Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Single of the Week: Janelle Monáe - "Q.U.E.E.N." (feat. Erykah Badu)

One of the best qualities reflected in Janelle Monáe's The Archandroid was its robustness, the feeling that it could take you anywhere at any moment, more than likely somewhere you never thought possible. This effect is achieved by that album's effortless track sequencing, which switched up neo-funk and contemporary classical like they were one and the same. Without hearing "Q.U.E.E.N." in the context of its parent album The Electric Lady then probably takes away something from the intended listening experience. However it's an accomplished piece on it's own merit. Erykah Badu brings her signature guest vocals but it's really Janelle who takes centre stage with her girl-friendly lyrics and from-the-shoes-up approach to singing, turning into rapping by the track's climactic final minute. Some nice lead guitar is the other main component of this funky jam.

Recommended Albums: April 2013

There was a lot to get through this month, but hopefully I've sorted out (my take on) the great from the merely good. It doesn't help that some of last month's albums spill into this month, or that some records absent from this month's schedule will undoubtedly find their way to me by this time next month, but such is the nature of these things:

Suede - Bloodsports
Having not been particularly familiar with Suede's previous output (I know they were huge, but I'm only young!) I was at first put off by the bombastic approach to production on Bloodsports. But now it's clear to me that it has some truly fantastic songs. Highly recommended to any type of rock music fan.

Steve Mason - Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time
Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time not only challenges conventions of singer-songwriter type music, bringing elements of musique concrète, country and electronica together, it also presents itself as a sharp and poignant commentary of the condition of modern Britain.

The Knife - Shaking The Habitual
With Shaking The Habitual the Knife pull off as many interesting ideas as the album has minutes (98 to be precise). A landmark album not only in Swedish electro pop but in the wider tradition of experimental double albums, it stands unique and proud.

A Hawk And A Hacksaw - You Have Already Gone To The Other World
Billed as an alternative soundtrack to accompany the Sergei Parajanov film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (i.e. a concept album around this story), there's little to fault with A Hawk And A Hacksaw's latest. Even without visual accompaniment it's an epic story made of Eastern European-inspired folk songs and mood music. Very enjoyable.

Bells Atlas - Bells Atlas EP
A short set - three songs plus two remixes - from the Oakland-based Bells Atlas, who "capture the spirit of an eclectic range of influences, including Highlife, Hip-Hop, Samba, R&B and aspects of Indie Pop".

James Blake - Overgrown
I haven't listened to this one as much as I'd have liked yet. Nevertheless two years after his debut James Blake is strikes again, with an immaculately produced album expansive enough to seamlessly feature guest placements from both Brian Eno and RZA. If you enjoyed the first you probably know that by now.

Big K.R.I.T. - King Remembered In Time
K.R.I.T.'s new tape reminds you why he expects to live up to his name. Some of the middle few tracks may be out of place in my opinion, but the rest easily matches the best of K.R.I.T.'s other mixtapes. He's Southern rap's answer to Kendrick Lamar, and if you've been following him pick it up below!

Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge - Twelve Reasons To Die
If any Wu-Tang member was going hold my attention with a new album, it was bound to be Ghostface. His new record charts the origin story of his persona, and Adrian Younge's live arrangements help him to successfully recreate the feel of a good old gangster flick.

Demdike Stare - Testpressing#001 / Testpressing#002 (EPs)
I've not given Demdike Stare enough dues with Single of the Week, but these new "Testpressing" releases spiral out of the duo's most experimental tendencies. Which means that each track is different; quite unlike anything I've heard in electronic music. Let's hope there's more to come in this series.

Neon Neon - Praxis Makes Perfect
A Neon Neon album is like a lesson in social history, only fun! The subject of this one is the infamous left wing publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. It has track names like "Hoops With Fidel". It's very good. For fans of Metronomy as well as Gruff Rhys/Super Furry Animals and Boom Bip's other projects.

Next month expect new releases by Deerhunter, Savages, the Fall, Daft Punk and more. Maybe by that time I'll have gotten around to the rest of this month's albums. Tracks from some of these albums/EPs can be found on my latest monthly mix Culture Shock (check the channel from tomorrow).

