Album Review: Hang (2017) by Foxygen

After releasing two fantastic albums (Take The Kids Off Broadway and We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors…) and one of questionable quality (…And Star Power) in the span of three years, Foxygen took a well-earned break. In fact, for a while it seemed like the band was done for good, with there being a lot of on-stage conflict between its two members (Sam France and Jonathan Rado) and even a ‘farewell tour’ taking place. And yet here we are with album number – Hang.

The album sees the band return to their roots somewhat, re-embracing the showtunes-y and theatrical vibe of their debut. However, where that album had hardly no budget at all (Foxygen weren’t even signed when it was recorded), Hang has an incredibly lush and grandiose production. It shows the band exploring their interest in grand theatrical music in a way that they couldn’t really on Take The Kids Off Broadway, featuring a wide array of orchestral instruments. We’re talking horns, saxophones, violins, cellos, flutes, oboes… It sounds absolutely gorgeous and grand.

But what’s great production without good songs? Hang is only a mere eight tracks long, but each of those tracks bursts with personality. They’re also all arranged incredibly well, making good use of the orchestra the band have at their disposal. Just look at the album’s lead single, ‘America’; it’s a track that’s overblown and dramatic in a way that can only be achieved with an orchestra. It showcases pretty much every instrument, with the best part being the particularly crazy instrumental section that sits in the middle of the song.

Despite the overall theatrical style of the album, Foxygen manage to dabble with a couple of genres across the album. ‘On Lankershim’ has a definite country music vibe to it, ‘America’ features a notably jazzy interlude and ‘Avalon’ is a jaunty piano-led tune with an opening that feels like it belongs in an old Western movie saloon. Sam France’s vocals are also great, with him adopting a bombastic tone that reflects on grandiose style of the album. There’s less variety with his vocals than on past Foxygen albums, but it didn’t bother me too much – mainly because he sounded like he was having a lot of fun.

If there’s one area that the album falters slightly it’s lyrics. Foxygen mainly play it safe, straying pretty deep into cliché territory at times, demonstrated most clearly on the album closer, ‘Rise Up’: ‘And believe in yourself / And follow your heart, if nothing else’. Though it seems like Foxygen are very much aware of how cheesy their writing can get. Just like the album’s big bombastic instrumentation, the lyrics are grand and broad. On tracks like ‘America’ it’s obvious that the band are just fooling around a bit with their use of clichés. The song opens with them rolling off a string of tired, wholesome American phrases – ‘Merry Christmas from the pines / Hallelujah, amen’ – making it obvious that the band are critiquing and making fun of their country rather than praising it. It’s pretty difficult not to read the song’s lyrics in a political way.

Despite the writing’s general cleverness through its simplicity, I can’t help but miss the personal and surreal lyrics that dominated the band’s first two albums. Hang is an eccentric album, sure, but there’s nothing on here than exudes the weirdness that made me love Foxygen in the first place. It’s not the band’s best album, but it’s also not their worst one… And with all the orchestral ear candy on offer it’s hard to complain too much. It’s obvious that the band had a lot of fun putting this album together and as a result it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

Essential Songs: ‘Follow the Leader’, ‘America’, ‘On Lankershim’.

Three Gig Reviews

I’ve been to a few gigs recently and thought it might be worth rounding up my thoughts on them briefly. Writing up individual blog posts for each of them would’ve been a lot of faff, so I thought I’d stick to one post and keep things short and sweet.

Dutch Uncles (09/03/2017, The Fleece in Bristol)
I’ve wanted to see Dutch Uncles live for a while – having missed them on their last tour – and this show at The Fleece (a really beautiful venue) didn’t disappoint.

Big Balloon is one of those albums that feels like its songs have been designed to be played live (basically it has a very live feel to it) and as a result, all of them sounded pretty great. ‘Baskin’’ and ‘Same Plane Dream’ made for a fantastically energetic one-two opener, while lead single ‘Big Balloon’ closed the main set out in a fun way. Despite the album only being out for a month, the band played the new songs with a level of precision that suggested they’d been playing them for years. In the sense that the performances were all pretty seamless (perhaps with the exception of ‘Streetlight’, which lead singer Duncan Wallace abruptly restarted after messing up the lyrics.)

The old songs were solid too, with particularly highlights being the xylophone fuelled ‘Threads’, first album classic ‘Face In’ and ‘Flexxin’, which was accompanied by some of the finest dad-dancing I’ve seen in a while. ‘Dressage’ also made for an incredible closer, with it cumulating in the band making as much noise as they could.

Fantastic gig overall, really impressed.

Diamond Family Archive (13/03/2017, Bread & Roses in Plymouth)
A friend of mine has been pushing me to check out this band for a while, so I decided to go along to one of their gigs. It’s hard to really describe the sound of Diamond Family Archive properly, so I’m just going to drop a link to some of their music at the bottom of this page. They’re a fantastic two-man act, playing a dozen instruments between them, using looping techniques to make the band feel a lot bigger than it is.

