Tuesday, 22 July 2014

La Roux - Trouble In Paradise

Nine?  Only nine tracks?  Is that it?

Well, yes actually.  ‘Trouble In Paradise’ has been five years in the making and at first glance its track list may seem a bit underwhelming.  Yet surely a tight and concise album of pop gems is preferable to an overly long album packed with filler?

That’s exactly what La Roux have delivered.  Now the solo project of the quiffed androgynous singer Elly Jackson, in one respect little has changed since the self-titled debut – her soft, restrained vocals are still just as distinctive and the 80s synthpop production is as clean and precise as before.  Since the departure of Ben Langmaid on production however, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ is very much the voice of a single artist and it’s all the better for it.

Jackson covers some dark territory on this album, but there remains a playfulness in the production.  Specifically, this is evident in the buoyant playground melodies of Kiss And Not Tell or the catchy “money money money” hook in Sexotheque.  Even on a broader scale, there’s a greater willingness to vary the stylistic formula: from the funky guitars of opener Uptight Downtown that establishes less reliance on pure synths, to the melancholic ballad Paradise Is You, the exoticism of Tropical Chancer, and the 80s stomp of Silent Partner.  The MIDI sounds of the latter especially are so 80s they may as well have been ripped straight from an arcade machine. 

Mostly, though, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ offers far greater sophistication and maturity in the songwriting (as clichéd as that sounds).  Cruel Sexuality, for instance, could easily be read as an exploration of conflicted sexuality summed up with the line “you make me happy in my everyday life, why do you keep me in a prison at night?” – although Jackson has preferred not to bow to the pressures of society and has avoided questions regarding her sexual orientation.  And of course it’s wrapped up in a sumptuous pop groove that builds its layers towards the final chorus.  Followed by the ironically titled Paradise Is You, it’s clear that love is never simple, no matter what your sexuality.  Indeed, one of the major themes of the album is the emptiness of lost love – something that the upbeat Sexotheque provides a different slant on (“she wants to know why he’s not home…he’s at the sexotheque”). 

The masterpiece of the album, though, is Let Me Down Gently.  Jackson perfectly encapsulates the pain of a break-up with someone you admire, respect and ultimately still love.  “But when you let me down gently, it still feels hard”, she mourns, “you’re not my life but I want you in it”.  That emptiness rears its head in one of the best breaks of recent pop – an empty void at the song’s core like a silent scream, before plunging us into the beat-heavy second half and its saxophone outcry.  Vocally too, Jackson’s performance is imbued with raw feeling.  This is simply sublime sad-pop.

So yes, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ may only be nine tracks long.  But with less bleeps and bloops and more warmth and human emotion, this is a consistently brilliant and honest pop package that pairs truthfulness with undeniable hooks.  It’s one of the finest pop albums of the year.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Cruel Sexuality
* Silent Partner
* Let Me Down Gently

Listen: ‘Trouble In Paradise’ is available now.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Little Dragon @ Somerset House, Summer Series

Closing this year’s Summer Series at Somerset House were Little Dragon, whose experimental electro provided a spectacular ending as they played to an enthusiastic crowd who braved the rain – despite never really having a mainstream hit.

There’s undoubtedly something incredibly alluring about their music.  Perhaps it’s their use of moody synths, the setlist comprising tracks from their recent album ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ as well as their past material.  A hypnotic opening led into the evocative Mirror and its curiously dissonant chiming, whilst the techno atmospherics of Only One that closed the show gradually evolved into a full rave.  In between, were the sombre calls of current single Pretty Girls, the menacing basslines of Killing Me and Please Turn, and the neon bleeps and bloops of Ritual Union and My Step, amongst others.  Swinging from ethereal minimalism to sparkling alt-pop, the sounds are as enchantingly mesmeric as they are deeply sensual.

