LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

American Dream has a lot of pressure on it. Not only is it LCD Soundsystem’s first album in seven years (during which they prolifically broke up and then reunited) but with the band’s existing albums being so beloved it can’t really get away with being just okay. It needs to be good enough to justify the band getting back together.

Thankfully, to cut to the chase, American Dream is great. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the band’s best work but it’s a reunion album that definitely delivers. It pushes LCD Soundsystem into some new territory, having a more melancholy and personal tone than their previous albums, while still sounding very distinctively like them. There are no out-and-out fun tracks here like ‘Daft Punk Is Playing At My House’ or ‘Drunk Girls’, with there being a more heavy focus on dark and introspective ones.

‘Oh Baby’ sets up the mood of the album well. It’s the melancholiest opener an LCD Soundsystem album has ever had with its neon-tinged synths and almost somber vocals. It has a wistful feel to it, like many of the band’s best tracks yearning towards the past. (Both through the lyrics and the very 80s feel to the instrumentation.) The song somehow manages to succeed at sounding unlike any of the band’s other songs and yet, at the same time, sounding as though it’s always existed.

Many of American Dream’s best songs are the slower and sadder ones, just like ‘Oh Baby’. On the title track, James Murphy sings about a middle-aged man who wakes up from a one-night stand filled with self-loathing. It’s a song about unrealised dreams and knowing that the only person holding you back is yourself. (‘Look what happened when you were dreaming, then punch yourself in the face’.) The descending synths in the background compliment the song’s depressing lyrics well, adding power to the story being told.

‘Black Screen’, Murphy’s tribute to David Bowie, is another highlight. It’s another slow track, starting off with a minimalist electronic beat before slowly transitioning into a gorgeous piano solo. Like ‘American Dream’, the lyrics on the song feel personal, though to a much more heartbreaking extent. Murphy reflects on his relationship with Bowie – ‘You fell between a friend and father’ – trying to come to terms with his death. Especially moving is the revelation of what the titular ‘black screen’ actually is.

Many of the album’s more up-tempo moments are strong as well, such as lead single ‘Call the Police’, which is perhaps the most anthemic song LCD Soundsystem has put out since ‘All My Friends’. It’s not all too original thematically (calling for people to fight against those in power) but the band execute it incredibly well. ‘Emotional Haircut’, another of the album’s more energetic moments, is a lot less successful. Despite reaching a satisfying climax, much of the song comes across as grating. (The band’s repeated chanting on the song’s title in particular feels forced and slightly obnoxious.)

The majority of American Dream’s other songs feel very much like spiritual successors to older LCD Soundsystem songs – succeeding in varying degrees. ‘Other Voices’ features the same rambling, stumbling tone as This Is Happening’s ‘Pow Pow’, but doesn’t quite match up to it. (Though Nancy Whang’s verse does save the song a bit.) ‘How Do You Sleep?’ – which has a lot in common with ‘Dance Yrslf Clean’ – fares better. The song starts off with a particularly ominous drumbeat, building slowly before reaching an incredible drop halfway through. The personal lyrics, in which Murphy reflects on a fractured relationship with a former friend, give the song even more power and stop it from feeling like a carbon copy of ‘Dance Yrslf Clean’. The track reconfirms how fantastic LCD Soundsystem are at making a nine-minute song feel like three minutes.

‘Tonite’, a song that hearkens back to the band’s very first single ‘I’m Losing My Edge’, is equally great. It’s pretty much just James Murphy ranting over a synth beat… but his ranting is just really good. What starts off as an observation about how every song seems to be about the same thing – there’s only ‘tonight’ – leads to a number of great tangents about getting older and feeling out of touch. It’s not exactly fresh territory for the band, but the song has a lot of great lines, easily being the album’s most quotable track. (‘Life is finite, but shit, it feels like forever).

With so many great songs, American Dream more than justifies LCD Soundsystem’s reunion. If you’re a fan of the band’s older work, you’re sure to enjoy it. Tracks like ‘Black Screen’ show Murphy at his most personal and vulnerable, while others like ‘Tonite’ show that the band still know how to put together a great electronic beat. It’s a perfect blend of old sounds and new ones.

Best Tracks: ‘How Do You Sleep?’, ‘Tonite’, ‘American Dream’

 

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Oh Sees – Orc

Oh Sees don’t do things like other bands. Not only do they release albums at a breakneck pace – twenty in the last fifteen years isn’t too shabby – but they also haven’t really suffered any significant decline in quality (like you’d expect from a band so old.) If anything, Oh Sees are getting better with each release and their twentieth album Orc shows them at the top of their game.

