Review: Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect (2017) by Sundara Karma

Sundara Karma’s debut album is packed with solid indie rock songs. From the roaring opening track ‘Young Understanding’ to the melancholy closer ‘The Night’, all the songs here are good. Even the more filler-y tracks on the album have things going for them.

But… (You were all waiting for this ‘but’, weren’t you?) But I guess the problem I have with Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is that it doesn’t have anything incredibly distinctive about it. Let’s be honest, there are a hell of a lot of ‘indie rock’ bands out there. While Sundara Karma are very far from being as bland as some of them – like Catfish & The Bottlemen – I still don’t think this album feels quite original enough to be considered great.

As a result, I’d say the best songs on this album are the ones that feel distinctive. ‘Happy Family’ is probably my favourite track, slowly building as it goes, being carried along by a beat that almost sounds like a chugging train. ‘Lose the Feeling’ stands out to me just due to the weird imagery on its chorus: ‘I’ve found the door and I’m kinda hoping / To use my head and crack it open.’ It’s not an incredible bit of writing, but it’s odd… which gives it personality.

Though as I said, even the less unique songs are solid. ‘She Said’ is a fantastically catchy song that’s just bursting with energy. ‘Olympia’ is powered by Oscar Pollock’s vocals, with the hesitant way he delivers the opening lyrics setting the tone for the song: ‘Oh no / Olympia says she loves me’. ‘A Young Understanding’ and ‘Loveblood’ act as a fantastic one-two punch at the beginning of the album, the energy from the first song carrying effortlessly over to the second one. Like I said before, none of the songs here are really that weak. Even the lesser ones, like ‘Watching from Great Heights’, are easy to enjoy.

Sundara Karma have done a great job of pulling together a cohesive and interesting debut album… Though it doesn’t have the same spark as some of my favourite debut albums from the past few years. I dunno, maybe I’m being a little bit overly critical. Sundara Karma, I think, just need to find their voice a little bit more – which they’ll hopefully do by their next album. Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is only a good album rather than a fantastic one – but there are definitely glimmers of greatness in it.

I guess we’ll just have to see what they come out with next.

Essential Songs: ‘Happy Family’, ‘She Said’, ‘Loveblood’.

Review: I See You (2017) by The xx

I’ll admit it: I’ve never been the biggest fan of The xx. While I thought their debut had a few great tracks (‘Intro’, ‘VCR’, ‘Crystallised’) a lot of it just kind of faded together. None of the songs were particularly bad, but some were definitely forgettable. I had a similar reaction to Coexist, which was stronger in many ways, but also weaker in some too… Like the first album though, it definitely had some really great tracks (mainly ‘Angels’).

So here we are… I See You. The album’s lead single ‘On Hold’ peaked my interest due to being, well, a lot livelier than what we’ve come to expect from The xx. The track didn’t really cover any new topics for the band – heartbreak once again – but it seemed like they were having a bit more fun than usual, trying to be adventurous. Though I think it’s almost entirely down to the production work of Jamie xx, the song is just a lot more memorable than most of the tracks off the band’s first two albums, with the instrumentation being less sparse and muted.

Luckily this sense of fun is present in a lot of the songs on I See You. Opener ‘Dangerous’ is perhaps the most upbeat song the band have ever churned out, being stuffed to the brim with catchy hooks. Like ‘On Hold’, the instrumentation is more adventurous than that found on the band’s past two albums – featuring horns (horns!) and siren sounds among many other things.

On most tracks, it is the instrumentation that really brings things to life. Croft and Sim’s vocals are as strong as ever, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t really do anything they didn’t do on The xx’s other albums. The backing vocals on ‘Lips’ elevate the track incredibly, and paired with the almost tropical instrumentation, it sounds unlike anything else The xx have put out. The stuttering instruments on ‘Say Something Loving’ add some strength to what is a pretty standard xx affair, and on ‘Test Me’, the track is almost entirely handed over to Jamie xx, with the vocals playing second fiddle to the many layers of synths.

I’m happy to say that the band even succeeds in making the album’s quieter, more standard xx songs stand out. ‘Performance’ and ‘Replica’ come to mind, them being great showcases for Croft and Sim’s vocals respectively. They also feature some of the strongest lyrics on the album (though I wouldn’t go as far to say that the writing is ‘great’.)

While I wouldn’t call any of the songs on I See You bad – each of them stands out in some way – there are a couple that get lost in the mix a bit. ‘Say Something Loving’ is a track that’s difficult to get excited about, and similarly ‘A Violent Noise’ and ‘Brave For You’ are a bit on the bland side. Like on the band’s last album, Coexist, the songs on this one suffer from having lyrics that are a bit on the broad side. The band avoids concrete descriptions, instead keeping the characters they play in each song vague and without any real sense of personality.

Ultimately, I think this is an album that’ll please existing xx fans and those who might not have enjoyed their previous albums very much. It’s a big leap forward for the band instrumentally, even if not much has changed when it comes to vocals and lyrics.

Essential Songs: ‘Dangerous’, ‘Lips’, ‘On Hold’.

Review: A Weird Exits (2016) by Thee Oh Sees

I went into A Weird Exits not knowing what to expect, having listened to none of Thee Oh Sees’ previous albums (there are eleven in my defence) and having only skimmed one or two reviews. I would also say that the style of music on the album is a little bit outside my comfort zone as well… So it’s weird that I ended up loving this album as much as do.

A Weird Exits only features eight tracks, but this is a strength rather than a weakness. With so few songs, each of them feels well-rounded and unique… Though it’s obvious that they all belong to the same band/album, no two sound the same. ‘Gelatinous Cube’ is high-energy and off-the-wall, ‘Craw out from the Fall Out’ is a spaced-out eight-minute slow jam and on ‘Jammed Entrance’ it sounds like the band have handed the vocals over to a robot… (You have to hear it to get what I mean.) At only 40 minutes, the album understands that less is more (unlike some other albums… *cough* Starboy *cough*) and tries to make each of those minutes count.

Thee Oh Sees’ music has a grimy garage rock feel to it – like I said, out of my comfort zone – and the cover pretty accurately represents the messiness and weirdness the album exudes. It’s when the band indulges most in this griminess that the album is at its best – like on the opening track, ‘Dead Man’s Gun’, which features a beautifully messy guitar riff. It’s definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album, contrasting messy and clean incredibly well. The dream beat remains steady and grounded throughout the song while many of the other instruments go completely off the wall.

Other favourites include ‘Jammed Entrance’ – a funky robotic jam – and ‘The Axis’, which can only be described as anti-love song, with its break-up lyrics contrasting with its waltzing almost romantic pace: ‘Don’t you know, how much I don’t love you?’ ‘Gelatinous Cube’ is another incredible track – and easily the one that most deserves the title of ‘messy’. The opening guitar work reflects the title of the song well, pulling to mind the image of oozing gelatine/slime. After this the song bursts into a fast pace, passing through several different phases in its short three minutes. Like I said, Thee Oh Sees don’t waste any time on this album.

If I’m honest, all of the songs on this album are great and they flow incredibly well together. Despite its messy feel, this is a really well-rounded piece of music that’s definitely worth giving a listen.

Essential Songs: ‘Dead Man’s Gun’, ‘Jammed Entrance’, ‘Gelantinous Cube’.