Review: Routines (2017) by Hoops

Routines is just one of those albums with a sound that I find impossible not to love. The music Hoops makes is the sort of stuff you just want to chill out to – to just lay back and think about things a little bit. It’s got great riffs, smooth drum machine beats, chilled out, almost psychedelic, vocals… Basically it’s right up my alley.

I’ve listened to quite few underwhelming debuts this year, and I’d say that Routines is the first one that’s really exceeded my expectations. One album in and it feels like the band have already got their sound nailed. And this is why it succeeds so well; Hoops’ debut is an album that feels very assured. The band know what sort of music they want to make and they don’t feel the need to try and act big or flashy to try and grab the audience’s attention. The whole album flows as smoothly as anything else I’ve listened to this year, with each of the songs flowing into the next effortlessly.

And yet, thankfully, each of them feels distinctive within the band’s defined ambient music-esque sound. ‘Bengals’ is a gorgeous instrumental track led by a great drum machine beat, ‘Burden’ features perhaps the catchiest hooks on the album (‘No, I don’t wanna be a burden’) and ‘Worry’ is brought to life by some very twinkling synth notes. In many ways, it reminds me of a Beach House album; when I listened to at first, all the songs bordered on same-y slightly, but repeatedly listens revealed how distinct they really are.

Another thing I loved about this album was the brevity of the tracks. Most tracks on Routines hover around the three-minute mark and, in the hands of another band, probably would’ve been stretched out longer than they needed to. ‘Rules’ is a gorgeously layered, punchy track that clocks in at just over two minutes; like many other songs on the album, it shows the band get in, say what they want to say, and then get out again. And given psychedelic music’s love for indulgence, that’s pretty refreshing.

Hoops’ debut is very much recommended. The more I’ve listened to it over the past couple of weeks, the more its grown on me. I wouldn’t say the band do anything mind-blowingly creative here, but the songs on Routines are really well put together and really enjoyable. And sometimes that’s all that good music needs to be.

Best Tracks: ‘Rules’, ‘Burden’, Worry’.

Review: After Laughter (2017) by Paramore

I’ve never really be part of the Paramore crowd in the past. And, to be honest, up until After Laughter, I’d never really listened to any of their music. I always associated them with the whole pop-punk/00s emo music crowd – bands like Asking Alexandria and Fall Out Boy (who have just put out the worst song I’ve heard in a long time) – which has never really been my bag.

However, a friend recently turned me on to their new album’s lead single ‘Hard Times’, saying they thought it was my sort of thing. Though I liked it immediately – quirky and catchy with a killer bass groove – I’ve definitely grown to love it even more now that I’ve had a few weeks to sit with it. In fact, it’s probably one of the best indie pop songs I’ve heard in a long time. And while it doesn’t do anything particularly new, I especially get clear Two Door Cinema Club vibes from it, it does what it does really well. The instrumentation is tight and well layered, it’s got a good groove, an explosive chorus that just makes you want to dance as well as some pretty solid lyrics to boot. It’s a pop song in its purest form, right down to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure, and the band execute it more or less perfectly.

After Laughter doesn’t stray from the formula of ‘Hard Times’ too much, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each song has something going for it that makes it stand out, whether it be some particularly strong lyrics or a creative bit of instrumentation, but the majority of them are pop songs like the lead single. They’re all short and punchy and are guaranteed to worm their way into your head.

The album’s second track ‘Rose-Colored Boy’ features some of my favourite lyrics on the album, exploring depression creatively – talking about what it’s like to be around people who’re happy when you aren’t. ‘Told You So’ features a fantastic guitar-driven chorus and plenty of energy. Following these two is ‘Forgiveness’, another favourite, which despite being a slower cut is still incredibly easy to get stuck in your head. The vocal delivery on this track is particularly great. Like ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the lyrics are fantastic here as well. These four opening songs are easily the album’s high point, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to love throughout the rest of it. There are still some great songs in the album’s second half, like ‘Idle Worship’ in which Hayley William struggles with being idolised by Paramore’s fans: ‘I’m just a girl and you’re not as alone as you feel’.

Apart from the experimental ‘No Friend’, After Laughter is a pretty straightforward indie pop album, but like I said, an incredibly well produced one. Whether you’re a long-time fan or you’ve never really been into Paramore before – much like me – I definitely recommend checking out this album. It’s got a lot going for it.

Best Tracks: ‘Hard Times’, ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, ‘Idle Worship’.

