Saturday, 30 August 2014

Autobahn @ The King's Head Theatre

Inside a car there's no escape.  Driving down the highway there's nowhere to go but speed on ahead.  It's inside cars that we're forced, however reluctantly, into conversation, a place where honesty and truth bubble to the surface.  And, like the titular autobahn where there's no speed limit, the words just come flowing out at full throttle.

Driving is also a deeply American ritual, so Neil LaBute's black comedy Autobahn (presented by American theatre company Savio(u)r) really is a darker look under the hood of the American Dream.  Structured as seven duologues all taking place within the same car setting, the characters range from the comic, to the absurd and the frightening.  What's striking, though, is the underlying realism - there's truth to these characters and their situations, from a silent mother picking up her rebellious daughter from rehab, to a wife cheating on her husband with multiple partners.  Humour underlines much of LaBute's witty script, largely focusing on grammar and wordplay, alongside a constant sense of foreboding.

Two duologues stood out in particular, reflecting the two extremes of the production: 'Bench Seat' and 'Road Trip'.  The former involves a young couple see-sawing between young love ("wanna make out?") and breaking up.  Zoë Swenson-Graham plays a psychotic, high maintenance girlfriend; Tom Slatter the hapless victim of her endless chatter.  It's a fun skit, but with an amusing youthful awkwardness that's highly relatable.

'Road Trip', however, is a total contrast, focusing on a young girl and her manipulative, paedophilic schoolteacher.  Where the other scenes have the audience awaiting a punchline, this scene has tension from the start: the outcome is easily predicted making the young girl's ignorance all the more horrifying.  A sinister subject, here sensitively portrayed by Swenson-Graham and Henry Everett.

In fact, it's no coincidence that both of these scenes involve Swenson-Graham, also artistic director of the company.  Her ability to transform from character to character is mesmerising, perfectly balancing comedy with truth.  She is the star amongst a very skilled, four-strong cast.

The images of endless highways projected behind the actors and the classic country-rock soundtrack make for a very American production.  Yet the universal themes of Autobahn ensure this play is relevant on both sides of the Atlantic.


Watch: Autobahn runs at the Kings Head Theatre until 20th September.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Official Theatre for the ticket. Follow #LDNTheatreBloggers on Twitter for more reviews.

Banks - Goddess

Sexy doesn't mean showing everything at once, flashing it all and leaving nothing to the imagination.  Sexy means subtlety, mystery, cool seduction and even a touch of darkness.

This Banks has in spades.

Since the release of her breakthrough single Waiting Game last year, the LA singer has become the bloggers' darling of 2014, seducing the critics with her moody, sensual take on R&B.  And after a number of EPs and singles, 'Goddess' is one of the most anticipated debuts of the year, essentially offering more of the same.

Banks is a singer who relishes the darkness.  Waiting Game set the template for her sound: all throbbing bass, fragile vocals and glacial synths.  It's no coincidence that she supported The Weeknd on his tour last year.

Across the full album, this sound is applied to different moods, reflecting both metallic toughness and haunting vulnerability.  "Fuckin' with a goddess and you get a little colder" she warns on the sinister title track, and on the menacing Beggin' For Thread she coos "My words can come out as a pistol / I'm not good at aiming but I can aim it at you".  On opener Alibi, though, she's less self-assured: "Please give me something to convince me that I am not a monster".

The lyrical focus of 'Goddess' is certainly the breakdown of relationships, exclusively from a feminist point of view.  It's epitomised by Drowning: "From the girl who made you soup and tied your shoes when you were hurting / You are not deserving".  And whilst less explicit than FKA Twigs, her views towards sex are equally, coolly provocative - "I wanna know how you taste" she knowingly sings on Stick.

From her deep lower register to the nasal timbre of her fluttering falsetto, Banks' default vocal mode is restraint.  It lends the sound a sense of cool detachment that only adds to the sensual nature of the music - when she does finally let loose (the latter half of Brain for instance), it's all the more poignant.

