Review: Pumarosa the Louisiana, Bristol (27/10/2016)

Though they’ve only released a few songs, Pumarosa is a band that feels fullyl formed. Over their three singles, from the epic ‘Priestess’ to the politically driven ‘Honey’, they’ve covered a range of styles, but they all feature the band’s unique voice. I can’t think of an album I’m more excited about at the moment than their upcoming debut.

I’ve never been to the Louisiana before, and I was kind of surprised by how small and humble the place was. The music venue part of it is pretty much just an attic room. It was a change from the big name venues I’ve been to in Bristol – like the O2, the Marble Factory and Colston Hall – but not in a bad way. Though the performance room could only hold a small fraction of the people the O2 could, it made the gig feel so much more intimate. It felt like the line between the audience and the band was more blurred than it would be in a big venue (heck, some of Pumarosa’s members were even stood next to me during the support act.)

And man, were the support act great. I’d never listened to or heard of Peluché before the gig, and I ended up being pretty blown away by their performance. It’s hard to really describe their style of music – their songs have a sort of dreamy feel to them, and often go off on long jazzy instrumental tangents. Though I normally find myself itching to see the headliner when I go to gigs, I did find myself wishing that Peluché’s set could have been just a few songs longer…

When Pumarosa finally took the stage, they didn’t go for a big flashy entrance – they just set up their instruments and started playing. All emphasis was put on the music, which was pretty refreshing.

Lead singer Isabel quickly grabbed the audience’s attention, as the band kicked off their set with ‘Dragonfly’. The combination of her powerful voice and very Kate Bush-esque dance moves made for a pretty fantastic performance. The opening song was followed up by two tunes very familiar to Pumarosa fans – the band’s two latest singles: ‘Cecile’ and ‘Honey’. Both songs sounded fantastic live, ‘Honey’ especially.

The bulk of the set after this was made up of less familiar songs, with ‘Lion’s Den’ being another highlight. Almost all focus was put on Isabel’s voice until the last few moments, when the band exploded into sound. Isabel even took to playing her guitar like a violin by using a drumstick (yes, you read that right.)

The best moment of the set was saved till towards the end. ‘Priestess’, arguably the band’s best song, sounded absolutely amazing live. The eight-minute-long song felt like a journey, and the dancing from the audience – as well as the band – showed that nobody really wanted it to end. As great as the rest of the set was, ‘Priestess’ was just Pumarosa at their peak. Though there have been many gigs I’ve enjoyed this year, I wouldn’t say any of them reached the same heights as the performance of that song.

If you get the chance to see Pumarosa live, do it. I’m pretty certain the band is going to get huge soon, and it’d be silly not to go see them at an intimate venue like the Louisiana while you still can.

Book Review: Hystopia (2016) by David Means

Some of the best war novels are the weird ones; the ones that try to expose war for just how ridiculous and pointless it truly is. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are prime examples of this – the first easily being one of my favourite books – portraying war in an absurd manner rather than a serious one. David Means’ debut novel Hystopia tries to do this as well – just with much less success than those two books.

It’s hard to know where to start with the plot of this novel. Being presented as the work of a fictitious Vietnam veteran – supported by a lengthy ‘fake’ introduction – Hystopia focuses on a series of veterans who have managed to blank out their traumatic war experiences through a form of treatment known as enfoldment.

However, the treatment does not work on all subjects. A man that goes by the name Rake, one of the failed subjects, kidnaps an innocent woman and goes on a killing rampage across the country, leaving ‘the Corps’ – the group responsible for the enfoldment treatment – to clean up after his mess. Soon two officers of the Corps, Wendy and Singleton, the latter a recipient of the enfoldment treatment himself, are forced to go and capture him.

