Die Antwoord – $O$ (Interscope, 2010)

It is hard to know how to go about judging South African rave-rap crew Die Antwoord with any degree of objectivity. The reputation of the group- MCs Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er and DJ Hi-Tek- represents a perfect storm of postmodern, ironic, hipsterish, online hype-mongering that leaves little room for their album to find a fresh-faced, appreciative audience. The pulsing and aggressive ‘Enter The Ninja’, accompanied by an eye-catching video, was tagged as their ‘breakthrough’ moment, but in this case the breakthrough was into a world in which any attempt to make an earnest hiphop album was doomed from the start. How exactly is a group supposed to go about their business when the first question that anyone asks about them is, “Is this all a joke?” The superficial comedic fix that the online community finds in what is surely a knowingly earnest representation of ‘Zef’ culture (a kind of Afrikaans white trash) cheapens the talent for the genre that manages to shine through on this, their debut album. To illustrate, this quote from Wikipedia: “Die Antwoord appears to some to be a presentation of entertainment personas rather than that of intrinsic and authentic cultural identities”; as if the group could not be both.

If this is a ‘joke’ band, then the gag is told very skillfully, with a great deal of attention paid to matching image and sound. The broad genre of rave-rap fits seems to fit the aesthetic of ‘Zef’ to the ground: implications of trashiness in the thick synths, a compulsive sound and endless displays of filthy braggadocio. It might not seem the most sophisticated sound, but that is surely not the intention, and the coarseness is tempered with rich humour. On ‘Rich Bitch’, Vi$$er paints a picture of a working class idea of having it made: “fokken Nutella on my sarnie”; on ‘My Best Friend’, guest The Flying Dutchman unleashes a lewd anecdote that pokes vicious fun at South African President Jacob Zuma. The aggression of the Ninja character in particular fits the beats to perfection, particularly on ‘Enter The Ninja’ and 8 minute sex-jam ‘Beat Boy’ (where his continual use of the word ‘vagina’ in place of anything more ‘poetic’ is both hilarious and disconcerting).

Sometimes, of course, the conceit fails to hold, as on the limp, minimal, and Autotune enhanced ‘I Don’t Need You’, or the nursery rhyme weed-paean ‘Dagga Puff’. But inconsistency has always been the hallmark of but the very best hiphop albums, and the counterbalancing effect of reggae-flecked jam ‘Wie Maak die Jol Vol’ and the closing title track is more than satisfying.

If anything, the true subtleties of this album are hopelessy lost on someone like me, given the cartoonish representation of Zef that Die Antwoord work with- you get the sense that they are still committed to making music for the South African market, and are content to throw out tongue in cheek cultural references that will be properly assimilated by their audience- and the plain fact that a lot of the rapping is in Afrikaans. Indeed, the sense of arrogance involved in assessing an album that speaks of a culture and in a language that is alien to most of its listeners is another facet of the confused, internet-led response to groups such as this. The spoken word opening track puts across something of the brash cultural politics that Ninja is invested in: “I represent South African culture. In this place you get a lot of different things: blacks, whites, coloureds… I’m like, all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person. Whatever, man.” It’s not for us to judge the validity of these statements, or the potential for comedy they contain; and our attitude to groups like Die Antwoord is certainly not making it easier for those whose identities they represent to make themselves heard above the din.

Sam Goff

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Shrag – Life! Death! Prizes! (Where It’s At Is Where You Are, 2010)

Shrag‘s first album, out a couple of years ago, was nicely summed up by one of its more throwaway songs, ‘Mark E. Smith’. Aside from the title, which gave a pretty brazen nod to their post-punk heritage, its trebly guitars and aggressive delivery provided a template for the rest of the record. It was good, yeah, but pretty unvaried. In that sense this new one (N.B. terrible album name) is a huge improvement on the first. The tempos are down, and the calmer songs are mostly the best: ‘Their Stats’, which for Shrag is almost a ballad, is lovely, finding the perfect balance between melody and emphatic delivery on the chorus. That’s not to say they’ve entirely mellowed, though: Helen still shrieks like a banshee on opener ‘A Certain Violence’, and the fuller instrumental sections have a more satisfying weight to them than they used to. The band’s new-found maturity gives them more interesting and clever subject matter for their songs, too: ‘Tights in August’ is a nice duet showing two sides of a relationship with some clever lines. ‘Furnishings’ is the highlight, building from melancholy guitar chords to a chorus with some of the best vocal delivery on the album and lyrics which remind me of the Coppola film “The Conversation” (probably not entirely what they had in mind when they wrote it, but oh well). It’s still not a perfect record: the yelps are still a bit grating and sometimes overused, and the lyrics are occasionally overdone (as on ‘The Habit Creep’, an interesting idea for a semi-spoken word piece which unfortunately fails to really click). But overall this is a real improvement, and points towards better things to come: hopefully by the next one they’ll have ditched the less effective of their riot grrrl pretensions in favour of more of the introspective stuff on here. 