A couple of acoustic ballads bring her voice to the fore, though they're largely forgettable.  Banks is at her best when lithely slinking around delicate melodies supported by rich bass-heavy production, as on Fuck Em Only We Know and Waiting Game.  Though perhaps overly similar across the lengthy track list (and familiar to fans of her material), Banks' sensual, atmospheric sound definitely lives up to the hype.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Goddess
* Waiting Game
* Brain

Listen: 'Goddess' is released on 1st September.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Royal Blood - Royal Blood

The whole 'rock music is dead' debate is becoming a bit of a joke now. It reached a new level this week with Lorde winning the award for Best Rock Video at the MTV VMAs. Sure, she might have a gothic rebellious streak and she may have performed with Nirvana, but nobody could describe her music as rock. It's not as if there isn't plenty of guitar-based music around, it's just that it's not very good.

Enter Royal Blood. Where so many bands are blending their sound with other (commonly electronic) genres or edging towards pop, the debut album from this Brighton-based band represents a return to pure rock. This is an album about aggressive guitar riffs, powerful drumming and raw vocals.

What's so impressive is that this is achieved as a duo: Mike Kerr on bass guitar and vocals and Ben Thatcher on drums. Their sound is thick and heavy, without the need for extraneous instruments: direct, solid and hot-blooded. Imagine a blend of The White Stripes with the bass riffs of Muse (Hysteria in particular) and the deep, grunge sound of Rage Against The Machine.

The restriction of a duo does limit the sound a little – there’s little variety across the ten tracks of ‘Royal Blood’. But then, there are hardly going to be any ballads are there? Kerr and Thatcher are incredibly skilful at what they do, squeezing out every ounce of invention from their sound. This might be a heavy rock album but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for melody and hooky riffs. Kerr’s bass playing stretches to every inch of the instrument: the rich, weighty and distorted tone negates any lack of screeching guitar solo, whilst his deceptively simple riffs shudder through the ears. His vocals too range from an angsty wail to a cooing falsetto, whilst Thatcher’s machine-gun drumming never fails to drive the music at full throttle.

With such a consistent sound and high quality, few of the tracks stand out. A handful of singles may be familiar: namely staccato opener Out Of The Black, the gritty and visceral Little Monster, the frenetic riffs of Come On Over and the (vaguely) more muted Figure It Out. Blood Hands also sticks out for its slower, weightier pace, whilst Ten Tonne Skeleton simply demands to be cranked up to maximum volume. With each track hovering around the three minute mark, this is a rock album palatable for mainstream tastes. It might be short, but few albums this year have packed such a punch.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Come On Over
* Blood Hands
* Ten Tonne Skeleton

Listen: 'Royal Blood' is available now.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

New Pop Roundup

You want some new music?  Of course you do...

Nicole Scherzinger - On The Rocks

Ok, it's not quite Boomerang, but On The Rocks is definitely at the bottom end of Scherzy's output.  It's a massive step down from Your Love, the whole chorus conceit is dreadful, and it's just a middling mid-tempo jam.  Shouldn't she be back on X Factor or something?


Listen: On The Rocks is released on October 12th.

Nicki Minaj - Anaconda

Let's face it, we're only here for the video.  The song itself is just a lazy sample and a bad rap with insightful lyrics like "where my fat ass big bitches in the club?"  As for the visuals, if you like ass, jungles, ass, fruit, ass, Drake and some more ass, then you'll probably find much to enjoy.


Listen: Anaconda is available now.

Rae Morris - Closer

Fans of Bombay Bicycle Club may recognise Morris as their sometimes collaborator, but her solo material is a total contrast.  Closer mixes tinkling piano and electronics with an R&B beat oddly reminiscent of Return Of The Mack.  The result is a very clever piece of pop songwriting, proving Morris is definitely one to watch in the coming months.


Listen: Closer is released on 22nd October.

Troye Sivan - Happy Little Pill

Though the baby-faced South-African born Troye Sivan has been making music for a little while, his recent EP 'TRXYE' is his first major label release.  Though he may look like a cross between La Roux's Elly Jackson and James Blake, his music is very different.  Happy Little Pill is the lead single from the EP: sombre R&B-pop with a suitably moody video to match.  The rest of the EP follows a similar template but it's a brilliant listen.  It also has a track called The Fault In Our Stars, though it's nothing to do with the recent film.


Listen: 'TRXYE' is available now.

Labrinth - Let It Be

Pop doesn't get much worse than Beneath Your Beautiful, but thankfully Labrinth is taking his career in a more experimental direction with his new material, of which Let It Be is the first example.  And no it's not a cover of The Beatles.  Instead he unleashes his soulful vocals over trumpet calls, electric guitars, robotic vocals and a stomping military beat.  It sounds weird, but somehow it works.