Really, this is only scratching the surface of Hystopia. There are a lot of ideas going on in this novel, such as it being presented as the work of a fictional author (and having its own fictional history) and it taking place in an alternate history America where Kennedy was not assassinated. And this links to my main issue with the book: it is unnecessarily complicated. I tried to keep my above synopsis brief, but it ended up being pretty much impossible. This book is bursting with ideas – many of them not fitting together well – and at times they cause it to feel like a mess.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of clever stuff in this book and David Means is obviously a talented writer, but it just seems as though he’s overlooked the basic need for a novel to tell a good story in favour of being clever. The alternate timeline the novel takes place in, for example, feels very unnecessary. It doesn’t play into the story nearly enough, and as a result it feels like Means chucked it in there just because. Slaughterhouse-Five had a lot of weirdness and cleverness in it, sure, but it never felt like weirdness and cleverness for the sake of it.

Ultimately Hystopia is best when it goes back to basics. War and war veterans are always going to make great subjects for novels, and when Means just focuses on the effect war has on people, the book is at its best. Despite him leaning a bit too much towards stereotypical psychopath, Means manages to make Rake a fascinating character. Many of the best moments in the novel are just those that give us glimpses into his personality. Other veteran characters are great too, such as tree tracker Hank. The author does a good job of making each character unique – each of them affected by war in a different way.

It’s kind of hard for me to recommend this book. While it features some excellent writing and some great moments, most of the time it just feels like it’s trying too hard – like it’s trying to be the next Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 when it really isn’t.

Review: Gameshow (2016) by Two Door Cinema Club

Though it’s only been three years since Two Door Cinema Club’s last release, Gameshow kind of feels like a comeback album. And that’s probably because they just straight-up disappeared for a few years.

So was it worth the band coming back for another album? Mostly yes – there’s enough great songs on Gameshow that it’s worth listening to. The band could have very easily churned out some songs in the same style as their first two albums – Tourist History and Beacon – but they’ve instead opted for a change of direction. Though you can still tell that it’s Two Door Cinema Club (and the album’s lead single ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’ is deceptively like their old stuff) the majority of this album is very disco inspired. Yeah, it’s a bit of a jump from indie rock, isn’t it?

Thankfully the band change up their genre a lot more gracefully than some other artists I’ve reviewed, and on some songs it really works. Take ‘Bad Decisions’ for example – possibly my favourite tune on Gameshow. The band go pretty full-on with the falsettos and funkiness on this track, and it’s pretty damn infectious. It’s just the sort of song that you want to dance to and sing along to. More than any other track on the album it demonstrates how good Two Door Cinema Club can be at making this sort of music. Yeah, the disco style isn’t hugely original but the band do it well enough on this song that it doesn’t matter.

But ‘Bad Decisions’ is only the second track on the album (and the first to adopt this style), and by the end of Gameshow the whole disco vibe really begins to drag. The second half of the album in particular suffers greatly from having little variety. While some of the songs from this part of the album aren’t awful, they all sound the same, and they all seem to fade together. It’s also a shame that Gameshow’s closer ‘Je Viens De La’ is probably the worst of the bunch. There’s literally nothing about this song that makes it stand out.

Luckily the first half of the album is significantly better, and this is because of the variety it has. Though ‘Bad Decisions’ and ‘Ordinary’ carry the album’s general disco style, the first half also has the more classic Two Door Cinema Club sounding ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’, the almost R&Bish ‘Lavender’ and the more rock-y ‘Gameshow’. This last one in particular is a highlight, featuring some of the more personal lyrics on Gameshow about the band dealing with the fame that came with the success of their first two albums: ‘I’m a Lynchian dream / I’m made of plasticine’. Trimble’s vocals on this track are also great, with their unhinged feel acting as a nice contrast to the smooth falsettos that crowd most of the songs.

Gameshow as a whole is a great album with some great songs. The band fail to reach the heights of their previous albums (there’s nothing as good as ‘Cigarettes in the Theatre’ or ‘Sun’ here), but that’s all right. Plus, you have to give them props for experimenting – even though they went for a pretty generic style. It’ll be interesting to see where they go next.

Essential Songs: ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’, ‘Bad Decisions’, ‘Gameshow’.