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Single of the Week: Thundercat - "Heartbreaks + Setbacks"

For many music fans (myself included, admittedly) this week's singles release schedule are dominated by two things: Record Store Day exclusives and the official (single edit) of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky". Thundercat, a.k.a. the Brainfeeder affiliated bassist, singer and composer Stephen Bruner resembles those more overt choices for a potential Single of the Week entry only in the sense that he is one) exclusively paving out a career of neo-soul that is equally influenced by the jazz fusion of artists such as Herbie Hancock and 80s television themes like the one he shares his moniker with, and two) unafraid of bringing some serious funk back into the field he associates himself with. "Heartbreaks + Setbacks" was produced by Flying Lotus and the often-overlooked Mono/Poly and together the three of them have put together a song richer in texture than even anything from Thundercat's first album The Golden Age Of Apocalypse: a lush arrangement of acoustic and electronic sounds including live (sounding, at least) drums and spacious, spacey synth patterns. However the two outlying qualities of the song are Bruner's soft, confident vocal and the dexterous notes coming from his bass guitar, mixed just high enough for it to be appreciated without taking over the song completely. If Daft Punk had instead released a single as fantastic as this last weekend there'd be twice as many people interested.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Album Review: The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me"
 Jeanette Winterson

There is nothing about the latest album by Swedish techno-pop icons the Knife that doesn't whiff of pretension, or scream for attention so loudly that you'll either be immediately turned against it or will highly admire its audacity. Shaking The Habitual follows on from Tomorrow In A Year, a collaborative album with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock from a few years ago that left listeners thoroughly divided, to the extent that the majority of Knife fans refuse to acknowledge it as a "real" Knife album. Perhaps rightly so, but siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer most likely hold their Darwinian opera in higher esteem, as it appears to have cast a long shadow over their already ambitious creative output. They are also masters of knowing their audience and how to manipulate their perceptions, as the masterful PR campaign leading up to Shaking The Habitual has demonstrated. The gap between 2006's Silent Shout, or their ubiquitously loved 2004 single "Heartbeats" is so large at this stage this isn't by any means unexpected. Before we go any further, why not think about what you would have wanted from a 2013 Knife record, and then consider the group's own interpretation of their art:

There have certainly been other musicians in this confusing position before now, but not many have been so coquettish about it. Hearing a ten minute single as a taste for an album always seems like a tantalising prospect (ask Justin Timberlake's fans), but as they say, the proof is and forever shall be in the pudding. If and when you hear "Full Of Fire" you'll find yourself biting into a scathing, frothing piece of industrial (if it can even be called that), probably with pieces of glass and sharp grit sadistically thrown in for bad measure. And personally I find it strangely delicious, once my palette has adjusted to it. Listening to the whole thing unravel into a distorted mess as Karin delivers lines as tongue-in-cheek as "liberals giving me an nerve itch" never once feels irritating or overdeveloped. Further noise experiments pop up later as "Oryx" and "Crake", and are brief and inspired. Maybe José and his guitar will give them a go once television has advanced to neurological brainwave transmissions and Sony need a jingle.

That seems to be one of the main themes of this 98 minute album. Beyond remodelling themselves, and discussions in gender, ecocritical and postmodern politics (certainly more on those to come, don't wet yourself with excitement just yet!), the Knife are as keen to Shake The Album Format in as many ways to ensure they get as much out of their monstrous length as they possibly can. Naturally this has led to the argument that some of the tracks are needlessly long, and that others don't belong on a Knife album at all. The first red target to be painted is on "Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised". In itself it's a fifth of the album's length, vocal-less, beat-less and stubborn as fuck. Situated at the end of CD1 it's presumably intended to separate the record's two halves; maybe even to procrastinate for the wonderfully bouncy "Raging Lung". It serves both roles excellently and without it the listener would be left with 79 near-continuous minutes of strange pop, which maybe wouldn't work as well. It sounds like I'm being terribly apologist, and certainly I've heard better tracks in this style, but as I say it works as both an interlude and an interesting musical motif in itself.

(If needs must there is a single CD version of Shaking The Habitual available that omits "Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised, but I doubt the packaging is as good. Believe me when I say the double CD gatefold is lush.)

