Album Review: God First (2017) by Mr Jukes

It’s been a couple of years now since beloved indie rock band Bombay Bicycle Club was put on hiatus. In January, we found out what bassist Ed Nash had been up to with the release of The Pace Of Passing, the debut album from his new project Toothless (which I wasn’t particularly a fan of), and now with God First we know what frontman Jack Steadman has been working on.

It’s tempting to call Mr. Jukes Steadman’s ‘solo project’ though that’s only true in the same sense that Gorillaz is a Damon Albarn solo project. God First is basically one big collaboration album, featuring appearances from musicians such as Charles Bradley, BJ The Chicago Kid and De La Soul (just to drive home that Gorillaz comparison a little bit more). In some ways, it feels like a natural progression from Bombay Bicycle Club’s last album, So Long, See You Tomorrow, with there being a heavy focus on sampling and a large amount of influence from Eastern music. And, in other ways, it’s very different from Bombay Bicycle Club – having a much heavier jazz and soul focus than Steadman’s other work.

Lead single ‘Angels/ Your Love’ probably shows this best. The first half of the funky track – easily one of the album’s best moments – is propelled forward by a chorus of trumpets and chanting gospel vocals, while the second half features a fantastic feature from BJ The Chicago Kid. The song’s lyrics aren’t anything particularly original, but BJ gives the hook enough enthusiasm that it’s easy to overlook this: ‘Would you be my love?’ The song is just full of energy; it’s infectiously fun.

Just about every track has something noteworthy or interesting going on in it, though some moments are definitely better than others. Opener ‘Typhoon’ does a great job of building up anticipation with its ominous vocals, ‘Grant Green’ features a pretty passionate performance from Charles Bradley and ‘Leap Of Faith’ features some great interplay between De La Soul and Horace Andy. ‘When Your Light Goes Out’ might be my favourite song on God First though, featuring some gorgeously sweet vocals from Lianne La Havas and Steadman (one of the few times he actually takes on lead vocal duties on the record). It feels like the perfect climactic moment for the album.

There are only a few places where the instrumentation doesn’t really work for me on God First, such as on ‘Somebody New’; the synths that come in after the chorus really don’t mesh well with the track’s gentle strings, just feeling a bit awkward. However, the album’s main weak point for me is its lyrics. Given that Jack Steadman is behind them – who wrote some truly great lyrics for Bombay Bicycle Club – there are some pretty bad clichés on here, like on ‘Somebody New’ when we’re told that ‘life ain’t like no box of chocolates’. In other places, the lyrics just feel kinda lazy, like the refrain on ‘Magic’: ‘Stop your madness, stop your sadness’. Of course, there are some decent lyrics here and there but nothing up to the standard of Steadman’s previous work.

I’d also say the album has a bit of an issue in terms of flow (reminding me again of the last Gorillaz album). Because the lead vocalist changes from track to track, it sometimes felt like I was listening to a playlist instead of an album. As a result, the album works best for me in individual moments rather than as a complete album, featuring a handful of really strong tracks. If you’re just looking for ‘more Bombay Bicycle Club’ though, you will be disappointed. Mr Jukes is something completely different and that’s not a bad thing.

Best Tracks: ‘Angels/ Your Love’, ‘Magic’, ‘When Your Light Goes Out’

Album Review: Moonshine Freeze (2017) by This Is The Kit

This Is The Kit’s 2015 album Bashed Out in many ways felt like a breakthrough for the band. Not only did it expand their fanbase pretty dramatically, but it also felt like the band’s most consistent and moving release yet. Featuring great tracks like ‘Silver John’ and ‘Bashed Out’, it had a gorgeous melancholy feel to it. Kate Stables’ gentle vocals paired with some dark and cryptic lyrics really made the album a stand out of that year for me.

Fast-forward a couple years and Stables’ is back with This Is The Kit’s fourth full-length release: Moonshine Freeze. The lead singles for the album had me really excited for its release (‘Moonshine Freeze’ showcasing the band’s more playful side, while ‘Bullet Proof’ its darker one) and luckily it doesn’t disappoint.

In many ways, the album feels like a solid progression from Bashed Out, both instrumentally and lyrically. Instrumentally, it explores ideas that the band toyed around with on their last EP Rusty and Got Dusty, featuring a lot of brass and synthesisers. The brass instruments in particular feel like a perfect fit for This Is The Kit’s world, adding a gorgeous extra layer to some of the songs. Particularly fantastic is the beautifully jazzy saxophone solo on the outro to ‘Hotter Colder’. Synths at first might seem like an old choice given Stables’ folky style, but the band more than justify bringing them in. On tracks like ‘Moonshine Freeze’, the synths add an almost alien texture that blends into the band’s off-beat sound well. The title track has a pretty staggering number of instruments featured on it (guitar, synth, drum machine, xylophone, trumpets, among others…) but it still somehow manages to avoid feeling cluttered.

