Thursday, 18 September 2014

Alt-J - This Is All Yours

As with Alt-J's Mercury winning debut 'An Awesome Wave', 'This Is All Yours' begins with an Intro.  Here, it's positively symphonic.  Typical of the band's style, it explores a multitude of sounds - vocal harmonies, whistles, electronics, Asian instruments, guitars, clattering percussion - yet remains delicately layered.

This Intro is followed by...another intro, Arrival In Nara.  As beautiful as it is, it just feels anticlimactic.  It's not until track three that we finally hear the band's first proper statement of intent.

That statement is Nara; together with Arrival... and Leaving Nara they form a sort of framework to the album.  Nara itself is posed as a sort of Nirvana of freedom, with its pro-equality lyrics: "I'm gonna marry a man like no other" sings Joe Newman in his trademark mumble, "I've discovered a man like no other man".  And, in a middle finger to Russia, "Unpin your butterflies, Russia".

That track also includes the line "Love is a pharaoh and he's boning me".  That's not the filthiest lyric though.  No, that accolade goes to Every Other Freckle and its "I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag / Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet".  It's a strangely delicious lyric that injects some humour into an otherwise cold record.

'This Is All Yours's doesn't mark a huge change from the band's experimental sound, but there's certainly greater use of electronics to flesh out the textures - perhaps making up for the departure of guitarist Gwil Sainsbury.  Bloodflood pt.II, for instance, takes the track of the same name from their debut and adds in clipped, processed beats and throbbing synths.  The biggest effect of all, though, is silence.  Prevalent throughout the album, it gives the effect of the band performing in an infinite void.

There's also great influence of Asian music, particularly on the Nara tracks - a continuation of Taro from 'An Awesome Wave'.  This is, however, a thoroughly British album, from the baroque breakdown in Every Other Freckle, to the Garden of England interlude (played on recorders) and the central Choice Kingdom and its repeated "Rule Britannia".  Elsewhere, Left Hand Free is a twangy rock track and Warm Foothills a gentle acoustic track with lyrics spliced between multiple voices - somehow it works.  Alt-J operate in their own musical language, bending different genres to their whim.

That language consists of exquisitely crafted production, with adventurous sonic textures delicately layered with precision and finesse.  This is an album that demands to be listened to on headphones: lead single Hunger of the Pine and its Miley Cyrus sample especially.  Equally, though, 'This Is All Yours' is lacking the melodic or harmonic interest to match its forebear.  Whilst it has its moments of subtle and unfurling beauty, it's lacking a Tesselate, a Dissolve Me or a Taro.  The experimentation and ambition is there, but the songwriting doesn't quite match.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Every Other Freckle
* Hunger Of The Pine
* Bloodflood pt.II

Listen: 'This Is All Yours' is available now on Spotify and released on 22nd September.

Sweeney Todd - Twickenham Theatre

The recent announcement of Sweeney coming to the Coliseum next year may have taken the wind out of the sails of this production at the Twickenham Theatre.  If anything, though, it should be the other way round.  This show has what ENO are likely to be missing: tension and intimacy in place of extravagant spectacle; a quietly brooding Sweeney rather than operatic insanity; and a ticket price that won’t make your eyes water.  The press images alone speak for themselves…

The Twickenham Theatre is an incredibly small and claustrophobic space, which is both a blessing and a curse for this production.  The raised stage means the characters tower over the audience mere inches away, threatening and imposing, their heads practically scraping the ceiling.  With the actors entering from around the audience and interacting with them at every opportunity – Sweeney’s ‘Epiphany’ especially – this is a production full of intensity, the glint in each characters eyes and the force of their singing causing the hairs to raise on the back of your neck.

Equally, there is very little space for elaborate staging.  Sweeney is a show with a variety of set changes, including the pie shop, the “tonsorial parlor” and that infamous chair.  Here, the minimal stage is used to full effect in Rachel Stone’s set design, navigated well by the cast, but it all feels a little cramp and demands the audience use their imagination a little too often.  Pies, for instance, are non-existent.  Blood, thankfully, remains in full effect.

