Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Prince - The Breakdown


Ladies and gentlemen, a miracle has occurred.

After a lengthy and bitter feud that infamously resulted in “the artist formerly known as” (because you can’t pronounce a symbol), Prince and Warner have kissed and made up.  It was on the Warner Bros Records label that Prince released some of his best material, including ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Sign O The Times’ and his soundtrack to Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’.  But when Warner refused to allow him to release his music more frequently and own his original master tapes, he labelled himself a slave. 

Somehow, both parties have put aside their differences and allowed Prince to retake control of those precious masters.  And lo and behold, 2014 just so happens to be the twentieth anniversary of ‘Purple Rain’, just in time for a fancy deluxe re-release and some extra marketing for his forthcoming album ‘Plectrum Electrum’.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Still, you can’t begrudge the legend if it means he can release more music – just like he’s done here with The Breakdown, the first track to be released under the Warner Bros label.  “This could be the saddest story ever told”, he begins, lamenting a lost relationship – perhaps that with Warner.  There’s a distinctly 90s feel beginning with softly chiming chords and a cooing falsetto, perhaps in a nod to his big 90s ballad The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.  The beat soon drops though into a slow jam of pizzicato strings, space age effects and an increasingly manic and high-pitched vocal that reaches an almost orgasmic peak in the final third. 

Now all we need is one more miracle.  One I daren’t say.  One that begins with G and ends in bury…

4/5

Listen: The Breakdown is available now.


Monday, 21 April 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) - Marc Webb


The first Amazing Spider-Man film was ultimately pointless, simply rehashing the same origin tale that's been told time and again.  At least the fresh-faced cast showed some promise.

Thankfully that promise is fulfilled with the sequel, though it does somewhat suffer from the same flaws.  As with the first film, the tone is suitably adolescent to match Andrew Garfield's teenage Peter Parker.  On the one hand this lends the film a lighthearted feel to match its colourful, comic book origins.  On the other, this leads to a film full of comedy - from the cartoonish use of music (from Hans Zimmer no less), to comic quips and even ironic use of the original theme song as Peter's ringtone.

There's also heavy reliance on cliché that's comic when it shouldn't be.  The story sees Peter discovering the reasoning behind his parents' death, balancing his duty as Spider-Man with his teenage duties of graduating college, getting a job, and maintaining his relationship with his girlfriend.  It's an obvious narrative, that along the way includes a laughably mad German scientist, a secret base and some unintentionally amusing one-liners.  Jamie Foxx's Electro is perhaps the biggest cliché of them all.  He begins as a typically geeky, shy and unknown scientist who, after gaining his powers, is reborn as an electricity shooting Frankenstein creature - misunderstood, yet angry as hell and weirdly obsessed with Spider-Man.  There's a second villain too, but not only is this too heavily reliant on knowledge of the previous film, it's one villain too many.

What Electro does allow for is some spectacular CGI.  Foxx's eyes glow as electricity courses through his veins, whilst heavy use of slow motion allows us to see the true impact of his powers.  It culminates in a brilliant final battle that's intense and impressive, though it's Spider-Man himself who impresses most of all.  The camera swoops between buildings as he flips through the air and you really get a sense of this boy having fun with his powers and how exhilarating it would be to step into his web-slinging shoes.

Most of all, though, it's the female characters that ensure there's human depth to the narrative.  Sally Fields steals the film in one swoop as Aunt May, a surrogate mother torn between loving and protecting her nephew.  And as Gwen Stacy, Emma Stone continues to allude the typical damsel in distress.  It's her on-screen chemistry with Garfield, real or no, that separates this film from its predecessors.

Oh, and if you're a fan of the X-Men, make sure you stay until after the credits...

3/5

Friday, 18 April 2014

Kelis - Food



"Are you hungry? My mum made food..."

And so begins 'Food', the latest album from Kelis and her tastiest offering since, well, 'Tasty'.  Since training to become a chef at Le Cordon Bleu and developing her own range of sauces ("Feast"), food has become an intrinsic part of the singer's aesthetic.  That's immediately apparent from the track titles here: Breakfast, Jerk Ribs, Friday Fish Fry, Biscuits N' Gravy.

