Saturday 28 September 2013

New Pop Roundup

There have been some huge album releases this September, but there are still plenty of new tracks on the way too.  Here are the tracks you need to hear...

Charli XCX - SuperLove

Charli XCX deserves to be far bigger than she is.  Her debut 'True Romance' only came out a few months ago, but she's already back with new material whilst she supports Paramore on their current tour.  SuperLove is a more radio-friendly pop sound than her goth-pop breakthrough Nuclear Seasons, clearly geared towards widening her appeal.  The result is quite possibly her best track yet.  What other popstar would dance with a bunch of robots?


Listen: SuperLove will be officially released on December 1st.

Little Mix - Move

As the current series of X Factor continues, there are more groups entering than ever.  It's Little Mix who paved the way for them after winning in 2011 and now the girls return with a new track taken from their forthcoming second album.  It's a fierce track on which the girls urge their men to make a move, with a beat based around tongue clacking and a cowbell.  This focus on rhythm does mean there's a lack of real melodic or vocal hooks, but in getting people up on the dancefloor Move certainly does its job.


Listen: Move is released on November 3rd.


James Arthur - You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You

Speaking of X Factor, last year's winner is also making a return with a new single.  Taking a leaf out of Rudimental's book, You're Nobody... mixes old school soul sounds with modern dubstep and drum & bass.  The noisy, kitchen-sink production sees horns blaring out alongside loud beats and a hand-clap breakdown in the middle eight, whilst Arthur's riffing vocals prove why he won the competition in the first place.  Rather than pushing boundaries, You're Nobody... slots neatly into current trends - hopefully the full album will feature some more originality.


Listen: You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You is released on October 20th.

Bright Light Bright Light - An Open Heart

An Open Heart will feature on Bright Light Bright Light's forthcoming EP 'In Your Care'.  Real name Rod Thomas, the EP follows his 2012 debut album 'Make Me Believe In Hope' and likewise features Pet Shop Boys-esque 80's synth production.  The driving beat and incandescent synths give a dance feel to the track, but there's a decent song beneath it as Thomas sings "make yourself believe in all the love that comes to an open heart".  That's the best kind of pop.


Listen: 'In Your Care' is released on November 25th.

The Killers - Shot At The Night

The Killers are another act taking on an 80's vibe.  Produced by M83, Shot At The Night is the band's most electronic and pop-focused track yet, that will stand out on the band's forthcoming collection 'Direct Hits'.  It's one of their best singles to date, but despite its suitably anthemic chorus, cute video and melodic similarities to Steven Winwood's Higher Love, it sadly remains a little forgettable.


Listen: Shot At The Night will feature on 'Direct Hits' released on November 11th.

All About She - Higher

London three-piece All About She (producer duo James Tadgell and Jon Clare, plus vocals from Vanya Taylor) have already worked with some huge urban names: Tinie Tempah, Dizzie Rascal, VV Brown and Wretch 32 between them.  Now they're preparing to release their debut EP, from which Higher is the lead single.  It takes inspiration from 90's garage but with a contemporary twist and some soulful vocals from Taylor - this could turn out to be a huge club banger.


Listen: Higher is released on November 10th.

Samsaya - Stereotype

Stereotype, from Indian-Norwegian songstress Samsaya, is a true fusion of styles.  She may not be a well-known name in the UK, but her debut album was released way back in 2004 - a concoction of pop, hip-hop and Indian Bhangra.  Stereotype adds reggae and dark electro to the mix.  It may seem like a disparate mix of syles, but (like a pop parallel to M.I.A) it all comes together under Samsaya's cool, sassy persona.  As she sings on the chorus "I'm not down with the stereotype, I just dance to whatever I like".


Listen: Stereotype is available now (in Norway).

MØ - Never Wanna Know

Denmark's MØ has already released a number of tracks online (Pilgrim, Waste Of Time, Glass) but is yet to release an official album.  That's set to change in October with the release of her 'Bikini Daze' EP from which Never Wanna Know is taken.  It's very much a change of direction from her odd, choppy, dark electro pop, instead taking on a retro feel with an airy vocal reminiscent of Lana Del Rey.  In the process, she's lost what made her such a unique prospect.  Fingers crossed the rest of 'Bikini Daze' reverts back to her previous sound.


Listen: 'Bikini Daze' is released on October 20th.

Britney Spears - Work Bitch

Isn't it about time Britney stopped ruining EDM?  Or is it EDM that's ruined Britney?  Either way, this might appeal to Las Vegas drag queens (no bad thing), but I'd expect more from a Britney single.