Limitations extend to the suitably grubby and grimy looking cast too, though they deftly switch between ensemble and leads.  Individually, they offer some solid (if safe) interpretations of well-known characters.  David Bedella’s Sweeney is something of a loveable rogue; a romantic villain who weeps at the death of his wife.  Though he barks and growls his lines, he seems preoccupied with singing in a musical tone and doesn’t quite get to grips with the malevolent nature of the character – simply put, his smile is charming but he fails to scare.  Sarah Ingram’s busty Mrs Lovett, by contrast, is wonderful.  Her comic timing is impeccable and singing faultless, yet there’s a psychotic undercurrent to her performance: in her flirting with Sweeney and her straight-faced, knowing delivery of ‘Not While I’m Around’. 

The supporting cast, too, are excellent.  For once, Johanna hasn’t been cast as a squeaky-voiced girl – Genevieve Kingsford’s rendition of ‘Greenfinch and Linnet Bird’ is beautifully sung.  Shaun Chambers offers a clear piercing tenor as Pirelli, Chris Coleman is a comically eccentric Beadle and Josh Tevendale a gentle, boy-faced Anthony.  Mikaela Newton, meanwhile, is engagingly naïve as Tobias with an affecting delivery of ‘Not While I’m Around’. 

Director Derek Anderson has brought out much of the black comedy in the piece and proves (just about) that Sweeney can be performed in smaller spaces.  His production might not be particularly daring or novel in its interpretation of the piece, but it’s thoroughly entertaining – you’ll be grinning with delight more than jumping out of your seat.


Watch: Sweeney runs at the Twickenham Theatre until  4th October.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ghost From A Perfect Place - Philip Ridley @ The Arcola Theatre

“Pornographic” claimed The Guardian’s Michael Billington on reviewing the premiere of Philip Ridley’s Ghost From A Perfect Place in 1994. That word still haunts the play for this 20th anniversary revival at the Arcola – it remains as shocking and poignant as ever.

Mostly, the play shocks for its extreme depiction of females – specifically young girls – that results in a climactic torture scene. This only works through Ridley’s clever structuring that lulls us into a false sense of security and haunts us with parallels and mirror images. It’s a play of two halves, the first act introducing us to ageing East End gangster (but don’t call him that) Travis Flood (Michael Feast) as he returns from Hollywood to his old grounds. There he converses with sweet grandmother Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) and together they reminisce about the heydays over a cup of tea and a biscuit. Flood is a lovable rogue with a silky (literally) exterior and a warm-heart, his career built upon loyalty and respect. He’s not what you’d expect from a criminal.

Neither are the girls. The introduction of Torchie’s granddaughter Rio (Florence Hall) flips the play on its head. Aided by her gang, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford), they reveal their love for pyromania and hatred of men. They are feisty and aggressive, unpredictable and fanatical, having concocted their own religion based on Saint Donna (Rio’s dead mother). That is, until a revelation from Flood shatters all their expectations.

To an extent this is a reverential play on the power of the past and the taint of memory, but there’s depth to it that’s somewhat ambiguous. Undoubtedly this is a criticism of youth and gang culture, the fear of the elderly of being usurped by the next generation. Yet specifically the focus is feminist. The depiction of the girls could be read as a twist on misogyny: here it’s womankind asserting aggressive dominance over men purely based on gender. Perhaps, also, this could be seen as anti-feminist, a male playwright portraying his fears of a female dominant world – something that’s still poignant in this day and age of modern feminism. Flood, however, isn’t afraid – his return marks a reclaiming of patriarchy and masculinity. Religion, too, doesn’t escape unscathed. The construct of Saint Donna, formed through a dream and presented to Flood and the audience through an eccentric “sermon”, is obsessive and ridiculous, yet the girls follow blindly. It is the basis of their gang, their raison d’être.

