Tag Archives: Music

Album Review: The Age of Anxiety (2017) by Pixx

In my book, weird is always good when it comes to music. I can appreciate a bad album that at least tries to do something different more than one that plays it safe. Pixx’s debut, The Age of Anxiety, however, is a great album that tries to do something different – boasting a unique voice and style that’s really easy to love.

Hannah Rogers – or Pixx – has a sound that calls up some of my favourite female artists, such as St Vincent and Björk. Her vocals have an undeniable strangeness to them, frequently sounding androgynous and intentionally stilted. On the track ‘Waterslides’ in particular, her voice almost reminds me of a text to speech program – I promise I mean this in a positive way – moving along at a speedy and almost robotic pace. Her unusual vocal style provides her songs with a certain uniqueness, even if she does bust out a more traditional singing style on other tracks like ‘Mood Ring Eyes’ (which is also fantastic).

Opener, ‘I Bow Down’, sets up Pixx’s sound incredibly well, creating an unnerving yet compelling mood. The track starts off with a repeated piano riff, building slowly, before eventually introducing Hannah Rogers’ almost chanting vocal performance. Through Rogers layering her vocals on top of themselves several times, the track almost conjures an image of a strange cult of clones, chanting the song’s lyrics: ‘I salute your kindness / I bow down to your good will’. This layering happens a lot on the album and it works most of the time. Listening to ‘Toes’, you can hear her singing at least four or five different things at the same time on the chorus. On other tracks, like the really fantastic ‘Grip’, she uses her voice almost like an instrument, adding strange textures to her songs.

There are plenty of fantastic songs on The Age of Anxiety. The aforementioned ‘Grip’ is perhaps the poppiest cut, boasting an incredibly catchy chorus and some fun almost jangly instrumentals. ‘Waterslides’ is another favourite of mine, being the most high-energy track with its bubbly drum machine beat and unusual vocal performance. Though the vocals on this track’s verses are particularly (intentionally) stilted, you definitely feel the emotion and sense of anxiety in them, hiding underneath the surface: ‘Now I’m walking round and round, it’s like a maze, I can’t get out’.

And given the album’s title, it’s not surprising that anxiety is a dominant theme here. On ‘Grip’, Pixx sings about not wanting to feel the need to grab on to everything she sees, while ‘The Girls’ is about the singer wanting to ‘dance like the rest of the girls’. It’s about the desire to perceived as normal – to fit in. The album’s slower songs, like ‘The Girls’ and ‘Mood Ring Eyes’, have a more delicate and emotionally bare feel to them than the more energetic tracks, but I’d argue they’re just as strong. A couple of them do get lost in the mix a little bit like ‘Telescreen’, but that’s mainly because the rest of the album is so strong.

The Age of Anxiety is a great fantastic tightwire act, managing to both be accessible and undeniably weird. While not all the tracks are fantastic, they all have something unique about them – something to make them stand-out. This album isn’t bland or samey by any stretch and surely that alone makes it worth a listen.

Best Tracks: ‘I Bow Down’, ‘Grip’, ‘Waterslides’.

Album 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’.

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: The Pace of Passing (2017) by Toothless

The Pace of Passing is the first album from Toothless, a project led by Bombay Bicycle Club bassist Ed Nash. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. With so many of Bombay Bicycle Club’s songs having killer basslines – ‘Always Like This’ is the most obvious example – it was kind of easy to have high hopes for an album put together by the band’s bassist. And while Toothless’s debut isn’t awful, some elements of it definitely work significantly better than others.

Let’s start off with The Pace of Passing’s biggest weakness: Ed Nash’s vocals. He really can’t sing that well at all. His voice is about as bland as they get, having no force or emotion to it. There are plenty of frontmen out there who can’t sing very well, but manage to get away with it by putting enough passion into their voice or by having a unique quality. Nash’s vocals just sound kind of whinny at times, and it never really feels like he cares much about what he’s singing about. Whether it’s a romantic song like ‘Palm’s Backside’ or a more sinister one like ‘You Thought I Was Your Friend’, Nash’s vocals just aren’t good enough to get across the feelings you can tell he’s trying to.

And this kind of brings me to the album’s other big weakness, the lyrics. Most of the time they’re okay – never really passing beyond serviceable – but sometimes they make me want to full-on cringe. The chorus of ‘Palm’s Backside’ is particularly bad. And even when the lyrics aren’t awful, Nash’s delivery seems to drag them down. A good example of this is at the beginning of ‘Palm’s Backside’ (back to this song again); the way Nash draws out the opening lines just comes across as forced and slightly embarrassing.