Review: The Last Days of New Paris (2017) by China Miéville

Following last year’s This Census-Taker, China Miéville is back with another novella. The wait continues for a new Miéville novel – hard to think that his last one was five years ago – but The Last Days of New Paris does a pretty good filling the gap. It’s easily one of the oddest books that Miéville has released in a long time, and that’s saying something, featuring bicycle-people, wolf-tables and an old man who is partially made out of a steam train…

Bringing together true events and fictional ones, Miéville tells a very different World War II story. In the wake of the war, Paris is overrun with manifestations of surrealist creations – known as ‘manifs’ – who have been set loose on the world due to unknown circumstances. Strange creatures like the ones mentioned above roam the city along with Nazi soldiers who are hurriedly hunting for a secret weapon… Amidst this chaos, a fighter of the surrealist movement named Thibaut joins forces with an American photographer, Sam, in order to escape the ruined city.

As this description suggests, The Last Days of New Paris is an incredibly odd and slightly nonsensical novella – but in the best way possible. There are a number of brilliant and crazy creations featured throughout the story and, as Miéville points out in the afterword, almost all of them owe their origins to famous surrealist art. It’s easy miss some of the novella’s fantastical details, just because there are so many stuffed into it. Despite its short length, the author does a great of building up an imaginative and unique world while paying homage to surrealist artists at the same time.

And, despite feeling stuffed, I think The Last Days of New Paris is the perfect length. There’s definitely not enough material or depth here for a novel – and if Miéville choose to stretch it out any longer I could see the world of New Paris overstaying its welcome. At times the novella’s utter weirdness becomes a little bit tiresome, but I found the author’s afterword – which is an essential read – allowed me to forgive this a bit. He devotes a lot of pages to telling the story behind The Last Days of New Paris, and in many ways, it’s just as interesting as the novella itself.

I won’t deny that this release isn’t quite as satisfying or as immersive as Miéville’s best or even middling works, but its uniqueness is definitely something to be appreciated. It can be read in only a couple of hours, so I wouldn’t recommend paying too much for it, but The Last Days of New Paris is another fascinating release from one of my favourite authors.

Review: Humanz (2017) by Gorillaz

It’s difficult to believe that the last proper Gorillaz album was seven years ago… Yeah, Plastic Beach was released all the way back in 2010. (Hard to believe, I know.) That last album saw Damon Albarn’s project move past its cartoon band premise, with the focus shifting artist collaborations. And that wasn’t a bad thing, with Plastic Beach having featured some fantastic collaborations – such as ‘Empire Ants’ with Little Dragon and ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ with Lou Reed. However, I’d be lying if I said my favourite songs on the album weren’t the simpler ones. While the collaborations were good, the album really succeeded most on its least busy tracks – those featuring just Albarn on vocals, such as ‘Rhinestone Eyes’ and ‘On Melancholy Hill’.

Now with Humanz – as its title suggests – the focus is on collaborations again. While it’s still clearly a Gorillaz album, Damon Albarn takes the backseat on Humanz to a greater extent than he ever has before. Some people have described the album as feeling like a playlist – which I agree with. There are so many different vocalists featured that at times it becomes hard to believe that all these songs belong to the same artist.

But is the album any good? Mostly, yes. Like Plastic Beach, there is a clear thematic thread that runs through all of its songs, stopping them from feeling too disconnected. Humanz is focused on the end of the world – tying in certain recent political events as well Albarn’s fear of society becoming too dependent on technology. The intro track ‘I Switched Off My Robot’, makes the album’s technology focus clear while the second song, ‘Ascension’, has a definite apocalyptic vibe to it: ‘Heard the world is ending soon, I assumed they told you / They trying to dinosaur us’. This ominous dystopian feel builds with each track, climaxing with ‘Hallelujah Money’.

These themes help the album feel less disconnected that it would otherwise, but at times Humanz does just feel like someone flicking through stations on a radio. The interludes feel like an attempt to make everything feel a little bit more connected, but they don’t really work for me. Only a couple of them really add anything to the album.

The songs themselves range from great to totally forgettable. I hate to say it, but the best songs are mostly the ones where Albarn takes lead vocals. There’s a particularly great stretch of these songs in the middle of the Humanz – ‘Charger’, ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Busted and Blue’ – with each of them working incredibly well. These songs all feature guest vocalists, but Albarn uses them in a conservative way. They don’t dominate the songs, but still manage to feel essential to them. Grace Jones’ performance on ‘Charger’ is fantastic, with her almost ghostly vocals adding to the song’s already tense atmosphere.

But although my favourites were mainly the Albarn-centric tracks, there are still a lot of great songs here where guest vocalists take the reins. ‘Submission’, while maybe a little bit poppy, features great performances from Kelela and Danny Brown and is definitely one of the tracks I’ve found myself listening to the most. (Danny Brown’s verse in particular is fantastic.) ‘Let Me Out’ might just be my favourite track on Humanz, with it drawing together three different vocalists with totally different styles and somehow managing to work. Pusha T, Mavis Staples and Albarn all play important roles in the song, yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed in the slightest. ‘Hallelujah Money’ with Benjamin Clementine is another highlight – with its spoken monologue style recalling Demon Days’ ‘Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head’.

