Hoops – Routines

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’.

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Paramore – After Laughter

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’.

China Miéville – The Last Days of New Paris

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.

Gorillaz – Humanz

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’.