Or perhaps it’s the powerfully rhythmic beats that shudder through the body, from the thunderous crashes of Mirror or Killing Me, to the industrial funk shuffles of Shuffle A Dream and Test, the glitchy Ritual Union, and the erotically charged tribal crashes of Klapp Klapp.  The crowd were, of course, dancing throughout.  The extended length of certain songs was the only major criticism, leaving no time for the excellent Paris from their most recent release (or the radio-friendly Sunshine).

The setting certainly helped the ambience, the twilit courtyard of Somerset House presenting a clash of neo-classical architecture and ultra-modern sounds.  Smoke rose over the audience in the fading sunlight, punctuated by sombre blue hues, a full spectrum of rainbow neon and shimmering coloured lasers.  It was the perfect backdrop to the band’s seductive, nocturnal evocations.

Most of all, the band’s appeal comes from Swedish-Japanese frontwoman Yukimi Nagano, who personifies their icy Scandinavian cool and quirky oriental futurism.  Her vocals range from soft coos and breathy sighs to soulful guttural utterances, whilst she slinks and shuffles around the stage conducting each beat and pulse with her tambourine.  She is the little dragon, and not even the rain could extinguish her fire.


Listen: 'Nabuma Rubberband' is available now.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Hotel @ The National Theatre

There's trouble in paradise.

Except this paradise is an all-white, clinical hotel room in Kenya - in total contrast to the idyllic ocean seascape just outside the door.  It forms the backdrop to what begins as a drama about a dysfunctional middle class family, typical of playwright Polly Stenham's style.

It's the children who hold the power here: the handsome, rebellious Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and his somewhat manipulative sister Frankie (Shannon Tarbet).  The play begins with them conspiring, a secret on the brink of being revealed, before they playfully joke about alcohol and dance to Destiny's Child.  Their inadequate parents have their own issues: Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) has lost her government job after sexual images of husband Robert (Tom Beard) were leaked online.  Yet after a shocking revelation of Freudian proportions, it's clear that the teenagers aren't as innocent as they seem.

It sets up an interesting narrative of a broken family with deep psychological issues - in particular the relationship between father and son - but these are never explored.  The play suddenly takes a dramatic and savage turn with the entrance of chambermaid Nala (a frighteningly calm Susan Wokoma), steering the narrative away from its beginnings and headfirst into colonialism, aid and Somali pirates.  A fair amount of explanation is required that slows the pace, before the action quickly becomes violent and harrowing, the pure white set thoroughly destroyed.  Throughout, Hotel is never less than gripping.

Yet it's as if Stenham got bored halfway through writing her family drama (or purposefully wanted to disrupt her own formula) and tacked on an entirely new play.  Perhaps this is to diminish the first world problems of this family, positioning their troubles within a much wider context to reflect the sudden and shocking damage that terrorism causes, but it brings with it an overly jarring change of tone.  Plot threads are left frustratingly unanswered (especially from the opening scenes) and as a whole the play lacks a satisfying conclusion.  As essentially two plays in one, the first proves to be the more intriguing yet underdeveloped.

Amongst excellent performances, Rhys Harries particularly stands out.  His Ralph is a surprisingly mature teenager on the brink of adulthood - the only character to undergo any real development in a play that can certainly be read as an exploration of the loss of innocence.


Watch: Hotel is performed at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Shakespeare In Love @ The Noel Coward Theatre

A new play, based on an Oscar winning film that celebrates the works of Shakespeare, produced by Disney.  It’s a match made in theatrical heaven, right?

Following the same fictional narrative as the film, Shakespeare In Love presents a young Will (the handsome Tom Bateman) suffering from writers block – that is, until he meets his muse in the form of noblewoman Viola De Lesseps (the amusing Lucy Briggs-Owen).  Together they strike up a forbidden romance that forms the backbone to arguably his best known work, Romeo and Juliet.

