Thursday, 31 May 2012

Azealia Banks - 1991

Since 212 was released earlier in the year, Azealia Banks has been unleashed on the wider public conscious, even if she is largely recognised for her extensive use of profanities.  Though a few tracks have been flitting around the 'net, with '1991' she presents her debut EP.

212 is included and is clearly the template for the other tracks.  1991 refers to the rapper's birth year, but is also suited to the surprisingly old fashioned feel of the material here.  There are strong influences from 90s house and hip-hop, the minimalist production as a whole focusing on stonking beats and fragmented synth riffs for a bright, clear sound.  It's as if she's at a club in Ibiza simply rapping over the DJ's beats.  In particular, opening track 1991 and final track Liquorice both see neon synth stabs cut against the beat.  Banks's rhythmic, high-speed rapping contains the usual filth, but her attitude is infectious. The chat at the end of Van Vogue, though, is unnecessary.

With '1991', Banks does run the risk of becoming formulaic.  But if her music can push the same boundaries as her lyrics, she'll be well on her way to living up to the hype.


Listen: '1991' is available digitally now, with physical release on June 12th.

Watch: In addition to playing Reading/Leeds Festival, Banks will be touring the UK in October.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Scissor Sisters - Magic Hour

The Scissor Sisters have had a rather inverted career path.  Their award-winning self-titled debut album, released way back in 2003, spawned a number of anthemic singles.  Since then, the New York band have been attempting to replicate this early success, but have never reached their previous highs.  2006's 'Ta-Dah' was disappointing, despite the huge single I Don't Feel Like Dancin', whilst 2010 follow-up 'Night Work' took the band in a more disco-orientated direction that developed from 'Scissor Sisters'' Filthy/Gorgeous, but felt shallow.

'Magic Hour' continues the disco theme, for better or worse.  Gone is the kooky pop of their earlier days, in favour of synth-based dancefloor pop which lacks some of their overtly camp personality.  Yet 'Magic Hour' is something of a history of disco with its range of influences.  Year of Living Dangerously has a distinct 80s flavour with its processed drums, whilst Best In Me shares similarities with Madonna's La Isla Bonita (albeit in modern fashion).  Self Control could be taken straight from the 90s, the synth riff practically stolen from Robin S Show Me Love.  Other tracks have a more contemporary, almost hip-hop feel, namely Keep Your Shoes with its stuttering beat and previous single Shady Love (not least for the inclusion of Azealia Banks).  From these admittedly enjoyable tracks, it's clear Scissor Sisters are no longer the boundary pushing band they once were.

There's still plenty of quirky humour here though, most notably in Let's Have A Kiki with its amusing vocal sampling and carnival feel ensuring it becomes a modern gay party anthem.  The album's final track F*** Yeah similarly features vapid, yet comical, lyrics ("touch my updo - I'll cut you") and plenty of fragmented melodic hooks like a pastiche of current RnB-dance-pop trends.  Indeed, the band excel at carefree pop, which current single Only The Horses exemplifies, providing the album's catchiest and most euphoric chorus.  At their worst, San Luis Obispo is little more than a novelty song from a really bad holiday in Mexico, whilst slowest track Secret Life of Letters is dull by comparison to the exultant fun on offer elsewhere.

The Scissor Sisters have always been about unadultered escapism, which is clearly displayed on this disco-fuelled album.  It may not be as inspired as their earlier material (the real magic hour), but 'Magic Hour' contains some of the band's best work since.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Only The Horses
* Let's Have A Kiki
* F*** Yeah

Listen: 'Magic Hour' is available now.

Watch: The band continue their UK tour throughout October.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Sigur Ros - Valtari

It's almost impossible to talk about Sigur Ros without sounding like a pretentious arsehole.  But something odd happens when listening to their music; time becomes infinite, you lose all sense of space, your spirits lifted, your body reduced to a quivering wreck of emotion.

Thankfully little has changed with 'Valtari', the Icelandic band's sixth studio album following 2008's 'Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaus
t' (trans. 'With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly'). The music has much the same impact - at once intensely intimate and personal, yet vast in its scope, warping your perceptions and transporting you to the deepest recesses of your thoughts.

'Valtari' is immediately recognisable as Sigur Ros, but things are a little different here.  The band have eschewed the typical crescendo structure that sees each track exploding towards an erupting, volcanic climax.  Gone, too, is the focus on melody that has made hits of Hoppípolla and Glósóli especially.  Instead, there is a focus on timbre and texture, allowing the music to breathe beyond the constrictions of structure.  Sigur Ros are the artist, their musical colours bleeding together into an abstract watercolour, yet chosen from the usual ethereal palette of oscillating strings, bowed guitars, electronics, glacial percussion and Jónsi Birgisson's falsetto vocals.

Title track Valtari (trans. Steamroller) is the longest, holding the listener in a state of suspense within its cosmological ambience - much like the album's cover art.  The celestial choir of Dauðalogn (trans. Dead Calm) has a real spiritual quality that weeps into subsequent track Varðeldur (trans. Campfire). Two major highlights are single Ekki Múkk (trans. Not Seagull) and Varúð (trans. Caution).  The latter, especially, is phenomenal - its greater emphasis on electronica painting a darker picture, its swelling string chorus soaring along with the haunting vocals as they repeat "Varúð" like a divine warning.  The weakest track is closer Fjögur píanó (trans. Four Pianos), if only for its single-focus on piano lacking the rich textures of the other tracks (though this does expand into a wonderful haze of synths and strings towards the end).