But while these two elements of the album are almost consistently meh, the instrumentation on some of these tracks manages to save them a little bit. The opener ‘Charon’ has a beautiful mood to it, with the string instruments featured really helping it feel grand. The album closer ‘Terra’ similarly has a great mood, with the instrumentation reflecting the subject of the song well. Almost all of the songs on the album deal with mythology as a subject matter – as shown by song titles like ‘Sisyphus’ – and the instruments often sound fittingly grand because of this.

Another good move than Nash made on this album was making use of guest vocalists. While almost all of them are underused, Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming especially, they often manage to provide a certain gravitas that the lead singer can’t muster. ‘The Sirens’ works mainly because of the guest vocals from The Staves – easily being one of the best tracks on the album. There are a lot of times on The Pace of Passing that Toothless try to go for a catchy almost poppy feel, and it only really works on this song.

‘The Sun’s Midlife Crisis’ is another song that I have to give props to. Though it has a few weak lyrics in it, the song has a genuinely interesting focus, being about exactly what its title suggests it is. Like a lot of the songs on the album it has a mythological vibe, almost feeling like a fable. Not every element of the song works, but it’s got a certain uniqueness to it that I felt was worth highlighting.

Overall though, the album’s glimmers of goodness don’t really save it from its weaker aspects. Sadly it’s not one of those mixed albums that’s made up of some great songs and some bad ones… More it’s one of those mixed albums that’s made of good elements and bad elements that feature in every track. While some songs are definitely better than others, my resounding verdict on The Pace of Passing is meh.

Essential Songs: ‘Charon’, ‘The Sun’s Midlife Crisis’, ‘The Sirens’.

Album Review: Human Performance (2016) by Parquet Courts

I mainly seem to moan about albums I don’t like on this blog, so it’s a nice change when I get to talk about one I really like.

Parquet Courts’ third album has really grown on me as the year has progressed. I first listened to it a few months ago, not thinking too much of it, but now it’s easily one of my favourite albums of the year. At first only a few songs really stuck out to me (like ‘Dust’, which is a song that’s literally about, well, dust) though now I can appreciate that Human Performance is really stuffed to the brim with great songs. Maybe I’m just impressed that the band have managed to make seemingly mundane topics into pretty powerful songs – from the aforementioned ‘Dust’ to ‘I Was Just Here’, which is about a Chinese takeaway closing down.

Let’s start with the title track – my favourite on the album. It’s a break up song that almost entirely avoids being cheesy and cliché. It’s got a down to earth feel to it, and Andrew Savage’s usually abrasive vocals have a vulnerable feel to them. The delivery on the verses is very low-key and almost conversational, contrasting with the dark and depressing tone of the lyrics: ‘It never leaves me, just visits less often / It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften without a coffin’. The chorus gets a bit more dramatic, with an echoing effect being placed on Savage’s vocals and the instruments getting distorted. Heartbreak is a topic that’s been covered to death in music, but ‘Human Performance’ somehow manages to make it feel fresh.

‘I Was Just Here’ is another highlight, addressing how quickly things change in today’s society (a theme explored by most of the album’s songs). It has an off-kilter feel to it, with the lyrics being delivered in an almost robotic tone: ‘I’ll brush my teeth / That’s good for me’. The song explodes towards the end after the narrator realises that his favourite Chinese takeaway has closed down. It’s odd, but it works. ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ is also a favourite, being built around a jangly guitar riff that’s hard not to love. It’s got a lot of energy to it, and is probably one of the most accessible songs on the album.

Human Performance is one of those albums I love for the reasons other people probably hate it for. It’s weird. On first listen, some of the songs feel like they’re challenging the listener to turn it off. ‘Paraphrased’, for example, features some of the most over-the-top and ‘ugly’ vocals on the album. It sounds less like Savage is singing, and more like he’s just shouting at the listener. Opener ‘Dust’ similarly sounds like a bit of a challenge at first. I mean, it’s about dust, and as a result the lyrics are straight up ridiculous: ‘Dust is everywhere, sweep!’ But in the grand scheme of the album, it does a great job of setting up the themes that the rest of the tracks explore – such as the claustrophobic feel of modern city life.

