All posts by Elliott Simpson

Pixx – Small Mercies

On her first album, 2017’s Age of Anxiety, Pixx (aka London-based musician Hannah Rogers) carved out her own niche in the pop world, crafting a unique sound with her androgynous vocals and a pristine production style. The album featured plenty of stand-out moments, with tracks like ‘Waterslides’ and ‘Grip’ blending big pop hooks with Pixx’s own brand of strangeness.

As great as that album was, her second, Small Mercies, is a step-up in just about every way. The production is fuller and more adventurous, the lyrics sharper and, as a project, it feels a lot more unified than Age of Anxiety which at times simply felt like a collection of songs.

The album kicks off with ‘Andean Condor’, it’s strongest track. Like Pixx’s best songs, it straddles the line between accessible and strange. It marries 80s-style production with off-kilter, feminist lyrics focused around the bird the song is named after (‘Mature males tend to be at the top of pecking order’). Everything comes together beautifully on the chorus, which features the album’s catchiest hook.

As with ‘Andean Condor’, the rest of the album has a certain 80s-inspired sheen to it. There are a few rockers scattered through the tracklist, like the screeching ‘Bitch’, but Small Mercies as a whole seems to be driven by smooth basslines, keyboards and drum machines. It’s a style choice that mostly pays off; the title track revels fidgety keyboard riffs and ‘Blowfish’ has the woozy, melancholy feel that belongs in an 80s high school movie. Only in a few places do Rogers’ influences become too apparent, such as on ‘Peanuts Grow Underground’ which sounds a little too much like Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’.

Pixx’s distinctive vocals and production style provide the album with an often-otherworldly feel, making it easy to overlook how grounded her lyrics are in the real world. On ‘Disgrace’, she addresses religion – particularly restrictive religious upbringings – while tracks like ‘Duck Out’ and ‘Eruption 24’ dance around the UK’s current turbulent political situation. Rogers is rarely direct; however, she does mention The Sun by name, accusing them of lying for fun – on one of the album’s two interludes.

Though Small Mercies doesn’t majorly falter anywhere, the album is front-loaded. The album’s most adventurous and interesting songs arrive early on and many of the tracks in the back half are slower and more stripped back. None of these slower songs are bad, but I think the album would’ve benefitted from having a few more energetic moments peppered in.

Overall though, Small Mercies builds on the strengths of Age of Anxiety, amplifying what made Pixx’s debut so strong. There’s a lot to enjoy on this album, so don’t let it slip under your radar.

Best Tracks: ‘Andean Condor’, ‘Disgrace’, ‘Small Mercies’

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NITELIFE Round-Up

I’ve recently been writing some articles for NITELIFE Magazine based in Bristol and thought it would be worth rounding up what I’ve written lately. Enjoy!

Review: Stella Donnelly delivers a stunning, socially-charged performance at Thekla
1

Interview: Mini Mansions make their Bristol debut at Dot to Dot 2019
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Review: Flamingods bring their delirious psych rock and disco to Exchange
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Big Thief – U.F.O.F.

For such a young band, it’s incredible how much great music Big Thief has put out. Formed in 2015, the band released their stunning debut, the boldly titled Masterpiece, a year later – an album solid enough to feel like a greatest hits collection. Their second album Capacity, released in 2017, was even stronger. A haunting collection of songs about outsiders and loners, it built on the strengths of their first album.

So U.F.O.F. arrives with plenty of anticipation surrounding it. It’s an album that I found puzzling at first. Unlike Masterpiece and Capacity, it doesn’t feature any big moments – it’s an all-around quieter, more subdued effort. Nothing here is immediate; it’s an album you need to let sit with you for a while, unfurling and revealing itself a little more with each listen.

This lack of immediacy is displayed most clearly in Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics, which are at their most abstract and unnerving on U.F.O.F. As the album’s title suggests, the lyrics have a fantastical edge to them, with elements of science fiction and magical realism creeping in on some of the songs. On the title track, Lenker says goodbye to her ‘UFO friend’, while on other songs like ‘Strange’ and ‘Magic Dealer’ there are references to fairies and magic mirrors.

While I do think the band lose something through their lyrics growing more abstract – the grounded details in songs like ‘Masterpiece’ and ‘Shark Smile’ are part of what makes them so moving – they do gain something as well. U.F.O.F. features some of Big Thief’s most vivid and evocative lyrical moments – I could pick out almost any line from the album’s title track (‘The best kiss I ever had is the flickering of the water, so clear and bright’.)  The lyrics in these songs are like puzzles, challenging the listener to piece together what Lenker is trying to convey. And despite the fantastical elements featured in most of the songs, the majority of them have a certain darkness to them; tracks like ‘Orange’ and ‘From’ feature some of the band’s most unsettling moments.

Musically, the band also take risks. There are no big centrepiece tracks on here – like Capacity’s ‘Mary’ – with every song maintaining a similar tempo and volume (apart from the intense ‘Jenni’). Initially, I found this disappointing; if you aren’t paying attention to the album, it can easily feel like one long song. However, repeat listens highlight how impressive many of these songs are. From the layers of glitchy vocal samples on ‘Strange’ to the subtly beautiful arpeggios that feature on many of the album’s tracks, there’s a lot to appreciate here. The songs feel delicate and intricately put together.