'Valtari' really is an achingly beautiful album, containing some of the band's most accomplished work to date that, song by song, perpetually stuns.  It's enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the stoniest of hearts.  Like the best works of art, it allows the listener to melt into a higher plane, losing themselves in a personal realm of picturesque thoughts and abstract dreams.  With 'Valtari', Sigur Ros have reached Nirvana.


Gizzle's Choice:

* Ekki Múkk
* Varúð

Listen: 'Valtari' is available now.

Watch: The band will be touring the US and Europe over the summer.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Sara Bareilles - Once Upon Another Time

It was way back in 2007 that Sara Bareilles hit the charts with Love Song, that saw the singer-songwriter becoming a borrower in the video.  The song featured on her album 'Little Voice', but since then she's been quiet.  Well, in the UK at least, since in the US her follow-up 'Kaleidoscope Heart' hit number one, plus she's had Grammy nominations and was a judge on choir TV competition The Sing-Off.

Her 'Once Upon Another Time' EP is a collection of Bareilles's latest work and was produced by co-judge Ben Folds.  The opening (and title) track is mostly acapella, with a hint of Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek.  It's an arresting start, her effortless vocal in full force as the track gradually unfurls with simple accompaniment and vocal harmonies.  The recording has a very intimate feel, every breath and lick of the lips present in clear detail. It creates an air of honesty that permeates the lyrics of the whole EP, most of all in final track Bright Lights and Cityscapes which details a broken relationship with simply oscillating piano.

Lead single Stay is an edgier, more bluesy track that brings out a rawness in Bareilles's vocal.  This increases with Lie To Me, it's emphasis on percussion and blazing synths reflecting the spiteful line "you sound just like a Judas".  The cleverly titled Sweet As Whole provides a moment of humour amongst the dark intensity of the rest of the EP, the chorus repeating "f*ck that guy he's just an asshole".  It's another example, though, of her extreme honesty.

Moving away from her pop success, Bareilles proves with this EP she deserves to be taken seriously and is far more than a one hit wonder.


Listen: 'Once Upon Another Time' is available now.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

AlunaGeorge - You Know You Like It

Firstly an apology.  Despite this track being around for quite some time, it appears to have fallen under our radar.  But fear not - with exposure increasing recently, AlunaGeorge are hopefully set for chart success.

That's right, AlunaGeorge aren't in fact one person, but London duo Aluna Francis (vocals) and George Reid (production).  Francis's vocals are quietly soulful with a distinct cockney twang, her lyrics typically provocative.  Reid's efforts, meanwhile, offer a futuristic take on pop-RnB.  The stuttering 2step beat of You Know You Like It is infectious, with bounding bass rhythms, glittering synths and a glorious middle eight breakdown.

Slickly produced RnB plus memorable, commercially appealing chorus, equals one hell of a sexy track.


Listen: The full 'You Know You Like It' EP is available now.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Kylie Minogue - Timebomb

Kylie's career falls into three neat stages - her early bubblegum pop days, her weird indie Confide In Me stage, and her sex-fuelled hits like Spinning Around and Can't Get You Out Of My Head.  At each point she's been at the pinnacle of pop.  But in recent times her music has stagnated and turned stale.  It's a sad fact, but Kylie is no longer flavour of the month.

As has become typical, this is another dancefloor romp from the petite star.  The main riff sounds far too similar to Bodyrockers's I Like The Way You Move, whilst the song's overused sentiment is taken from the chorus of Usher's DJ Got Us Falling In Love ("So dance like it's the last night of your life").  Her vocal meanwhile is diminished to a monotone robotic drawl.  She's capable of more, but no doubt the fans will lap this up in abundance and Timebomb will be set to repeat in clubs across the globe.

Admittedly, there's no denying she looks spectacular in the video, which sees her taking on an atypically feisty persona.  But haven't we all got over Kylie's ass yet?


Listen: Timebomb is available now, just in time for Kylie's upcoming album 'The Best of Kylie Minogue'.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Paloma Faith - Picking Up The Pieces

Set to hit the top ten this week is the latest track from quirky pop songstress Paloma Faith.  Her debut album, 'Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful' from 2009, provided a handful of hits like Stone Cold Sober and Upside Down, though largely known through TV advertising.

Picking Up The Pieces is her most commercial release yet, so it's no surprise it's already shot towards the top of the charts.  Production-wise, this is a "mega-ballad", rich with string textures and a choir of backing singers.  It's all very radio-friendly and ripe for remixing, which those included on the single prove - even if they do conform to the usual, unremarkable dubstep and funky house standards.

The emphasis, however, is on the songwriting.  Faith has stated she has mixed feelings about her debut album, but here the songwriting feels more accomplished and the cinematic video has a new found maturity.  The song details a relationship with someone still in love with an ex-partner, the direct lyrics easy for many to relate to.  Yet, despite having a unique vocal, Faith lacks the dynamic range of, say, Adele to really pull this off with emotive force - something the flat acoustic version reveals.


Listen: Picking Up The Pieces is available now.  It's the first single from new album 'Fall To Grace' released on 28th May.

Watch: Faith has a number of UK gigs later in the year.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Yeasayer - Henrietta

Brooklyn-based Yeasayer chose a traditional method of releasing their latest track.  One hundred fans were selected at random and sent CD copies of the track, which rapidly spread across the internet like wildfire.  Henrietta will feature on the band's upcoming album 'Fragrant World', the follow up to 2010's 'Odd Blood' and their third album to date.

