Album 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’.

Album 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’.

Book 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.

Album Review: The Far Field (2017) by Future Islands

With their last album, it felt like Future Islands had perfected their synth-pop formula, delivering some of their most emotional ballads yet. From break-out single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ to the moody and growling ‘Fall From Grace’, Singles was filled with fantastic songs. As the album’s title suggests, pretty much all of them were up to ‘single’ standard.

So where next? On their fifth album, The Far Field, Future Islands don’t try to mess with their signature sound too much, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Though far from being Singles 2, the album does feature a number of songs that could have fit snuggly onto the band’s past releases. Like I said, this is a weakness and a strength. On one hand, some might find the The Far Field to be a little bit on the samey side, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – right?

The first half of the album in particular shows the band staying squarely in their comfort zone. Songs like ‘Time On Her Side’ and ‘Ran’ are instant classic Future Islands tracks, featuring powerful vocal performances from Samuel T. Herring as well as some pretty moving lyrics: ‘What’s a song without you / When every song I write’s about you?’ ‘Cave’ is another stand-out on the album’s first half, with Herring unleashing the fiercer side of voice, which is always great. It’s not the first time that Future Islands have put out a song about heartbreak, but the passion they put into it makes it feel incredibly fresh.

On the album’s second half, we do get to see the band try out some new styles. ‘Candles’ stands out through its slow pace and groovy bassline, being perhaps the most intimate song the band have released; ‘Shadows’ is an emotional duet, featuring guest vocals from Debbie Harry of Blondie; ‘North Star’ has a jumpy charm to it, with Herring reeling off lyrics with more upbeat enthusiasm than usual: ‘But if the sun don’t shine / Well, then the birds won’t sing.’ These songs are still very obviously ‘Future Islands’ songs, but these experiments with style help keep the album from feeling too samey.

One thing that sets The Far Field apart from its predecessor is that definitely feels more like a complete set of songs. At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, it sounds more like a journey. While Singles felt like, well, single after single, this album builds up momentum slowly. Opener ‘Aladdin’ takes its time to get going, fading in slowly, with the next couple of tracks slowly raising the intensity.

There is also more thematic unity among the songs. As shown by some tracks’ titles – ‘Beauty of the Road’, ‘Cave’, ‘Through the Roses’ – as well as the album’s title, The Far Field, it is focused on the natural world. On ‘Aladdin’, Herring sings about the ‘the dew of the field’ and on ‘Ancient Water’ he dreams of being ‘patient like the forest’. On the album, the outside world is shown as something that promotes love – on many tracks Herring sings of exploring the world with his loved one – and something that hinders it, with other songs like ‘North Star’ being about the large distance between the protagonist and his love.

Whether you’ll love The Far Field or not will depend largely on how you feel about the band’s previous albums. This isn’t the album that’s going to convert you to loving Future Islands, but if you like what they’ve been doing up this point then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It may be a bit cheesy at times, but there’s no denying that a lot of heart has gone into every track.

Essential Songs: ‘Ran’, ‘Cave’, ‘Candles’.

Album Review: Heartworms (2017) by The Shins

I have no experience of The Shins beyond this album, I thought I should confess that. Normally, I’m in the opinion that you need to be aware of a band’s previous releases for context-reasons when writing a review… But at the same, a good album is a good album, right? And I think there’s something valuable in approaching some releases without having to trail through a sizeable discography before-hand. That’s what I’m doing with Heartworms.

So, onto the album itself; The Shins’ fifth release is a fun one, with tons of bouncy-sounding synths and distorted back-up vocals. The most popular tone on Heartworms is unabashedly goofy, as shown by tracks like ‘Name For You’ and ‘Cherry Hearts’. There’s a cartoonish vibe to the instrumentation and vocal delivery and at points it seeps into the lyrics as well: ‘You kissed me once / When we were drunk / It left me spinning on my heels’. With that last line in particular and it’s easy to imagine James Mercer as a cartoon character.