Book Review: Un Lun Dun (2007) by China Miéville

The more of China Miéville I read, the more I find his books to be a mixed bag. Perdido Street Station and The City and the City? Possibly two of my favourite books ever. Kraken and The Iron Council? I’m kinda ashamed to admit that they’re two of the only books I haven’t been able to finish. Neither of them are downright awful, they’re just missing something… Maybe I’ll return to them eventually.

So obviously I was kind of apprehensive when it came to reading Un Lun Dun. But I’m happy to say that it’s another great Miéville read – great in a different way from his other books, but still great. As a YA novel, it’s basically China Miéville does Neil Gaiman.

Two friends, Zanna and Deeba, find themselves thrust into the weird and imaginative city of UnLondon (or Un Lun Dun). It’s a place filled with ghosts, talking books, karate rubbish cans and killer giraffes – anything is possible there. However, an evil force known only as the Smog plans to destroy both UnLondon and London (Zanna and Deeba’s home), and, with Zanna being labelled as the chosen one, it’s up to her and her friend to save both cities.

The problem with reviewing this novel is that it’s difficult to go into too much detail about why I love it without spoiling it. China Miéville does a terrific job of subverting conventions in this book, tiptoeing around clichés very carefully. And when he does use clichés (such as ‘the chosen one’), he does a great job of eventually turning them on their heads. Un Lun Dun does a great job of analysing groan-worthy conventions in novels, films and even videogames, which I think is a pretty great thing for a YA novel to do. You know, teaching young people that really when it comes to stories, there aren’t really any set rules.

Beyond twisting conventions, the novel also feels original just due to how damn creative it is. It’s just exploding with great ideas – overflowing with them. Like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, it almost feels a bit stuffed at times – there’s enough ideas here to fill a few novels – but somehow it works. From a guy that makes clothes out of literature to a talking book that’s having an existential crisis, there’s never a dull moment. This isn’t a short novel – 500+ pages is a lot – but even when I started to get a bit fatigued with Un Lun Dun towards its end, I still remained impressed with the steady flow of fun ideas. (How about windows with spider legs?)

I only had a couple of problems with the book. In addition to it being a little too long, the tone sometimes feels a little bit muddled. There’s not really anything wrong with swearing in YA novels at all, but there are times where Un Lun Dun feels like it’s aimed at school children and other times where it feels very adult. This is only a small blemish on what is a very good book.

If you’ve never read a Miéville book before, there isn’t a better place to start. This book is fun and creative, and it’s just an absolute joy to read, even at its worst.

Album Review: Stay Together (2016) by Kaiser Chiefs

Remember Employment? That was a pretty good album. Singles such as ‘I Predict a Riot’, ‘Everyday I Love You Less and Less’ and ‘Oh My God’ were (and still are) great, energetic, catchy songs. They were so infectious that it was hard to hate them even if you tried to.

The Kaiser Chiefs’ sixth album, We Stay Together, is almost certainly not going to be remembered in the same way. To get straight to the point, there’s absolutely nothing on the album that comes anywhere close to the quality of those three songs I mentioned. And it’s not because the band have done a genre u-turn – jumping abruptly from Indie Rock to straight up Pop – it’s just that the songs featured are clichéd and bland. Bland, bland, bland.

Let’s start with the album’s two singles, ‘Parachute’ and ‘Hole in My Soul’. I think I can safely say that these are the worst two songs on the album – at least lyrically. The chorus for ‘Parachute’ is perhaps the most horribly cringey and soppy thing I’ve ever heard: ‘If we’ve only got one parachute / You know, I’d give it to you’. The opening lyrics to ‘Hole in My Soul’ are similarly underwhelming and bland: ‘Strike up the band / Give yourselves a great big hand’. I know Kaiser Chiefs have never been lyrical geniuses, but there used to be a certain level of cleverness to their words. These lyrics are so clichéd it hurts. I know I ragged on Bastille for using clichés, but they still managed to pull together some good songs with some good instrumentations. Kaiser Chiefs don’t really do that.