In typically weird, Yeasayer fashion, Henrietta is an almost backwards track.  The start is all funky basslines, ska-esque organs and a hip-hop beat with real snap and pop.  It's a heady mix, a cacophony of merging influences that has a subtle 80s feel reminiscent of Prince.  Then half way through, it all breaks down.  Fragments of bass, drums and synth melodies float in a swirl of auto-tuned vocal harmonies, dreamily repeating "Ahh Henrietta" in a woozy haze, as the ambiance slowly builds to include the beats and funk feel of the first section.  And when the grinding synth bass enters: pure magic.


Listen: Henrietta will feature on 'Fragrant World' released on August 20th.
You can listen to the track on YouTube here, or watch a (very different) live version below. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

John Mayer - Born and Raised

With a title like 'Born and Raised', you may think John Mayer is "going back to his roots" with his latest album. But truth be told, he's never strayed too far from his country-blues sound.

Yet Mayer has certainly gone back to basics with this album.  Gone is the upbeat soft-rock of his debut 'Room for Squares'; the intricate funky riffs of Neon; the slow bluesy feel of 'Continuum's' I Don't Trust Myself or Vultures; or quirky gems like Assassin from his previous album 'Battle Studies'.  Instead, Mayer has opted for a collection of twelve mellow, largely acoustic songs.

This transfers emphasis from his guitar playing to his songwriting.  As his live albums can attest to, his guitar skills are impressive and a key draw to his music, the lyrical content generally playing second fiddle.  However, here he's mostly reduced to dull strumming patterns on slow ballads, leading to an album that lacks excitement and serves only to highlight his inferior songwriting.  Speak For Me hints at the finger-picking style of previous material like Stop This Train, contrasting with the title track's straightforward country serenade.  At least his voice is as husky and sultry as ever.

The title most likely hints towards a sense of maturity and refinement, but lines like "love ain't a thing, love is a verb" hardly offer depth of meaning.  Over his career, his carefree, frivolous love songs like Your Body Is A Wonderland have taken on darker colours, most notably on 'Continuum' and the downbeat 'Battle Studies'.  Yet there's something endearing in the innocence of his early work, which here has spiralled into a far more pessimistic outlook.  The title track sees Mayer looking back to younger, simpler days and even mentions his parents divorce in the line "I got a mom, I got a dad, but they do not have each other".  If only the young Mayer's enthusiasm could have injected some vitality to the proceedings.  Instead, he drowns his sorrows in Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey, whilst the final third of the depressingly titled If I Ever Get Around to Living repeats the line "I think you'd better wise up boy".  It's a sentiment you wish Mayer would take to heart and stop wallowing in self-pity.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Speak For Me
* Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey

Listen: 'Born and Raised' is available now.

Watch: Mayer has sadly taken an indefinite break from live performing due to a throat injury.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Temper Trap - The Temper Trap

For all its beautifully reverberating guitars, does anyone actually know what Sweet Disposition is about?  It's a song that captured the summer of 2009 - something the full 'Conditions' album failed to do - and nobody seemed to mind that frontman Dougy Mandagi was singing gibberish.

Perhaps the band realised this when writing 'The Temper Trap', their second album.  This materialises in the frankly awful London's Burning, a song that attempts to explore the hard-hitting subject of the London riots of last summer in a similar manner to Plan B's iLL Manors.  Yet besides shoehorning in some choice quotations from both sides, the song does little to actually comment on the events and instead opts to simply repeat "London's burning", something the traditional round already does quite effectively.  And although they are based in the UK capital, it seems cheap for an Australian band to address such a British event.

Elsewhere, this is the band on autopilot.  Opener (and first single) Need Your Love begins in a blaze of synths.  At first this may seem odd for a guitar-based band, but as Coldplay can attest to, what better way of expanding your sound than throwing in some keyboards?  Whilst 'Conditions' managed to marry quiet intimacy with widescreen scope, 'The Temper Trap' fails to strike the same balance.  That's with the exception of The Sea Is Calling with its gentle, liquid guitars leading to a soaring chorus and the gradual crescendo of Rabbit Hole.  The band are clearly at their best with simple pop tunes, as with catchy single Need Your Love, rather than their feeble attempts at social comment that lack lyrical substance.

As 'Conditions' can attest to, one outstanding track does not make a great album.  'The Temper Trap' is little more than empty lyrics dressed in Coldplay/Keane/The Killers-esque indie rock that sadly cannot replicate the lightning in a bottle success of Sweet Disposition.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Need Your Love
* The Sea Is Calling
* Rabbit Hole

Listen: 'The Temper Trap' is available now.

Watch: The band are touring worldwide throughout the summer.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Julie & Julia (2009) - Nora Ephron

A word of warning: do not make the mistake I did and watch this film on an empty stomach.  I've never felt so hungry.

Julie & Julia is the parallel tale of aspiring American cook Julia Childs, living in Paris in 1949 as she writes her famous cookbook 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking', and Julie Powell, a young aspiring writer who cooks her way through Julia's 534 recipes within one year and blogs about it.  Despite living decades apart, both women are searching for their purpose in life, supported by their husbands and, of course, find success.

The film sets up the opportunity to explore the changing roles and views of women in society.  Julia's cookbook marks the ascent of the modern woman and the rise of modern cooking.  Julie, meanwhile, represents the stresses of the modern woman and learns, through Julia's cookbook, to learn to enjoy the smaller, more domestic elements of life.  Yet the characterisation relies on cliche.  Meryl Streep's Julia is merely a practise run for her turn as Thatcher in The Iron Lady, her English accent inexplicable.  Eventually, though, her relationship with her husband (Stanley Tucci) is adorably played.  Amy Adams's Julie, on the other hand, is the victim of female emancipation who smacks of Sex and the City, not least for her Miranda-esque looks, dinner dates with her overworked friends and constant writing ("I couldn't help but wonder...").

