Tag Archives: 2017

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: 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: 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’.

Album Review: Hang (2017) by Foxygen

After releasing two fantastic albums (Take The Kids Off Broadway and We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors…) and one of questionable quality (…And Star Power) in the span of three years, Foxygen took a well-earned break. In fact, for a while it seemed like the band was done for good, with there being a lot of on-stage conflict between its two members (Sam France and Jonathan Rado) and even a ‘farewell tour’ taking place. And yet here we are with album number – Hang.

The album sees the band return to their roots somewhat, re-embracing the showtunes-y and theatrical vibe of their debut. However, where that album had hardly no budget at all (Foxygen weren’t even signed when it was recorded), Hang has an incredibly lush and grandiose production. It shows the band exploring their interest in grand theatrical music in a way that they couldn’t really on Take The Kids Off Broadway, featuring a wide array of orchestral instruments. We’re talking horns, saxophones, violins, cellos, flutes, oboes… It sounds absolutely gorgeous and grand.

But what’s great production without good songs? Hang is only a mere eight tracks long, but each of those tracks bursts with personality. They’re also all arranged incredibly well, making good use of the orchestra the band have at their disposal. Just look at the album’s lead single, ‘America’; it’s a track that’s overblown and dramatic in a way that can only be achieved with an orchestra. It showcases pretty much every instrument, with the best part being the particularly crazy instrumental section that sits in the middle of the song.

Despite the overall theatrical style of the album, Foxygen manage to dabble with a couple of genres across the album. ‘On Lankershim’ has a definite country music vibe to it, ‘America’ features a notably jazzy interlude and ‘Avalon’ is a jaunty piano-led tune with an opening that feels like it belongs in an old Western movie saloon. Sam France’s vocals are also great, with him adopting a bombastic tone that reflects on grandiose style of the album. There’s less variety with his vocals than on past Foxygen albums, but it didn’t bother me too much – mainly because he sounded like he was having a lot of fun.

If there’s one area that the album falters slightly it’s lyrics. Foxygen mainly play it safe, straying pretty deep into cliché territory at times, demonstrated most clearly on the album closer, ‘Rise Up’: ‘And believe in yourself / And follow your heart, if nothing else’. Though it seems like Foxygen are very much aware of how cheesy their writing can get. Just like the album’s big bombastic instrumentation, the lyrics are grand and broad. On tracks like ‘America’ it’s obvious that the band are just fooling around a bit with their use of clichés. The song opens with them rolling off a string of tired, wholesome American phrases – ‘Merry Christmas from the pines / Hallelujah, amen’ – making it obvious that the band are critiquing and making fun of their country rather than praising it. It’s pretty difficult not to read the song’s lyrics in a political way.

Despite the writing’s general cleverness through its simplicity, I can’t help but miss the personal and surreal lyrics that dominated the band’s first two albums. Hang is an eccentric album, sure, but there’s nothing on here than exudes the weirdness that made me love Foxygen in the first place. It’s not the band’s best album, but it’s also not their worst one… And with all the orchestral ear candy on offer it’s hard to complain too much. It’s obvious that the band had a lot of fun putting this album together and as a result it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

Essential Songs: ‘Follow the Leader’, ‘America’, ‘On Lankershim’.

Book Review: The Blot (2017) by Jonathan Lethem

It’s not often that I come across a novel that squanders its potential so much as The Blot. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. This novel has so many fantastic elements to it – the first two thirds or so had me hooked – and yet some head-scratchingly bad ones too. What should have been a great novel about a professional gambler’s struggle with identity is instead bogged down with under-baked subplots and strange shifts in focus.

Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler with pretty much nothing to his name but a suit and a backgammon board. He meets with wealthy clients all over the world, playing them and trying to take their money. However, his world is torn apart when he discovers that he has a tumour in his brain. In order to have any chance of living, Alexander is forced to get in contact with an old associate who he had no plans of ever seeing again…

This plotline carries the book along quite nicely for the first couple hundred of pages, moving languidly yet remaining compelling. Jonathan Lethem does a great job of developing Alexander as a character, offering the reader fantastic scene after fantastic scene, slowly revealing him to be a broken man who tries to hide behind a suave persona. The drawn-out scene in which Alexander meets a German client for a game of backgammon is particularly fantastic. Credit to Lethem, he does an incredible job of making the reader invested in the backgammon game of a character they’ve only just met.

