Album Review: Truth Is a Beautiful Thing (2017) by London Grammar

London Grammar fans have been waiting quite a bit for the follow-up to their 2013 album If You Wait. The band’s debut, in my eyes, was great – featuring a slew of solid tracks, such as ‘Wasting My Young Years’, ‘Hey Now’ and ‘Strong’. The main selling point of the album was of course Hannah Reid’s incredible vocals which dominated pretty much every song among the minimalist instrumentation. If You Wait did suffer a little bit from a lack of variety, but the album had enough going for it that I think the band just about got away with it.

On Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, I don’t think they do. I wasn’t expecting London Grammar to shake up their sound in any significant way, but this album almost feels like a step back for the band. Every song on here – apart from a couple of exceptions – amounts to Hannah Reid crooning her love advice over a few piano notes and a very restrained bit of guitar work. The band were very minimalist before, but it feels even more so here – I’d be tempted to say that on some songs like the title track it doesn’t even sound like a band anymore; it’s really just all Hannah Reid.

There are a few good songs here, though I wouldn’t say any of them match up to If You Wait’s best moments. ‘Rooting For You’ is a highlight, with Reid’s vocals being on top form and their being a couple of nice lyrics. Though it’s hard to know if I favour this song simply because it’s the opener – coming before the monotony of the album settles in. ‘Oh Woman Oh Man’, another favourite, features a nice contrast between its subdued verses and soaring choruses. I also really liked ‘Hell to the Liars’; while its lyrics aren’t particularly inspired – ‘Here’s to the things you love’ – the song features a gorgeous outro, which, instrumentally, is the easily the band’s least restrained moment on the album. It takes a while for the track to get there, but the pay-off is worth it.

The second half of the album is easily a lot weaker than the first, with there being a definite dip in quality after ‘Everyone Else’. Tracks like ‘Non Believer’ and ‘Leave the War With Me’ just come across as incredibly meh. Hannah Reid’s vocals are always strong, if not a little bit bored-sounding in some places, but the instrumentation continuously has a muted and restrained quality to it. Truth Is a Beautiful Thing is an album that succeeds in delivering more of what you’d expect from London Grammar but, especially after a four year break between albums, it just feels incredibly safe. I just can’t help but wish that the band took a few more risks with this release.

Best Tracks: ‘Rooting For You’, ‘Oh Man Oh Woman, ‘Hell to the Liars’.

Album Review: Ti Amo (2017) by Phoenix

Phoenix have always excelled at writing fun and synth-laden indie pop. They’re not the deepest band or the most the experimental – you could hardly label them with that word at all – but they’ve always been good at what they do. While some bands feel the need to shake up their sound with every new release, Phoenix, it seems like to stick to the ‘If it ain’t broken’ adage.

2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was in many ways a defining album for them, being incredibly fun and featuring killer singles such as ‘Lisztomania’ and ‘1901’. While their earlier albums weren’t bad, Wolfgang was definitely a lot more focused and consistent. The album that followed it Bankrupt! was quite a bit weaker, feeling slightly like a rehash (while not being as consistently good). Now the band is back again four years later with Ti Amo – an album that falls somewhere in between their last two in terms of quality…

Though the album takes the band in a more bass heavy and even more synth heavy direction, I’d still say it’s pretty much Phoenix being Phoenix. Recorded all the way back in 2014, Ti Amo takes a lot of inspiration from Italian culture – just look at the song titles – and overall feels like a homage to romanticised European countries (like, obviously, Italy.) It’s Phoenix’s most unabashedly romantic album and that’s saying something for a band that’s always been unabashedly romantic. Opener ‘J-Boy’ (which stands for ‘Just Because Of You’) sets this romantic tone, with the song’s main character singing of all the things he’s done for his love. It features some of the album’s best lyrics and is bursting with personality. The synths on this track are particularly great – pretty much exploding on choruses.

The following two tracks, ‘Ti Amo’ and ‘Tuttifrutti’ have the same disco feel as the opener – though they definitely lose a lot of ‘J-Boy’ lyrical strength. ‘Ti Amo’ pretty much gets a pass from me due to its fantastic bass-y groove, while ‘Tuttifrutti’ is a bit more so-so. The sickly-sweet synths are a bit too much on this song and Thomas Mars’ enthusiasm doesn’t stop the lyrics as coming across as more-or-less gibberish.