Yet even within these cliches, the film doesn't take things deep enough.  There's never any sense of danger, any sense that things will go wrong.  Instead, director Nora Ephron (no relation to Zac) settles for nice in a piece of heart-warming slush that doesn't really have a point to say.

It may be based on two true stories, but the film never answers one major question - with all this food and butter being eaten, why does nobody get fat?


Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Hairy Ape @ Southwark Playhouse

The plight of the outsider was a major theme in the works of American playwright Eugene O'Neill and is especially prevalent in his 1922 play The Hairy Ape.  It focuses on a man known only as Yank who represents the oppressed working class.  He begins working as a hard labouring fireman on a cruise ship, but upon landing ashore he is unable to integrate into life in New York.  Haunted by the words of a young woman who labels him a "hairy ape" when she sees his barbaric, animalistic behaviour on the ship, Yank eventually finds solace with a gorilla in the city zoo.

The male ensemble showed a display of strength and machismo in a visceral and powerful performance.  Sweat and grime covered them as they bravely took on a myriad of roles, accents and costume changes.  Moments such as the choreographed unison coal shovelling were imbued with raw power.  At the centre was Bill Ward as Yank, whose physicality suited the beastly behaviour of the character.  However, whether from the acoustics of the theatrical space, a lack of annunciation or a mixture of the two, the dialogue was a little difficult to comprehend, losing some of the intricacies of the narrative.

The production itself, though, offered a truly nightmarish vision of New York, culminating in a tragic and horrifying climax taking place in pitch darkness.  The use of traverse staging gave the impression of the ship's bow, a steaming grate in the centre suggesting diabolical heat.  The sound and lighting designs were especially effective in creating a sense of space and set.  For the cruise ship, deep reds created the fiery blaze of the coal fire, accompanied by an almost constant machine-like throbbing hum that echoed around the yawning brick cavern of the Playhouse.  The final scene in the zoo, meanwhile, took place in stifling darkness as Yank's isolation took hold.  This amounted to a truly expressionist piece of theatre.  Though the plot did lack some clarity, this was a well-paced production of real intensity and frightening atmosphere.


Watch: The Hairy Ape runs from 16th May to 9th June.

Friday, 18 May 2012

La Boheme @ Royal Opera House

A mere week after ENO's artistic director John Berry disregarded the recent trend for live operatic cinema broadcasts, the Royal Opera House continue their annual screenings in Trafalgar Square beginning with Puccini's La Boheme (and continuing with Verdi's Falstaff on 30th May).  Berry claimed these broadcasts were merely an "obsession" and a "distraction" that do not create new audiences, but after the success of these annual screenings the ROH would surely beg to differ.  Beamed live to twenty-seven locations across the UK with free entry, these screenings offer an excellent opportunity for opera veterans and newcomers alike to experience the sumptuous productions of the ROH.

To an extent, these screenings do detract from the performance itself, losing the electric taste in the air that truly live performance offers and, inevitably, the sound quality.  Yet with a more relaxed atmosphere as audience's settle in during the throws of twilight, screenings can certainly help to shake the stuffy reputation of opera.  Where ENO pride themselves on their modern and creative interpretations, the ROH by comparison stick stoically to tradition.  It's ironic, then, for the latter to be making headway into new forms of media.

Yet, perhaps Berry will have the last laugh.  This production of La Boheme, as directed by John Copley, is a traditional interpretation of the opera.  The ostentatious set was brimming with detail to bring 19th century Paris to life, the gently falling snow of Act 3 creating a stunning backdrop to the singing.  But, as much as the large chorus brought vitality to the proceedings, the scenes with the quartet of protagonists often felt stilted and static.  There is an emphasis on naturalism and, of course, the singing, but the production lacked a sense of creative dramaticism that, by contrast, ENO so often aspire to.  The second act, with the entrance of Musetta (Nuccia Focile), injected some humour, but couldn't stop the opera at large from feeling stale.

Carmen Giannattasio made her ROH debut as Mimi with this performance and her nerves did show on the big screen, her upper register sounding a little screechy.  Focile's Musetta, whilst comic, had a rather thin tone, but this can perhaps be attested to the sound quality.  Both women did warm up towards the end of the production, but it overall belonged to Joseph Calleja (Rodolfo) and Fabio Capitanucci (Marcello) who offered warmth and richness of tone from the offset, the former's final "Mimi!" closing the opera with heart-wrenching force.

Those who wrestled with the cold were treated to a fine performance of Puccini's opera and, indeed, any production at the ROH is an experience in itself.  Such is the power of Puccini's score, the screen presented no barrier to the heightened melodrama of the final act.  That said, nothing will ever quite compete with the visceral thrill of experiencing first-hand, from your seat in the grand surroundings of a west-end theatre, the intensity of operatic voices in performance.


Watch: Bookings for La Boheme extend into 2013.  The next screening will be Verdi's Falstaff on May 30th.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Paper Crows - Build

For their new EP 'Build', London duo Paper Birds have developed the world's first multi-video interactive promo.  Essentially this allows you to watch a four screen video to accompany their electronic music, which can be altered by simply scrolling across the screens.  It's certainly an innovative use of music and video in this digital age.

Luckily the music is good enough to substantiate the marketing.  The duo are Duncan McDougall on production and vocalist Emma Panas, who've had a number of tracks floating around on the web including debut Stand Alighta cover of Kate Bush's Cloudbusting and last year's rave-flavoured When Friends Survive.  These caught the attention of Pete Tong who signed the duo to his FFRR label.