'Food' is, incidentally enough, a veritable musical feast.  Kelis has consistently changed her style with each album, from the angsty hip-hop of her early days, to the futuristic R&B of 'Tasty' and the electro dance of 'Flesh Tone'.  Yet whilst her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, it's her jerk ribs that keeps them satisfied.  With this album, produced by Dave Sitek, Kelis is serving up some soul food.  Taking inspiration from soul, funk, gospel and Afrobeat, this is proper homestyle cooking just like mama makes, the sort of food that keeps you filled up for hours.

It's not all retro sounds though - this is a Kelis album after all.  The sound might consist of funky basslines and rhythmic percussion served up with lashings of brass, but this is ultimately a modern album that gives humble ingredients a new twist with some light touches of electronics.  The lyrics, too, are contemporary and flavoursome.  "Maybe we'll make it to breakfast", she purrs with a wink on opener Breakfast (perhaps a nod to Prince's Breakfast Can Wait), whilst on the sensual Floyd she claims "I got some space, I want that man to fill it".  You'd never find such spicy innuendo in the Motown tracks of old.

There's just enough layers of flavour to keep you salivating throughout this musical meal, its appeal owing to Sitek's warm production and Kelis' authentically husky tones.  The soulful root is definitely a more natural fit for her talents than the slightly awkward EDM of 'Flesh Tone', 'Food' instead offering some rich tracks for the singer to really get her teeth stuck into.  Cobbler for instance sees her letting loose with some bongo-fuelled carnival dance, whilst Biscuits N' Gravy features a particularly emotive vocal.

Even the best meals have the odd course that doesn't quite tickle the tastebuds and 'Food' is no different - acoustic palate-cleanser Bless The Telephone is an abrupt change of pace.  For the most part, though, this is a seductive, sunshine-laden and carefree record serving fun times and musical nutrition for your ears.  And with a follow-up apparently on the way, there's definitely room for a second helping.

So yes, I am hungry and your mum's food smells delicious.  I'll take the biggest portion you've got.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Jerk Ribs
* Cobbler
* Biscuits N' Gravy

Listen: 'Food' is released on April 21st.


Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Hoosiers - The News from Nowhere


The Hoosiers sure know how to write a good chorus.

That’s obvious to anyone who’s listened to the band’s previous two albums.  Now, dropping the cartoonish style of their debut and the electro touches of its underrated follow-up, ‘The News from Nowhere’ sees the band growing up a little with an album of solid guitar-pop.  Having departed from their label back in 2011, this album is self-released and marks a fresh and more serious start. 

Not that they’ve ditched their pop roots.  ‘The News from Nowhere’ boasts some incredibly catchy chorus hooks – in particular lead single and opening track Somewhere in the Distance, that lurches from its soft pre-chorus to a funky chorus of noodling guitars and rhythmic riffs.  It’s followed by the sparse sound of Make or Break – You Gotta Know that similarly morphs into an upbeat, sing-along chorus.  Then there’s Fidget Brain, Rocket Star and even ballad My Last Fight – each track is clean, simple and instantly appealing, stripping away the trite trappings of the band’s early days whilst losing none of their personality.

‘The News from Nowhere’ is a slightly mixed bag, however.  Towards the end the album begins to lose its way with some tracks that don’t quite hit the same chorus highs compared to earlier tracks.  The absence of the synths – so prominent in the band’s second offering – also suggests a lack of sparkle.  Instead, the focus predominantly on guitars feels like a safer route and a step backwards – like a poppier version of The Feeling, or a more serious Scouting For Girls.

No matter how catchy those choruses, ‘The News from Nowhere’ could well be too little too late for the band who clearly have talent but have been somewhat shunned by the mainstream.

I for one am still very worried about Ray.

3/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Somewhere in the Distance
* Make or break – You Gotta Know
* Rocket Star

Listen: ‘The News from Nowehere’ is available now.




Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love


Paolo Nutini’s ‘Caustic Love’ might just be the most overhyped album of 2014 so far.  You’d be hard pressed to go anywhere at the moment without seeing the Scottish singer songwriter’s face emblazoned across a billboard, a TV screen or a Spotify account.  But is this really the album the public wants?  Or is Nutini just the latest example of the industry’s determination to force serious guitar music on to the masses?

The excessive marketing is understandable.  It’s been five years since Nutini’s second album ‘Sunny Side Up’ was released so, with this long-awaited and more mature release, it’s time to reassert his position.  And that position seems to be as the next big soul star, a position that’s already overcrowded.

Nutini does little to distinguish himself, besides his unique sandpaper vocals.  ‘Caustic Love’ might be a step on from the annoyingly jaunty ska and doo-wop inspired songs from his previous albums, but this is still a fusion of soul, rock, funk and blues that rarely strays from James Brown territory.  Opening track and lead single Scream (Funk My Life Up) establishes the funky soulful sound that feels like a man covering Janelle Monae.  Ironically enough Monae crops up later on Fashion, immediately elevating the track with her effortless cool.  Better Man is a typical acoustic snoozefest, whilst tracks like One Day, Numpty and Looking For Something roll together into a string of derivative, if well executed, songs.

When Nutini does break the mould he proves his potential.  Iron Sky is the album’s centrepiece – a six minute storm of raining guitars, stomping drums and a pained, impassioned vocal that together reach an almighty crescendo in the final third.  The effect is superbly powerful.  It’s followed by Diana, a downbeat and moody slice of jazz soul with a wandering bass, light touches of organ and a vocal that’s more subtle but no less raw than the previous track.  The album then closes with the gently lilting Someone Like You, Nutini’s vocal supported solely by bass guitar in a move that’s worlds away from the overwrought opening track.

It’s clear that Nutini is posited as a serious and talented musician, with a suitably caustic voice that lends a wealth of emotion to each and every vocal line.  Yet he’s equally a musician living in the past.  This is not an album that reimagines soul music for a new generation, but simply replicates past glories.  Does this really herald the return of serious guitar music?  Your move music industry…

3/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Iron Sky
* Diana
* Someone Like You

Listen: ‘Caustic Love’ is available now.



Monday, 14 April 2014

Lana Del Rey - West Coast


She started off so well.  When Video Games first hit the internet way back in Summer 2011, Del Rey’s mix of retro glamour and modern hip-hop cool was instantly heralded as the next big thing.

What followed was a debut album that wavered from the sublime to the weird or just plain dull; a deluxe edition including new songs with ridiculous lyrics (you know the one – I can’t look at Pepsi Cola the same way); a joke of an H&M ad campaign with an utterly forced sense of cool and a terrible Blue Velvet cover; and an obvious spot on Baz Lurhmann’s Great Gatsby soundtrack.  It’s fair to say that, over time, Del Rey has become a cliché of herself.

It comes as excellent news, then, that she’s redeemed herself with her new track West Coast.  This is still the same sultry, nationalistic Lana that fans have come to love, with a husky vocal delivery that lounges lazily over the production like a Hollywood starlet on a chaise longue (complete with questionable diction).  The song is split into two halves: a somewhat menacing uptempo (for Del Rey) verse, followed by a woozy and seductive chorus.  As a whole, the song has a darker and more angsty tone, with a focus on muted guitars and spiky rhythms that’s reminiscent of The Neighbourhood and their excellent track Sweater Weather.  It’s enough of a change to invite some new fans to the party – the sort of party where glamorous hipsters dance in slow motion to music on LP, coiled in a haze of smoke and whiskey.

With West Coast, Del Rey is back where she belongs: setting trends with her glamorous cool.  Welcome back.