As one character notes during a rehearsal scene for the play (within the play), “this is not just entertainment, it’s art”.  In fact, for Shakespeare In Love, the opposite is true.  As you’d expect from Disney, this is light-hearted fluff that’s pure entertainment with little depth.  The script is the epitome of trite, scraping the surface of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for countless references and direct quotes that result only in embarrassed groans from the audience.  Much of the play’s humour stems from this snigger-worthy irony: poking fun at Shakespeare is simply too easy.  And like in the film, the Marlovian theory that Christopher Marlowe assisted Shakespeare is perhaps hard to swallow.

It’s not helped by a cast that insist on hammy over-acting, as if ridiculing the RSC school of drama.  With all the silliness of the script the play often descends into pantomime, with cartoonish action, little depth of emotion and a lot of cross dressing.  This is a play where the second act awkwardly opens to the sound of bawdy sex noises; a play where the most celebrated on-stage actor is a dog.  The actual Shakespeare scenes are well acted, which makes you wish the cast would just put on one of his classics instead.

This, however, is the cynic’s view.  If you can embrace the camp, then Shakespeare In Love becomes a highly enjoyable piece of feel-good fluff.  The constant references do offer some clever nods and witticisms, weaving a simple tale that draws in the best of the Bard’s work.  This is a celebration of his writing, with all the tropes and conventions we’ve come to admire – there’s even a song and dance at the end.  The acting might be over the top, but the cast provide plenty of laughs whether from Anna Carteret’s stern yet underused Queen Elizabeth, Doug Rao’s foppish Ned Alleyn, or Paul Chahidi’s bumbling Henslowe.  There are also plenty of period touches, from the set design that replicates the Rose Theatre and transports us from backstage to onstage action, to the onstage musicians that provide suitably courtly music, and dance captain Sandy Murray jigging his away across the stage to set various props.  The play might be mindless, but it’s incredibly easy to sit back and let it all wash over you like a big blockbuster theatrical hug, making up for its lack of affectation with amusement and charm.

Oh, and did I mention there’s a dog?


Watch: Shakespeare In Love runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 25th October.

A massive thank you to the team at Official Theatre for the ticket, visit their site here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Jungle - Jungle

Though music critics and fans may try, the sound of Jungle is difficult to define.  Is it jungle, as per their namesake?  Or is it soul?  Funk?  Psychedelia?  Hip-hop?  Or is it easier to define in terms of other bands: Rudimental meets Jai Paul, MGMT, Justice and Django Django?

It barely matters.  Above all, ‘Jungle’ is dance music, with propulsive rhythms and an infectious swagger that simply cannot fail to get your body moving in all the right ways.  As the duo themselves noted in a recent interview (in the Sunday Times), “dance is the simplest way for humans to interpret music”.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that the videos for their singles all heavily feature dance, whether the routine of Busy Earnin’ or the six year old breakdancer in Platoon

And like that other great dance duo, Daft Punk, Jungle have so far remained anonymous – just without the robot heads.  Known simply as J and T, the duo are London-based friends who quietly put their music online to some very loud critical acclaim, resulting in a nod in the BBC’s Sound Of 2014 list at the start of the year.  It’s all led up to one of the most anticipated and best debuts of 2014 so far.

Much of the duo’s appeal comes from their slipperiness when defining their sound.  Sure, there are funky riffs, new wave guitars, driving bass lines, processed beats, falsetto vocals, harmonious brass stabs and glittering sparkles of electronica.  But their music is so much more than the sum of its parts.  Each track is a rich tapestry of warm layered textures that combine to create something unique, something effortlessly cool.  With such depth to the production, it’s almost impossible to tire of the album.

Opener The Heat is an urban scorcher, its sweaty summer vibes punctuated with police sirens and hip-hop beats.  From there the tracks just keep getting better.  The new wave guitars of Accelerate are far more laidback than the name may suggest.  Busy Earnin’ has already become a hugely recognisable track with its bright horn melodies and slick grooves.  Julia features electronic organs and a soulful shuffle.  And for a more blissful take on their sound, Crumbler sees their falsetto vocals floating over funky guitar patterns and syncopated bass.  Each track is as infectious as the last – as a whole ‘Jungle’ is incredibly addictive.