And the story continues to be great even when it moves past its gambling focus (which is abruptly abandoned) and onto Alexander’s illness. We see him rekindle a relationship with a wealthy old school friend in an attempt to use him to pay for the surgery he needs to save his life. The relationship between these two characters is easily one of my favourite aspects of the novel. The power dynamic between the two of them is an interesting one and something that I wish the author would’ve explored more.

And Lethem’s seeming refusal to explore the story’s most interesting elements more fully ties directly to my issues with The Blot. About halfway through the novel it becomes incredibly clear that he made it up as he went along, causing the whole thing to, well, go off the rails pretty majorly.

There are so many problems with the novel’s second half that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start by getting the novel’s weirdest aspect out of the way: the protagonist has mind reading abilities. Right, okay. That could be interesting, but the way that Lethem explores it is totally baffling, with it conflicting majorly with the overall tone of the novel. We only see Alexander read minds a couple of times in The Blot, it never ties into anything or gets resolved and it always feels like it’s in the background of the story. It feels completely unnecessary, almost existing in its own bubble in the novel, only receiving a few stray mentions. Why bother with it?

The novel’s other major problem is that Lethem just throws too many plotlines at the wall in the last 100 pages or so, clogging the story up with uninteresting details and stealing away time we could be spending with one of the more interesting plotlines. Our protagonist gets a goofy pop-culture-reference dropping sidekick, he’s given a new love interest (a woman who appears previously in the novel for about five pages right at the beginning), he becomes a political activist of sorts, he gets a job at a burger restaurant… All within the last 100 pages. And as you can guess the result is a jumbled mess.

By the end, the novel’s interesting aspects are all but gone and The Blot just becomes a massive chore to read. It’s a real shame, and it makes me wonder why someone didn’t step in and tell Lethem that he was running a potentially incredible novel into the ground for no reason at all.

Album Review: Infinite Worlds (2017) by Vagabon

Despite its brevity, Vagabon’s debut album has a lot packed into it. Across its eight tracks, Laetitia Tamko touches on a variety of topics – from failing relationships to losing someone’s cat – and does so in a variety of musical styles. ‘Minneapolis’ has a fierce electric guitar driven indie rock sound, ‘Alive and A Well’ features no instruments other than an acoustic guitar, ‘Cold Apartment’ is a stripped back ballad with a pulsating drum beat and ‘Mal à L’aise’ is swirling and synth driven… Also it’s sung in French. There’s a lot of variety here, and yet, somehow, all of the songs feel like they fit together.

If there’s one recurring theme on this album, it’s feeling small. As Tamko sings about in the opening track, the wonderful ‘The Embers’, it’s feeling like a small fish in a world full of sharks. It’s about wanting to escape and wanting to have your voice heard. (I don’t normally bring politics into my reviews, but it’s an album that feels particularly relevant given that you-know-who has recently taken the presidential office in America.)

There are some incredibly powerful moments on this album that are the result of Tamko’s fantastic voice as well as her lyrics. ‘Cold Apartment’, the highlight of the album for me, offers her most powerful performance… Her voice swells with emotion on the song as she reflects on a relationship that she thought would last: ‘And we sit on my cold apartment floor / Where we thought we would stay in love.’ The lyrics are moving as it is, but the vocal delivery is what really powers this song. The instruments surrounding Tamko’s voice are fairly minimal, because it’s only her voice that’s really needed to drive the emotion of the song home.

‘The Embers’ is another song where Tamko’s voice really shines. It builds as the song progresses, tracking the grow in confidence of the protagonist. At first it’s quiet and almost hesitant (‘I feel so small’) eventually building towards an almost shouting finish where she confronts those that make her feel small (‘You’re a shark that hates everything’). Other songs like ‘Fear & Force’ and ‘Alive and A Well’ are driven by the vocals, and while the instruments are solid on most songs, it really does feel like they’re mainly in service to Tamko’s voice.

Infinite Worlds is a really promising debut from a band that still seems to be working out its sound. There’s a lot of different styles on this album and a lot of experimenting – which is definitely not a bad thing. It’ll be really interesting to see where they go next.

Essential Songs: ‘The Embers’, ‘Minneapolis’, ‘Cold Apartment’.