Lyrically, the album feels like a step forward for the band as well. Bashed Out felt a lot darker and more personal than the band’s earlier efforts and Stables continues down this path on Moonshine Freeze. I mean, you just have to look at some of the song titles: ‘Empty No Teeth’, ‘Riddled with Ticks’… There are still some playful-sounding tracks on this release (‘Moonshine Freeze’ and ‘By My Demon Eye’ almost feel like children’s rhymes) but most of the album’s highlights are definitely its darker moments. On ‘Two Pence Piece’, Stables sings cryptically about the aftermath of a violent incident – ‘Blood in my mouth tasting of coin’ – while ‘Show Me So’ seems to reflect on the illness of someone close to her: ‘The taking in of toxins, the vomiting’.

The album’s opener, ‘Bullet Proof’, is another easy highlight. It shows the band at its most stripped back, starting off with a drumbeat, a guitar and Stables’ voice. It might seem gutsy to open the album with such a quiet and tender moment (especially when there are quite a few energetic songs on here, like ‘Moonshine Freeze’) but it does a great job of distilling This Is The Kit’s appeal down to the basics. Like a lot of the songs on Moonshine Freeze, Stables avoids being explicit about what she’s singing about though the references to herself definitely give it a personal feel: ‘There are things to learn here, Kate’.

Moonshine Freeze is a great album and one that I’m sure I’ll return to many times this year. I still slightly prefer the band’s last album (which I feel flowed a bit better) but you still shouldn’t miss out on this one. If you haven’t listened to This Is The Kit before, this album is a really great place to start.

Best Tracks: ‘Bullet Proof’, ‘Moonshine Freeze’, ‘Two Pence Piece’

Book Review: Darke (2017) by Rick Gekoski

Nowadays, every novel seems to need a hook. Each one needs an interesting premise that can be summed up in a sentence or two and is likely to make the potential reader think, ‘Huh, I wonder how that’ll play out…’

For Darke, it’s this: an elderly former-lecturer shuts himself off from society, refusing to interact with his friends and family, even removing the letterbox from his front door. It’s an interesting set-up, sure, and it did make me pick up the book… But it’s ultimately a lot more interesting as an idea than as an actual piece of writing. It isn’t that compelling reading about James Darke, locked up in his house, isolated from society, and it’s when the novel moves on from this slightly gimmicky premise that it gets truly good.

Dr James Darke is a protagonist who tries to resist being liked by the reader in any way. He’s opinionated, prejudiced and acts unpleasantly towards everyone he meets. This is part of why the first half of the novel is so hard to read. Trapped in his house, with only him as company, the novel felt claustrophobic to me at times. We get to hear him ramble on about T.S. Eliot, his various ailments and the stains in his underwear. It’s uncomfortable. Though this is probably the effect that the author was aiming for, it doesn’t make the book any less unpleasant (and dull) to read at times. In this section of the novel, James Darke is relentlessly unappealing and it’s only when the novel opens up beyond his immediate world and the confines of his house that he begins to become sympathetic.

Most of the book’s best parts take place outside of the house the protagonist locks himself in. It’s when Rick Gekoski begins to reveal Darke’s relationship with his wife and daughter that the novel begins to become great. As Darke begins to reflect on his relationship with his wife – and eventually, after leaving the house, tries to reconnect with his daughter – he becomes a much more three-dimensional character. In many ways, it shows that the version of him that dominates the first half of the book, the version he tries to promote through his journal, is really just a façade. He isn’t heartless and self-centred, just broken. (In many ways, he feels like a slightly more complex version of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, which I don’t think is accidental given the character’s obsession with that author…)

If anything, the novel proves that a good story doesn’t really need a gimmicky set-up to be interesting. It just needs good characters. Only when Darke stops trying to be clever, abandoning its gimmicky premise, and instead tries to tell the simple story of a man trying to reconnect with his daughter, does it really come into its own.

Album Review: Something To Tell You (2017) by HAIM

You can rely on the Haim sisters to drop the catchiest album of 2017 so far. Something To Tell You doesn’t stray too far from the Fleetwood Mac and Michael Jackson tinged style of HAIM’s last album – Days Are Gone – but that doesn’t stop it from being great. If the album doesn’t exactly push the band forward, it least shows them continuing to do what they do best.

HAIM are one of the best pop acts around at moment and you only have to give their 2013 debut to see why. Bursting with incredible singles, like ‘The Wire’, ‘Don’t Save Me’ and ‘Falling’ (one of the few songs that I find impossible not to groove to…), to me it was pure pop perfection. Catchy, accessible and a lot of fun. Sure, it didn’t do much that other bands hadn’t done before, but it just captured that 70s/80s pop sound so well. Something To Tell You in many ways feels like Days Are Gone 2.0; the band don’t really progress much from the sound of their debut and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

The reason why it’s a good thing is probably obvious – if you loved the band’s debut as much as I did then you’ll find a lot to love on this new release. Some of the songs on here, like singles ‘Want You Back’ and ‘A Little Of Your Love’ are pure fire and are pretty much guaranteed to be on repeat for the rest of the year. The album’s other main single ‘Right Now’ has received a bit of a polarising reaction – mainly because the studio version is quite a bit weaker than the live version the band released just before it – but it still might be my overall favourite track. I’m just a sucker for a slow build. There are plenty of great deep cuts as well, like ‘Ready For You’, which has a great groove to it (and a second half that reminds me of ‘Faith’ by George Michael), and the thumping title track.