Much of the album sticks to bass and synth stylings of these three tracks and the band do a commendable job of keeping things feeling fresh… The album never quite reaches the same highs as its opener ‘J-Boy’, but there’s still a lot of other great songs. ‘Goodbye Soleil’ is downright gorgeous – Thomas Mars’ French singing on the choruses is a particular highlight – ‘Fleur De Lys’, despite some ridiculous lyrics (‘I’m a Siberian tiger terrorising your neighbour’) has a lot of energy to it, and ‘Via Veneto’ has a great spaced-out melancholy feel to it. I also really enjoyed ‘Role Model’, which has a definite darker tone compared to most of the album. Though the lyrics keep the subject-matter fairly vague, the song feels like it has a political edge to it, with Mars singing about an untrustworthy ‘role model’ figure.

Closer ‘Telefono’ brings back the album’s romantic tone, focusing on Mars’ real life marriage with actress Sofia Coppola. Though the song is a bit cheesy – well, a lot cheesy – it does a good job of summing up what the band try to achieve with Ti Amo is a whole: creating a fun, romantic and summery record. It isn’t a deep album and I don’t think it’s supposed to be. Ti Amo isn’t an album that pushes Phoenix forward in any way but rather plays to their strengths. It’s by no means an incredible album, but it is a fun one.

Best Tracks: ‘J-Boy’, ‘Ti Amo’, ‘Goodbye Soleil’.

Album Review: The Age of Anxiety (2017) by Pixx

In my book, weird is always good when it comes to music. I can appreciate a bad album that at least tries to do something different more than one that plays it safe. Pixx’s debut, The Age of Anxiety, however, is a great album that tries to do something different – boasting a unique voice and style that’s really easy to love.

Hannah Rogers – or Pixx – has a sound that calls up some of my favourite female artists, such as St Vincent and Björk. Her vocals have an undeniable strangeness to them, frequently sounding androgynous and intentionally stilted. On the track ‘Waterslides’ in particular, her voice almost reminds me of a text to speech program – I promise I mean this in a positive way – moving along at a speedy and almost robotic pace. Her unusual vocal style provides her songs with a certain uniqueness, even if she does bust out a more traditional singing style on other tracks like ‘Mood Ring Eyes’ (which is also fantastic).

Opener, ‘I Bow Down’, sets up Pixx’s sound incredibly well, creating an unnerving yet compelling mood. The track starts off with a repeated piano riff, building slowly, before eventually introducing Hannah Rogers’ almost chanting vocal performance. Through Rogers layering her vocals on top of themselves several times, the track almost conjures an image of a strange cult of clones, chanting the song’s lyrics: ‘I salute your kindness / I bow down to your good will’. This layering happens a lot on the album and it works most of the time. Listening to ‘Toes’, you can hear her singing at least four or five different things at the same time on the chorus. On other tracks, like the really fantastic ‘Grip’, she uses her voice almost like an instrument, adding strange textures to her songs.

There are plenty of fantastic songs on The Age of Anxiety. The aforementioned ‘Grip’ is perhaps the poppiest cut, boasting an incredibly catchy chorus and some fun almost jangly instrumentals. ‘Waterslides’ is another favourite of mine, being the most high-energy track with its bubbly drum machine beat and unusual vocal performance. Though the vocals on this track’s verses are particularly (intentionally) stilted, you definitely feel the emotion and sense of anxiety in them, hiding underneath the surface: ‘Now I’m walking round and round, it’s like a maze, I can’t get out’.

And given the album’s title, it’s not surprising that anxiety is a dominant theme here. On ‘Grip’, Pixx sings about not wanting to feel the need to grab on to everything she sees, while ‘The Girls’ is about the singer wanting to ‘dance like the rest of the girls’. It’s about the desire to perceived as normal – to fit in. The album’s slower songs, like ‘The Girls’ and ‘Mood Ring Eyes’, have a more delicate and emotionally bare feel to them than the more energetic tracks, but I’d argue they’re just as strong. A couple of them do get lost in the mix a little bit like ‘Telescreen’, but that’s mainly because the rest of the album is so strong.

The Age of Anxiety is a great fantastic tightwire act, managing to both be accessible and undeniably weird. While not all the tracks are fantastic, they all have something unique about them – something to make them stand-out. This album isn’t bland or samey by any stretch and surely that alone makes it worth a listen.