It’s really impossible to view this album as anything else other than the band selling out. I know, I’m not overly fond of that term either, but it’s true. It doesn’t feel like they’re making the music they want to make – Ricky sounds incredibly bored on some of the tracks – but instead what they think is going to sell. As bad as they are, the two songs I mentioned do have the makings of mindless number one pop singles. I hated myself a little bit for getting ‘Parachute’ stuck in my head – but that’s the sort of song it is.

Another issue with this album – too many synths. There’s nothing wrong with synths, of course, but I dunno… They just aren’t used interestingly at all, and seem to smother all other instruments in the songs. It seems like every band evolves in a synth based direction these days, but some just manage it better than others. For example, with artists like Tame Impala and Wild Beasts it felt like a natural evolution of their sounds, building on their previous work… It doesn’t really feel like that here. By replacing all their instruments with synths, simplifying their lyrics and abruptly swapping genres all at the same time it feels like Kaiser Chiefs have lost everything that once made them a band worth listening to.

I suppose this is the part where I mention the album’s good (?) – or less bad – aspects. Like I said, it’s catchy in places, which can be seen as the album achieving its goal, and some of the songs aren’t completely awful. ‘Press Rewind’, ignoring its horrible opening (in which we’re repeatedly told that the band makes pop music now), is quite a bit of fun – and Ricky even seems to be enjoying himself. The opener, ‘We Stay Together’, also grew on me the more I listened to it. It hasn’t got much going for it other than a nice groove, but sometimes that’s all you need.

I could talk for a lot longer about the things I dislike about this album – like the incredible nothingness that is ‘Indoor Firework’ or the unbelievably cringey chorus on ‘Why Do You Do It To Me?’ – but there’s not really much point. This album isn’t worth your time. If you want to listen to Kaiser Chiefs, listen to their old stuff. If you want to listen to pop music there’s much better stuff out there. If you want to listen to soppy music there are many better songs available than the ones on this album. There’s no reason to listen to Stay Together, and I feel kinda bad for saying that because I’m sure some people worked hard on it. But really, don’t bother with this album.

Essential (or least bad) Songs: ‘We Stay Together’, ‘Press Rewind’, ‘Still Waiting’.

Book Review: Back to Moscow (2016) by Guillermo Erades

Guillermo Erades’ debut novel has a lot of sides to it – it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the changed position of Russia after the fall of communism in the country; it’s about classic Russian literature; it’s about subverting literary conventions… Most of all though, it’s about growing up and entering adulthood. At heart it’s a classic coming-of-age story.

Martin, the protagonist, isn’t a likeable character – but he isn’t supposed to be. An English exchange student living in Moscow, he spends all of his nights out at bars and clubs with his expat friends trying to pull. Throughout the novel we see him have plenty of relationships, treating only a fraction of the women he sleeps with well. He’s selfish and self-centred – even if he seems to be oblivious to it almost all of the time.

And it’s this obliviousness, really, that fuels the novel. Erades examines a lot of cultural issues surrounding Russia during the time that Back to Moscow is set – primarily the position of women in the country – but filters them through the mostly oblivious gaze of Martin. As an Englishman, everything comes easy to him in Russia; he can get a high paying, low effort job with easy, he can spend his days doing nothing and he can blag away the university work he isn’t doing with little consequence. But it’s the Russian women he meets that have tough lives – something he doesn’t seem to understand.

His ex-long-term girlfriend, Lena, for example, is forced to get involved with prostitution in order to get to where she wants in life. As she explains to him, there are very few ways for a Russian woman in Moscow to earn enough money to have savings. An employer that is likely to pay an English man incredibly well is also likely to pay a Russian woman incredibly poorly. Martin can’t understand why Lena does what she does, because despite the fact that they live in the same city, their experiences of it are so completely different.