It’d be impossible not to mention Lenker’s vocals as well. They’re as gorgeous as ever, even as she pushes them to unsettling places at times. On ‘From’ in particular, it sounds as if she’s about to push her voice to breaking point, on the edge of a scream, before she reels it back in. Lenker’s use of her voice throughout U.F.O.F.  acts as a good metaphor for the album as a whole: it’s restrained, but always feels as though it’s teetering on the edge of a cliff. There’s an unsettling darkness lurking beneath even its brightest tracks.

U.F.O.F. is Big Thief’s most challenging album and perhaps their best. While it may not boast the same immediacy as Masterpiece or Capacity, it feels like the band have tapped into a sound that is truly their own.

Best Tracks: ‘UFOF’, ‘From’, ‘Jenni’

Foxygen – Seeing Other People

Few recent bands have been quite as frustrating as Foxygen. Their discography has been a bumpy ride up until this point – ranging from, arguably, one of the strongest indie rock releases of the ‘10s to bloated, baffling messes. Every album release is like taking part in a lucky dip; you never know what you’re going to get.

So where does Seeing Other People, the band’s fifth full-length release, fall on the Foxygen quality spectrum? Well, it’s a bit hard to say. While the album features some of the band’s strongest songs since We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors…, it also contains some of their weakest ones. It’s an album that, overall, feels rushed out of the door – as if the band got bored of working on it before it was finished. (The fact that the album received very little promotion and Foxygen aren’t touring it suggests that they and Jagjaguwar felt similarly about it.)

But let’s start with the good. The instrumentals on the album are generally really solid – from the stuttering 80s percussion on ‘Work’ to the stripped back piano balladry of ‘Livin’ a Lie’. It’s not difficult to see why Jonathan Rado has become such an in-demand producer in recent years and Seeing Other People acts as a great showcase for his talents. Even when a song is blatantly ripping off another artist – such ‘The Thing Is’, whose instrumental could effortlessly slip onto Bruce Springteen’s Born in the USA – Rado does it well enough that it’s hard not to be impressed.

The album is let down mostly by Sam France’s vocal performances and lyrics, mainly in the second half of the album. On the first half, they’re generally fine and even great at times. ‘Livin’ a Lie’, Seeing Other People’s strongest moment, is classic Foxygen. On it, France berates a former member of the band’s entourage for trying leech off their success, while trying to come across like he doesn’t care. ‘Face the Facts’ is similarly great, primarily for how off-the-wall it is. The restrained instrumental melts away on the chorus for goofy vocal manipulation and off-kilter synths. France’s lyrics are equally ridiculous (‘I wanna live in times when they put cocaine in coca cola’) but they work.

The lyrics – and France’s performance – on the second half of the album feel painfully phoned in though. Matched with some of the album’s weaker instrumentals, the songs here just sound like undercooked messes. On ‘Flag at Half-Mast’, France jumps between dealing out painfully clichéd verses (‘She’s so fly, she blows my mind’) and murmuring the song’s title over and over again. ‘The Conclusion’ is even worse – a track that overstays its welcome two minutes in – ending the album the down note.

Seeing Other People isn’t Foxygen’s weakest album, but it feels like the one with the most squandered potential. Listening to it, it’s clear that France and Rado are talented musicians, but they seem content just coasting most of the time.

Best Tracks: ‘Work’, ‘Face the Facts’, ‘Livin’ a Lie’

Stealing Sheep – Big Wows

It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since we last heard anything from the Liverpool trio. Especially so, considering how well the band’s new album builds off their last release (2015’s Not Real). That album saw Stealing Sheep shift away from their folk-inflected roots, moving in a more electronic direction and drawing influence from 80s synth-pop bands in particular. Big Wows continues down the same path, placing an even heavier emphasis on sugary synths and drum machines.

Thankfully, the core elements of what made Stealing Sheep so fun in the first place are still here – such as the interplaying vocals of the band’s three members. It continues to give the band a unique edge that helps them stand out against other artists exploring similar sounds. Lead single ‘Jokin’ Me’ shows off Stealing Sheeps’ call-and-response vocal style best, with its playful, conversational chorus. This delivery gives the song a tongue-in-cheek feel that’s difficult not to love. It’s a poppy track, but the band’s quirks are more than enough to stop it from feeling generic.

There are plenty of other highlights throughout, such as the punchy opener ‘Show Love’ and the propulsive ‘True Colours’, which feels like it might come off the rails at any moment. There’s also dreamy odyssey-like title track that refuses to stop shifting and changing. Stealing Sheep definitely feel more confident in their sound here than on Not Real, which, despite some great moments, felt a little all over the place stylistically. While the band do experiment with some new sounds on Big Wows – such as the tropical percussion on ‘Choose Like You’ – the album as whole feels more unified than anything the band have put out before.

