Tag Archives: 2017

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’.

Album Review: Big Balloon (2017) by Dutch Uncles

Big Balloon is an odd album – but odd is what I’ve come expect from Dutch Uncles at this stage. From their self-titled debut to 2015’s O Shudder, the band have done a consistent job of putting out off-kilter yet great albums. (Their last two albums in particular have been really fantastic.)

Their fifth album though feels odd in a different way. In the same way that Wild Beasts’ seemed to aim for a more accessible sound with last year’s Boy King, it feels like Big Balloon is almost Dutch Uncles’ attempt at commercial popularity. The songs are generally more straightforward, there are more soaring guitar riffs (I’m not saying this is a bad thing) and just about every track feels like a single.

Yet as I say this, the band are still cryptically weird in the same way they were on their old albums. The title track ‘Big Balloon’ (which is great) in particular feels like a mash between these two styles. It’s got a great chorus that you want to sing along to (‘Make me swoon like a big balloon’) and the aforementioned awesome guitar riffs, but at the same time the lyrics on the verses are about as bizarre and indecipherable as anything the band has put out. ‘Freeze the ghost, be happy as fat’? ‘Leave it all for potato lands’? What?

I don’t think this is the album that will truly give Dutch Uncles the breakthrough they deserve – it’s too weird even if they’re trying to be more normal – but it’s a solid album from nonetheless. There are only a couple of weak songs on here and a lot of good ones. ‘Baskin’’ has a great nervous energy to it, ‘Oh Yeah’ is delightfully weird and super catchy and ‘Streetlight’, with its wailing vocals and buzzing synths, might be one of the best songs the band has ever put out. The two closing tracks on the album, ‘Sink’ and ‘Overton’, are also highlights for me. They definitely have an ambitious feel to them, showing the band break from the poppy feel that dominates most of the album.

Another great thing about Big Balloon is that there’s a lot of variety on it. ‘Same Plane Dream’ and ‘Achameleon’, both great tracks, in particular do a great job of representing the two different ends of the album’s musical spectrum; ‘Same Plain Dream’ being one of wildest songs Dutch Uncles have produced (vocal-wise at least) and ‘Achameleon’ one of the most restrained, being a touching, string-laden ballad.

The weakest song on the album is easily ‘Combo Box’ which… I don’t know how describe it. It’s definitely the oddest song on the album – lyrically at least – and it doesn’t really work much at all for me. The song’s focus on food metaphors just gave me the sense that the band were trying to be weird for the sake of it. Really, the best songs on the album, like ‘Big Balloon’ are the ones where the band get weird but at the same time feel emotionally anchored.

Big Balloon is another great outing from Dutch Uncles, though I’d say it doesn’t quite reach the same heights of Out of Touch in the Wild and O Shudder. All the songs here are solid fun, but there’s nothing quite as good as say, ‘Fester’ or ‘Be Right Back’ from those releases. Though if you’re looking for a fun pop/rock album with some definite Kate Bush/Talking Heads influence to it, you can’t go wrong with this album. There’s a lot to enjoy here.

Essential Songs: ‘Big Balloon’, ‘Streetlight’, ‘Sink’.

Album Review: Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect (2017) by Sundara Karma

Sundara Karma’s debut album is packed with solid indie rock songs. From the roaring opening track ‘Young Understanding’ to the melancholy closer ‘The Night’, all the songs here are good. Even the more filler-y tracks on the album have things going for them.

But… (You were all waiting for this ‘but’, weren’t you?) But I guess the problem I have with Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is that it doesn’t have anything incredibly distinctive about it. Let’s be honest, there are a hell of a lot of ‘indie rock’ bands out there. While Sundara Karma are very far from being as bland as some of them – like Catfish & The Bottlemen – I still don’t think this album feels quite original enough to be considered great.

As a result, I’d say the best songs on this album are the ones that feel distinctive. ‘Happy Family’ is probably my favourite track, slowly building as it goes, being carried along by a beat that almost sounds like a chugging train. ‘Lose the Feeling’ stands out to me just due to the weird imagery on its chorus: ‘I’ve found the door and I’m kinda hoping / To use my head and crack it open.’ It’s not an incredible bit of writing, but it’s odd… which gives it personality.