One of the things I really love about this album is how rough it feels. Coming off the very clean and digital Starboy, Human Performance is refreshingly messy. The band don’t care much about making sure the listener has a ‘pleasant’ time listening to all of the songs on the album. Like I said before, ‘Paraphrased’ and its vocals are the best example of this, though you can also see it on tracks like ‘Two Dead Cops’ and ‘One Man No City’ (which is certain to annoy some people with its repetitiveness). However, there are a few moments of audio bliss, such as the digital only track ‘Already Dead’, which features an incredibly dreamy interlude.

Parquet Courts really knocked it out of the park with this album, and I’m excited to dive into their back catalogue and give their other two albums ago. The band try to do a lot of different things on this album, and most of them really work. If you’re looking for an album that’s going to challenge you a bit, I highly recommend this one.

Essential Songs: ‘Dust’, ‘Human Performance’, ‘Berlin Got Blurry’.

Album Review: Starboy (2016) by The Weeknd

I hadn’t really listened to much of The Weeknd before this album – well, only ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ really. R&B music has never been my sort of thing (not that I have anything against it) and so apart from the aforementioned very poppy single, he hasn’t really been on my radar.

Though he really did grab me with the lead single from this album, ‘Starboy’. With the popping Daft Punk synths and undeniably badass lyrics (you can’t hate ‘I’m a motherfucking Starboy’), it really got stuck in my head. The next single, ‘False Alarm’, while not as solid was still pretty good (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) and the last one, ‘I Feel It Coming’, pretty much sealed the deal on my interest.

So where to start with this one? How about, ‘No pop album needs to be 18 songs long?’ Though Starboy has many problems, perhaps the biggest is its length. Like the Bastille album I reviewed earlier this year, this album has no reason to be as long as it is. In fact, I can only think of a few albums that need to be over an hour long (This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem for example), and Starboy is not one of them… Especially because it talks about the same subjects over and over. Every song is pretty much about the same thing (Abel moans about his fame, has sex with some woman, rinse and repeat) and the quality with which the songs explore this idea varies.

So, the highlights… ‘Reminder’ is a solid chilled-out number with some great lyrics (especially Abel talking about winning the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award with a song about cocaine. ‘A Lonely Night’ has some mega-cheesy lyrics, but the undeniable grooviness of the track makes it forgivable. ‘True Colors’ stands out through being one of the quietest songs on the album – and also one of the few ones that can be described as ‘kinda romantic’. Other highlights include ‘Secrets’, ‘Party Monster’ and the ‘Stargirl – Interlude’, which acts as a nice change up from Abel’s vocals.

The two Daft Punk collabs that bookend the album are far and away the best tracks. I’ve said what I like about ‘Starboy’ already, and ‘I Feel It Coming’ won me over by being one of the most dancey (and dare I say sexy?) tracks on the album, also managing to weave in some pretty good lyrics. It’s one of those songs that just makes you want to dance, even if you’re horrible at dancing like me.

So now the bad. And this is where the album’s length comes in again – if Starboy was only 11 tracks long, it would be much easier to put up with the weaker tracks. But it isn’t. As a result, it’s easy to get fatigued by all the sub-par songs before you even reach the halfway point of the album.

The first downright bad song on Starboy is ‘Rockin’’ which has some of the cringiest lyrics on the album. Take the chorus for example: ‘I just want your body next to me / Because it brings me so much ecstasy / We can just be rockin’’. Jeez. The instrumentation on the song is pretty fun, if uninspiring, but it doesn’t save the song from coming across as a flimsy attempt at The Weeknd trying to recreate the success of ‘Can’t Feel My Face’.

‘Love to Lay’ suffers from similar problems, ‘Nothing Without You’ is a bland and unconvincing love song and ‘All I Know’ feels unnecessarily long and dragged out. Another one of the album’s weakest tracks is ‘Ordinary Life’, where Abel, once again, moans about his fame. In addition to this, the cringy and unnecessary opening just seem to make the album’s more romantic songs (like ‘Die For You’) incredibly unconvincing: ‘Heaven in a mouth, got a hell of a tongue / I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump.’ Despite this album having plenty of good songs, it has more bad ones.

If you want an easy going, mostly fun, album to listen to in the car or to stick on for a party, Starboy is a pretty solid choice. Its bright spots save it from being completely terrible, though you might be better off listening to the highlights rather than the whole thing.

Essential Songs: ‘Starboy’, ‘Reminder’, ‘I Feel It Coming’.