Category Archives: Album Reviews

Review: Routines (2017) by Hoops

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’.

Review: After Laughter (2017) by Paramore

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’.

Review: Humanz (2017) by Gorillaz

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’.

Review: Electric Lines (2017) by Joe Goddard

Electric Lines is the first proper solo album from Joe Goddard of Hot Chip fame. While it bears some things in common with his main band – Hot Chip lead singer Alexis Taylor even provides guest vocals on the title track – the album definitely has a more dance orientated sound.

And while I’m not a huge fan of dance music, Electric Lines is pretty good as far as it goes. Tracks like ‘Ordinary Madness’ and ‘Truth In Light’ have solid beats to them and catchy lyrics – even though they do border on cheesy a little bit too much. ‘Music Is The Answer’, however, is probably the album’s main stand-out – also being the most accessible song on here. As a closer, it distils what the album is about as a whole – addressing Goddard’s interest in exploring dance music directly: ‘Music is the answer to your problems / Keep on moving and you can solve them.’

‘Children’, a long mostly instrumental track that sits at the middle of the album, is another highlight; Goddard manages to create an interesting and textured musical landscape, and the song really feels like it progresses despite the same lyrics being uttered over and over. There’s a lot of layers to the song, and I appreciate it being interesting and odd as well as very danceable.

However, despite these highlights, I found that much of the album is pretty middling. One of the main problems I had with Electric Lines throughout is that it feels pretty flat. Apart from a few exceptions – like the aforementioned ‘Children’ – the album feels lacking in layers and general oomph. ‘Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love’ and ‘Home’ are two good examples of this. The songs should be great – and, in many ways, they feel like great songs that have just been executed poorly.

Despite its very immediate start, ‘Home’ feels incredibly flat throughout. The vocals sort of fade in with the instruments and get hidden under all the synths and drum beats. And even when the chorus kicks in, in what feels like it should be a big almost anthemic moment, the song stays just as flat. The same thing happens on ‘Lose Your Love’. When the backing vocals kick in, singing ‘I don’t wanna lose your love’, it doesn’t feel like Goddard is turning things up a notch. It all just stays on the same level.

Additionally, songs like ‘Lasers’ and ‘Nothing Moves’ fall into the meh through simply not being that interesting. The instrumentation isn’t too exciting on them, and the lyrics on ‘Nothing Moves’ are particularly poor: ‘When I close my eyes / I see nothing but you.’ Another strong contender for the album’s most groan-worthy lyrics is ‘Electric Lines’, in which Alexis Taylor laments about how quickly technology is changing. It’s cheesy in a way that reminds me of the weak Hot Chip track.

Electric Lines isn’t an album I’d recommend to the average music-listener, as there isn’t really enough substance here to sink your teeth into. If you’re particularly passionate about dance music however, you might find something to enjoy here – ‘Music Is The Answer’ is at least worth a listen.

Essential Songs: ‘Ordinary Madness’, ‘Children’, ‘Music Is The Answer’.

Review: Flying Microtonal Banana (2017) by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Over the past few years, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have proven themselves to be one of the hardest working bands around. Despite only releasing their debut in 2012 – having formed in 2010 – the band have put out a total of nine albums so far. Not only that, but they’ve vowed to put out at least four albums in 2017, with Flying Microtonal Banana being the first.

This wouldn’t be that impressive if these nine albums were mediocre, but they’re really not. Despite King Gizzard being a psychedelic rock band at their core, each of their albums has seen them experiment with their sound in some way. Quarters was made up of four prog rock jams totally 10 minutes and 10 seconds each, Paper Mache Dream Balloon saw the band using nothing but acoustic instruments and on Nonagon Infinity, perhaps their most impressive effort yet, King Gizzard produced an album that was an infinite loop, with all of the tracks leading seamlessly into each other – the closer into the opener included.

Flying Microtonal Banana, as the album’s title suggests, sees the band experiment with the world of microtonal instruments. Microtonality takes advantage of note intervals not commonly heard in Western music, due to the way that Western instruments are tuned. On the surface, it seems like a bit of hollow gimmick – but luckily the album produced from this experiment is nothing less than fantastic.

There is a heavy Eastern music influence in Flying Microtonal Banana – in part due to the presence of microtonal instruments – that really gives it a unique style. This influence is most evident on album highlight ‘Nuclear Fusion’ – which somehow manages to seamlessly blend together the band’s psych rock roots with some very African stylings. This influence is also very present on the instrumental closing track, ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’, making excellent use of the zurna.

It’s this album’s effortless meshing of different styles that really makes it so compelling. Though this Eastern aesthetic ties the album together as a whole, the band also experiment with a number of other different styles – such as on ‘Billabong Valley’, which is structured like an old Spaghetti Western ballad, with the band singing of a famous Australian bushranger: Mad dog Morgan / He never gave a warning.’

There are also a few classic-style King Gizzard long psychedelic jams on here, which feel like they could have fit onto previous albums with ease. These songs, ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Open Water’, are definitely some of the least adventurous tracks on the album, but that doesn’t stop them being fantastic. King Gizzard have put out so many tracks in this style that they’ve pretty much mastered writing them now. It’s a testament to the band that I can listen to Stu Mackenzie sing little more than ‘Rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattles me’ for a seven and a half minutes without getting bored.

This might not be the band’s best release, but that’s only because they’ve set the bar so high with their past releases. The only less-than-great track on here is the titular one, with it feeling slightly underwhelming as a closer despite its interesting instrumentation. Everything else, however, is gold. From the dreamy ‘Sleep Drifter’ to the stomping and distorted ‘Doom City’ and the apocalyptic ‘Nuclear Fusion’, Flying Microtonal Banana continues King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s seemingly endless hot streak.

