Braids – Native Speaker (Kanine, 2011)

You may have heard a lot about Braids’ debut album already. A band to watch? Yes. A spectacular and original debut? Yep. Another Animal Collective? Not entirely. One of the most common tags attached to this new release is that they are just mimicking Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and the gang. Sure, you can hear AC’s influence, but this band are something a bit different, stringing out their 7 songs to 45 minutes, keeping the record pulsing with minimalistic beats, and an outstandingly dynamic female voice (even attaining Bjorkian reaches). They are patient; sometimes the songs take a while to grab you, which may alienate some people – but once it happens, it’s so gradual that you’ll wonder when it actually did get you. ‘Lemonade’, the opening track and leading single, sets the tone for the album; a progressive, hypnotic band, that make sure each of their drawn out tracks is layered, lovingly textured, creating a sort of soundscape yet with minimalism. It’s the vocals that go from whispering to bellowing, the reverb-coated lyrics, and the skilful and pulsating cohesiveness of the band; the Cocteau Twins meets Animal Collective (circa Feels), with a rainy twist. Another standout track, ‘Plath Heart’ is hard not to love, whizzing along as its own pace, with an irresistible voice, an assortment of instruments to match, and again making something great out of very little. Singing about pushing out babies has never been so amazing.

 

Nevertheless, there are the songs you don’t notice as strongly, drifting along, giving you a breather. And as a first release, the production isn’t always on the beat – for example, the drums could have been more pounding, punchier. But, you’ll forget all that with ‘Glass Deer’, their best song, epitomizing Braids: mesmerizing, elegant, gradual, just brilliant (you’ll be humming “oh I’m fucked-up-de-cup-de-cup-de-cup” for a long while). With the title track, what at first seems distant becomes mesmerizing – the empowered, yet vulnerable voice dominating the drifting sounds paints its blunt picture of sexuality and sensuality so well.

 

They have already been noticed as an upcoming force, currently touring the US with fellow experimentalists Baths, and granted, it’s not a masterpiece, but as debut record, its what it needs to be; not bland, confident, and something that you can’t get enough of.  It is a pop-laced experimental debut, and although the drawn out tracks, and the eccentric arrangements might put people off, Braids will find a home. So, with a new year, there are always worries about the new music; it’s in good hands with Braids. And with AC out until May at least, Braids can give you their own take on original, bellowing and minimalistic music, and hopefully remain alongside the Collective and Gang Gang Dance, providing their own blend of distinctive music.

Oliver Smith

Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (Rock Action Records, 2011)

When progression and development take the place of repeated song structures and throbbing guitars are put to use in texture and scope instead of hooks and choruses, you have ‘post-rock’. It’s about as pretentious a genre as it sounds, so after becoming labelled as one of its pioneers, Mogwai have tried to defy its definition. Nonetheless, it’s possible to describe at-least a few of those qualities in Mogwai’s 1997 debut Young Team that were foundational to the genre. For example quiet, brooding guitar and piano melodies over soft and sparsely placed beats that would build and build to dynamic heights, becoming swallowed in a thick wash of distortion. Sometimes the crescendos expressed rage, while others were uplifting, but neither was restrained in melodrama. From the mid-2000s bands like 65daysofstatic broadened the genre until the utility of the term was diminished, yet at the same time there was this slew of ‘generic post-rock’ acts. As the formula for immensity and atmosphere became routine, the impressions lost their force. However, in the last few years some of those original instrumental groups have left behind the central tenants of post-rock, and taken their ideas elsewhere. 65daysofstatic for one, returned to their roots last year to bring their odd time signatures to more conventional dance music. With most tracks barely passing the 5 minute mark and the substitution of pianos for synthesisers, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is similarly divergent. Mixed in with some solid vintage Mogwai, there are good things for listeners both new and old.