Opener ‘The Static God’ sets things off well; it’s classic Jon Dwyer. The song is a force of energy, barrelling out of the gates with one of the jerkiest guitar riffs you’ve ever heard before settling into a propulsive groove. The bass, the guitar, the (two!) drummers, Dwyer’s creepy crooning vocals… Everything’s on top form here. The track hits you like a slap in the face, just like Oh Sees’ most energetic songs do. ‘Animated Violence’ is similarly powerful, featuring some heavy guitars and a vocal performance that wouldn’t feel out of place on a metal album. Oh Sees have pretty much perfected producing psych rock jams like these two at this stage. Both tracks show the band’s ability to strike the listener while, at the same time, delivering what they’ve come to expect.

Though the album features plenty of hard-hitting tracks like these two, I’d say Orc is at its most interesting when the band decide to experiment. There are a number of songs on the album which demonstrate Oh Sees’ willingness to play with its listeners’ expectations. ‘Nite Expo’ sounds like no other Oh Sees song with its squelchy synth lines, ‘Jettisoned’ shows the band going in an almost jazzy direction with its loose feeling drums and ‘Cadaver Dog’ feels outright gothic with a moaning organ lingering at the back of the song.

Oh Sees’ experimental side shines through most clearly on the track ‘Keys to the Castle’ though. It starts off fairly typically for an Oh Sees song – Dwyer describes an assault on a castle in between his characteristic woops – before abruptly shifting pace two minutes in. What follows is a lush and dream-like cello solo that fills out the track’s last six minutes. It’s a bold change of pace from the band’s usual in-your-face riff-laden songs and shows that Oh Sees’ quieter moments are no less powerful.

As Orc moves into its second half, Dwyer’s vocals take the backseat as the band indulge in even more experimentation. ‘Paranoise’ is as unnerving as its title suggests. The song is about as minimalistic as Oh Sees get, featuring a driving bassline washed over with the sound of static. The song builds slowly and almost hesitantly over four minutes before abruptly cutting off with the sound of a gunshot. ‘Raw Optics’ also succeeds in being strangely captivating. Like ‘Keys to the Castle’, it starts off fairly standardly, before a few minutes in a lengthy drum solo kicks in. For any other band, it’s a move that probably wouldn’t work, but for Oh Sees it feels like the perfect way to close out the album.

With the band releasing so many albums at such a quick pace (Jon Dwyer has already announced Orc’s follow-up) it almost feels unfair that they’re so good. Orc is pretty much as good as modern psych rock gets, demonstrating that Oh Sees really are masters of their craft.

Best Tracks: ‘Animated Violence’, ‘Keys to the Castle’, ‘Raw Optics’

Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

Grizzly Bear albums always take a while to get into. They’re never immediate. Veckatimest, for example, I felt indifferent to on my first listen, but now – many listens later – it’s one of my favourite albums.

While I don’t like Painted Ruins quite as much, my experience with it has been similar. It’s a great comeback album (the band’s last release was a long six years ago), featuring the same unique style that made them so bold and colourful in the first place. The barbershop quartet-like vocals, the wide and eclectic range of instruments used, the poetic songwriting style… The album does little to change-up Grizzly Bear’s core formula except add a few electronic instruments into the mix. And, surprisingly, the synths and drum machines sit incredibly well amongst the organs, flutes, cellos and saxophones.

If the band don’t push their sound forward much on the album, they at least deliver some strong songs. The best tracks on Painted Ruins are the longer ones – the ones that evolve as they go along and head down interesting instrumental pathways. Grizzly Bear are fantastic at creating a beautiful, almost woozy atmosphere in their music unlike any other band I know. ‘Three Rings’ shows this well. The song builds slowly from a rigid drumbeat, growing as more instruments are piled on until it reaches a wall-of-sound climax. Ed Droste’s vocals are also fantastic; his pleading delivery of the song’s hook – ‘Don’t you know that I can make it better?’ – might just be my favourite moment on the whole album.

‘Four Cypresses’ is another highlight. The beeping synth and sparse drumming, paired with the poetic lyrics – in which Rossen compares a depressed friend to a pile of collapsed trees – creates an unnerving atmosphere. I also loved ‘Losing All Sense’, another track that shifts and changes as it goes long. It starts with a fun, almost jaunty beat before shifting in a more dream-like direction towards its end. The gentle guitar-work brings a shimmering feel to the song, creating the sense that the band are almost losing themselves in the music. It’s just plain gorgeous, basically.