Ghost From A Perfect Place is, therefore, an incredibly controversial and unsettling play. Opinions of this production will undoubtedly be split, as they were for the play’s premiere. But pornographic? Not here. Russell Bolam has directed the piece with subtlety and nuance, for a play that skirts the fringes of acceptability without stepping over the line. It provokes without being wholly distasteful. In part this is due to the use of comedy littered throughout the script. It’s black comedy to be sure, but it brings relief during moments of high tension, balancing light and shade.

More so it’s due to the well-realised characters, performed with conviction and sincerity by the talented cast. Feast amuses and frightens as the domineering, Michael Caine-esque Flood and Reid plays a lovely, bumbling Torchie. As you’d expect, though, it’s the three girls who dominate the production, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their roles – Redford as the hyperactive Kerosene and Brookes as sidekick Sulphur. Hall especially stands out as Rio: sexy, empowered, yet vulnerable. Ghost From A Perfect Place is guaranteed to shock, but its imagery will have you questioning rather than squirming in your seat.


Watch: Ghost From A Perfect Place runs at the Arcola theatre until 11th October.

Monday, 15 September 2014

U2 - Songs of Innocence

As if U2 weren’t already a massive joke in the music industry, the stealth release of their latest album through Apple has spawned a torrent of abuse and jokes.  Were they so worried it wouldn’t sell if they gave it away for free?  Is this really technological “engagement”?  In a time when the music industry and the internet already have a frosty relationship, it’s amusing that so many were horrified about the existence of a “free” album on their computers, little more than a virus.  Even Bono notedAnd for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail”.  Nobody was more outraged than rapper Tyler the Creator though:


The initial wave of horror has since turned to disappointment by those who have actually listened to the album, rather than just dismissing it.  This might be a return to the early days of U2, but it’s not a return to their glory days.  This is a soulless rock record: bloodless, corporate.

That’s present in the limp, lifeless guitar lines; the plodding mid-tempo drums; Bono’s tired vocals - clearly his diaphragm isn’t what it used to be.  Volcano, for instance, sounds more like a gently oozing flow than an eruption and any genuine emotion on the soppy Song For Someone is swamped in beige.  Mostly the band are struggling to stay relevant, as they enlist pop producers Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder and more, who lend a distinctly polished and glossy finish to the songs.  At best, this is a Coldplay-esque bore-fest.  From the “whoas and oohs” of opener The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) to the gently chugging Every Breaking Wave and the light smattering of synths dotted throughout, this is an album enslaved to the mainstream, imprisoned by those (not so innocent) pearly white iDevices. 

Only Sleep Like A Baby Tonight dares to change up the sound with its pulsing synth bass and ends up sounding vaguely like a contemporary band, whilst Raised By Wolves does offer a sense of urgency with its screeching vocals, percussive breaths and calamitous drums.  It’s not enough though. 

And to take the Blake reference of the title, what exactly is so innocent, youthful or romantic about the album?  Or is that just a poetic reference to heighten the intellectual value?  Sure, the lyrical content is packed with references to the band’s beginnings – Cedarwood Road, for example, was Bono’s childhood address.  Yet the point of Blake’s Songs of Innocence is childhood vitality untainted by life.  If anything, U2’s album represents an ageing band looking back on their career through nothing but the eyes of experience and world weariness, Apple Inc. the crutch at their side.  “Soldier soldier, we know the world will never be the same” Bono sings on This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.  Then again, this is an album that sounds like it’s performed by lambs, not by tigers.

What’s frustrating is that this isn’t an entirely bad album, but it’s far from their best and by no means justifies the elaborate release.  It’s about as essential as an iWatch.  Perhaps Bono et al are saving their best work for the album’s counterpart, ‘Songs of Experience’ – no doubt an album we’ll actually have to pay for.  ‘Songs of Innocence’ is little more than a viral vaccine for that follow-up.  Just press delete.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Every Breaking Wave
* Raised By Wolves
* Sleep Like A Baby Tonight

Listen: ‘Songs of Innocence’ is sat waiting patiently in your iTunes.  Unless you’ve deleted it already.

Let's just remember the glory days shall we?

Saturday, 13 September 2014

New Pop Roundup

What's been tickling the earbuds this week?  Read on...