Some of these changes may make original fans uneasy. Its first single, ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ is an atrocity on first listen. Its verse-chorus-verse structure, repetitive vocals and punchy beat comes across as a desperate drive to grab a wider audience. Similarly, ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’’s opening synth sounds disgracefully like one in ‘Mr. Brightside’. However, even when breaking out of post-rock, Mogwai still finds a way to come into its own. Overall, the album just sounds more digital, but this has brought new scope for creating texture and ambience. Its vocals are processed to the point where they become indiscernible, and subtle static ambient screeches and glitches leave layers left to explore with each listen. The rough and brittle distortion through ‘Rano Pano’ shows unprecedented attention to detail in the treble, creating the cold and harsh sound that gives the guitars their menace. However, there are tracks left untouched by this treatment. ‘How to Be a Werewolf’ has that warm and indistinct bass which harks back to the Young Team era. Despite being overtly major, it manages to be uplifting yet not sickeningly sweet. There’s a patient three minutes build before it makes its powerful crescendo, while contrasting tracks like ‘San Pedro’ jump the gun and enter head on. Both are sure favourites, but one can’t help but feel that where they restrain themselves, the pay-off is far more rewarding. In all, it’s this kind of diversity in approach that make it hard to pin down the album’s sound. However, on any approach, no track is filler, and if you’ve been unable to get into instrumental rock before, then now is a better time than ever.

Oli Frost

Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra – Rockinghorse (Rhino UK)

Rockinghorse marks a triumphant and stomping return for Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Their first album since 2008, the record is full of variety, from rousing big-band ballads, to cheeky quick steps and, of course, perfect boogie-woogie.

First off, I must admit that I am a huge Jools fan – ever since seeing him perform live some four years ago, I’ve always had a little bit of a soft spot for him. Yes, he may appear to walk backwards the majority of the time and bark out his words like an excited terrier but, Michael McIntyre jokes aside, he really is a master of his craft – technically brilliant – and his enthusiasm and love of music is infectious. In a genre that can make it easy for records to come across blasé and “easy listening”-esque, it is this enthusiasm which imbues Rockinghorse with confidence and personality, making it an engaging and fun – yes fun! – listen.

This is helped along by some outstanding guest turns. Michael McDonald gives a smoking performance in ‘I’ve Got News for You’ – my favourite of the album – whilst Alison Moyet turns ‘The Man That Got Away’ from something that could have easily turned out quite cheesy into a passionate and heartfelt ballad, bitterness and regret dripping from every syllable. However, it is Ruby Turner that is the powerhouse of the record – lending her magical vocal talent to three of the strongest songs (‘Roll Out Of This Hole’, ‘Remember Me’, ‘You Are So Beautiful’), fluttering effortlessly over each and every note.

Nevertheless, the album is not without its faults. Although the variation – on the whole – pays off, the incredibly high standard of the majority leaves certain tracks seemingly out of place. ‘London Belongs To Me’ – featuring Essex-duo Chas and Dave – is the most glaringly obvious of these, whilst Rico Rodriguez’s reggae ‘What A Wonderful World’ works well in theory, though isn’t quite pulled off.

Despite the odd blip however, Rockinghorse is a glorious comeback – marked out by the talent of its contributors: the guests, the orchestra and Mr. Holland himself.

Liz Davies

Dntel – After Parties 1 and 2 (Sub Pop, 2010)

Jimmy Tamborello aka Dntel is stuck in a bit of a rut. In the late 90s his career began to snowball; first hailed as a pioneering electronica artist he gained a cult following. In 2001 he released his first full length under the Dntel moniker Life Is Full Of Possibilities, which featured a smattering of collaborations, most famously with Death Cab front man Ben Gibbard. This one-time collaboration turned into a full on world-beating side project when the pair released Give Up as The Postal Service in 2003. The end of the Postal Service’s tour marked the end of Tamborello’s quick rise to fame and he went quiet for a while. He finally followed up with Dumb Luck in 2007, which featured a different guest vocalist on every track, as if Tamborello was auditioning people for the next Postal Service-esque surprise package. Unfortunately nothing on Dumb Luck reached the heights of Life Is Full Of Possibilites and Tamborello retreated and has since only released demos and reworks of older material as Dntel.

Now Dntel returns with a pair of EPs; After Parties 1 and 2, which immediately set themselves apart from his previous work through the mere fact that they are entirely lacking in vocals. As the title of the EPs would suggest, his aim here is to create something for people to dance to. Every song has a beat, decorated by lightly sprinkled synths and the inclusion of unthreateningly looming reverberations, the basic ingredients of any dance track. People could easily dance to this, my doubt is as to whether people would dance to this when there is so much else similar and more importantly, better, out there. The beats are tame, the additional instrumentation is boring and insignificantly different from track to track to even tell them apart.