Whilst their earlier material had a neo-gothic feel that many likened to Bjork and Bush (hence the cover), the four tracks of 'Build' have turned towards a more popular aesthetic.  Opener Happier, featuring extra vocals from Major Look, has a huge soaring chorus that Hurts would be proud of.  Melodic hooks are abundant throughout, inducing some real sing-along moments.

There remains, though, an aura of electronic ethereal wonder.  The final section of Happier sees the vocals played backwards with alien effect, whilst Disarm juxtaposes grinding synth pads with glistening, crystalline melodies.  Homebound features some sumptuous production which, combined with Panas's breathy, delicate vocal, wouldn't go amiss on an Ibiza chillout album.

The EP also includes remixes by Rudimental (of Feel The Love fame), Kidnap Kid and Grum, the latter especially transforming the gently meandering Changing Colours into a glittering piece of house music.  'Build' is definitely worth checking out.


Listen: 'Build' is available now.

Watch: Paper Crows have a couple of upcoming London gig dates.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Garbage - Not Your Kind of People

When a band reconvene after a long hiatus, it generally goes one of two ways.  The optimist says the band have had time to develop and create some of their best work yet.  The pessimist says the new album is merely a cynical money-making project.

And so Garbage return with their first new album following 2005's 'Bleed Like Me' and a string of label difficulties that prompted their long hiatus.  Released on the band's own record label and on their own terms, this unfortunately hasn't sparked a wave of new found freedom and creativity.

Instead, this is business as usual for the band.  For some that's no bad thing.  'Not Your Kind of People' offers a string of electro-infused grunge rock in-keeping with the band's style and of course features the trademark vocals of flame-haired Shirley Manson.  Blazing guitars mix with processed beats and keyboard spikes, colliding to form some stadium-filling choruses.  Big Bright World for example has a typically pop chorus amongst the angsty vocals and guitars.  The title track, meanwhile, provides Manson the opportunity to show a rare moment of vulnerability in her voice, which contrasts with the aggressively sung Battle In Me with its sudden chorus pauses.

On the flip side, none of the songs particularly stand out and there's nothing here to rival previous hits like Stupid Girl or I Think I'm Paranoid.  'Not Your Kind of People' is therefore not the band's best work, but it's far from failure.  The return of Garbage should be a moment of celebration and this album does provide a certain retro thrill.  It's just a shame the band haven't moved with the times.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Big Bright World
* Control
* Battle In Me

Listen: 'Not Your Kind of People' is available now.

Watch: Garbage will be touring the UK and Europe over summer.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Delilah - Breathe

Once again, Delilah has struck gold.

Last year saw the release of the sultry Go and Love You So.  With the full album 'From The Roots Up' released in July, Breathe is more than enough to whet the appetite.

Delilah's silky, slightly breathy, vocal melts like chocolate as she details the effects of a stifling relationship.  The chilled production mixes lustrous string swells with elements of gentle dubstep, for a track that's part Sade, part ultra modern.  Jessie Ware is her most obvious contemporary, but whilst Ware focuses on sophistication and glittering production, Delilah has a darker, slightly grittier feel.  The single of Breathe additionally contains the duet version with Liam Bailey (also of Chase & Status fame) and a stonking remix by Sub Zero that matches the lyrical intensity with a huge drum and bass beat.  Download immediately.


Listen: Breathe is available now.  'From The Roots Up' is released on 30th July.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Ruby Goe - Badman

Last November Ruby Goe's hit us with Get On It, dressed in her heels and hooded dress.  But it seems the guy who left her "walking like Bambi" wasn't all he cracked up to be.

Badman isn't as instantly catchy as the fizzing synths of Get On It.  Equally, it's less frivolous.  After the opening bass introduction, the production builds before settling into a mid-tempo groove punctuated by the spattering snare drum.  Expect to see some inventive remixes in the near future.  Meanwhile, Ruby intones "you're a badman" in suitably sexy fashion - no matter where he slept last night or who else she can taste on his lips, she just can't stay away.  He's killing her blow by blow, but she won't put up a fight.  It offers an interesting counterpoint to her previous record, melting from aggressive, domineering feminism to helpless submissive.  Here's hoping there's an album on the way of equally provocative tunes.


Listen: Badman is released on 16th July.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Drive (2011) - Nicolas Winding Refn

Drive is easily the most stylish film of the year.  But is it a case of style over substance?

Ryan Gosling plays a man known only as 'Driver', who works by day as a Hollywood stunt driver and by night as a getaway driver.  When he offers his services to assist his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), he gets embroiled in a criminal plot that leads him down a dark, extremely violent struggle for survival.  Based on the 2005 novel by James Sallis, the narrative focuses solely on Driver and therefore lacks some depth to the backstory, though this does uphold the mysterious character of the protagonist.

Daytime Los Angeles is bathed in soft golden hues; at night the metropolis becomes a foreboding neo-noir world of neon lights and menacing shadows.  The camera pace is slow and lingering, giving the shots time to breathe, stylish cool oozing out of every frame.  Dialogue is minimal, allowing the evocative synth soundtrack to fill the airwaves.  The 80s retro feel may seem an odd choice for a film set in present day, but the slick sounds compliment the aesthetics.

Gosling's Driver is calm and collected.  One moment he exudes silent cool, displaying a surprisingly warm heart towards his neighbour's son; the next, he flips to quiet, threatening intimidation.  Like the film, he moves with slow purpose and is economical with his words.

