) nature of Loveless, yet simultaneously a progression. Yet unbelievably the bravest, and possibly strongest track of the whole album was saved for last: "wonder 2". "Soon" this ain't; instead it's the heaviest song My Bloody Valentine have put their name to. The drum and bass-inspired rhythm section is a dead giveaway that Kevin at least began working on it during the 90s; only he could have paired it with the sweeping, aeroplane engine flanger effect and other assorted propulsive noise. As ever the structure is simple, the lyrics are a non-starter, but the texture is beyond anything you've ever heard. Imagine if it had been released during the 90s - it would have been copied a hundred times over by now.

This is the thing about My Bloody Valentine as a whole to me. "Texture" is the most important word. If music were texture alone I believe that Loveless would be the greatest album of all time, and I'm not the only person to think that. And certainly on that album its undefined, boundless, androgynously sexual, violently pleasurable multitude of textures were aided immensely by songwriting, structure, timing and above all inventiveness, which essentially when combined with its critical reception, influence and unintentional legendary status makes it the perfect album in this regard (the phrase "painted themselves into a corner" comes up more than once). After rumours of long bouts of depression and creative drought, Kevin Shields didn't ever need to follow Loveless up; it seemed to many to be an impossible task. Above all it shows a dedication to his role as a musician: many of his peers released great albums during their time, but furthered themselves with work that shattered the illusion of unapproachable, godlike craft. In this regard even a terrible album would have sufficed in allowing My Bloody Valentine to continue making music. But that's not what m b v is. It's not Loveless, but it's not weaker than a 6/10. It's a very reflexive listen, and if it succeeds at anything else it will hopefully bury the idea that an important album needs to be exemplary of its time. It's not of this time, or any other. And I enjoyed it very much.

Purchase m b v on a variety of formats from the My Bloody Valentine official webpage.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

DOUBLE Single of the Week: Ciara - "Body Party" and Mutya, Keisha & Siobhan - "Lay Down In Swimming Pools"

Okay, I'm having it both ways this week, but let me explain...

Both of my highlighted singles this week come delivered by known R&B songstresses, and both incorporate an element of remix to them. It was tough to choose between them, so I thought why not both? Also it makes a break from the Pete Swanson and the Knife coverage. The new Ciara single "Body Party" may sound more than a little familiar to fans of 90s R&B slow jams, as it reworks elements from the Ghost Town DJ's classic "My Boo". Producer Mike WiLL Made It slows it down even further with gorgeous synthesisers, taking out some of those rolling hi-hats in exchange for sparse finger-snaps and co-writer Future's Autotuned oohs. Meanwhile on our side of the pond emergent pop guru Dev Hynes has finished recording a new album for original Sugababes Mutya, Keisha & Siobhan, and apparently their idea of "having a bit of fun at the end of the last session" was to record a cover of Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)"! With both of these singles the stars are the singers themselves, each putting in excellent vocal performances worthy of their source material. Ciara's solo is both sexy and passionate, and MSK's strong harmonies pre-empt what will hopefully be a return to form for them.

Speaking of Kendrick, fans should look to my Culture Shock Mixcloud channel for a surprise in the next couple of days...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Single of the Week: The Knife - "A Tooth For An Eye"

Having already bookmarked Shaking the Habitual as an album to watch out for, and after the nine-minute techno- pop disintegration "Full of Fire" and its Marit Östberg-directed "short film" acting as a substantial, redefined "Welcome back!" package, the Knife's latest single didn't even need to be impressive. Yet "A Tooth For An Eye", the new record's opener compliments its predeccessor (and successor, reading the tracklist), working as an excellent signifier of another facet of the group's sound. The video description wants us to know that the song "deconstructs images of maleness, power and leadership" (I thought all Knife songs were about this?). During the song this message comes from the ever-masterful voice of Karin Dreijer, whose vocal talents bring a strenuous edge to the reasonably sweet and oddly inviting synths, as well as the geographically adventurous percussion. The Knife have taken enormous strides between their last album and here, and suddenly a 100-minute pallette of new material seems very appetising indeed.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Single of the Week: Rustie - "Slasherr"

If Rustie owned his own club I would definitely swoop by. If I close my eyes when hearing "Slasherr", the latest offering from Glasgow's synth surpher and one half of the "Triadzz/Slasherr" 12" out in a few weeks on Numbers, I can imagine a chromatic orgy of lights and sounds batting beside prophetic string quartets and antiquated Nintendo consoles. With the success of Warp/Numbers cohort Hudson Mohawke it's good to find Rustie hasn't fallen into a trap (so to speak) of overseas commercial allure; "Slasherr" sounds as ahead of the curve as ever, and if "Triadzz" can match its dizzying barrage Rustie'll have his name on another tasty piece of wax.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Recommended Albums: February 2013

February's release schedule was dominated by the still difficult to believe return of shoegaze originators My Bloody Valentine, whose new album m b v really has to be heard if you've yet to have had the pleasure. But other albums, from both young and veteran artists, are also worth checking out. Here are my favourites:

Mountains - Centralia
An eerily beautiful album of ambient electro-acoustics, that references Terry Riley and Brian Eno. This one is continuing to grow on me with every listen.

Grouper - The Man Who Died In His Boat
This one is a sequel of sorts to Liz Harris' breakthrough 2008 album Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, and is therefore more centered around the acoustic guitar than more recent Grouper albums. Again, I'm looking forward to spending more time with it.

My Bloody Valentine - m b v
I hope to be reviewing this one in the future so I don't want to say much about it yet. The music can speak for itself for now.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away
Nick Cave goes back to his quieter, romantic side for the latest Bad Seeds album. The softer moments are balanced out with epics "Jubilee Street" and "Higgs Boson Blues", which are as good as any songs Cave's written.

Iceage - You're Nothing
You're Nothing is a more challenging album than Iceage's debut, New Brigade. If you weren't sold on that album, this one isn't for you. The first two and last two tracks are the best, I find.

Trade - SHEWORKS005 (EP)
Trade is the collaborative project of Blawan and Surgeon, and their EP for She Works The Long Nights contains four tracks of heavy, pulsating modern techno. It shows off the capabilities of both producers extremely well.

Rainer Veil - Struck (EP)
As my Single of the Week feature suggests, I'm looking forward to what Rainer Veil will do in the future. Until then there's their EP for Modern Love, which is more than gratuitous.

Atoms For Peace - AMOK
Finally I was pleasantly surprised by the electronic-cum-Afrobeat project of Thom Yorke/Nigel Godrich/Flea/Joey Waronker, Atoms For Peace's AMOK. It's expensive-sounding fun, and lord knows Thom needs some of that every once in a while.

This month expect new albums/EP's from David Bowie, Pete Swanson, Justin Timberlake, CHVRCHES and more. Tracks from some of these albums/EP's can be found on my latest monthly mix Culture Shock (and in previous mixes if you care to look):