4/5

Listen: West Coast is released on 18th April and will feature on forthcoming album 'Ultraviolence'.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Todd Terje - It's Album Time


‘It’s Album Time’ indeed.  The debut album from Norwegian DJ/Producer Todd Terje, this is basically the Daft Punk album that everyone expected the robots to make.  If ‘Random Access Memories’ had been made with a little less chit chat from Giorgio Moroder and a few more Moog synthesisers it might’ve sounded like this. (For the record, I have no problem with Moroder’s chit chat)

As with Daft Punk, Terje is looking to the past for his inspiration, resulting in a sort of cyber funk disco fusion for a modern age.  Moroder is again a major figurehead (with perhaps a splash of Kraftwerk too) – his influence can be keenly heard in the driving synth bass of the hypnotically modulating Delorean Dynamite and the similarly mesmeric Oh Joy that’s lifted almost exactly from Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.  There’s also an element of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack in the sometimes sweeping cinematic feel and the frequent space age effects.

Equally, ‘It’s Album Time’ is very much a dance album of funky bass lines, driving beats and a myriad of Latin rhythms.  Strandbar is perhaps the most traditional with its central house piano riff, but elsewhere Svensk Sås (Swedish Sauce) is ironically much closer to Brazil than Sweden and Alfonso Muskedunder is based around a bossa beat.  This is far from a straight disco album, instead incorporating funk, jazz, electro and more.

There’s one thing above all that ‘It’s Album Time’ has in spades: humour.  It stems from the amusing album and track titles, as well as the cover art designed by Bendik Kaltenborn (apparently the two men bonded over “crazy nonsense stupid humour”).  It extends to the music too and the way Terje plays with sound, from the TV soundtrack style of Preben Goes to Acapulco, to the ecstatic Delorean Dynamite or Swing Star, Pt. 1, and to the squelching sounds of Inspector Norse (arguably Terje’s biggest hit to date).  Throughout, this is very much an album that doesn’t take itself too seriously – at least on the surface, as beneath it all is a solid bed of technical musicianship.

It’s for this reason that Johnny and Mary, a cover of the Robert Palmer ballad here with vocals from Bryan Ferry, sounds so out of place.  For starters it’s the only track that features vocals, Ferry’s whispering voice sounding faint and powerless.  More so its downbeat vibes are drenched in a melancholy that jars with the rest of the album.

Terje’s influences may be obvious and, in the wake of Daft Punk, his album lacks the French duo’s gift for melody (though none of their invention in the production department).  Still, ‘It’s Album Time’ is an album that’s full of characterful personality, fun and utter joy that elevates it beyond the usual producer fare.

4/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Strandbar
* Delorean Dynamite
* Inspector Norse

Listen: ‘It’s Album Time’ is available now.



Thursday, 10 April 2014

SOHN - Tremors


The role of the producer has expanded in recent years.  Not content with adding their trademark sounds to the songs of others, many are now releasing their own debut albums to become stars in their own right.  But what happens when the producer goes it alone?  Can a producer provide the necessary star quality, or is it little more than a demo tape labelled “please employ me”?

London/Vienna-based producer SOHN (a.k.a Christopher Taylor) is the man behind the hits of breakthrough artist Banks, darling of the blogs.  In addition he’s produced for Kwabs (see the moody Last Stand) and has remixed a number of other tracks.  Now he’s going it alone with his debut album ‘Tremors’.

SOHN’s work with Banks has defined her sultry, sensual electro R&B sound that’s become so popular and it’s a sound that continues in his own work.  Clearly inspired by the minimalism of James Blake, the moodiness of The Weeknd and the sombre R&B of Jamie Woon, ‘Tremors’ is all subdued beats, moody synths and falsetto vocals.  If that sounds familiar it’s because it is – this is an utterly contemporary (even derivative) body of work that doesn’t particularly push the boundaries.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t some excellent work here though: the slow-burning opener Tempest; the Thom Yorke layers of Artifice; the seductive tones of Bloodflows; the deep house feel of Lights; and, best of all, the mesmeric title track that closes the album.

Taylor’s delicate vocals are certainly heartfelt, as on the otherwise out-of-place piano ballad Paralysed.  As a whole, though, the album lacks star quality to bring it together.  Just as Dev Hynes’ album ‘Cupid Deluxe’ as Blood Orange felt somewhat like a Solange album without Solange, ‘Tremors’ somewhat feels like a Banks album but without Banks.  The difference is that Hynes’ sound is far more unique and forward thinking, able (just about) to carry the album alone.