Drive is a film to be experienced, not watched.  The story may conform to crime clichés and will remind many viewers of Grand Theft Auto, but the film's style is just...utterly cool.


Saturday, 12 May 2012

Weekend (2011) - Andrew Haigh

Not since Brokeback Mountain has a film depicted a gay relationship in such candid, honest fashion.

When Russell and Glen meet in a Nottingham nightclub, their one night stand is seemingly the product of drunken lust.  But, spending the weekend together in a whirlwind relationship, their feelings grow stronger.  Yet, after Glen reveals early on he's moving to America, you know this is a doomed partnership.

Russell and Glen have very different views on their sexuality and the meaning of loving relationships.  Yet, tellingly, they only reveal their true feelings after countless amounts of drugs and alcohol, as if the weekend takes place in some sort of drug-fuelled dream.  Whilst Glen is 'out', Russell is still struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and, over the course of the plot, his rite of passage is fulfilled.

These sorts of films are often only notable for their bravery in dealing with homosexuality.  As Glen himself remarks on gay art, gay men will only view in the hopes of nudity whilst it's not part of the straight world.  But this shouldn't be the case.  Weekend is a touching love story that transcends prejudice.

What's most notable is the film's production.  The cinematography is artfully done, focusing on CCTV and often viewing the couple through barriers to emphasise the pressure Russell feels under public scrutiny.  As we ourselves view the film, it's almost as if we are complicit, judging the actions of these two men.  In fact, the film's outcome is depicted through the cinematography.  In the final moments, we see Glen and Russell through a metal fence, but as the camera almost imperceptibly zooms in the barrier gradually dissipates to focus solely on these two men.  Nothing else matters.

The script has an almost improvisatory feel that adds a real naturalism to the proceedings, whilst Tom Cullen and Chris New (as Russell and Glen respectively) are incredibly genuine and sincere in front of the camera.  This is a raw, sensitively portrayed and heart wrenching story of homosexuality, but more so a superbly created film that deserves far more exposure than it will likely receive.


Friday, 11 May 2012

Gossip - A Joyful Noise

Abba may not be the most obvious influence on Gossip, but vocalist Beth Ditto has confessed (in an interview with the Observer) to listening to their music solidly in the build up to 'A Joyful Noise' - the third album from the band.  Infatuated with the "zero rawness" of the Swedish pop band's work, she admits it's "not the music I usually listen to".  In fact, it's the very antithesis of Gossip's style.

And yet, 'A Joyful Noise' is as polished as you'd expect from the pop influence, and from producer Brian Higgins who previously worked with Kylie, Pet Shop Boys and Girls Aloud.  It's demonstrated by recent single Perfect World - for all its rock tendencies, it's laden with gloss, catchy hooks and a simple structure.  This is rock music geared for the charts.

Another major influence here is the electro of Ditto's solo work.  Traversing deeper into the album, the sound becomes increasingly electronic, as if following the band's shift in style.  Move In The Right Direction (a premonition?) is an early all out disco track, sounding more like Madonna than anything the band have done before.  Get Lost, meanwhile, is pure 90s funk disco.  Final track Love In A Foreign Place combines Kraftwerk-esque electronica with an infectious chorus, pushing the band into full-on rave territory.

But all the while, this is still unmistakably the sound of Gossip, albeit in popularised, accessible form.  Largely this comes from the constant of Ditto's vocal, as powerful as ever.  The band have consolidated their influences into a glossy pop package, the fuzzy guitars and throbbing basslines present throughout.  Get A Job may clip and sample the vocal and features a whomping synth bass, but the chorus is all out guitars.  Involved pairs the guitars with stabbing synth chords.  Lyrically the songs mainly address disappointment in love, but this has never been the band's strong suit and, here, the intriguing concoction of musical styles wins out.

They may have swapped their grit and rawness for pop gloss, but in the process Gossip have produced and album that certainly lives up to the title.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Perfect World
* Involved
* Love In A Foreign Place

Listen: 'A Joyful Noise' is released on May 14th - stream now exclusively on the Guardian website.

Watch: Gossip are touring Europe over the coming months.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Niki and the Dove - Instinct

Hype can be dangerous and volatile.  It can build you up and it can set you up for a fall.  In this day and age it's particularly prevalent.  Music is so readily accessible and many artists fail to reach the heights laid out for them.  

Niki and the Dove are the exception.

With 'Instinct', they live up to the hype and floor the competition.  From Sweden, they are Gustaf Karlöf and Malin Dahlström - the former on production, the latter on vocals - who formed the duo in 2010.  Since being nominated in the top five in the BBC Sound of 2012 poll at the start of the year, they've gone from strength to strength, proving they're the top choice in the crowded market of Swedish electro-pop.

What sets them apart is their mastery of the pop chorus.  Each track on the album features a crescendo chorus, inducing uncontrollable states of euphoria.  It proves their pop core, despite some experimental production and dancefloor tendencies.  This extends to their more intimate tracks, such as Winterheart and Last Night, with its glittering electronica.

Dahlström's vocal is unique, imbuing the music with personality.  Her lyrics are full of power and urgency, working in conjunction with the incandescent brilliance of the production.  The chorus of Tomorrow ("when tomorrow comes I'm gonna waste my love on you") particularly stands out.  Karlöf's dazzling production is electric, colourful and varied.  Tracks like Somebody and The Drummer are filled with neon, pin-sharp synths, whilst DJ Ease My Mind has a darker, more industrial feel and The Gentle Roar borders on Bjork realms of experimentation.  Yet however far the boundaries are pushed, the album retains catchy chorus hooks for a sound that's complex yet always accessible.