The performance was split into two sets, both great. The first set started out subtly with some gentle guitar playing and drumming before things eventually built up and got louder. However, throughout the band retained a chilled-out almost ambient vibe that captured the whole audience’s attention. It was hard at times to tell when one song ended and another began, but that was part of the beauty of the performance; everything flowed naturally. I will definitely make an effort seek out one of the band’s albums now… If you’re looking for something a bit different – they really don’t sound like any other band I can think of – then definitely check these guys out.

Glass Animals (15/03/2017, O2 Academy in Bristol)
I was a pretty big fan of Glass Animals’ last album, How To Be A Human Being, and was glad to finally get to see the songs off it performed live (even if they missed off one of my favourites from the album, ‘Mama’s Gun’).

Frontman Dave Bayley has a wild energy to him that just made the whole performance a total joy. From opener ‘Life Itself’ all the way to the last song of the encore, he never seemed to stand still for a moment. You can really tell when an artist is enthusiastic about their music, and Bayley definitely is. You’ll never see anyone else sing ‘pineapples are in my head’ with such conviction…

It was great to see Glass Animals perform some of the songs from their first album Zaba (‘Gooey’ in particular was great) but it was really the band’s newer songs that stole the show. And with the first album having a very different feel from their second one – having a strong jungle theme to it – the songs from it didn’t fit into the set too smoothly. Pretty much every song from the new album sounded great, though some of the main stand outs were ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ (maybe the best song the band have put out), the crazed ‘Other Side of Paradise’ and main-set closer ‘Agnes’, one of the band’s more downbeat, emotional songs.

Basically, Glass Animals were a lot of fun live. If you like the energy on their albums, rest assured that their live performances are just as crazy, if not more.

 

Album Review: Semper Femina (2017) by Laura Marling

Laura Marling is six albums deep into her career and has yet to put out anything less than fantastic. From the light-hearted and fun Alas, I Cannot Swim to 2015’s electric Short Movie, she’s proven herself to be one of the most consistent singer-songwriters around today.

Unsurprisingly, Semper Femina is another great release, and potentially one of Marling’s all-time bests. In many ways it goes back on the evolution seen on her last album, where she embraced the electric guitar pretty heavily, instead going down a quieter route. In fact, it might just be the most low-key album Marling’s ever put out. Take lead single ‘Soothing’, for example: unlike the main singles for her last two albums – ‘Master Hunter’ and ‘False Hope’, both great songs – the track has a quiet, intimate sound to it. Instrumentally, it doesn’t feature much more than a guitar, a quiet drum kit, some jangling bells and a couple of soaring violins on the chorus. And it’s fitting, given that the lyrics Marling delivers feel like they belong to an intimate conversation with a lover: ‘I need soothing / My lips aren’t moving’.

And ‘Soothing’ pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the album. The theme here is womanhood (semper femina translates to ‘always woman’) and each track addresses it in a quiet and subtle mode. ‘The Valley’ has an intimate sound, similarly to ‘Soothing’, being a beautiful and delicate track about a woman’s loss. ‘Wild Fire’ sees Marling return to the more American influenced tones of Short Movie, and it succeeds through her dry lyrics, addressing a close female friend: ‘You always say you love me most when I don’t know I’m being seen / Well, maybe someday when God takes me away, I’ll understand what the fuck that means’. ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Always This Way’ are similarly strong, making for a pair of melancholy songs about lost friendship.

‘Wild Once’ is perhaps Semper Femina’s only weak link. It’s not a bad song per-say, but is the only one on the album that feels like its filling time. Luckily it’s followed up by a fantastic closing trilogy of tracks.

‘Next Time’ is another introspective/melancholy song – Marling does seem to beat herself up a little bit on this album – and features some lovely guitar work as well as some lovely violin work. Marling’s vocals, as she tries to prove that she can change, are incredibly gorgeous. Basically just an incredibly pretty and moving song. ‘Nouel’ is similarly wonderful – being possibly the most personal song on an album full of personal songs. The closer, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ features Marling finally busting out her electric guitar again and to great effect. The majority of the song roars along and Laura’s lyrical delivery is once again fantastic: ‘Nothing, no, not nothing, no not nearly’. But fittingly to the album, the song closes with a gentle and impressive acoustic guitar solo.

Semper Femina reinforces Marling’s identity as an incredibly talented and an incredibly consistent musician. While I was hoping for Marling to follow the direction that Short Movie hinted at, I’m glad that she took this route with the album instead. It’s one of her bests and easily my favourite album of the year so far.

Essential Songs: ‘Soothing’, ‘Next Time’, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’.

Book Review: The Blot (2017) by Jonathan Lethem

It’s not often that I come across a novel that squanders its potential so much as The Blot. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. This novel has so many fantastic elements to it – the first two thirds or so had me hooked – and yet some head-scratchingly bad ones too. What should have been a great novel about a professional gambler’s struggle with identity is instead bogged down with under-baked subplots and strange shifts in focus.

Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler with pretty much nothing to his name but a suit and a backgammon board. He meets with wealthy clients all over the world, playing them and trying to take their money. However, his world is torn apart when he discovers that he has a tumour in his brain. In order to have any chance of living, Alexander is forced to get in contact with an old associate who he had no plans of ever seeing again…

This plotline carries the book along quite nicely for the first couple hundred of pages, moving languidly yet remaining compelling. Jonathan Lethem does a great job of developing Alexander as a character, offering the reader fantastic scene after fantastic scene, slowly revealing him to be a broken man who tries to hide behind a suave persona. The drawn-out scene in which Alexander meets a German client for a game of backgammon is particularly fantastic. Credit to Lethem, he does an incredible job of making the reader invested in the backgammon game of a character they’ve only just met.

And the story continues to be great even when it moves past its gambling focus (which is abruptly abandoned) and onto Alexander’s illness. We see him rekindle a relationship with a wealthy old school friend in an attempt to use him to pay for the surgery he needs to save his life. The relationship between these two characters is easily one of my favourite aspects of the novel. The power dynamic between the two of them is an interesting one and something that I wish the author would’ve explored more.

And Lethem’s seeming refusal to explore the story’s most interesting elements more fully ties directly to my issues with The Blot. About halfway through the novel it becomes incredibly clear that he made it up as he went along, causing the whole thing to, well, go off the rails pretty majorly.

There are so many problems with the novel’s second half that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start by getting the novel’s weirdest aspect out of the way: the protagonist has mind reading abilities. Right, okay. That could be interesting, but the way that Lethem explores it is totally baffling, with it conflicting majorly with the overall tone of the novel. We only see Alexander read minds a couple of times in The Blot, it never ties into anything or gets resolved and it always feels like it’s in the background of the story. It feels completely unnecessary, almost existing in its own bubble in the novel, only receiving a few stray mentions. Why bother with it?

The novel’s other major problem is that Lethem just throws too many plotlines at the wall in the last 100 pages or so, clogging the story up with uninteresting details and stealing away time we could be spending with one of the more interesting plotlines. Our protagonist gets a goofy pop-culture-reference dropping sidekick, he’s given a new love interest (a woman who appears previously in the novel for about five pages right at the beginning), he becomes a political activist of sorts, he gets a job at a burger restaurant… All within the last 100 pages. And as you can guess the result is a jumbled mess.

By the end, the novel’s interesting aspects are all but gone and The Blot just becomes a massive chore to read. It’s a real shame, and it makes me wonder why someone didn’t step in and tell Lethem that he was running a potentially incredible novel into the ground for no reason at all.

Album Review: Infinite Worlds (2017) by Vagabon

Despite its brevity, Vagabon’s debut album has a lot packed into it. Across its eight tracks, Laetitia Tamko touches on a variety of topics – from failing relationships to losing someone’s cat – and does so in a variety of musical styles. ‘Minneapolis’ has a fierce electric guitar driven indie rock sound, ‘Alive and A Well’ features no instruments other than an acoustic guitar, ‘Cold Apartment’ is a stripped back ballad with a pulsating drum beat and ‘Mal à L’aise’ is swirling and synth driven… Also it’s sung in French. There’s a lot of variety here, and yet, somehow, all of the songs feel like they fit together.

If there’s one recurring theme on this album, it’s feeling small. As Tamko sings about in the opening track, the wonderful ‘The Embers’, it’s feeling like a small fish in a world full of sharks. It’s about wanting to escape and wanting to have your voice heard. (I don’t normally bring politics into my reviews, but it’s an album that feels particularly relevant given that you-know-who has recently taken the presidential office in America.)

There are some incredibly powerful moments on this album that are the result of Tamko’s fantastic voice as well as her lyrics. ‘Cold Apartment’, the highlight of the album for me, offers her most powerful performance… Her voice swells with emotion on the song as she reflects on a relationship that she thought would last: ‘And we sit on my cold apartment floor / Where we thought we would stay in love.’ The lyrics are moving as it is, but the vocal delivery is what really powers this song. The instruments surrounding Tamko’s voice are fairly minimal, because it’s only her voice that’s really needed to drive the emotion of the song home.

‘The Embers’ is another song where Tamko’s voice really shines. It builds as the song progresses, tracking the grow in confidence of the protagonist. At first it’s quiet and almost hesitant (‘I feel so small’) eventually building towards an almost shouting finish where she confronts those that make her feel small (‘You’re a shark that hates everything’). Other songs like ‘Fear & Force’ and ‘Alive and A Well’ are driven by the vocals, and while the instruments are solid on most songs, it really does feel like they’re mainly in service to Tamko’s voice.

Infinite Worlds is a really promising debut from a band that still seems to be working out its sound. There’s a lot of different styles on this album and a lot of experimenting – which is definitely not a bad thing. It’ll be really interesting to see where they go next.

Essential Songs: ‘The Embers’, ‘Minneapolis’, ‘Cold Apartment’.