Kiesza - No Enemiesz

On her new single, Kiesza continues to put z's in weird places.  Sure, the name might be terrible but the chorus is superb as she euphorically belts "if we could all fall in love together..." over production that sounds like a throwback to the best 90s dance tracks.  It's got more lyrical content that Hideaway but sounds more distinct than Giant In My Heart, and that makes it her best single yet.


Listen: No Enemiesz will feature on her album 'Sound Of A Woman' released next year.

Tove Lo - Timebomb

We all know by now that Tove Lo can write a huge chorus.  Timebomb is her biggest yet.  The wordy, piano-led, Robyn-esque verses ("I couldn't decide if you were the most annoying human being I'd ever met or the best thing that ever happened") lead into a chorus that leaves you breathless.  Pushing back her album 'Queen Of The Clouds' until next year here in the UK (it's out everywhere else in September) is simply a crime against humanity.


Listen: Timebomb features on debut album 'Queen Of The Clouds' released next year in the UK.

Nick Gardner - Lose You

There's been a lot of chat about Nick Gardner this week, following both his new single hitting the web and a performance at the iTunes Festival supporting Maroon 5.  Quite the jump from a few popular YouTube videos.  The cheeky-faced singer (think Olly Murs meets Ryan Tedder) is being posed as the next big male popstar by many, but Lose You doesn't show him off to his best.  The fizzing electro production appeals, but his actually impressive vocal is drenched in robotic vocoder.  Only Phil Collins and Daft Punk can get away with that.  It leads to a song that just sounds like, well, Maroon 5.  A gold star to the iTunes Festival programming then.


Listen: Lose You is released in January 2015.

Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

This is the first taste of Rice's first album in eight years, a typical tale of heartbreak that begins politely with delicate acoustic fingerpicking and that pained falsetto.  So far, so Damien Rice.  Soon though it develops in a whirl of screeching guitars, powerful drums and orchestral strings.  Clearly he's been listening to some Jeff Buckley recently - no bad thing.  A stunning comeback.


Listen: The new album of the same name is released on 31st October.

Nick Jonas - Jealous

If you forget that this is a Jonas brother basically doing a Drake impression, then Jealous is actually a decent track.  "You're too sexy beautiful and everybody wants a taste / that's why I still get jealous" he croons over an electro R&B groove, clearly hacked off at that other guy making Drake hands at his girl.  It might not be original, but expect to see this riding high in the pop charts soon.


Listen: Jealous is available now in the US.

One Direction - Fireproof

Considering this was released as a free single and was downloaded 1.1m times in just 24 hours, chances are you've probably heard this.  You'll know, then, that the boys are increasingly taking themselves more seriously.  You'll know that it's taken from their unimaginatively titled (and Beyoncé copying) album 'Four'.  You'll know that the sound is very West Coast, with its chilled guitars and lush vocal harmonies (good luck singing it live).  And you'll know that it's probably their best single in a while, despite being a little dull.


Listen: 'Four' is released on 17th November.

Meghan Trainor - All About That Bass

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to be more annoying than a 1D record it's a novelty single.  All About That Bass is Trainor's ode to body image - all pro-[b]ass and anti skinny bitches.  As if female popstars haven't been singing about this since the beginning of time, it's all wrapped up in an irritating doo-wop sound with a sickly pastel shaded video that's only worth seeing for the brilliantly camp dancing guy.  No more of this please.


Listen: All About That Bass is released on 28th September.  For the love of God please don't buy it.

Well after that rubbish, let's end on a high.  So here's the new video from the ever-sophisticated Jessie Ware (album review coming soon)...

Simian Mobile Disco - Whorl

There's nothing like shaking up an established formula for inspiring creativity.  For their latest album, Simian Mobile Disco wrote the material in just three days before recording it live using analogue equipment, in the Californian desert.  It's not something you'd expect from a duo known for their polished dance music.