The other major disappointment with ‘Tremors’ is that some of SOHN’s best work is missing.  A quick look on his SoundCloud page reveals a string of tracks left off the album: the likes of Red Lines, Warnings and Oscillate.  Why these weren’t included is a mystery.

The result is an album that has its moments, but feels more like a producer’s album than that of a true star and never quite surpasses the work of his influences.

3/5

Listen: 'Tremors' is available now.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Beautiful Game @ The Union Theatre


Sports and musicals – two opposing pursuits that don’t really fit together.  Whilst Rocky is currently doing the rounds on Broadway, few sports-based musicals have really stood the test of time.  As Troy in High School Musical can attest to, it’s often a choice between the two to “get your head in the game”.

For John, the protagonist in The Beautiful Game, the choice is between football and girls – at least initially.  With music from Andrew Lloyd Webber and a book from Ben Elton (originally premiering in the West End in 2000), the plot centres on a football team in 1960s Northern Ireland to the backdrop of religious violence and terrorism.  In such a context, football – the third religion that’s “better than sex and better than beer” - is quickly forgotten as the show takes a turn towards serious social drama.

The result is a musical with an identity crisis.  The real battle here is not a West Side Story style rumble between the Catholics and the Protestants, but a war for stage time between a football comedy and an Irish nationalist drama.  Sadly, one undermines the other.  The first act establishes the two-dimensional characters and their predictable trajectories with a lightly comedic tone that’s reverent of the time and some one-liners that mostly fall flat.  What else can you expect from Ben Elton?  The second act jarringly switches on the drama button, finally injecting some jeopardy that was merely hinted at in the first act.  Yet how are we meant to feel for these characters and their plight when their dialogue is so childish and based on Irish stereotypes (“we’re even better drinkers than footballers!”)? 

Lloyd Webber’s score also has a split personality.  As you’d expect there are plenty of tunes, be they folky, rock and roll or militaristic, but it also has its menacing moments (the opening flute melody especially).  Too often, though, it relies on stereotypical romance – a cliché that’s hindered by Elton’s bland lyrics. 

When the show does focus on football, the results are thrilling.  In this production from director Lotte Wakeham, the audience is set in traverse like a stadium with cast members popping up to cheer from behind.  The actual game, choreographed by Tim Jackson, is suitably sweaty, testosterone-fuelled and thrilling to watch.

Thankfully, Wakeham has directed a talented cast to add some depth to the music and the characters.  As a whole the ensemble are hardworking and offer some varied characterisation, with Daniella Bowen (Christine) and Stephen Barry (Del) shining vocally in their rock number.  The real star, though, is Niamh Perry who brings powerful emotion and maturity to the role of Mary – something Lloyd Webber and Elton were unable to do overall.  Still, The Beautiful Game is an enjoyable (if long) musical that remains “bloody good craic”.

3/5

Watch: The Beautiful Game runs at the Union Theatre until May 3rd.




Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Ed Sheeran - Sing


Is anyone else bored with Pharrell Williams?  Sure, he might have the Midas touch when it comes to contemporary pop hits, but Happy is still EVERYWHERE, his name gets on everything and his album was disappointing.

And now he’s lending a hand to Ed Sheeran with his comeback single, Sing.  It’s not such a farfetched choice though, as Sheeran’s music has often had an element of funk and hip-hop (see You Need Me, I Don’t Need You).

That said, this is very much a change of style for Sheeran and a welcome one.  As decent as most of ‘+’ was, nobody could stand another album of acoustic love ballads.  With its rhythmic guitar playing, heavy beats and “whoooa” chorus hook this is certainly a more upbeat and exciting track than we’re used to, even if the lyrics lack the same bite and/or emotion of his past material.

The song has plenty in common with Justin Timberlake’s Like I Love You, in particular the emphasis on falsetto vocals, essentially making Sing Sheeran’s Justin moment.  Whilst he’s always excelled at performing live, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s sexy and cool enough to pull it off in front of a live audience.

3/5

Listen: Sing is taken from forthcoming album 'x' released on June 23rd.