Best Tracks: ‘I Bow Down’, ‘Grip’, ‘Waterslides’.

Book Review: Hot Milk (2016) by Deborah Levy

A solid coming-of-age novel is a wonderful thing. The sort of book that reminds you that – no matter how old you are – it’s okay not to have everything entirely worked out in your life. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is one of the best modern coming-of-age novels I’ve read in a long time because of this. It succeeds where I’ve seen so many other books fail – having a protagonist that is incredibly human and, as a result, incredibly relatable.

At the core of the novel is Sofia, a twenty-something anthropologist, and her mother, who suffers from serious joint problems in her legs. The two of them have travelled to Spain, seeking the help of the supposedly brilliant Dr Gomez. Isolated from her life back in England, and trapped in a remote Spanish community, Sofia discovers a lot about herself – as well as her complex relationship with her mother.

Hot Milk is a novel about identity, focusing Sofia discovering who she is, and who she wants to be, through the relationships she makes while in Spain. The main appeal of the novel, to me at least, is its heroine’s fantastically well-defined voice. Sofia feels original yet relatable, and is incredibly easy to like. She’s the sort of protagonist that every reader can find a piece of themselves in. She fumbles through most of the novel – not being driven by a clear goal like most protagonists – bemoaning her laptop’s cracked screen and arguing with her mother.

It’s a joy to see the world filtered through her eyes. Like most great novels written in the first person, Hot Milk offers a unique viewpoint, with Sofia’s observations ranging from hilarious to depressing – though sometimes they’re both. Some of my favourite passages in the novel focus on Sofia’s relationship with her step-mother and father. Though the scenes draw a lot of comedy from the awkwardness of their relationship, it’s also heart-breaking. ‘Estranged parents’ isn’t exactly an original focus, but the novel handles it really well.

Hot Milk isn’t the sort of plot-intensive novel that keeps you on your toes with its many twists and turns; it tells a simple story that, at its core, is incredibly easy to connect to. It’s book with characters that feel truly alive – and that’s one of the best compliments I can pay any novel.

Album Review: RELAXER (2017) by Alt-J

I can confidently say that RELAXER is one of the oddest albums I’ve heard this year. Though, to be honest, odd is what I’ve come to expect from Alt-J; for a band so downright bizarre – they used turning a crisp packet inside out and licking it as a sexual simile on their last album – it’s weird to think that they’re in the BBC Radio 1 territory of popularity.

Too their credit though, despite hitting the big time with their first album, the band have refused to make their sound more normal or commercial, with each subsequent release being odder than the last. On RELAXER, their third album, this strangeness is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. On some tracks it works incredibly well, and on others, well… It just causes the songs to sound like an absolute mess.

‘3WW’, the opener, is the album’s high-point and perhaps the best song Alt-J have put out in their career so far. The band sings about a young man leaving home for the first time, and having his first sexual experience with two women. The song is slow-going at first, but features some gorgeous instrumentation and really lovely lyrics. The chorus is particular is fantastic, with Joe Newman singing of how ‘I love you’ have become ‘three worn words’ through their overuse in today’s society. It’s a slow and patient opener, but it definitely rewards the listener.

‘In Cold Blood’ is another highlight – though a lot more abstract than ‘3WW’. It’s hard to tell what the song is about entirely – the hook is literally ‘Pool, summer, summer, pool, pool, summer’ – but it’s got a sense of hyperactive energy that’s impossible not to love. It reminds me of some of best songs from the band’s debut, like ‘Breezeblocks’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’, and acts as a nice change of pace among RELAXER’s slower songs.

Two other songs that stand out from the album are ‘Adeline’ and ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. Like ‘3WW’, these are a slow and delicate songs. On ‘Adeline’, the band sing about a Tasmanian devil falling in love with a woman he watches swimming. It’s completely bizarre, but the band really sell it, with Newman’s vocal delivery being full of emotion and resignation – the devil knowing he can never be with this woman: ‘Ooh, I wish you well’. ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ is the band’s stab at a more folky song – being adapted from an actual traditional song. It’s filled with lush instrumentation as well as some surprisingly serious lyrics.

Despite these highlights, I felt like the band hit a few new lows on RELAXER in terms of quality. As well as featuring some of the band’s best tracks, it also features some of their worst ones… ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’ in particular. This song is especially awful, feeling incredibly thrown together with its lyrics about a sex hotel that can’t be described as anything other than nonsense. The vocals are also pretty grating. It doesn’t sit well among the album’s more delicate tracks, following the gorgeous ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, and feels like it’s there to just fill up the tracklist. With RELAXER only being eight songs long, this song’s inclusion feels like a particularly glaring mistake.