Listen: Let It Be is released on September 28th.

Pale - Silence

Silence is a fusion of electro, soul and R&B, with an 80s feel and some guitars thrown in for good measure.  Its smooth, melancholic atmosphere washes over the ears like silk, much like the rest of this London band's output.  Their new EP should be well worth a listen.


Listen: Silence is taken from forthcoming EP 'The Come Back' released on 8th September.

Say Lou Lou x Lindstrøm - Games For Girls

If you thought Swedish-Australian sisters Say Lou Lou only did dreamy sad-pop then you're mistaken.  This track has production from Norwegian space-disco producer Lindstrøm, who lends a bubbling, playful note to the sisters' vocals.  This should provide a nice change of pace when it features on their debut album due next year.


Listen: Games For Girls is released on 12th October.

Bastille - Bad News

Taken from their forthcoming EP 'Oblivion', Bad News is more akin to the remix work from Bastille's mixtapes - all hypnotic synths, electronic beats and processed vocals.  If the new EP is half as good as this track it'll be a vast improvement on debut album 'Bad Blood'.


Listen: 'Oblivion' is released on 7th September.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Ariana Grande - My Everything

Dear Miley Cyrus

Your homework for this week is to listen to Ariana Grande's 'My Everything'.
This is how to graduate from the Disney school of pop to adulthood.


The Gizzle

I jest, but the reason for this is that Grande has what Cyrus is (for the most part) missing: good songs.  Wrecking Ball is a decent pop ballad, but by smothering it in controversy and shock tactics, it placed emphasis on her desperate need for attention rather than the music.

Grande is the opposite, which has already resulted in her being responsible for one of the most ubiquitous pop tracks of the year: Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea).

That said, how responsible is she?  She's managed to surround herself with the best possible team of songwriters, producers and collaborators, for a genre-hopping album that contains some of the best pop of 2014, including everyone from Max Martin to David Guetta, Shellback, Benny Blanco and Nile Rodgers.  Grande herself, though, is little more than a vocal gymnast conduit for the talents of others.

It's personality that she's missing, in person at least - something Cyrus admittedly has in spades.  Whilst the video for current single Break Free is a quirky, camp mess, Grande is almost vacant throughout.  The same can be said for her performance at this year's MTV VMAs.  It only takes one look to see through her blank stare and distinct lack of dance ability.

Yet it's the music that's most important for an album and that's where she scores points.  Through its mix of genres and her impressive vocals, it's a solid collection of (perhaps overly polished) songs; sassy with just the right amount of sweetness.  Or should that be sweet with just the right amount of sass?

Either way it's a carefully constructed balance, unlike Cyrus's explosion into extreme sexuality.  Take the moody, glacial Love Me Harder: it's left for The Weeknd to sing the provocative lyrics ("can you feel the pressure between your hips") so that Grande can keep her clean image.

That song is just one example of the contemporary collaborators and R&B feel that predominates the album.  Frequent rap breaks come from Iggy Azalea (Problem), Big Sean (Best Mistake), Childish Gambino (Break Your Heart Right Back) and A$AP Ferg (Hands On Me), but they never detract from Grande herself.  Another R&B influence comes from the use of sampling on Break Your Heart Right Back, a song about her ex cheating on her with another man (hence the use of Diana Ross's I'm Coming Out - see what you did there).  Be My Baby, with production from Cashmere Cat, is pure sensual 90s R&B.

Elsewhere, she dips her toes into EDM with Break Free (with producer of the moment Zedd), whilst the title track is her big Mariah moment.  And what album would be complete without a Ryan Tedder scribed pop-gospel ballad?  Why Try is an early highlight with its rousing, hooky chorus.  Even Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart, a serviceable piano-ballad written by Harry Styles of all people, isn't as bad as you might think.

To a cynic, this may seem like a series of check boxes ticked to overcome a lack of star quality.  Yet with 'My Everything' Grande has transformed from Nickelodeon princess, through Mariah imitator, to a bona fide popstar.  She is undoubtedly the breakout artist of 2014, no wrecking balls required.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Problem
* Why Try
* Love Me Harder

Listen: 'My Everything' is available now.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Basement Jaxx - Junto

Warning: I'm about to make you feel really old.  Red Alert, the breakthrough single from DJing duo Basement Jaxx, was released fifteen years ago (!!!!).  Since then they've gone on to become one of the most recognisable duos in house music in a lengthy career spanning two decades.