Knowing that, the sheer amount of material on 'Whorl' is an impressive feat.  And it's far from typical dance fare.  In a move away from rigid 4/4 beats, the tracks have an organic, almost improvised, feel as they slowly develop and bloom.  This is an album of space-age oblivion, hypnotic whirring synths and sweeping cinematic vistas, closer in style to Vangelis than anything the duo have done before.  It might have a retro feel with the use of analogue sequencers, but 'Whorl' never settles on pastiche.

It is, however, perhaps a little unrefined.  Its length leads to repetition, with some tracks in need of a trim.  For all its nagging melodies and technological effects, too often the duo rest on mesmeric atmospherics and effervescence that quickly dissipates.  After a while you'll need a break from the gloom, though you'll be compelled to jump back in - particularly for the latter half.

As you'd expect from the live recording, 'Whorl' is structured like a live DJ set - stick with it for the better tracks.  After a strong opening of orbital ambience (Redshift and Dandelion Spheres), the album sags in the middle with the cosmic monotony of Z Space and the ominous Nazard.  Later the album shifts gears as the beats get heavier.  Calyx offers up futuristic disco, Jam Side Up is a particularly satisfying, bubbling concoction, and trance-like lead single Tangents is the closest 'Whorl' gets to familiar dance music.  Casiopeia then flips the sound on its head with an abstract and almost disturbing piece of sound design.  The aliens have finally landed.

For the most part, 'Whorl' forms the background music to some wildly dystopian sci-fi film.  It's an intriguing experiment that makes for a fascinating listen, but it remains background music all the same.  Perhaps the duo will do a Daft Punk and expand their career into film music.  'Whorl' is certainly a step in that direction.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Calyx
* Jam Side Up
* Tangents

Listen: 'Whorl' is available now.

Othello @ The Drayton Arms

As one of Shakespeare's most direct and lucid plays (narratively speaking at least), as well as its still relevant themes of manipulation and racism, Othello is ripe for reinterpretation and adaptation.

This production from Clatterhouse Theatre, directed by Eliot Langsdon, envisages Venice as a present day London casino.  In this seedy underworld, omniscient croupier Iago manipulates his manager Othello, whilst Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are a trio of vampish jazz-singing femme fatales - Lynchian objects of desire.  It's a setting that heightens the theme of corruption, Iago gambling with the hearts of others.  And with its techno soundtrack, this is a modern and original take on Shakespeare.

It's a shame, then, that the characterisation is so flat.  The opening scenes feel a little confused as the plot settles into the setting, the characters fail to excite, and the acting is plagued with a lack of clarity when delivering Shakespeare's lines - a crime worse than cheating at poker.  Within this, Felicity McCormack's Desdemona initially stands out, speaking her lines with lucidity and projection.

Eventually the production hits its stride and settles into a dramatic rhythm, particularly in the second half, offering a stylish and tense thriller.  The strong-willed Emilia (Kate Cooper) and the bumbling Roderigo (Max Upton) are especially well-considered characters.

Mostly, things pick up with Ben Kavanagh's Iago, the other actors forced to rise to his level.  Though initially worried that this baby-faced actor could succeed as the snake-tongued villain, this was in fact a very clever piece of casting - his Iago lives up to the moniker "honest Iago", a man you would never suspect.  It's in his fourth wall breaking asides and monologues that he reveals his true eccentric self, offering comedy, charm and a deliciously clipped vocal delivery.  His is a Machiavellian, perhaps even psychopathic, villain you can't help but love.

The play may be titled Othello, but it's Iago who time and again proves to be the more interesting character.  As such, despite its flaws, this production delivers a fine adaptation of the core play.


Watch: Othello runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until the 27th September.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams

Anyone who knows me knows that if there's one band I can't stand, it's Oasis.  Just...don't get me started.

Ryan Adams, however, managed the impossible: thanks to him I actually like an Oasis song.  His cover of Wonderwall from his 2004 album 'Love Is Hell' turns an incessant piece of Brit-pop rubbish into evocative heartbreak.

Judging by Spotify plays, that cover is by a considerable distance his most popular track, but it's just one gem in a vast career spanning fourteen albums - that's practically one a year since his 2000 debut and including this self-titled release.  Adams has always stretched his bluesy country rock, but unlike 2011's mostly acoustic 'Ashes & Fire', this new material returns to a heavier rock sound.