There’s a lot to Back to Moscow – too much to cover. It is also really heavily interested in Russian novels and short stories – Chekov in particular – and their structures and morals. It also gives an incredible amount of insight into a culture I must admit I didn’t have much interest in before. This is one of those novels that resists being analysed in a straightforward way; there are too many sides to it – it’s the sort of book that keeps you thinking. Oh, and it’s also pushed me to get into Russian literature. I’ve had a Chekov short story collection sat around for ages, and now I’m finally going to give it a read.

I highly recommend this book, not just for its interesting characters, but for all the interesting things it talks about. In addition to being a great novel, it’s also a great gateway into Russian culture and literature.

Review: Wild Beasts at Motion, Bristol (28/09/2016)

 

I feel like Wild Beasts specifically chose Motion to perform in due to its ‘rougher’ feel compared to Bristol’s other popular venues like the O2. Boy King has a rough, seedy vibe to it, and the place that the band perform in – and how they perform – reflects this.

I think I was more excited for this gig than any other one this year. Not just because Boy King is a great album, but because Wild Beasts have an incredible back catalogue of songs as well. All of their albums are great for different reasons, from the over-the-top flamboyant Limbo, Panto to the low key and sensual Present Tense.

But before Wild Beasts, there were two support acts – Ardyn and Money (who just might have the hardest to Google band name ever). I only knew one Ardyn song going into the gig, ‘The Valley’ (which sounded great live), and thought they delivered a great set. They have a nice folksy style, and I’ll definitely be looking up some more of their stuff in the future.

Money were pretty incredible as well. Frontman Jamie Lee has a mesmerising quality about him, and really managed to hold the audience’s attention well. Their songs have a nice, loose unstructured feel to them… It felt like they were playing songs around a campfire in the middle of the night rather than performing in what was essentially a night club. The only issue I had with these two bands is that they kind of felt like odd choices for supporting Wild Beasts, having very folksy styles compared to the headliner’s more electronic, synth-based sound.

Wild Beasts opened their set with ‘Big Cat’, which sounded huge live. All of the songs on Boy King sound like they’re designed to be played live, and this concert only confirmed that. ‘Big Cat’ and ‘He The Colossus’, two of my least favourite songs from the album, ended up sounding best at the gig. ‘He The Colossus’ in particular was fantastic, exploding into a loud, brash guitar solo at its end. The solo sounded good on the album of course, but live it’s just on another level.

The first half of the set leaned heavily on old songs – something I can’t really complain about. Two Dancers hits ‘Hooting & Howling’ and ‘We Still Got the Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’ got great reactions from the audience and rightly so. I found it admirable that Hayden Thorpe still sung the songs with so much passion even after playing them for so many years. Other classics like ‘Mecca’ and ‘Bed of Nails’ also sounded great live, with an extra bit of oomph being added to them to reflect the band’s new style. ‘Wanderlust’ – maybe the band’s biggest hit – got lost in the set a little bit, and really felt like it should have been saved for the encore. Still, it sounded great.

Another easy highlight was ‘Lion’s Share’, the opener from their third album Smother. I really didn’t expect the band to break this one out, and it didn’t really fit in that well amongst all the much louder songs, but it didn’t fail to create a round of deafening applause. It’s maybe the simplest, most stripped down song Wild Beasts have in their library – placing all the weight on Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s duelling vocals – and ended up being a nice change of pace.

As old songs were the focus of the set’s first half, the second half was made up of some of the best tracks from Boy King. ‘Tough Guy’ was great as expected – Hayden even concluded the song with a ‘Fuck yeah’ – ‘2BU’ was as haunting and sinister as its album counterpart and ‘Celestial Creatures’, my personal favourite from the new album, sounded fantastic with its otherworldly-sounding synths. I was a little underwhelmed by ‘Alpha Female’, ‘Get My Bang’ didn’t really carry the oomph I think the band were hoping for, and it was slightly disappointing that they didn’t play ‘Dreamliner’, (or anything from Limbo, Panto) but these small blemishes are forgivable in what was a great show. They of course rounded things off with their classic ‘All the King’s Men’, which demonstrated that Tom is every bit as good a vocalist as Hayden. A really brilliant show overall.