'Junto' is their seventh album following a four year hiatus.  Where there previous releases became increasingly experimental, this new material sees the duo returning to the carnival spirit of their roots (insert 'Rooty' joke here).  The title is Spanish for "together", which perfectly suits the party atmosphere and sense of togetherness the album perpetuates.  To quote the video for new single Never Say Never: "Without dance there is no love.  Without love there is no passion. Without passion there are no humans."

The Intro alone focuses on jungle rhythms and, as it bleeds into Power To The People (through a magical harp glissando no less) the horns and steel drums enter for a sound straight out of their early back catalogue.  It's a sound that continues with the heavy syncopation of Rock This Road and the infectious Mermaid of Salinas.  This is literally the sound of Latin summers.

That's not to say 'Junto' is totally backwards.  More so, it's a kaleidoscope of dance genres from the past, present and future.  Unicorn, for instance, is pure deep house; Never Say Never wouldn't sound amiss in contemporary charts; We Are Not Alone shuffles into the poppier end of the spectrum; Summer Dem focuses on funky, Get Lucky-esque guitars; Buffalo takes us to the darkest reaches of jungle; Something About You feels like AlunaGeorge with its futuristic R&B beat and bass combo; and Love Is At Your Side rounds out the album with a laid-back balearic-asian groove.

What's missing, though, is a big standout single (Never Say Never aside).  Basement Jaxx will remain best known for their pop crossover hits, including the likes of Red Alert and Good Luck.  It's clear, though, that the duo aren't interested in that anymore.  This return to their roots marks a return to pure dance music.  As a whole, 'Junto' is heavily percussive, rhythmic, propulsive and infectious.

In an age where dance music is becoming ever more minimal, edgy and futuristic, Basement Jaxx have taken a step backwards to offer something fun, joyful and altogether more human.  It is, after all, what they're best at.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Mermaid of Salinas
* Never Say Never
* Love Is At Your Side

Listen: 'Junto' is released on 25th August.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Luke Sital-Singh - The Fire Inside

In the words of Ned Stark: “Winter is coming”.  As the cold weather ushers in another season of picturesque, burnt orange landscapes, there’s no better soundtrack than singer-songwriter Luke Sital-Singh’s sepia acoustic strumming for a blustery autumnal day.

‘The Fire Inside’ comes off the back of a series of EPs (from which much of this album is taken), which led to a spot on this year’s BBC Sound of 2014 longlist.  Yes, he’s another guitar-playing troubadour, but his music is so sumptuous, nostalgiac and delicately melancholic, he cannot fail for you.

As you’d expect, Sital-Singh began as a solo acoustic artist, but ‘The Fire Inside’ sees him expanding his sound to a full band for many of the tracks.  Yet far from the folky jigs of Mumford & Sons or the tear-soaked guitars of Bon Iver, the full band is merely an extension of his sound.  More upbeat tracks like Greatest Lovers, Everything Is Making You, We Don’t Belong and breakthrough single Bottled Up Tight still retain his raw sound, tinged with melancholia.  The stark live feel of the production only highlights this, all warm harmonies and shivering guitars.

It’s the acoustic tracks that form the backbone to the album though.  Fail For You is simply stunning as it slowly blooms and unfurls with vocal harmonies and its heartbreaking chorus lyric - “I bought you the sky and the oceans too…the only thing I didn’t do was fail for you”.  At the core of the album is the tryptich of Lilywhite, Nearly Morning and I Have Been A Fire: the former centres on a piano riff that bares resemblance to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games; the second transports you to a frosty sunrise; the latter is a poignant and delicate depiction of a destructive relationship - “you were just a flower…gentle like a rose with charred and blackened toes”.

It’s impossible not to fall for these songs, predominantly due to Sital-Singh’s vocals.  Whether purring in a soft falsetto or a gut-wrenching outpouring of emotion, it’s a powerful voice of anguish and vulnerability.  Forget the boring and derivative Tom Odell, or the similarly Brit Award loved Ben Howard - Luke Sital-Singh is the best singer-songwriter since Damien Rice.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Lilywhite
* I Have Been A Fire
* Fail For You

Listen: 'The Fire Inside' is available now.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Anything Goes @ Cadogan Hall

Rodgers and Hammerstein may generally be considered the original masters of musical theatre, but Cole Porter comes a very close second.  Best known for the hit musicals Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate and High Society, he wrote over 800 songs during his lifetime.  A staggering achievement.