It’s not all uptempo dance though.  There’s a darker side to the duo that rears up in the slower tracks.  Smoking Pixels offers a brief interlude at the centre of the album with a Morricone-esque whistling motif that’s almost sinister.  And penultimate track Lucky I Got What I Want offers a take on melancholic disco, pulsing like a heartbeat beneath the sighs of “don’t you forget about me”.  It’s followed by the relaxed Lemonade Lake and its lamenting chorus “I don’t know what went wrong, I miss you”.  Even the brighter tracks often have a mournful undertone, whether Busy Earnin’s ode to the 9-5 grind, or Julia’s outcries of “Julia I don’t know a thing about you”. 

It ensures that this is a well-rounded dance record with a sound all its own.  However you want to define it, ‘Jungle’ is the coolest album you’ll hear this summer.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* The Heat
* Julia
* Crumbler

Listen: ‘Jungle’ is available now.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Sheppard - Geronimo

Yes, this one starts a bit Mumford/Passenger-esque with its strumming guitars and thumping percussion.

But this is not a track to be easily dismissed.  Far from a twee piece of folk, this soon develops into pure pop joy.  The guitars soar into Temper Trap style noodling.  The vocals build into a gospel sing-along.  The hooks come thick and fast in the chorus.  And you’ll be hard-pressed to get the “bombs away” female vocal out of your head within seconds (incidentally that's the name of their debut album due later this year).  This is pop at its best: infectiously rhythmic and uplifting, with memorable melodies and a sense of immediacy that begs for mainstream radio appeal.  It’s hugely addictive.

Geronimo has proven to be a massive hit in Sheppard’s native Australia (I mean, it knocked Pharrell’s Happy off the top spot after all) and, with a wealth of support, is set to be huge across the world over the summer.  It’s not hard to see why.


Listen: Geronimo is released on August 25th.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Robin Thicke - Paula

Robin Thicke: the man everybody loves to hate (#askthicke); the man whose music everyone has stopped buying (this album).  Yet somehow he’s managed to release a collection of songs even less palatable than last year’s ‘Blurred Lines’.  This is the sound of desperation, hot sticky desperation left behind in a tissue next to an old picture of the titular ‘Paula’.

It’s no secret that this album has been released in honour of Thicke’s estranged wife Paula Patton as he begs her for forgiveness following multiple rumours of cheating.  The apparently rapey lyrics of Blurred Lines don’t help.  Neither did THAT picture of Thicke groping a fan (in the mirror at least).  He recently told Good Morning America “I just wanted to make something artistic out of a very difficult period”.

Well I guess at least he’s trying.

The songs of ‘Paula’ don’t exactly help his cause though, ranging from the creepy to the downright inappropriate.  “Touch me you’re my fantasy” is the opening lyric of the album, but whether this is aimed towards Paula or some mistress is a blurry line indeed.  As he continues to plead “please, please, please, please…” on that same song in a silky falsetto, it’s unclear whether he’s begging for forgiveness or intercourse.  Sonically at least the Spanish guitars mark a return to the Latin flavour of his earlier work, but the baggage imbued in the lyrics negates any enjoyment.

The titles alone give a sense of the obvious sentiments in each song: Get Her Back (“all I want to do is make it right”), Still Madly Crazy (“I’m so sorry you had to suffer my lack of self-control”), Love Can Grow Back (“show me how love can grow back”), The Opposite Of Me (“all that she wants is someone who doesn’t hurt”).  Black Tar Cloud, meanwhile, is a clear cry for help as he contemplates the impact of his actions (albeit with some horrible innuendo): “I was licking your wounds, I thought we were straight, I thought everyone was going to eat the chip, turns out I’m the only one who double dipped”.  Too Little Too Late has a similar meaning, with its female chorus of “it’s too little, too little, too late” and Aretha reference in “should’ve shown some R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.  When a man is so obviously, musically, on his knees, it’s understandable to feel a little sorry for the guy.