‘Sky Took Hold’ is another song that shows the band’s knack for good instrument choices. The track juxtaposes some particularly ominous percussion and wind with a sharply distorted guitar, reflecting the unsettling tone of the lyrics. For a band so great at creating lush sound, it’s an almost ugly track – but it definitely adds a sense of urgency and power to the album’s end.

I wouldn’t say any of the songs on Painted Ruins are outright bad, but some moments are weaker than others. ‘Wasted Acres’ and ‘Systole’ feature some interesting ideas on them – I really like the psychedelic feel that the latter track has – but are way too short. They seem to end just as they get going. ‘Mourning Sound’ suffers from the opposite problem. It feels too long, taking too much time to go anywhere. The chorus on the track is lovely, but unfortunately you have to last through the album’s dullest and most repetitive drumbeat to get there.

Painted Ruins is Grizzly Bear being Grizzly Bear. In many ways it feels like the most quintessential of their albums, not offering anything unique that you can’t find on their other releases but nonetheless featuring some fantastic songs. As long as the band continue to put out music as great as this, I’ll keep listening to them.

Best Tracks: ‘Three Rings’, ‘Losing All Sense’, ‘Sky Took Hold’

Everything Everything – A Fever Dream

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Everything Everything. They were one of the first bands I truly got into – due to their ridiculous yet honest lyrics (just listen to ‘No Reptiles’), hyperactive instrumentation and extremely catchy choruses. Their last album Get To Heaven, ended up being their best yet. It struck a perfect balance between being fun and thought-provoking, taking a more politically charged tone than their past releases.

A Fever Dream is similarly a political album. Take opener ‘Night of the Long Knives’ for example, in which Jonathan Higgs sings about a city being bombed during war. His blasé tone on the song’s hook – ‘Man, I know it’s a real big shame about your neighbourhood’ – is chilling, highlighting the lack of sympathy that a lot of people in the West have for wars and conflicts that don’t affect them directly. It strikes that balance that Everything Everything’s best tracks do, being clever and horrifying at the same time. The instrumentation compliments the song well, with the synths almost resembling the sound of sirens.

Like I said, politics run through much of the album. ‘Big Game’ comes across almost as a Donald Trump diss track (with Higgs referring to him as a ‘bovine balloon’), while ‘Good Shot, Good Soldier’ and ‘Ivory Tower’ make clear allusions to issues of racial prejudice. It’s these songs that have the most power to them on the album. Lead single ‘Can’t Do’, one of the few songs without a political edge, feels like a falter for the band. Though this may just be because the song’s about writer’s block, which, to be honest, is one of the least interesting themes the band could’ve chosen to write about. It’s not a bad song, but it’s definitely missing that something that Everything Everything’s best songs have (like ‘Cough Cough’ and ‘Distant Past’).

Luckily though, there are plenty of other songs on here that do reach the high-energy heights of the band’s best work. In addition to ‘Night of the Long Knives’, ‘Desire’ is an incredible amount of fun – with its downright explosive chorus – and ‘Ivory Tower’ has some of the most frantic instrumentation featured on an Everything Everything song in a while. The guitars, the bass, the drums… The band are just at top performance on this song. Paired with some pretty cutting lyrics about class, it’s easily one of the strongest songs the band has put out.

A Fever Dream also features a lot of slow moments as well, which does let it down in some ways. Many of the slow songs are great individually, such as the title track and the moving ‘Put Me Together’, but they do make the middle part of the album drag a little bit. After three energetic tracks at its beginning (‘Night of the Long Knives’, ‘Can’t Do’, ‘Desire’), A Fever Dream drops its pace significantly and doesn’t really recover until near the end with ‘Ivory Tower’. The album closes with one last slow track, but luckily it’s a fantastic one. ‘White Whale’ is straightforward love song, something the band don’t do often, centring around a great hook: ‘Your love is like the white whale’.

Pacing issues aside, A Fever Dream is an incredible album and shows Everything Everything continuing to do what they do best… Whether it’s better than Get To Heaven it’s too early to say, but I’d definitely say it’s just as good.

Best Tracks: ‘Night of the Long Knives’, ‘Desire’, ‘Ivory Tower’

Arcade Fire – Everything Now

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’

Mr Jukes – God First

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’

This Is The Kit – Moonshine Freeze

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’