There were also a few other tracks I wasn’t too fussed about. ‘Deadcrush’ is about, well, the band’s dead crushes and again has a very thrown together feel to it. It’s not quite as bad as ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it earns its place on the tracklist. The two closing tracks ‘Last Year’ and ‘Pleader’, while pretty, both feel slightly too drawn out. And ‘Pleader’ just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the album and for me doesn’t work well as a closer. This track, along with ‘Hit Me Like That Snare’, created the sense that this album was just kind of thrown together. They didn’t have enough ideas to fill out a full album and so this just put out whatever they had lying around.

RELAXER, despite some highs, is a disappointing album. When I saw the band had opted to release a forty minute, eight track album, I hoped that it meant that this would be a more focused release than their previous ones. Instead, it’s pretty much all over the place. It’s definitely worth checking out RELAXER’s highlights – ‘3WW’ and ‘Adeline’ in particularly – but as an album it doesn’t work that well for me.

Best Tracks: ‘3WW’, ‘In Cold Blood’, ‘Adeline’.

Album Review: The Witch (2017) by Pumarosa

Pumarosa is a band I’ve been watching for a while, waiting almost vulture-like for them to drop an album. The Witch delivers on what I hoped their debut would be; featuring long atmospheric tracks, like their incredible debut single ‘Priestess’, as well as showing the band experimenting further with the sound shown on their early singles and EP. Basically it’s a great album filled with great tracks.

‘Dragonfly’, the opener is a smooth yet almost anthemic track, building slowly around a great metaphor. It’s not my favourite song on the album, but it makes for a great introduction to Pumarosa’s sound – described by the band as ‘Industrial Spiritual’. It bounces between delicate and roaring, led by singer Isabel’s incredibly captivating voice. The slow build used on ‘Dragonfly’ is a template for many of the songs on The Witch, and that’s not really a bad thing. ‘Priestess’ is the best example of this. When a song that’s seven and a half minutes long feels like a lot, lot less, you know the band are doing something right. Building from a humming synth and a repeated bass note, the track grows into one of the most danceable – and chantable – songs I’ve heard in a long time. It’s masterfully suspenseful, building up the audience’s anticipation before paying off tremendously.

While ‘Priestess’ is easily the album’s centrepiece, there are some other great long songs on here as well. The title track has a similar spiritual, almost tribal vibe, with Isabel singing of her ‘monkey hands’ and ‘building a fire’. The lyrics, I think, hold the song back slightly – being generally quite weak – but Isabel’s delivery of them helps it remain compelling. It definitely helps when a lead singer puts enthusiasm and personality into every word, and she does just that. ‘Lions’ Den’ is an even better track, putting even more emphasis on Isabel’s voice. The song starts off slow and stripped back, before exploding into a wall of sound around halfway through. However, it’s singer’s bitter, angry vocal delivery that makes the song so damn compelling.

Among these long, typically Pumarosa songs, there are also a few shorter tracks that show the band try on a few different styles. ‘Honey’ is a gloriously anthemic song about consumerism and global warming, chanting about how pointless so many of things we’re invested in are: ‘Events come and go / Like the waves of a fever’. Another favourite of mine on the album is ‘Barefoot’, which is perhaps the most stripped back the band gets, being built around a guitar and a punchy drum machine beat. Isabel’s Kate Bush-like delivery is again a large part of what makes this song so enjoyable, with her crooning vocals making it easy to connect with the story she’ll telling.

If there’s one noticeable dip on the album, it comes at the end. The last two tracks, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Snake’, while not bad, are really just fine in my eyes. ‘Snake’ in particular is underwhelming as a closer, lacking the energy that so many of The Witch‘s best tracks do. And, unlike ‘Priestess’ or ‘Lions’ Den’, it feels unnecessarily long. It’s as though the band were aiming for a grand finish but missed the mark. Despite this blip, I highly recommend taking a look at this album. These last couple of songs aren’t bad – it’s more that the high quality of the rest of the album makes them look so. There’s a lot to love here.

Best Tracks: ‘Priestess’, ‘Lions’ Den’, ‘Barefoot’.