But you’d think he’d learnt his lesson.

The more upbeat tracks are a clear attempt to repeat the success of Blurred Lines, but the whole sentiment of the album isn’t just undermined on these songs, it’s practically nuked.  Lock The Door is probably his new mantra for whatever he gets up to in recreational hours, a female voice of reason answering “I don’t know what this is but I know this ain’t love”.  On Whatever I Want, Thicke chimes “I can do whatever I want” over a sexy beat that’s hardly going to inspire forgiveness.  Living In New York City has a slightly threatening air to it with the line “wait ‘til you see what I do when I find somebody like you”.  If you’re looking for creepy, though, look no further than the deeply voiced opening of Something Bad as he groans suggestively “there’s something bad in me” before a string of revolting innuendo: from “the blood in my veins, something’s got me by the reigns”, to “so take a leap of faith and baby land in my bed” and “I know you want to fly so baby open up your wings”.  If you want forgiveness Robin, maybe don’t sing a song clearly aimed towards a mistress that suggests you can’t keep that “big dick” under control. 

After all that, it’s simply laughable that he dare end the album with a track called Forever Love

It’s true, Thicke might be an easy target for criticism and he certainly shows a certain degree of bravery in laying bare his soul here - his sheer desperation does evoke a touch of sympathy.  Most of all, though, ‘Paula’ simply cements Thicke as the sleaziest, grottiest man in music.

He does have a good voice though.


Gizzle's Choice:

Listen: 'Paula' is available now, if you want to not buy it like everyone else.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Bright Light Bright Light - Life Is Easy

NEWSFLASH: EDM is not always synonymous with the banal, the boringly mainstream or the downright awful.

Bright Light Bright Light (a.k.a Rod Thomas) continues to defy expectations with his second full-length LP.  This is intelligently crafted electro sad-pop, that marries dance-influenced production with excellent songwriting.  But then it would have to be to count Elton John as a fan, right?

The sound of ‘Life Is Easy’ follows last year’s ‘Make Me Believe In Hope’.  This isn’t strictly EDM.  Instead, it’s closer to pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on the dancefloor.  There’s an 80s retro feel to much of the production too that ensures Thomas is essentially the new Pet Shop Boys – his restrained vocal only underlines this. 

That said, this isn’t aimed strictly at a mainstream audience either.  The songwriting is more concerned with sentiment and emotion than melody-writing amongst all the bleeps and bloops.  As a whole, the album does become a little repetitive, leaving you wishing there were a few more obvious pop hooks thrown in for good measure.

Yet it’s that timeless combination of uptempo production and heartfelt lyrics that makes Bright Light Bright Light’s music some of the best dancefloor sad-pop since Robyn’s Dancing On My Own.  A major highlight is I Wish We Were Leaving that features vocals from Elton John: like his own Your Song and its “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words” lyric, this track relies on a simple and direct lyric to rupture the heart, “one day you’ll make somebody so happy, but it won’t be me”.  The song crescendoes with a euphoric surge that cannot fail to put shivers down the spine. 

It’s followed by the affirmative An Open Heart, where Thomas urges his lover to “make yourself believe in all the love that comes to an open heart”, whilst Good Luck is a semi-sequel to the Basement Jaxx track of the same name spitting out “good luck being lonely” over funky house beats.  Later there's the heavily dancefloor influenced I Believe and its simple but effective chorus ("I don't know what you've done to me, but I believe"), whilst More Than Most is a gloriously upbeat track with glittering synths and backing gospel harmonies.