This concert performance of his music may only have contained 25 of those songs, but it proved nonetheless to be a jubilant celebration of his music.  And whilst the song list was heavy with numbers from the aforementioned musicals, it overall covered 14 of his 17 shows (and films).  Every number in this performance was memorable, no matter what show it originated from - with such a vast output, it’s easy to forget just how many brilliant songs Porter wrote.  Few people may remember his musical Born To Dance for instance, but fewer still would be unfamiliar with its hit song ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. 

He certainly had a distinctive style, whether in his up-tempo jazz dances, his patter duets, or his love songs.  This collection of songs provided just enough variety to offer a suitable cross-section of his output, even if it was a little comedy and jazz-hands heavy.  It’s for this reason that Jenna Russell’s performance of the sumptuous ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ from Hi Diddle Diddle was such a highlight in an otherwise jovial evening – subtle, emotive and captivating.

The show featured performances from four musical theatre heavyweights (and gushing friends), who between them have a string of Tony and Olivier nominations and awards: the fun and frivolous Maria Friedman; the dry and witty Jenna Russell; the crooning Graham Bickley; and cool cat Clive Rowe.  Rowe, especially, was the standout performer with an effortless, rich vocal tone whether singing the Kiss Me Kate classic ‘Too Darn Hot’ or the silky ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’.  Aside from the odd tutti number, it was just a shame that the foursome never really branched out of solos and duets.

Concert performances can feel a little stilted with a lack of staging and movement, but Porter’s music is easy enough to revel in.  The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra played brilliantly under the conducting of Richard Balcombe, though they sometimes overpowered the singers – especially the underused Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre Company Chorus.  Still, with a general lack of musical theatre at this year’s BBC Proms, this concert provided more than enough to satiate fans of the genre.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Charli XCX - Break The Rules

With all the fuss over the new Taylor Swift single yesterday, the fact that Charli XCX also has a new single out soon drifted under many a radar.

Which is pretty apt really.  Despite a brilliant debut album – 2013’s ‘True Romance’ – that followed a string of singles, it wasn’t until her feature on Iggy Azalea’s Fancy earlier this year (plus her own current single Boom Clap) that Charli XCX has garnered mainstream attention.  All radars are now firmly aimed towards her forthcoming album ‘Sucker’ released in October.

Break The Rules is everything you would expect from a Charli XCX single, which is what makes it great.  Punk-pop aesthetic; youthful, anthemic, shouty chorus; glorious mix of guitars and synths; and a “na na na” hook.  Ironically for the song title, she’s become the master of her own template largely set out by her hit with Icona Pop, I Love It.  The rebellious Break The Rules is bound to thrust her even further into the limelight - let’s hope she can follow it up with an equally successful (but more rule-breaking) album.


Listen: Break The Rules will feature on ‘Sucker’, released on October 21st.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Taylor Swift - Shake It Off

Forget the music, when will Taylor Swift get her own chat show?

In a livestream in front of a studio audience, she revealed new single Shake It Off and details about her forthcoming album '1989', as well as answering fan questions.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a more charming popstar.

And a popstar she is now, officially.  '1989' is being marketed as her "first pop album", which is a bit strange really when 'Red' was the album that saw her transition from countrystar to popstar.  She's described it as her most cohesive and favourite album to date, stemming from "not wanting but needing to write a new style of music".  Now she's all-out pop, with not a country twang in earshot.  It's all a bit Disney feelgood anthem really.

The main influence on the album is "late 80s pop" and its bold, daring nature - hence the album title, also the year of her birth.  Daring and bold are not words you could use to describe Shake It Off, however.  For starters she's got back together with We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together songwriter Max Martin.  With its blaring horns and (to quote Swift herself) "this sick beat", she's lost her country roots for something that's utterly contemporary.  This is Pharrell's Happy for 2014 Part Two.

The video, meanwhile, is just an excuse for Swift to play dress-up in various outfits.  It's fun, frothy and self-deprecating.  And despite the twerking, if anyone can get away with cultural appropriation it's Swift, not Miley Cyrus.

In part Shake It Off is nauseating, but it's also an unadulterated pop hit.  It's no 22, but it's undoubtedly destined to be one of the biggest, meme-generating tracks of the year.


Listen: '1989' is released on October 27th; Shake It Off is available as a pre-order bonus.