'Insinct' is full to the brim with magical moments - the fuzzy synths and cross-rhythmic drum pads of The Drummer; the slowly overlapping vocal lines of The Gentle Roar; the gradual build and subsequent explosion of Mother Protect; the delectable funk of Somebody; the shimmering chorus of The Fox.  Most of all, after constant repeats, the album returns to opening track Tomorrow, with its epic, rousing chorus that will rock you to the core.  The only downside is that the majority of the tracks will already be familiar to fans of the duo's previous EPs and releases.  But to have them together on one album is a blessing.

Really, 'Instinct' is one of the albums of the year.  Niki and The Dove have justified their increasing popularity with a collection of spine-tingling, powerful electro-pop tracks.  Only one question remains: who is Niki and where is the dove?


Gizzle's Choice:

* Tomorrow
* The Drummer
* The Fox

Listen: 'Instinct' is released on 14th May.  You can stream the album now on the NME website.

Watch: The duo are supporting Miike Snow on their upcoming UK tour.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Madame Butterfly @ ENO

One of the challenges of directing opera is finding something novel in a piece of art centuries old.  As a result, modern opera directing can sometimes aim for extravagance and unusual set design to the detriment of the story, acting as a barrier between the audience and understanding.

What's so refreshing about ENO's revival of Anthony Minghella's award winning production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly is its clarity.  The focus here is less on creative design and more on intimacy of character, lucidity of plot and, as every production should, Puccini's rich, colourful score.  The English translation, sung with excellent diction by all, is concise and easy to follow, to the point where the schoolchildren in the audience (this being the dress rehearsal) booed Pinkerton when he bowed.  This only proves the engaging nature of the production.

The creative design is in direct contrast to last year's production at the Royal Albert Hall.  Where that production flooded the stage, lights glittering off the shimmering surface, this production at ENO is minimal and simplistic.  The monochromatic staging, with its black lacquered surfaces and sliding paper screens, keeps focus on the plot, whilst the costumes come alive with colours and fabrics (if a little cartoonish).  Particularly effective is the Act 1 duet, performed in almost total darkness besides paper lanterns and a curtain of falling cherry blossoms.  The aesthetic is stunning.

Elsewhere, the staging feels a little too minimal, with creativity compensated for clarity.  At times the production is too static, though the music is assuredly enough to hold the audience's attention.  Other elements could have been expanded upon more fully, such as the origami birds, the expressive dance and the decision to use a puppet for Butterfly's son.

However, the real focus of the opera is the titular Madame Butterfly.  Gwyn Hughes Jones shines as F.B Pinkerton with his sweet high tones and a well nuanced performance of an American lost in a foreign land.  Yet the production belongs to the tiny stature of Mary Plazas as Butterfly, a naive girl clinging to blind love and faith.  Plazas sings with extraordinary control, her voice delicate enough for the teenager's fragility, yet powerful enough to deliver heart wrenching emotion.

And this is the crux of the opera - a tragic tale of love, death and ensnared, youthful beauty.  Whether extravagant or simple, the setting only highlights the beauty of Puccini's work.


Madame Butterfly is performed at the Coliseum from 8th May to the 2nd June.

Also check out the audience reaction trailer, featuring yours truly!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Rachel Sermanni - Black Currents

Rachel Sermanni is the latest member of the folk revival.  The young Scottish singer-songwriter has been gigging for some time now, but it's only recently that her 'Black Currents' EP was released, with separate single Eggshells to be released later this month.

Sermanni can most closely be likened to Laura Marling.  She emits an effortless beauty, all gently fingerpicked guitars, swells of strings and a delicate vocal.  Breathe Easy epitomises this, with its descending double bass introduction making way for Sermanni's voice to subtly emerge.  It's not all pretty songs though.  The Fog is a standout piece, a more aggressive offering - rhythmic guitar strums and staccato strings compliment Sermanni's soaring, dominating vocal.  The remaining two tracks, Black Current and Song To A Fox, contain plenty of magical moments - the string pizzicato of the former, with its contrasting sections, and the frosty electronica of the latter, surging like a howling wind.

The comparisons with Laura Marling are palpable.  Yet, with a darker, more melancholic edge, Sermanni stands apart with music of spellbinding beauty.


Listen: 'Black Currents' is available now.  Future single Eggshells will be released on 21st May.

Watch: Sermanni has a number of gigs planned for the summer months, both supporting and stand alone.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Little Boots - Every Night I Say A Prayer

Little Boots has always been caught between catchy pop chart success and credibility as a dance artist.  These two ends of the spectrum are epitomised by the electro-pop of debut album 'Hands' and last year's Shake.

At last, with Every Night I Say A Prayer, she's struck a glorious balance.  The production has a real 90s flavour (ironically enough for its "I can see into the future" chorus line), all whirling synths and syncopated basslines before coming together for a punchy, memorable chorus.  Vocally, Hesketh sounds very Madonna-esque which suits the retro feel of the track and it's replicated by the monochromatic video.  It's equally at home on dancefloors and on the radio, with the brilliant electro-funk Tensnake remix proving the track's crossover appeal.

With an album set for release later this year, the future continues to look bright for Little Boots.  Welcome back.


Listen: Every Night I Say A Prayer is available now.