Edwin Shaw

Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty, 2010)

The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens’ contribution to Dark Was The Night, the 2009 benefit album for HIV charity Red Hot, was the ten-minute electro-orchestral exercise “You are the Blood”. Easily outmaneuvering the soppy acoustic fare on that two-disc collection, his Castanets cover distilled the multi-instrumentalism of previous albums into a lurching brass section and moaning vocal harmonies, and then spread the potent mixture over a creakingly simple song structure. That singular overload has now been translated into an album, but it is not just the instrumentation of The Age of Adz that ‘You are the Blood’ prefigures. On the latter, Stevens visualises the song’s addressee as the blood in his veins, electricity in his fingers; emotion is internalised and run through self-referential circuits, trapped within subject himself. Correspondingly, The Age of Adz abandons the perspective and tone of his preceding albums- encyclopaedic excursions into the trivial and grand histories of others, empathetic and broad-minded in subject matter and instrumentation- for an intense introspection fuelled by repetitive electronics. As plenty of commentators have already noted, these skittering beats are not unprecedented for Stevens; he explored these sounds on early records such as ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, demonstrating how prodigious he has always been, rather than making any great leap forward.

Such a sideways step was always going to draw breath, risking the misunderstanding of those fans happy to lose themselves in the library of studied musicality that was Illinois or Michigan. And after the kaleidoscope of public perspectives on those ‘States’ albums, Stevens shows steel nerves to refract all his metaphors and melodies through personal pain; this is a ‘breakup’ album in the old- school sense. A brave move, then, but whilst any of these tracks heard in isolation is likely to impress, the album as a whole suffers from niggling inconsistencies and weaknesses.

For one thing, the beats that support these songs seem oddly homogenous. Stevens has always demonstrated an ear for rhythmic diversity: remember the moment on ‘Illinois’ when the dainty country plucking of ‘Decatur’ melts into the pounding ‘Chicago’. Here, the electronics bubble and twitch like a geyser without ever truly erupting, or else they drop out entirely on piano-led numbers such as ‘Now That I’m Older’. This broad percussive approach is reflected in the lyrics, which leave Stevens open to accusations of heart-on-sleeve, egotistical emoting where we have come to expect polite exposition (sample: “Sufjan, the panic inside, the murdering ghosts that you cannot ignore.”) The melodies and harmonies are unmistakably Stevens’, but as they are laced with reverb here, bleeding in and out of the arrangements- especially on the choral “Now That I’m Older”- the album seems somewhat limp, warbling vocally.

As Stevens hugs his listener close, he paradoxically holds them at a further distance than on any previous release. His famed maximalism seems cheapened here, reduced to baroque trills and arpeggios on flutes and recorders, blocks of brass blasting, and some undeniably impressive wordless harmonies. ‘Too Much’ offers a powerful initial flurry of beeps and sighs, and ‘All For Myself’ tiptoes over hills of anxious emotion with poise and delicacy. Yet, in the end, the dense expanse of the album overwhelms to the point that the simple trick of slipping a fast track into the mix (‘I Want To Be Well’) has the impression of offering a cheap rush. It takes the closing song, 25 minute opus ‘Impossible Soul’, for Stevens to step back, and combine the electronic impulse and ominous vibe with his usual craft and humour.

This is a stunning song, a cross-section of the abilities of one of the world’s most versatile stylists, pulsing with ideas, rhythms, tunes, quirks: but the fact that it is so bloated and out of step with the rest of the album seems to demean both its very independent charms and the quality of the work around it.

Perhaps the above worries stem from more fundamental structural anxieties. Shortly before the release of his documentary-soundtrack The BQE, Stevens gave an interview in which he questioned the continued relevance of the album as a format: “I definitely feel like the album no longer has any real bearing anymore. The physical format itself is obsolete; the CD is obsolete and the LP is kinda nostalgic. I’m wondering, ‘What’s the value of my work once these forms are obsolete and everyone’s just downloading music?’” Reveling and perplexing in the lush texture of The Age of Adz, it is tempting to conclude that Stevens’ uncertainty about the album format has resulted in a retreat into this challenging and frustrating insularity, both lyrical and stylistic. Best to dip into this soundworld at intervals, leaving breathing space for the undeniably thrilling showmanship to work in. Or to take ‘Impossible Soul’ alone as a distilled version of what it was Stevens was aiming for here, what he’s capable of, and to see the rest of the album as what it is: a stuttering and necessary crescendo to this career highpoint. 