Of all the tracks on 'Ryan Adam's, it's Kim that comes closest to the emotional sucker-punch of Wonderwall.  Lamenting a past relationship, he gruffly spits "Walking down the street I watched you walk away / To be with him, Kim"; the guitar solo that follows is literally the sound of heartbreak.  Lyrically, too, this is typical of Ryan Adams and, indeed, 'Ryan Adams'.

What's always impressed with Adams is his ability to straddle genres.  Ever melodic, his music has an immediacy appropriate for mainstream tastes.  Gimme Something Good opens the album in emphatic style that continues with the likes of Stay With Me and Feels Like Fire, all based on identifiable guitar riffs.  Sadly My Wrecking Ball is not related to the Miley Cyrus classic, but it's a beautiful country ballad all the same.

Simultaneously, his music sounds authentic - all whiskey-soaked gruff vocals, flange guitars and downbeat lyrics.  On 'Ryan Adams' he's found a balance between the different elements of his style, delivering acoustic ballads alongside heavier, uptempo rock tracks.  It's consistent in itself and consistent within his career - fans will be happy.

It's that consistency and authenticity that's so appealing, in a retro, warm hug sort of way.  Few artists are making music like this anymore (not even John Mayer), but Adams keeps on plugging away regardless.  In a world of hyperstylised electronic pop, he provides a gritty, palatable antithesis.  His steadfastness is admirable.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Kim
* My Wrecking Ball
* Stay With Me

Listen: 'Ryan Adams' is available now.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Jhené Aiko - Souled Out

The Weeknd, Drake and Frank Ocean have a lot to answer for - they're responsible for sparking the current trend for futuristic R&B that's been growing over the last few years.

It's a trend that's now filtered down to female artists, including the likes of Banks, FKA Twigs and Dawn Richards.  And where the genre has always been big on explicit content and sexuality, the girls have twisted typical male misogyny into their own distinct brands of sexy - Twigs especially.

So where does LA singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko fit in?  Her debut album 'Souled Out' is essentially what Rihanna's album would be if she were to go down a more experimental route.  Aiko's sound has a pop-friendly slant whilst remaining progressive; vocally her sultry, nasal purrs bare resemblance to the Bajan singer.  Lyrically, too, they share a certain aggressive attitude: "have you seen my fucks to give? I have none", Aiko sings on The Pressure.  She's even similarly open about her penchant for smoking pot.

Aiko isn't all cold metallics though.  For sure, tracks like To Love & Die and Lyin King feature the clipped beats, moody synths and autotuned vocals that have become hallmarks of the futuristic R&B genre.  She's undoubtedly capable of delivering a sombre, smoky atmosphere of subtly aggressive, weed-soaked lyrics.  Elsewhere - as the album title implies - there are more soulful elements.  W.A.Y.S opens with a relaxed guitar riff; Spotless Mind similarly includes laidback guitars; and The Pressure is a sensual funk-jam.  It leads to an album that's warm, sensual and blissful.

Aiko is at her best on these slinky, soulful tracks.  Yet even then she lacks the individuality of her contemporaries.  She even copies Beyoncé and Mariah by including vocals from her daughter on Promises - and nobody wants to be upstaged by a child.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Spotless Mind
* Lyin King
* The Pressure

Listen: 'Souled Out' is available now.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Calvin Harris feat. John Newman - Blame

Yes, it's another dance "banger" featuring the chalkboard vocals of John Newman.  And it's nowhere near as good as Rudimental's Feel The Love.

Yes, Harris knows his way around a chart hit. And shock horror, this one has a GUITAR in it.

But there's no denying this is Calvin Harris by numbers.  And coming from a self-styled soul singer and a producer known for his euphoric sounds, this is as soulless and empty as the endlessly repeated Royal Baby jokes that have hit the web today alongside Blame.

No doubt it's a surefire number one hit then...


Listen: Blame is available now.