All posts by Elliott Simpson

Album Review: Everything Now (2017) by Arcade Fire

Everything Now is Arcade Fire’s worst album by a fair amount. But that doesn’t mean it’s an awful album.

Following in the footsteps of 2013’s Reflektor, Arcade Fire’s fifth album shows them further embracing an electronic/disco direction. Depending on how you much you liked Reflektor, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. While it was definitely a bit bloated (coming in at an hour and fifteen minutes ignoring the ten-minute secret song…), I felt the album featuring some of the band’s best material. Tracks like ‘Reflektor’, ‘We Exist’ and ‘Afterlife’, in my opinion, rank among Arcade Fire’s best.

While Everything Now certainly fixes some of my main issues with Reflektor (it’s nowhere near as long), it definitely isn’t up to the same standard. Even people who weren’t a fan of that album could say that it was gutsy and ambitious… In comparison, Everything Now to me is the band’s first release where it doesn’t feel like they’re pushing themselves.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Lead single ‘Everything Now’ is great; it’s a lot of fun, with an ABBA-esque piano riff and some great lyrics about consumerism. The chorus is also a lot of fun to sing along to. It’s easily the most radio-friendly song the band has ever put out – even some of my friends who aren’t into Arcade Fire have admitted to liking it – and that’s not entirely a bad thing. What it lacks in the emotional power of their earlier songs, it makes up for with pure enthusiasm (there’s no denying that the band sounds like they’re having a lot of fun on the song).

However, as good as the song is, it does signpost a lot of the issues I had with most of the album’s other tracks. Mainly the lyrics. Win Butler adopts a more cynical and almost dispassionate tone on Everything Now, shown more clearly on the album’s two other main singles ‘Signs of Life’ and ‘Creature Comfort’. Musically, these songs are pretty solid – nothing incredible, but fun – but lyrically they feel pretty lazy. On ‘Signs of Life’, Butler sings about the ‘cool kids stuck in the past’ in a cynical tone, almost looking down on them. It feels impersonal, unlike the band’s best work (just listen to any song off Funeral). The same can be said for ‘Creature Comfort’, which changes the focus to self-harm and suicide. Props to the band for choosing to sing about what can be quite a sensitive subject, but the way they go about it is just, well, a little bit baffling. Again, Butler’s tone feels incredibly passionless and flippant, and so do the lyrics: ‘Assisted suicide / She dreams about dying all the time’. Though I’m sure the band care about what they’re singing about, the song does feel like a bit of a shrug. (And some might argue that the line about the suicidal girl putting on their first record as she fills up the bath is a little unnecessary.)

This problem crops up a lot on Everything Now. And even when the lyrics aren’t cynical, they’re lazy instead. A lot of people have highlighted the album’s middle stretch (‘Peter Pan’, ‘Chemistry’ and the two Infinite Content songs) as its low point and I’d have to agree. The lyrics on these songs are pretty hard to defend, whether it’s the cheesy chorus on ‘Peter Pan’ (‘Be my Wendy, I’ll be your Peter Pan’) or the particularly aimless verses on ‘Chemistry’: ‘Go to the city, go the store / Ask for a loan from another bank’. Musically, these songs are all pretty weak as well (unlike the singles). However, I will admit that I have a slight soft spot for ‘Chemistry’, which despite having some of the worst lyrics on the album and a chorus that is repeated too many times, is fun to sing along to.

The problem with Everything Now is that a lot of its tracks have the potential to be great but fail because of a couple of bad elements. ‘Electric Blue’ is another track that suffers from this. The lyrics here are pretty strong (apart from the ‘na-na-na’ chorus) and the song’s disco beat is actually really great, but Régine Chassagne’s vocals completely ruin it for me. Her high pitch falsetto vocals are just unpleasant and incredibly disappointing when considering how good her work is on some of the band’s older songs (see ‘In the Backseat’ and ‘Sprawl II’).

The last couple of tracks on the album are a saving grace in a way, definitely capturing the classic Arcade Fire feel that most of the album is missing. ‘Put Your Money On Me’ is built around a clever metaphor and features some great crooning vocals from Win Butler. Unlike the album’s other love songs (‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Chemistry’), the emotion here feels genuine. The same can be said for ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, the album’s last proper track. It’s Everything Now’s quietest moment and maybe its most powerful one.

Closing things out is ‘Everything Now (continued)’, a track which feels inconsequential. It kind of feels like a victory lap of sorts, with the soaring strings reprising the central riff of the album’s title track. The band did a similar thing on The Suburbs, closing things out with a return to the album’s title track, but there it felt earned. Here it doesn’t.