There are a handful of moments that don’t land as well as they probably should. ‘Just Dreaming’ and closer ‘Heartbeats’ feel a little too slight; they don’t seem to really go anywhere. Each of them is more of a mood than an actual song. Also, in a couple of places, the hooks could be stronger – the one on ‘Why Haven’t I?’ in particular gets old quickly – but the band mostly deliver the goods.

Stealing Sheep do a great job of carving out their own distinct world on Big Wows, mastering a sound it feels like they’ve been trying to hone for a while. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait quite so long to hear from them again.

Best Tracks: ‘Show Love’, ‘Jokin’ Me’, ‘Big Wows’

Ibibio Sound Machine – Doko Mien

Three albums deep, Ibibio Sound Machine continue to blend afrobeat with 80s disco and funk in a way that just sounds completely effortless. Their name has never been more apt, as they really do feel like a fine-tuned machine at this stage.

The band is at their best when delivering energetic dancefloor monsters, and Doko Mien features some of their strongest ones yet. The album’s opening stretch features its best moments. ‘I Need You to Be Sweet Like Sugar (Nnge Nte Suka)’ sets the tone, opening with a looping synth piece before the other instruments fall in line and join it. It leaves the listener waiting for the chorus to hit, which, when it does, is just as rewarding as it needs to be. It’s big, dramatic and does its job perfectly.

The following couple of tracks are equally as strong. ‘Wanna Come Down’ might be the best dancefloor stomper the band have put out so far, with some great bass funk and touches of brass. ‘Tell Me (Doko Mien)’ and its percussive stutter almost recalls Talking Heads. It doesn’t do anything that we haven’t heard Ibibio Sound Machine dabble in on past albums, but it hits all the right spots, nonetheless.

As mentioned, its energetic moments like these when the band are at their best. ‘Just Go Forward (Ka I So)’ is another standout, with its restrained verses giving way to a dramatic, staccato chorus. Apart from the occasional slow ballad, the album maintains this momentum up until the last few songs, where it falters slightly.

If Doko Mein’s opening stretch shows the band playing to their strengths, the closing stretch, unfortunately, draws attention to their weaknesses. Songs like ‘Kuka’ and ‘Basquiat’ have a slight, forgettable feel to them. The former doesn’t develop in any meaningful way throughout its runtime, feeling more like a sketch than a finished song, while the latter seems like it’s missing a resolution. It feels like it’s working its way towards a big climax, but it never arrives – which is especially disappointing given that it closes the album. Some of the slower moments on the album do work better, however; ‘Guess We Found a Way’ is gorgeous, having an almost shoegaze feel to it, with reverb-laden guitars and dreamy vocals.

Despite some weak spots, Doko Mien is definitely worth your time. When Ibibio Sound Machine are firing on all cylinders – as they often are here – it makes for some great listening.

Best Tracks: ‘I Need You to Be Sweet Like Sugar (Nnge Nte Suka)’, ‘Wanna Come Down’, ‘Tell Me (Doko Mien)’

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1)

Foals are veterans of the British indie rock scene at this stage. While many of their contemporaries from the late 2000s (such The Maccabees and Wild Beasts) have split up, they’ve stuck around, getting even bigger with every album they release. With 2015’s What Went Down, they pretty much cemented themselves as festival headliner material, with huge tracks like ‘Mountain At My Gates’ and ‘A Knife In The Ocean’.

So, where next? Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1), the first of two albums the band will be releasing this year, marks a slight shift away from that arena rock sound. And as a result, it’s the most playful and creative album they’ve dropped since their debut. While Foals’ last two releases yielded some of the band’s biggest – and best – songs, both seemed to be missing a sense of colour. On these albums, the band generally stuck to a single sound throughout, leading to some tracks that sounded a little samey and repetitive.

Everything Not Saved Will Best Lost (Part 1) rectifies this. Every song here has its own identity and is bursting with personality. ‘White Onions’ sees Foals’ delve back into their math rock roots, recalling tracks like ‘Hummer’ and ‘Balloons’ with its propulsive drumbeat and looping guitar riff. Elsewhere, ‘In Degrees’ feels like a spiritual successor to the band’s big hit ‘My Number’, further exploring the dance-rock sound that song hinted at. It’s gorgeous, glitzy and difficult not to dance to. ‘Café D’Athens’, another standout, has drawn a lot of Radiohead comparisons. The song is unlike anything else the band released up to this stage, building off marimba loops and synth stabs, growing denser and more layered as it moves along.

‘Sunday’ is the type of song that Foals have more-or-less perfected at this stage – the big, airy closer. It draws the album together perfectly, drawing on the same apocalyptic themes as the rest of the tracks. It’s only let down by the fact that it isn’t the final track. The closing piano ballad ‘I’m Done With The World (& It’s Done With Me)’ is far from bad, but it just feels slight and unnecessary. The same can be said for the opening track ‘Moonlight’, which, while pretty, feels too much like a typical opener. It’s a song that only really works in the context of the album.

Everything between these two tracks, however, is great. They’re gorgeous and playful, showing that Foals can still surprise this far into their career. If they continue to put out music like this, I don’t there’s any reason to worry about them falling to the wayside like some of their old contemporaries.

Best Tracks: ‘White Onions’, ‘In Degrees’, ‘Sunday’