Single Reviews December 2010

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – ‘Round and Round’ [4AD,  2010]

The recent surge in interest in Ariel Pink’s work, and his subsequent album with Haunted Graffiti, Before Today, have seen the reclusive singer-songwriter and one time apprentice of Animal Collective redefine his musical palette; as is only to be expected. In this revaluation, his response to acclaim that has been slow to arrive (albums over the last ten years have documented closer to two decades of composition), he has retained the fundamental sound he’s been peddling all this time- nostalgic, dreamy pop music hearkening back to the 70s and 80s- whilst altering its delivery. This too is understandable: if AP’s current popularity is the result of his ambient/lo-fi earlier efforts making their influence heard in contemporary chillwave and fuzzed-up indie pop, then his riposte is to strip away that fuzz and haze to reveal the very real songwriting talents that have always supported the sonic ornamentation. It turns out that a cleaned-up Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti track wouldn’t sound out of place in the more stylish corners of the 80s: crisp disco rhythms, a tumbling ‘Billie Jean’-aping bassline, and a chorus of honeysweet harmonies. There is still a ramshackle charm in the deconstructed bridge with its strained refrain, and Ariel clearly enjoys the chorus a little too much, relying too much on it in the second half of the song. But then, that is just a sign of a musician confident in his own abilities, and it’s a confidence well earned.

Sam Goff

Eminem – ‘Echo’ (ft. Royce Da 5’9″ & Liz Rodriguez)

After collaborations on his latest album Recovery with more familiar hip hop artists, such as Lil Wayne and Rihanna, it was touch and go as to whether Eminem’s collaboration with former associate Royce da 5’9″ would work.  In fact the combination of both artists’ similar rap styles, deep, gritty and rhythmic, over a simple beat and gospel choir vocals, is strangely effective.

Sadly, whilst the verses from both Eminem and Royce are tight, and lyrically incredible, the chorus lets the track down. Vocals from Liz Rodriguez are not up to scratch, and are best described as “shouty” and even worse the transition from verse to chorus fails to flow as it should in a hip hop song. This is most noticeable in the intro of the track, where there is 52 seconds of vocals and gospel, before Royce da 5’9” starts to spit. The song would undoubtedly be better suited to a slightly more urban chorus, although the gospel backing throughout as an undertone is on point.

Eminem’s rap is certainly up to the high standards one is used to from his latest album. Typically, the content is explicit, but the words take a refreshing back seat from drugs, and focus more on music, than usual. However, the real star of the show surprisingly is Royce, for his verse, which he absolutely kills. This could be Royce’s chance to break into the popular charts; his rapping bears similarities to tracks from current hip hop superstars Tyga and J. Cole.

A massive track, with a not-so-great chorus, but definite room for more verses by a new fave of mine: Royce da 5’9”.

Libby McBride

Marnie Stern – ‘Risky Biz’ [Kill Rock Stars, 2010]

Marnie Stern’s new single has a childlike quality to it. She opens up singing line by line as if she’s forming the words as she goes along. With this slightly twee and juvenile approach more of Marnie’s own angst come out, as she sings “I’ve got something in my soul/Pushing me to hold onto the pain.” This is all quite a big change compared to her older songs. As you might have noticed, not until now is there a mention of her guitar noodling; the default opening line for any article about her. In fact it only acts as a backing to her voice and is so toned down that at first listen it’s barely noticeable. The new direction is interesting and probably necessary but still there is lingering feeling that you’d rather the excitement than the introspection.

Adam Saunders

Fujiya and Miyagi – ‘Yoyo’ [Full Time Hobby, 2011]

There is a disconnect in the bowels of this song from the gently hyped Brighton quartet; cringe worthy as it is to say this, the song has its ups and downs. The positives are in the economical instrumental base: softly distorted guitar and synth occasionally peeling away into squeaks and scrapes, a warm blanket of noise with a delicious element of unease. The negatives, unfortunately, are the rhythm and vocals that this blanket cannot hope to cover up: a single, looped jab of organ, thoughtlessly bobbing drums, and a vocal line defined by restraint, with maybe six notes and fewer lyrics. At first it seems strange to draw this line down the middle of the song: after all, minimalist repetition is the hallmark of the Krautrock/ambient music that clearly fuels Fujiya and Miyagi. After a few listens, though, the issue becomes clearer: the faint menace of the overlay is undermined by the politeness and soft delivery of the rest. Groups like Kraftwerk are exhilarating because their repetition is confrontational, daring you to dismiss the very minimal construction behind the music. F&M are comfortable with the sonic vocabulary; in fact, they’re probably too comfortable, and hence so is the listener.