Sam Goff

Interview – Yeasayer

You guys are on tour in Europe at the moment.  We were wondering how touring over here differs from touring in the US?  Basically, who has the better fans?

It all depends from city to city. Last night we were in Cardiff, and the crowd was pretty… stiff. But we played in Tallahassee Florida recently, and it was the same sort of deal. I will say though that touring in America is a lot easier than touring in Europe. Everyone speaks the same language, you don’t have to keep changing currency, you can still use you iPhone.

How does London compare to other places?

We’ve played London 17 times, so it’s pretty good.  We’ve being looking forward to this show at the roundhouse for some time.  About a year ago we played two shows at the Roundhouse, opening for Bat for Lashes. Those were really nice shows.  It’s going to be great to come back a year later and sell out The Roundhouse!

You’re touring with Suckers at the moment.  We’re really loving them at the moment in the office.  What do you think of those guys?

Yeah Suckers are a band that we come from New York.  They sang on our first album.  I produced their EP, so there’s always been a creative dialogue.  Sadly people haven’t really heard their record over here ’cause they don’t have a record label.  There album is definitely one of my favourite albums of the year – they’re brilliant songwriters.

Cool.  We want to ask about your takeaway show you did with Vincent Moon.  How did that go?  You guys certainly seem a little bit reluctant in the video at the beginning, but it’s becomes absolutely beautiful in the end.

We were familiar with his work.  Blogotheque was the first website that was doing these sort of stripped down performances.  I think our show was one of the last ones that they actually did with the original creators behind it. So we kind of new a bit about it, and we decided to work with him, but I was a bit reluctant to do something so spontaneous and sloppy, but it kind of turned into this odyssey where we were travelling through the streets of Paris, going on the subway and we picked up people along the way, kina like a modern day pied piper or something.  We were glad that it wasn’t just a performance, but actually turned into a little documentary of that night.  It does make it look a lot more romantic than it actually was!  Ever since we’ve been reluctant to do another session, ’cause we want to keep that experience sacred.

Your music videos are a lot of fun and a bit bizarre? You’ve being working with the visual artists Radical Friend recently for a lot of them recently.  Do you want to talk about the process of working with them?

We were upstate working on ODD BLOOD and came across this interactive video for a Black Moth Super Rainbow song, where you could run the mouse over it and the scene would change.  Its very beautiful and seamless and utilised technology in a very creative way.  Chris just looked them up online and got in touch with them.  It turned out that they were big fans of us.  We knew ‘Ambling Alp’ was going to be the first video, and they kind of just came to us with loads of these surreal crazy ideas.  We looked out when Daft Punk’s production company decided to produce the whole thing.  They had a load of great connections with these great artists in LA who worked for little money and take part in the exciting outdoor scenes.  The people who worked on it, all the naked extras, came in the next day and were like “being out in the desert was one of the best experiences of my life!” It seemed to be a pretty amazing experience all round.  They then started on the ‘O.N.E’ video.  That was more like, hey lets do something more performative and pay with the idea of a band playing live, but doing it in a totally new creepy and futuristic way.  That turned out really good too so those guys are 2/2 now.  Someone huge recently asked them to do a video for them, but they turned it down ‘cos they were too busy working with us!

As a band, where do you guys see yourselves headed from now?

We’ve always being about the slow constant build.  I just want to keep putting out relevant good music.  I don’t ever see us becoming the next Coldplay or U2, but I’d like to keep making songs that appeal to a wide audience, that people find interesting and innovative.

Since you recorded Odd Blood, and release ambling alp, you seem to have received a lot more mainstream attention.  How do you feel about that?  Is it a good or a bad thing?

I don’t think we’ve really achieved any real mainstream success.  I certainly don’t feel it in my pocket.  Every time we feel like we’re breaking through, we seem to hit a wall.  Somehow it’s still just a little bit too weird for Radio 2, or whatever it is.  I still feel like we’re outsiders, we not on a major label and we’re not getting nominated for any Grammys.

Is that the way you like it?

I sort of think that unless you buy into the structure of the major labels, you’re never going to get that mainstream success.  You could have the poppiest song in the world, which I think we might have with ‘Ambling Alp’ or ‘O.N.E.’, but some major label bands that put out those kind of pop singles are going to be the ones that get nominated for Grammys.   We like to model ourselves on the more long-term career bands like The Flaming Lips, Beck and REM.  For us, the struggle is just to remain positive when you’re on gruelling tours playing the same songs over and over again, yet feel like we’re still being productive.  So you just have to make time for that.