What about proper tunes, banging beats, good pop? Any of that? Of course! One of the great things about Shaking The Habitual is that it shows off previous qualities of the Knife in new contexts, including the duo's approach to lyrics, drum patterns and sounds, and Karin's versatile, bedspringy vocals (I'm becoming aware that she must be one of my favourite singers by now). The tribal, infectious fourth track "Without You My Life Would Be Boring" is the closest to traditional Knife in terms of both sound and length, but in the company of freakier manifestations takes on another layer of manic instability with Karin's rapid screech (and mentions of elf and tiger piss?). "A Tooth For An Eye" is slower but equally an infectious single, and "Stay Out Here", which finds Karin fluctuating vocal roles with visual artist Emily Roysdon and Light Asylum's Sharon Funchess, almost feels like an expansion on the more menacing corners of contemporary R&B. "Ready To Lose" also feels like familiar ground for the Knife, a closing track that may have dated as far back as Deep Cuts by the sounds of it. There's enough detail given to these songs, as much if not more than the more challenging moments, and they're far from effervescent, even if they are catchy.

But it's not all fun and games. Overriding all of the Knife's pop desires is their sense of political message, or rather various messages, as Shaking The Habitual is something of a grab-bag when it comes to these identities too. Think of it as a manifesto, one that eschews all of Karin and Olof's interpretations of gender, class and environmental politics on both a Scandinavian and a global level into one pink bubblegum bubble. Karin's lyrics are of course an obvious place to look. From the Salt-N-Pepa loan that gargles out the end of "Full Of Fire" to the "urge for penetration" that colours "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" she's definitely reaching for the admirable task of rebuilding perceptions of gender from the ground upwards. "Fracking Fluid Injection", a ten minute barren wind chamber of an instrumental towards the album's end is a clear inquisition of a different kind of penetration (though maybe not completely different): drilling for the release of natural gas from under the earth's surface. Further attention to political concerns envelop the album's visuals: the choice of Marit Östberg as the director for the "Full Of Fire" video was a bold message in itself, but the images of housekeeping protest and outdoor BDSM even more so.

If Shaking The Habitual can be said to be successful of anything it would be that it fully rewards listeners for the attention it lavishly invites. It completely embraces the spirit of unconventionality, from its eye-straining artwork to its demanding length. By doing so it becomes a rare thing in today's music culture: completely unique and unforgettable. The Knife called their first tour "An Audiovisual Experience", and the same name could apply easily to this set. It is more experience than album, and one of a growing number of releases that chooses to innovate with structure significantly more than has been done since the popularisation of the CD in the eighties. As an album of songs, Shaking The Habitual is undoubtedly going to disappoint some, but as an experience of time, craft and endurance, it's fast on its way to being a classic.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Single of the Week: Young Fathers - "I Heard"

I struggle to think what Young Fathers' latest, Tape Two is going to sound like. The Scottish hip hop trio clearly have some confidence in it, enough to release "The Guide" as a free download offcut; a track that strongly evokes the 90s post boom-bap feel of that decade's rap abstractioners. Between "The Guide" and new one "I Heard" Young Fathers have easily set themselves up to the group when it comes to UK hip hop, and one of the most forward groups in all of rap right now. "I Heard" doesn't even feature rapping for the most part, rather a old soul vocal that feels nothing if not sincere and heartfelt. The whole track is pinned by keyboard and click-track drum that themselves somehow sound sorrow in their simplicity. An atmospheric cloud (not in that sense) of synthesis wells up over the top to bring out the intensity further, and group vocals on the chorus merely cement its overall greatness.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Single of the Week: Deerhunter - "Monomania"

I have a lot of time for Deerhunter. I've been a fan since my first listen of their 2010 album Halcyon Digest, and have spent the 2 1/2 years since working backwards through their discography, and enjoying releases from side projects such as Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza. Their self-described ambient punk sound reached its pinnacle with their previous LP, but Deerhunter aren't left barren without it. When they decide to scuzz it up, like they do with the title track to their forthcoming album Monomania (and presumably the rest of the album will follow suit), they're still able to craft excellent songs. Follow the details of "Monomania" like you would any other Deerhunter song; the bass, guitars and drums follow excellent, complimentary patterns. And singer Bradford Cox is as much of a personality as ever, as the band's performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon proves. It's essentially business as usual, only louder.