The definition between the two EPs is almost indistinguishable, although  After Parties 2 takes a slight step off the dance floor to venture more into textural electronica akin to Pantha Du Prince, and has relative success on ‘Peepsie’ and the demented funfair electronics of ‘Aimless’. However, the majority of the tracks will have listeners wondering whether Tamborello accidentally put an early, unfinished version of his tracks on; so uninteresting and lifeless are the tracks that you can’t help but feel a certain lack of inspiration went into them.

It’s a sad state of affairs for an artist who started the last decade riding a vibrant wave of interesting and loveable electronic music. However, the start of this subsequent one finds Tamborello at the end of his party and sadly the only after party activity that these two new EPs are likely to soundtrack is sleep.

Rob Hakimian

Alexisonfire – Dogs Blood EP (Roadrunner, 2010)

Although Alexisonfire has joked in the past of softening their sound, even going so far as to say they’d start a fund to remove fan’s Alexisonfire themed tattoos when they became a free-jazz band, Dog’s Blood EP may be the heaviest and grimiest collection of songs they’ve released so far.  The first thirty or so seconds should be sufficient to realize that this album was released as an extended play on purpose.  Don’t expect the usual chorus driven anthems of angst, but do not discount it for that reason either. Dog’s Blood is the band’s exploration of a dirtier more feedback driven sound. Dallas Green only appearing briefly on the title track, and instead largely makes his presence on the EP felt through some brilliant guitar ‘soundscaping.’

The sound is simultaneously different and the same old Alexisonfire sound you would expect, almost as if they took some old songs, strapped them to their shoe soles, and went for a slogging trudge through some sludge and feedback. The title track starts things off with a thud, building itself up until the beautiful bass run halfway through, and then again to the chorus. The final two minutes are thick with dissonant chords and resonating vocal work: finally the sounds recede into low bass and screeching feedback. The next two songs follow along the same lines, dark and ‘black as jet,’ with instrumental passages, breakdowns, and some really affecting guitar work. Things Alexisonfire have always been comfortable with, but seem to have taken a different path with on this extended play.  Powerful lyrics on ‘Grey’ are made all the more poignant by some of the most moving lead guitar work from the band, period.

The fourth and final song, ‘Vex,’ is perhaps the most ambitious song in terms of its experimentation, blending Alexisonfire sensibilities with some strong post-rock influences, and stretching the reverberating and soaring instrumental on for a full six minutes. The song really shines through for its divergence. Despite the experimental nature of the EP, a caustic cohesion prevails among the tracks, and some new sounds that could be effectively explored for the next album. ‘Dog’s Blood’ is immediately notable for its familiarity, but with a few listens, it becomes increasingly difficult to pick a stand out track. I for one am expecting the next album to be an interesting departure. In Dog’s Blood, howls heard from miles around, definitely not an EP to pass up!

Liam Lanigan

Brian Eno – Small Craft on Milk Sea (Warp, 2010)


Listening to a Brian Eno album, especially an ambient one like Small Craft On A Milk Sea, is like being taken on a tour of an alien world – Enoworld. As such, opener ‘Emerald and Lime’ gives a bird’s eye view of the landscape below before we delve right in from the next track on. The swirling and sparse ‘Complex Heaven’ takes us on a tour of the eerie caverns, whilst the driving kraut-rock of ‘2 Forms of Anger’ gives us a good look at the crashing oceans and the beat-heavy ‘Dust Shuffle’ takes us over the sparse plains and deserts. It all has a groove, a melody but also an edge that keeps you on your toes, much like something Eno’s Warp label mate Aphex Twin might create.

The inhospitable first half gives way to a lusher, softer closing half. ‘Slow Ice, Old Moon’ fully realises the arctic tundra of Enoworld; simultaneously serene and sinister, but the electronic blips of ‘Lesser Heaven’ come to swoop us away and give us a beautiful view of the cosmos. From the gusty peaks of ‘Calcium Needles’ we get a phenomenal view of the peaceful side of Enoworld, which is shown to us in further detail on the piano ballad ‘Emerald and Stone’. In fact by the end of Small Craft On A Milk Sea you start to feel wonderfully at home in this new environment, which makes it hard to accept when ‘Invisible’ comes and sucks us back out of our new lives and we re-emerge into our former selves as the album ends with birds chirping and we remember the world we used to call home.

Rob Hakimian

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

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