The lyric "life is easy" is repeated throughout, perhaps ironically for all the heartache, but as a whole the album is a glossy, polished and effortless collection of pop songs.  Far from robotic EDM, the emotional songwriting elevates the music with a huge beating heart.


Gizzle's Choice:
* I Wish We Were Leaving
* An Open Heart
* More Than Most

Listen: 'Life Is Easy' is available now.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

TIAAN - Devil's Touch

Australian born, LA residing and Swedish managed/produced TIAAN has been releasing a new track each month on Spotify for the past few months.  Devil’s Touch is the latest, is the best so far and is an incredible jam.

Settling somewhere between Jessie Ware and Banks, her sound is sultry yet minimal, soulful R&B.  Yet where previous releases like Dive Deep and Be Ok are big, moody, cinematic offerings, Devil’s Touch is firmly in pop territory.  An infectious beat and warm synth pads bubble beneath the singer’s soft, breathy vocal, whilst the chorus hook is instantly memorable.  “If you’re looking at me like that you can keep looking at me”, she purrs.  Hit that repeat button immediately.


Listen: Devil’s Touch is available now on Spotify.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear

Sia is probably the biggest and most important pop entity that you may not have heard of.  That said, however unwittingly, you’ll definitely know her voice and at the very least you’re almost certainly familiar with her music.  The Australian singer-songwriter is responsible for some of the biggest hits of the last few years, having written for the likes of Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Kylie Minogue, Lea Michele, Céline Dion, Katy Perry and more.  Plus you've definitely heard David Guetta's Titanium on which Sia provides vocals, as well as Flo Rida's Wild One.

And now, more than ever, it’s time to take note of Sia.  Though she’s been releasing music for years as a solo artist, it’s with her sixth album ‘1000 Forms of Fear’ that she’s truly exploding into the spotlight following her songwriting success.  This in itself is an interesting prospect: following her 2010 album 'We Are Born' Sia was uncomfortable with the idea of fame, was unable to promote the album how she wanted to and became addicted to drugs and alcohol.  It's for this reason she became such a prolific songwriter for others and she's refused to show her face during the campaign for this new album.

Yet for a songwriter who's scared of fame, why bring out another album?  Is this a killer collection of pop tracks or does she give away her best work?

Sadly the latter is very much true.  For fans of Sia, '1000 Forms of Fear' is exactly as you'd expect: a collection of epic pop ballads with huge soaring choruses that are nigh on impossible to sing live.  But when she's proven herself to be the master of the killer chorus, why are these songs so disappointing?

The album opens with current single Chandelier that's typical Sia: a crazily high chorus sung in her uniquely powerful vocals and completely lacking in subtlety.  It's also indicative of the more personal and honest lyrics of the album.  In a candid and revealing radio interview with Howard Stern, Sia went into depth about her troubled past; lines like "Party girls don't get hurt, can't feel anything" are a clear reflection of Sia's own alcoholism.

In that same interview she described her songwriting process as "find a strong title, milk the metaphor".  This might work for the fluffy pop she writes for others, but besides Chandelier and the brilliantly moody Elastic Heart (that featured on the Hunger Games soundtrack) the lyrics here feel convoluted, as if to mask herself in her bid to hide from fame.

Throughout the album Sia clearly cements her own style, rarely deviating from her own template.  Only Hostage offers a move towards indie-rock in a mire of ballads that bizarrely lack the infectious hooks she's known for.  Fire Meets Gasoline is an exception, but it's an almost note-for-note copy of Beyoncé's Halo (written by Ryan Tedder), whilst final track Dressed In Black repeats seemingly forever.

Sia's emotive, cracking vocal elevates her music, but clearly her desire to shy away from fame has held back her own solo career.  In her own words, "I understand that music is fashion, and I'm fashionable right now".  Perhaps she won't be for much longer - at least, as a solo artist.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Chandelier
* Elastic Heart

Listen: '1000 Forms of Fear' is released on 7th July.