Watch: Little Boots has a number of upcoming tour dates in Europe and America.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Moneyball (2011) - Bennett Miller

There's something about American sports that just doesn't translate to UK audiences.  Whilst baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey may have an almost exotic appeal over here, they just don't grip the nation as much as "soccer" or rugby.  So when a film like Moneyball hits UK shores, it doesn't have the same appeal as in its native country.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletic baseball team.  The film is based on a 2003 book by Michael Lewis of the same name and recounts the team's 2002 season in which Beane and his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) use statistics and mathematical formulae to form a winning team in the face of dire financial circumstances.  The narrative is somewhat of an attack on sporting celebrity and the extortionate salaries paid to top class players, as Beane proves games can be won through a balanced team rather than stars - a theme that also applies to other sports.  Equally, it takes a cynical view on sport as a business, centered on results and not player feelings.

The romance of baseball ultimately wins out, but the film has a cold aesthetic.  It matches Pitt's performance as the cold-hearted Beane, a man who failed as a player himself and is looking to make amends.  He's just not particularly likeable, clinically dismissing players with stoney-faced heartlessness, and it's easy to sympathise with the older scouts - they may be old-fashioned, but their love for the sport is unmatchable.  Thank goodness then for Jonah Hill, consistently nominated for best supporting actor gongs for his role in this film.  He may be the mastermind behind the formulae, but he provides the warm counterpoint to Beale and the likeability factor he's critically lacking.  This is miles away from his comedy Superbad days and proves he is a talent to watch.

Unfortunately, the plot is dull and lacks any significant consequences besides losing, failing to create an engaging drama 
for anyone not overly familiar with the sport.  After all, it's just a game...


Saturday, 5 May 2012

Unicorn Kid - Pure Space

More fresh material from the lion-hatted producer from Edinburgh, which continues to split opinions.  Just like his 'Tidal Rave' EP released last year, Pure Space is an onslaught to the ears.  For some, the wall of bleeps and bloops is too much to bear.  For others, this Sonic-esque chiptune music is weirdly endearing.

Disappointingly, Pure Space sounds almost identical to his 'Tidal Rave' work, the steel drums and other synths are all too familiar.  But where haters will continue to hate, lovers will continue to love.  There's no denying these beats are infectious and the ridiculously upbeat, rave-tastic tone is guaranteed to put a smile on your face - even if that smile is more suggestive of a kaleidoscopic, hyperactive, drug-induced fantasy.  The video may try to put an edgy spin on it, but Unicorn Kid just personifies crazy fun.


Listen: Pure Space is yet to be officially released.  Previous EP 'Tidal Rave' is available now.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Aiden Grimshaw - Is This Love

Well this is a surprise.

With a memorable performance of Mad WorldGrimshaw was one of the more talented X Factor contestants of recent years, but was sadly beaten by eventual winner Matt Cardle.  Yet now the tables have turned.  As Cardle has failed to make any headway into the industry, Grimshaw's debut is surprisingly decent.

Shying away from the usual bubblegum pop releases, Grimshaw has taken an alternative tack - shown immediately from the gritty urban video that tellingly he doesn't feature in himself.  Vocally, this has the same intensity he was known for on the show, complimented by grandiose lyrics like "there's a fiery eye in the middle of the dark sea".  The production beneath is all crashing trip-hop drums and swirling synths with a pretty epic chorus - not what you'd expect, yet equally well suited to the quirky singer.  Ripe for remixing, this is sure to be a standout track on upcoming debut album 'Misty Eye'.  Seems like the underdog wins again, eh?


Is This Love is released on June 3rd, with the album following on 13th August.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

OperaBabes @ Cadogan Hall

Ten years ago, two opera singers were found busking in Covent Garden.  Now, Rebecca Knight and Karen England are the OperaBabes, with a number one album and numerous international performances under their belts.  To celebrate the release of their latest album, 'Silent Noon' (pictured), the babes performed some choice selections in the opulent surroundings of Cadogan Hall.

An impressive opening was made by Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly D'Alba, accompanied by Christian Chamorel.  The unaccompanied introduction of Ravel's 'Tzigane, rapsodie de concert' was attacked with technical aplomb and the French theme continued with an intense rendition of Franck's 'Sonata for violin and piano in A major' - the first movement's passionate and gushing melodic lines contrasting with the second movement's volcanic rhythms.  An arrangement of songs from Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' followed, which suited the lighthearted feel of the evening at large.  Lastly was Lutoslawski's 'Partita for violin and piano', a difficult piece for the audience but no less enjoyable.  D'Alba's rich vibrato is a notable element of her playing and her technical ease shone through amongst the offbeat choice of programme.

The babes' latest album is a collection of English songs sung to piano accompaniment.  It was a selection of these that began their half of the concert, simply arranged and performed.  Vaughan Williams's Silent Noon was a particular highlight and, as a favourite of the two singers, is the title of the album.  However, the album at large does risk becoming too repetitive, so luckily some opera numbers were also performed, from Delibe's 'Flower Duet' from Lakme, to some Mozart duets and Rossini's 'Cat Duet'.  Whilst these did offer some variation, these pieces were clearly chosen for their gentle niceness rather than real contrast, only showing up the babes' limited repertoire.

Karen England's mezzo was rich and confident, whilst Rebecca Knight's soprano was a little shrill and relied too heavily on vibrato.  Together, their voices blended beautifully with some tight harmonies and the night was clearly strictly rehearsed - including the rather forced banter between numbers.  The OperaBabes personify easy listening, with some perfectly pleasant, opera-lite tunes that are sure to rise to the top of the classical charts once more.  Yet their music is bland and, ironically enough for their name, lacks the melodrama associated with operatic performance.


Listen:  'Silent Noon' is available now.  D'Alba's latest CD 'French Impressions' is also available now.