Though I’ve been focusing mainly on Everything Now’s negatives, I don’t think it’s an awful album… I’ve definitely heard many worse releases this year. It just feels awful in the context of Arcade Fire’s discography. There’s a handful of songs I really like on Everything Now and even some aspects to some of the weaker songs that I like as well…  But the album just feels pretty inconsequential overall. And that’s not what I expected from a band that’s put out some of my all-time favourite albums.

Best Tracks: ‘Everything Now’, ‘Put Your Money On Me’, ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’

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’.

Album Review: Crack-Up (2017) by Fleet Foxes

There are few albums I’ve been more anticipated for this year than Crack-Up. Coming six years after the band’s last release – the stellar Helplessness Blues – it was difficult to predict what direction the Fleet Foxes would take next; the lead single from the album, ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’, a sprawling almost 9-minute track, suggested that it would at least be an ambitious direction if nothing else.

Ultimately, Crack-Up feels like a natural progression from Helplessness Blues, with Pecknold’s work growing more complex and experimental both in terms of music and lyrics. The album opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ (I guess you could say he’s gotten more experimental with his song-naming as well…) sets the tone immediately, a gorgeous and complex track. There’s a lot going on in this song, with it passing through a seemingly endless amount of phases, and it can come across as a bit of mess on first listen. The lyrics also aren’t as immediately accessible as those on the band’s older albums, being a lot more cryptic. (Though still gorgeous: ‘I was a child in the ivy then / I never knew you, you knew me’.) It did take a while for the song to really click for me – it’s one of those songs that really demands your attention. But once you wrap your head around it, there’s a lot to love about it.

The following tracks aren’t quite as complex, though they still show the band pushing out into new territory – mainly lyrically. While the band’s last album was very introspective and focused on Peckhold’s doubts and depression, Crack-Up shows Fleet Foxes exploring other subjects such as police shootings (‘Cassius, -’) and gender equality (‘- Naiadas, Cassadies’). Both songs are fantastic; instrumentally they don’t do much that we haven’t seen from Fleet Foxes before – though ‘Cassius, –’ does open with a stuttering synth – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The band are able to achieve a lot with a couple of guitars, a bass and a drum set, as the latter track shows.

‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ can be seen as the album’s centrepiece and is perhaps the most ambitious track on Crack-Up. Musically, there are enough ideas in it to fill several songs. Like the album’s opener, the track twists and turns, passing through multiple phases – and like that song it took me a few listens to wrap my head around it. The refrains on ‘Third of May’ are particularly gorgeous, as well as the long, drawn-out outro. Lyrically, the track details Robin Peckhold’s friendship with bandmate Skye Skjelset and the distance felt from him in the years between albums. There are also a lot more lyrical threads in this song as well – and Peckhold has even gone so far as to annotate the track line by line himself. ‘Third Of May’ leads smoothly into the much simpler, ‘If You Need To, Keep Time on Me’ – a track which deals with the same central theme but in a much more straightforward manner. It’s one of the quieter moments of Crack-Up and another of my favourites. It shows that despite the album’s general complexity, the band can still put out a song that’s simple and moving.

The second half of the album is slightly weaker than the first – though that’s more to do with how incredibly strong Crack-Up’s opening stretch of songs is. A few songs in the second half, such as ‘Mearcstapa’ and ‘Fool’s Errand’, get lost in the mix of the album a little bit, not particularly standing out. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some incredible moments in the album’s back half; ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’ recalls Helplessness Blues lyrically, with its first half addressing Peckhold’s feelings of isolation and paranoia, finding himself unable to trust anyone. The second part of the song (the ‘June’ part) then feels slightly like a pep-talk, with Peckhold trying to build himself up again after wallowing in his emotions in the first part.

The track ‘Crack-Up’ closes the album incredibly well. The song’s title can be seen as both personal and political – referring to Pecknold’s feelings towards himself as well America’s current political situation. In one of the album’s most interesting moments, the song closes with the sound of Pecknold running down a flight of stairs. It’s a moment that encapsulates the album – at least lyrically – incredibly well, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. It might represent Pecknold simply wanting to escape from everything, the evidently messed up world, or equally, it might just show that he’s finally ‘cracked up’ – tired of spending so much poring over his feelings, just saying ‘screw it’ in a way.

Crack-Up is a gorgeous and meticulously put-together album. It’s not the sort of album that hits you immediately, and you’ll likely find that it’ll take quite a few listens to even scratch its surface. This lack of accessibility, especially compared to Fleet Foxes’ past releases, may end up isolating some of the band’s more casual listeners, but I’d say that the album is an incredible success. The band have really achieved something incredible here.

Best Tracks: ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’, ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’, ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’.