However, the album does falter quite a few times as well. There are some songs on here that just a feel a little unfinished and overstuffed. ‘Carnival’ is the main example of this – it just feels like a rough draft rather than an actual song. At only two minutes long, it doesn’t have time to go anywhere interesting. I feel the same about ‘Momentz’, which definitely could have used a bit more work. Everything on the song feels a little bit clunky, and, as with ‘Carnival’ – and many other songs on the album – it’s over much too quickly. Most of the songs on Humanz hover at around three minutes, which isn’t necessarily a problem – but it doesn’t give them much time to develop, especially when the lead vocalist changes after just about every track.

While it has a few solid songs, I think it’s hard to deny that Humanz is the band weakest release so far. It feels a little bit unfocused and thrown together to me. However, if you enjoyed Gorillaz past releases, you’ll probably find some songs to love here – just probably not as many as on Demon Days or Plastic Beach.

Best Tracks: ‘Submission’, ‘Charger’, ‘Let Me Out’.

Review: Electric Lines (2017) by Joe Goddard

Electric Lines is the first proper solo album from Joe Goddard of Hot Chip fame. While it bears some things in common with his main band – Hot Chip lead singer Alexis Taylor even provides guest vocals on the title track – the album definitely has a more dance orientated sound.

And while I’m not a huge fan of dance music, Electric Lines is pretty good as far as it goes. Tracks like ‘Ordinary Madness’ and ‘Truth In Light’ have solid beats to them and catchy lyrics – even though they do border on cheesy a little bit too much. ‘Music Is The Answer’, however, is probably the album’s main stand-out – also being the most accessible song on here. As a closer, it distils what the album is about as a whole – addressing Goddard’s interest in exploring dance music directly: ‘Music is the answer to your problems / Keep on moving and you can solve them.’

‘Children’, a long mostly instrumental track that sits at the middle of the album, is another highlight; Goddard manages to create an interesting and textured musical landscape, and the song really feels like it progresses despite the same lyrics being uttered over and over. There’s a lot of layers to the song, and I appreciate it being interesting and odd as well as very danceable.

However, despite these highlights, I found that much of the album is pretty middling. One of the main problems I had with Electric Lines throughout is that it feels pretty flat. Apart from a few exceptions – like the aforementioned ‘Children’ – the album feels lacking in layers and general oomph. ‘Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love’ and ‘Home’ are two good examples of this. The songs should be great – and, in many ways, they feel like great songs that have just been executed poorly.

Despite its very immediate start, ‘Home’ feels incredibly flat throughout. The vocals sort of fade in with the instruments and get hidden under all the synths and drum beats. And even when the chorus kicks in, in what feels like it should be a big almost anthemic moment, the song stays just as flat. The same thing happens on ‘Lose Your Love’. When the backing vocals kick in, singing ‘I don’t wanna lose your love’, it doesn’t feel like Goddard is turning things up a notch. It all just stays on the same level.

Additionally, songs like ‘Lasers’ and ‘Nothing Moves’ fall into the meh through simply not being that interesting. The instrumentation isn’t too exciting on them, and the lyrics on ‘Nothing Moves’ are particularly poor: ‘When I close my eyes / I see nothing but you.’ Another strong contender for the album’s most groan-worthy lyrics is ‘Electric Lines’, in which Alexis Taylor laments about how quickly technology is changing. It’s cheesy in a way that reminds me of the weak Hot Chip track.

Electric Lines isn’t an album I’d recommend to the average music-listener, as there isn’t really enough substance here to sink your teeth into. If you’re particularly passionate about dance music however, you might find something to enjoy here – ‘Music Is The Answer’ is at least worth a listen.

Essential Songs: ‘Ordinary Madness’, ‘Children’, ‘Music Is The Answer’.

Review: Flying Microtonal Banana (2017) by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Over the past few years, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have proven themselves to be one of the hardest working bands around. Despite only releasing their debut in 2012 – having formed in 2010 – the band have put out a total of nine albums so far. Not only that, but they’ve vowed to put out at least four albums in 2017, with Flying Microtonal Banana being the first.

This wouldn’t be that impressive if these nine albums were mediocre, but they’re really not. Despite King Gizzard being a psychedelic rock band at their core, each of their albums has seen them experiment with their sound in some way. Quarters was made up of four prog rock jams totally 10 minutes and 10 seconds each, Paper Mache Dream Balloon saw the band using nothing but acoustic instruments and on Nonagon Infinity, perhaps their most impressive effort yet, King Gizzard produced an album that was an infinite loop, with all of the tracks leading seamlessly into each other – the closer into the opener included.