It should also be obvious why the lack of progression is a bad thing… The issues I had with their debut feel amplified now that the band have repeated them again. One of my main problems are the lyrics which, while not awful, definitely feel a bit too broad and bland. It never feels like HAIM get nitty and gritty and personal with their lyrics, which is a problem. It makes the songs easy to relate to, sure, but I think it also creates a sense of distance between the band and the listener. It never feels like we really get to know any of the band members through these songs.

My other complaint about the album is one that I’ve seen crop up in a few places – particularly in reference to ‘Right Now’. The band released a pretty raw live version of the track before the studio one, and by comparing these two recordings of the song, Something To Tell You’s main problem is immediately obvious: there’s too much going in some of these tracks. While the songs themselves are incredibly solid, a lot of the tracks feel like they had a little too much time spent on them in the mixing room, with random bleeps and bits of vocal distortion hanging around in the background a lot. The album would’ve benefitted a lot from just being stripped back a little bit.

But despite this, Something To Tell You is still pretty fantastic. There are a lot of great songs here (many I didn’t even get around to mentioning like ‘Nothing’s Wrong’ and ‘You Never Knew’) and it’s a great listen from front to back. It’s the sort of album that you can’t resist dancing around your room to.

Best Tracks: ‘Want You Back’, ‘Little Of Your Love’, ‘Right Now’

Album Review: The Murder Of The Universe (2017) by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Following hot on the heels of February’s excellent Flying Microtonal Banana, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s second album of the year might just be their most ambitious release yet. Murder Of The Universe takes King Gizzard in a more narrative-focused direction, featuring spoken word passages which tell the story of the end of the world, while the band also go heavier musically than they ever have before.

Basically, on paper, the album sounds like an absolute dream – but in reality, it underwhelmed me quite a bit. And it pains me to say that. Over the past few years, King Gizzard have proven themselves to be one of the most consistently great bands around, dabbling with a new style on each album and mastering it incredibly well; the dreamy prog rock of Quarters, the low-key acoustic driven sound of Paper Mache Dream Balloon, the ear-meltingly heaviness of Nonagon Infinity… For me at least, Murder Of The Universe feels like a break in this hot streak. (Though to be honest, when a band is putting out music at the pace these guys are, I think they’re allowed to have a miss every now and then.)

The album is split into three equally heavy sections – each telling a different part of the story of the end of the world. The first of these sections, The Tale of the Altered Beast, is the one I have the most issue with. Though the section is split up into parts, it is really just one long 20 minute song. That isn’t a problem in itself, but the song hardly seems to progress at all over those 20 minutes – continuously circling back to the same lyrics and riffs. What starts as a fantastic track quickly begins to wear thin, and things just get a little be monotonous by the time you reach ‘Altered Beast III’. One of the fantastic things about Nonagon Infinity was that, despite all the tracks blending in together perfectly, each one had its own unique feel to it. There are so truly fantastic heavy moments in The Tale of the Altered Beast, but it just goes on too long.

The second and third sections fare better, with the second easily being the album highlight. The Lord of Lightning Vs. Balrog centres around two tracks, both of which are great. ‘The Lord of Lightning’ is particularly an album highlight, featuring a fantastic wall of sound. It also has strong lyrics – with a few call-backs to their earlier albums thrown in. The spoken word segments on this track hinder it slightly, getting in the way in a few places (in fact, it would be nice to have a complete version of the album free of narrators.) ‘The Balrog’ is a little bit repetitious, but the song is a lot of fun and has a great sound to it.

The final section is likely to be the most divisive one – leaning most heavily on narration. It definitely feels like Han-Tyumi & The Murder of the Universe tells the most complete story; an android that craves to die (and, uh, vomit, as we see on ‘Vomit Coffin’) but ends up causing the death of the universe. It’s the band at their most ridiculous, and while it was nothing spectacular, I did enjoy the band’s goofiness of this section. There are also a couple of fantastic stand-out tracks here – mainly ‘Digital Black’, which is perhaps the heaviest the band has ever gone.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t underwhelmed with this album, but perhaps I just had my expectations too high. It’s not bad – far from it – but it just doesn’t come close to reaching the band’s previous highs. And with King Gizzard & Lizard Wizard having promised at least two more albums this year, I don’t think I can really complain.

Best Tracks: ‘The Lord of Lightning’, ‘The Balrog’, ‘Digital Black’.