Though as I said, even the less unique songs are solid. ‘She Said’ is a fantastically catchy song that’s just bursting with energy. ‘Olympia’ is powered by Oscar Pollock’s vocals, with the hesitant way he delivers the opening lyrics setting the tone for the song: ‘Oh no / Olympia says she loves me’. ‘A Young Understanding’ and ‘Loveblood’ act as a fantastic one-two punch at the beginning of the album, the energy from the first song carrying effortlessly over to the second one. Like I said before, none of the songs here are really that weak. Even the lesser ones, like ‘Watching from Great Heights’, are easy to enjoy.

Sundara Karma have done a great job of pulling together a cohesive and interesting debut album… Though it doesn’t have the same spark as some of my favourite debut albums from the past few years. I dunno, maybe I’m being a little bit overly critical. Sundara Karma, I think, just need to find their voice a little bit more – which they’ll hopefully do by their next album. Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect is only a good album rather than a fantastic one – but there are definitely glimmers of greatness in it.

I guess we’ll just have to see what they come out with next.

Essential Songs: ‘Happy Family’, ‘She Said’, ‘Loveblood’.

Album Review: I See You (2017) by The xx

I’ll admit it: I’ve never been the biggest fan of The xx. While I thought their debut had a few great tracks (‘Intro’, ‘VCR’, ‘Crystallised’) a lot of it just kind of faded together. None of the songs were particularly bad, but some were definitely forgettable. I had a similar reaction to Coexist, which was stronger in many ways, but also weaker in some too… Like the first album though, it definitely had some really great tracks (mainly ‘Angels’).

So here we are… I See You. The album’s lead single ‘On Hold’ peaked my interest due to being, well, a lot livelier than what we’ve come to expect from The xx. The track didn’t really cover any new topics for the band – heartbreak once again – but it seemed like they were having a bit more fun than usual, trying to be adventurous. Though I think it’s almost entirely down to the production work of Jamie xx, the song is just a lot more memorable than most of the tracks off the band’s first two albums, with the instrumentation being less sparse and muted.

Luckily this sense of fun is present in a lot of the songs on I See You. Opener ‘Dangerous’ is perhaps the most upbeat song the band have ever churned out, being stuffed to the brim with catchy hooks. Like ‘On Hold’, the instrumentation is more adventurous than that found on the band’s past two albums – featuring horns (horns!) and siren sounds among many other things.

On most tracks, it is the instrumentation that really brings things to life. Croft and Sim’s vocals are as strong as ever, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t really do anything they didn’t do on The xx’s other albums. The backing vocals on ‘Lips’ elevate the track incredibly, and paired with the almost tropical instrumentation, it sounds unlike anything else The xx have put out. The stuttering instruments on ‘Say Something Loving’ add some strength to what is a pretty standard xx affair, and on ‘Test Me’, the track is almost entirely handed over to Jamie xx, with the vocals playing second fiddle to the many layers of synths.

I’m happy to say that the band even succeeds in making the album’s quieter, more standard xx songs stand out. ‘Performance’ and ‘Replica’ come to mind, them being great showcases for Croft and Sim’s vocals respectively. They also feature some of the strongest lyrics on the album (though I wouldn’t go as far to say that the writing is ‘great’.)

While I wouldn’t call any of the songs on I See You bad – each of them stands out in some way – there are a couple that get lost in the mix a bit. ‘Say Something Loving’ is a track that’s difficult to get excited about, and similarly ‘A Violent Noise’ and ‘Brave For You’ are a bit on the bland side. Like on the band’s last album, Coexist, the songs on this one suffer from having lyrics that are a bit on the broad side. The band avoids concrete descriptions, instead keeping the characters they play in each song vague and without any real sense of personality.

Ultimately, I think this is an album that’ll please existing xx fans and those who might not have enjoyed their previous albums very much. It’s a big leap forward for the band instrumentally, even if not much has changed when it comes to vocals and lyrics.

Essential Songs: ‘Dangerous’, ‘Lips’, ‘On Hold’.