Essential Songs: ‘Sleep Drifter’, ‘Billabong Valley’, ‘Nuclear Fusion’.

Review: The Far Field (2017) by Future Islands

With their last album, it felt like Future Islands had perfected their synth-pop formula, delivering some of their most emotional ballads yet. From break-out single ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ to the moody and growling ‘Fall From Grace’, Singles was filled with fantastic songs. As the album’s title suggests, pretty much all of them were up to ‘single’ standard.

So where next? On their fifth album, The Far Field, Future Islands don’t try to mess with their signature sound too much, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Though far from being Singles 2, the album does feature a number of songs that could have fit snuggly onto the band’s past releases. Like I said, this is a weakness and a strength. On one hand, some might find the The Far Field to be a little bit on the samey side, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – right?

The first half of the album in particular shows the band staying squarely in their comfort zone. Songs like ‘Time On Her Side’ and ‘Ran’ are instant classic Future Islands tracks, featuring powerful vocal performances from Samuel T. Herring as well as some pretty moving lyrics: ‘What’s a song without you / When every song I write’s about you?’ ‘Cave’ is another stand-out on the album’s first half, with Herring unleashing the fiercer side of voice, which is always great. It’s not the first time that Future Islands have put out a song about heartbreak, but the passion they put into it makes it feel incredibly fresh.

On the album’s second half, we do get to see the band try out some new styles. ‘Candles’ stands out through its slow pace and groovy bassline, being perhaps the most intimate song the band have released; ‘Shadows’ is an emotional duet, featuring guest vocals from Debbie Harry of Blondie; ‘North Star’ has a jumpy charm to it, with Herring reeling off lyrics with more upbeat enthusiasm than usual: ‘But if the sun don’t shine / Well, then the birds won’t sing.’ These songs are still very obviously ‘Future Islands’ songs, but these experiments with style help keep the album from feeling too samey.

One thing that sets The Far Field apart from its predecessor is that definitely feels more like a complete set of songs. At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, it sounds more like a journey. While Singles felt like, well, single after single, this album builds up momentum slowly. Opener ‘Aladdin’ takes its time to get going, fading in slowly, with the next couple of tracks slowly raising the intensity.

There is also more thematic unity among the songs. As shown by some tracks’ titles – ‘Beauty of the Road’, ‘Cave’, ‘Through the Roses’ – as well as the album’s title, The Far Field, it is focused on the natural world. On ‘Aladdin’, Herring sings about the ‘the dew of the field’ and on ‘Ancient Water’ he dreams of being ‘patient like the forest’. On the album, the outside world is shown as something that promotes love – on many tracks Herring sings of exploring the world with his loved one – and something that hinders it, with other songs like ‘North Star’ being about the large distance between the protagonist and his love.

Whether you’ll love The Far Field or not will depend largely on how you feel about the band’s previous albums. This isn’t the album that’s going to convert you to loving Future Islands, but if you like what they’ve been doing up this point then I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It may be a bit cheesy at times, but there’s no denying that a lot of heart has gone into every track.

Essential Songs: ‘Ran’, ‘Cave’, ‘Candles’.

Review: Heartworms (2017) by The Shins

I have no experience of The Shins beyond this album, I thought I should confess that. Normally, I’m in the opinion that you need to be aware of a band’s previous releases for context-reasons when writing a review… But at the same, a good album is a good album, right? And I think there’s something valuable in approaching some releases without having to trail through a sizeable discography before-hand. That’s what I’m doing with Heartworms.

So, onto the album itself; The Shins’ fifth release is a fun one, with tons of bouncy-sounding synths and distorted back-up vocals. The most popular tone on Heartworms is unabashedly goofy, as shown by tracks like ‘Name For You’ and ‘Cherry Hearts’. There’s a cartoonish vibe to the instrumentation and vocal delivery and at points it seeps into the lyrics as well: ‘You kissed me once / When we were drunk / It left me spinning on my heels’. With that last line in particular and it’s easy to imagine James Mercer as a cartoon character.

This style dominates most of the album and most of the tracks that adopt it work. ‘Name For You’ is probably my favourite track, featuring a catchy hook and some off-beat but fun instrumentation. Though I will admit that the song feels overstuffed at certain points, with its chirping bird sound effects and ‘wah wah’ backing vocals. And this overstuffed feel is common throughout the album. By the time Heartworms reaches its halfway point, the album’s eccentric weirdness begins to drag – especially on the songs ‘Rubber Ballz’ and ‘Half a Million’. At times it feels like the band are just filling their songs up with strange sounds – like high-pitch backing vocals – for the sake of it. And it gets annoying.

There are some more low-key songs here – ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Mildenhall’ in particular. On these songs, James Mercer turns the focus onto himself and the sparse instrumentation reflects this. ‘Mildenhall’, a song where Mercer sings about when he first got into music, there are hardly any instruments present other than an acoustic guitar. Its basicity makes for a nice break from the cluttered songs that fill out most of the album. The lyrics are a bit corny – as is Mercer’s delivery of them – but I can sort of forgive that.

There are a few other solid tracks towards the album’s end, such as ‘Dead Alive’, but to be honest, there’s nothing truly fantastic on Heartworms. If anything, I’d call it just fine. It delivers a few good songs but none that truly wowed me. I think I might dip into some of the band’s other work out of curiosity, but this album doesn’t paint them as much more than a middling indie band. This isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t a great one either; it just kind of is.

Essential Songs: ‘Name For You’, ‘Cherry Hearts’, ‘Mildenhall’.