Sam Goff


Single Reviews October 2010

The Quails – ‘Fever’ [Like The Sound, 2010]

It’s hard to know precisely which part of this single The Quails expect us to be impressed by. The brief verses plucked woven of inanity itself? The lazy guitar chops in the chorus, or the forgettable melody they carry along like a sack of rocks? Perhaps, given that the groups are fresh out of college, we are supposed to marvel at gravel-throated frontman Dan Steer’s hard rock stylings, coming across, as they do, like Audioslave crooner Chris Cornell boring himself to death? Surely it can’t be the utterly out of place guitar workout that the band have deemed excuse enough not to actually write any new music after the second chorus. Having already opened (note: not supported) for Muse, The Kooks, and Newton Faulkner, it’s clear that discretion is not part of The Quails’ arsenal; given that they clearly function according to a model of leather-bound rock stardom that was already defunct in the 80’s, their best hope is surely to hope that they get more gigs on Radio 2, where Janice Long “has confirmed that she is loving the Quails album.” A song as simplistic and confused as that sentence is depressing and grammatically incoherent.

Sam Goff

Pulled Apart By Horses – ‘Yeah Buddy’ [Transgressive, 2010]

The most depressing thing about this not-quite-hardcore dirge is that the band has clearly approached its composition in a spirit of efficient calculation: the ‘funky’ syncopated verse must be the makeweight in convincing the listener to excuse the moist and directionless warbling of the painfully straight chorus; the totally edgy use of two vocalists, neither of whom can scream with sufficient chutzpah, is presumably enough to make up for the cheap Americanisms of the lyrics (“Yeah, buddy! You got one heck of a nerve!”) What a vulgar display of musical weakness from a band who seem to be marketed as some art-rock party piece, hoping that none of their flaws will become too apparent if they are all on display yet carefully aligned. Furthermore, this reviewer is aghast at the climax, with its doubly-hollered refrain of “Ring out the bells!”, which is such a blatant and limp-wristed plagiarism of The Blood BrothersFucking’s Greatest Hits that the question has to be posed: why would you make your influences so obvious when you have neither the guile nor the inclination to attempt to match them, let alone evolve from them?

Sam Goff

Neon Indian – ‘Psychic Chasms’ [Lefse Records, 2010]

Deliberately derivative, Neon Indian blends the ethereal quality of Shoegaze into the warm analogue feel of 80’s synth-pop to produce a mix that is lush to its very core. Unfortunately, ‘Terminally Chill’ isn’t quite laid back enough for it to compete with the other tracks on Psychic Chasms but it still sports the lo-fi production and dreamy synths that create that very distinctive sound. Beneath the layers of synthesisers, the vocals are lyrically indiscernible and heavily processed (something reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine) but this really helps the track find a richer tone, without shifting undue attention to its singer. Possibly the most ad-hoc genre ever, the Chillwave “movement” of last summer which arose to label acts like Neon Indian, Washed Out or Memory Tapes deserves more attention than it will get.

Oli Frost

Panda Bear – ‘Tomboy’/’Slow Motion’ [Paw Tracks, 2010]

After a heavy three years, Panda Bear (AKA Noah Lennox of Animal Collective) returns with this super limited 7″, each track taken from the future LP Tomboy. A lot of the sounds on both tracks are down to Noah utilising his sampling machines further. Previously these had been reserved mostly for obscure sounds to add a psychedelic effect, but here it appears they have been used to piece together drum patterns in a more inventive way. As a result the beats provide a much more fundamental part of the songs compared to previous works such as ‘Comfy In Nautica’, where the percussion sat much lower in the mix.

The weird effects are still present though, but are used in short bursts, giving a much more stripped down feel to the record. As a result this single feels a lot less euphoric than some of Noah’s other works, but I think this makes the tracks feel more like songs rather than pieces of a whole experience, ideal for a single.

The lyrics are still as undistinguishable as ever; layers of reverb-drenched vocal on both tracks blend harmoniously together and follow a cascading melodic pattern. Beautiful as this is, his heart-felt groans (e.g. ‘Song For Ariel’) seem to be absent here, and again this further withdraws from the ecstatic feelings. Without a motive that’s easy to relate to, the spotlight is focused more towards the pure sounds coming from this record. The crownpiece in this sense is the 3/4 drum sample of ‘Slow Motion’, kick drums and hand claps that verge on the brink of Hip Hop, a feeling particularly re-inforced as a Dr. Dre chord sequence chimes in. However good these drum beats are though, for both tracks they continue relentlessly throughout without any additional layering or sparse breakdowns, and I get the feeling that this lack of progression in the music might grow tiresome after a dozen plays. But in the short term, the experience when hearing these songs is a positive one, and you may even find your shoulders popping with the rhythm.

If you’re lucky enough to find a copy of this floating around be sure to grab it, it’s beautiful under a needle.

Roger Stabbins

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

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