You guys hit the festival circuit pretty hard recently.  How do you guys like festivals.

Well its good, we’ve got a good monitoring system together.  We’ve got all the difficult situations solved now.  I mean the 20-minute changeovers you have at festivals used to be a pain.  Our first run of festivals in 2008, we were plagued by technical difficulties and people were complaining that we took 30 minutes to sound check.  People don’t realise though that at a show at a club you have sound checked for an hour at least before people get in there.  We’ve finally sorted all that out now though.  I really enjoy them though.  I mean, there are a couple of really horrible corporate, muddy drunk festivals with terrible bands.  But there are other festivals that are more boutiques, where they try and be more sustainable, with good vegetarian organic food.  After playing all the summer festivals though, its good to be back in the club, playing to your fans.  Back in the summer we played at Austin City Limits where we were on just before The Flaming Lips.  All there fans were in the first 10 rows, and they had now idea who the hell we were.  We just went on playing our songs, and we realise that none of these people actually care about our songs, there just here to get good seats for the flaming lips.  There’s always that kind of problem.  BUT, you feel like you’re really accomplishing something when you win over a crowd at a festival.

You mentioned The Flaming Lips and Beck a couple of times.  IT seems like you guys look up to them quite a lot.  If you could get a compliment from one person on your music, who would it be?

Beck actually took us on tour for 5 days.  When we got there he told us that he loves our album.  We were like “What, YOU like OUR album!”  His music changed my life when I was 12 years old.  When Jay-Z gave us a shout out a Coachella that was pretty amazing as well.  So we’ve gotten a fair bit of love already.  I don’t know who else alive is out there that I would really love to be complimented by.

On last question completely out of left field.  We heard a rumour that someone out of the band helped decorate Kanye West’s apartment.  Is there any truth in that at all?

Yeah, Ira used to be a carpenter.  One of his jobs was in Kanye’s apartment.  They had to build a bunch of differently styles of trim in his room.  They had to build it just so Kanye could come in and say, “I like that one”.  HE couldn’t just look at a brochure and say I want this one; he had to have them all built.

Cool, thanks a lot for everything.  We look forward to seeing your show tomorrow night.

Dasal Abayaratne & Chase Jackson

Dinosaur Pile-Up at KCLSU, October 19th 2010

Anything with ‘dinosaur’ in the title has to be good, it’s like ‘robot’ or ‘ninja’! But Dinosaur Pile-Up goes one step further, implying images of cute dinosaurs in cars, crashing into each other. Some are angry, some confused, some just a little concussed.

When we arrive, the supporting act is in full swing. They proclaim they’re called Turbo Wolf in between hard-core rock rifts and guns and roses style lyrics, and the odd 80s children’s cartoon space sounds really completes the picture. These guys have definitely watched ‘School of Rock’ at least once. They’ve got it all; the power stance, the face melting guitar solos, and awesome stage presence. These guys are ‘Rock!!’ with a capital R and some exclamation marks for good measure. Their set isn’t too long, just enough to get the crowd really going. These guys are definitely something to watch out for.

And so to the main event, Dinosaur Pile-Up takes to the stage. Those people in the audience expecting merchandise with dinosaurs driving cars on it will be disappointed, others maybe satisfied so long as you’ve never heard of Nirvana or more recently Blink 182. For those not in the know, Dinosaur Pile-Up is a rock band from Leeds, taking their name from a dodgy moment in a ‘King Kong’ remake, they cite early Foo Fighters as an inspiration and you can definitely hear it. The result is a stunning rock powerhouse with plenty of rock hooks.

Having never heard any of their material before, I was mildly surprised to feel like I could sing along with the band. According to frontman Matt Bigland, this is exactly their aim: “I know it sounds bent but I liked the idea of people to be able to sing along to the songs, even if they were singing about being hated or upset. I wanted to make a record that kicks people in the face whilst getting stuck in their head.”

The problem with the band, for me, is that they seem to have no original direction, which is a genuine shame because you want them to succeed. At one point in the evening they took a break to play a slow song off their album, which illicited a negative reaction from the audience, but its here where their talent really showed. The melody and the clever lyrics really shine when they’re not trying to recapture someone else’s genius. In all fairness we have to give some credit to these guys for trying to bring back the glory days of grunge/punk rock. Those days were amazing and I for one salute them.

Margaret Bennett