This style dominates most of the album and most of the tracks that adopt it work. ‘Name For You’ is probably my favourite track, featuring a catchy hook and some off-beat but fun instrumentation. Though I will admit that the song feels overstuffed at certain points, with its chirping bird sound effects and ‘wah wah’ backing vocals. And this overstuffed feel is common throughout the album. By the time Heartworms reaches its halfway point, the album’s eccentric weirdness begins to drag – especially on the songs ‘Rubber Ballz’ and ‘Half a Million’. At times it feels like the band are just filling their songs up with strange sounds – like high-pitch backing vocals – for the sake of it. And it gets annoying.

There are some more low-key songs here – ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Mildenhall’ in particular. On these songs, James Mercer turns the focus onto himself and the sparse instrumentation reflects this. ‘Mildenhall’, a song where Mercer sings about when he first got into music, there are hardly any instruments present other than an acoustic guitar. Its basicity makes for a nice break from the cluttered songs that fill out most of the album. The lyrics are a bit corny – as is Mercer’s delivery of them – but I can sort of forgive that.

There are a few other solid tracks towards the album’s end, such as ‘Dead Alive’, but to be honest, there’s nothing truly fantastic on Heartworms. If anything, I’d call it just fine. It delivers a few good songs but none that truly wowed me. I think I might dip into some of the band’s other work out of curiosity, but this album doesn’t paint them as much more than a middling indie band. This isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t a great one either; it just kind of is.

Essential Songs: ‘Name For You’, ‘Cherry Hearts’, ‘Mildenhall’.

Book Review: Kruso (2014) by Lutz Seiler [2017 Translation by Tess Lewis]

Lutz Seiler’s award winning novel focuses on Ed, a German university student, who decides to run away from his life and live on the remote island of Hiddensee after a tragic family incident. In the 1980s – when the novel is set – the island was home to a number of artists, writers, musicians and forward-thinkers. After getting a job working on the island, Ed discovers that he isn’t the only one who has gone there to get away from his problems – making friends with the brilliant yet troubled restaurant owner Kruso. And as their relationship develops things slowly begin to spiral out of control.

Kruso is my first encounter with Seiler’s work and I found it to be a pretty enjoyable read. Tess Lewis seems to do a solid job of translating Seiler’s writing, keeping the author’s quirky personality intact. The novel definitely has a specific style to it – almost dream-like. Though the world of novel is definitely not fantasy-based, Seiler constructs Hiddensee to feel like it exists separately from the real world. From the free-loving hippie islanders to the strange rituals of Hiddensee, there’s an otherworldliness that represents the island as a place that plays by its own rules. Things happen and people act in ways that you wouldn’t expect them to in normal society – everything’s a bit more melodramatic and odd.

It’s a level of quirkiness that works better than it should. The novel feels melodramatic in a way that reminds me of a lot of nineteenth century novels; Ed spends his spare time speaking to an elderly fox, Kruso writes deep and emotional poetry, an ice cream man tries to commit murder… It functions on a more dramatic plane of reality than most novels these days do. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword at times. It definitely helps the novel stand out in comparison to other books I’ve read recently, but Seiler’s writing does border on irritating at times. Kruso in particular becomes a bit unbearable through his melodramatic behaviour.

The story of the novel progresses slowly, following the increasing intensity of the relationship between Ed and Kruso. They bond over the tragic events that led them to where they are and isolate themselves from everyone else in the process. While I enjoyed the narrative of novel, I found myself more interested in the island of Hiddensee itself. The author explores the various cultural aspects of Hiddensee in the 1980s extensively and it acts as an incredibly interesting backdrop for the story. Like many good modern novels (such as The Stolen Child which I recently reviewed) it uses an interesting setting to boost up what is fairly archetypal story.

Overall I’d say that Kruso is good, just not great. It’s not the sort of novel that’s going to blow your socks off, but it does have a handful of fantastic moments. More than anything, it kind of just made me want to just pick up a few non-fiction books on Hiddensee.