Flying Microtonal Banana, as the album’s title suggests, sees the band experiment with the world of microtonal instruments. Microtonality takes advantage of note intervals not commonly heard in Western music, due to the way that Western instruments are tuned. On the surface, it seems like a bit of hollow gimmick – but luckily the album produced from this experiment is nothing less than fantastic.

There is a heavy Eastern music influence in Flying Microtonal Banana – in part due to the presence of microtonal instruments – that really gives it a unique style. This influence is most evident on album highlight ‘Nuclear Fusion’ – which somehow manages to seamlessly blend together the band’s psych rock roots with some very African stylings. This influence is also very present on the instrumental closing track, ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’, making excellent use of the zurna.

It’s this album’s effortless meshing of different styles that really makes it so compelling. Though this Eastern aesthetic ties the album together as a whole, the band also experiment with a number of other different styles – such as on ‘Billabong Valley’, which is structured like an old Spaghetti Western ballad, with the band singing of a famous Australian bushranger: Mad dog Morgan / He never gave a warning.’

There are also a few classic-style King Gizzard long psychedelic jams on here, which feel like they could have fit onto previous albums with ease. These songs, ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Open Water’, are definitely some of the least adventurous tracks on the album, but that doesn’t stop them being fantastic. King Gizzard have put out so many tracks in this style that they’ve pretty much mastered writing them now. It’s a testament to the band that I can listen to Stu Mackenzie sing little more than ‘Rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattles me’ for a seven and a half minutes without getting bored.

This might not be the band’s best release, but that’s only because they’ve set the bar so high with their past releases. The only less-than-great track on here is the titular one, with it feeling slightly underwhelming as a closer despite its interesting instrumentation. Everything else, however, is gold. From the dreamy ‘Sleep Drifter’ to the stomping and distorted ‘Doom City’ and the apocalyptic ‘Nuclear Fusion’, Flying Microtonal Banana continues King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s seemingly endless hot streak.

Essential Songs: ‘Sleep Drifter’, ‘Billabong Valley’, ‘Nuclear Fusion’.

Review: The Essex Serpent (2016) by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels that’s hard to ignore. It’s picked up dozens of awards and been sat in the window of every book shop, much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist from a few years ago – which I really wasn’t a fan of. Because of my disappointment of that novel, I was fairly hesitant when it came to this one. When you get a little excited for a book, it almost always ends up letting you down, right?

I’ll stop dancing around my opinion on The Essex Serpent and say that I did enjoy it. Sarah Perry’s latest novel, while a little overstuffed, is a good read. The central storyline is compelling, and while It does have a few too many characters, most of them are interesting. At its heart, the novel is about a married woman trying to discover who she really is after the death of her husband, whom she was forced to marry at a young age. Cora, along with her son Francis and her servant Martha, moves to the Essex countryside from London in search a mythical creature that’s rumoured to have been terrorising a nearby town. While hunting for the monster, Cora falls into company with the local’s church’s rector, William Ransome. As they try to prove and disprove the existence of the serpent, the two of them develop a close friendship.

Like I said, the central storyline is solid and Perry handles the central romance in an interesting way. Still, despite this, Cora’s struggles didn’t really feel like anything new to me. They felt very similar to those featured in the Victorian novels the author is clearly taking inspiration from… Though Cora doesn’t end up being half as interesting as the heroines in those books. In fairness, novels like Wuthering Heights and Ruth are an incredible high bar for The Essex Serpent to meet, but it just felt like Cora – as well as William – was missing a certain spark. Despite how well constructed the novel is, and how the heroine’s journey works well on paper, she just wasn’t someone I could get enthusiastic about.

The novel’s more interesting characters, in my opinion, hang around the fringes of the novel. Though I felt The Essex Serpent strayed too far from its central storyline at times – with there being a fairly long-winded B-plot about Cora’s servant trying to help those affected by London’s poverty – these side plots had some pretty fantastic character moments in them. Cora’s friend, London surgeon Luke Garrett, stole the show in many ways for me. The emotional journey that he and his friend George Spencer go through in the novel seemed much more original than Cora’s romance, focusing how powerful friendship can be in pulling people through tough times. Stella, William’s wife, was another stand-out character for me. Perry shows us her decline into illness in a gradual way, offering us her point of view along the way, and the way she does this is both original and moving.

Overall, The Essex Serpent is, in many ways, the book I expected it to be. It’s undoubtable good, but at times feels too structured and formulaic. Around its edges is where the novel’s best moments lie, where it appears less keen on being something that’ll be universally loved – basically book awards bait – and something a bit more weird and interesting. It’s a great novel that just feels a little bit lacking.