Listen: Work Bitch is released on November 3rd.

Mel B - For Once In My Life

That she's chosen to emulate Desperate Housewives in the video just smacks of Mel B's own desperation - let alone the bit where she snogs herself.  Yes, you read that right.  This is just an embarrassment for everyone involved.


Listen: For Once In My Life is available now.

Paramore @ Wembley Arena

"We've got a lot of time to make up for", said frontwoman Hayley Williams apologetically.  "I don't know what we were thinking".

The band's hiatus following the departure of Zac and Josh Farro not only had an impact on the band ("we admit, sometimes we're dysfunctional"), but has left fans wanting.  It's been a long time since Paramore have performed in the UK - as such this gig was just as much about fan service as it was the band re-asserting themselves.

As with their recent self-titled album, they began with Fast In My Car - a song that acknowledges the band's progression since their previous material ("we aren’t looking backward, we won’t try raising the dead”).  And although the band have moved on ("I don't want to get too emo" admitted Williams), they weren't afraid to acknowledge the past by performing some fan favourites like That's What You Get, Misery Business and Brick By Boring Brick.  These songs are certainly heavier than their new material and had much of the audience jumping and moshing, whilst The Only Exception became a mass sing-along as the crowd swayed in a sea of mobile phone fireflies.

It's clear, though, that Paramore are becoming more of a pop band than a rock band, with a setlist as varied as their fanbase.  The gig was broken up by the same ukelele interludes featured on the album and ended with the sweet love song Still Into You, the crowd showered in ticker tape.  Ain't It Fun also stood out for its pop hooks - it may have lacked the gospel choir of the recording, but who needs a choir when you have an arena of passionate fans singing back to you?

Williams really is the ideal frontwoman.  Not only does she look and sound amazing, she knows how to work a crowd.  The legions of devoted fans probably sang just as much as she did, calling back every lyric as she demanded they sing and dance along with her.  This culminated in one lucky and ecstatic girl being invited on stage to join the band.  As she hugged them and squealed with glee, she reflected the utter joy of every person in the arena.  Paramore are back, with more support than ever, ready to take on the world.


Friday 27 September 2013

Haim - Days Are Gone

Haim first broke out in 2012 with the release of their ‘Forever’ EP.  Since winning the BBC’s ‘Sound Of’ poll at the start of 2013, the three sisters have been proving themselves as a live band on both their headline tour and at festivals, garnering a huge legion of devoted fans with their fusion of girl band pop hooks and scuzzy rock guitars – Stevie Nicks meets En Vogue. 

In that same time, they’ve released a number of hit singles: Forever with its belching bass synth middle eight, Don’t Save Me and its video dance routine, the funky Falling and recent summer smash The Wire.  The girls’ debut, ‘Days Are Gone’, is their opportunity to now prove themselves in the studio and features each of these (arguably overplayed) singles.  As such, it instantly feels familiar which may disappoint some, but when the songs are this good it barely matters.  Their instantly recognisable sound is equal parts retro and refreshing – there’s a reason they’ve been storming the charts and the radio of late.

That’s not to say that ‘Days Are Gone’ features few surprises.  Many of the new tracks have a stronger synth element than the singles: If I Could Change Your Mind is an obvious future single that features glittering synths and electronic drums alongside the funky bass lines; title track Days Are Gone (co-written with Jessie Ware) certainly has a strong electro feel paralleling the girls’ characteristically precise vocals; and My Song 5 is a bubbling, bluesy concoction of belching bass and jerky beats.  On the flipside, Honey & I is pure laidback Fleetwood Mac, whilst rock slow-jam Go Slow (familiar to fans of the ‘Forever’ EP) fulfills the ballad quotient and affirms the sisters can do serious emotion as well as female angst.  The songs are varied throughout, suggesting a wealth of opportunities for new directions in the future.

In a time when electronic music rules, Haim have seemingly done the impossible: lived up to the hype with a guitar-centric album.  They’ve survived the initial buzz and a hectic festival schedule to release an album that polishes an already accomplished live set.  ‘Days Are Gone’ doesn’t quite live up to the full live experience (‘bass face’ doesn’t really translate in audio form), but the precision of their instrumental performances and singing takes on new clarity in recorded form.  It’s a rare thing to create a unique sound, but the sisters have moulded decades of musical inspiration into a sound that’s wholly their own.


Gizzle's Choice:
* If I Could Change Your Mind
* Don't Save Me
* Go Slow

Listen: 'Days Are Gone' is released on 30th September.

Thursday 26 September 2013

The Way, Way Back (2013) - Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Awkward teenage boy.  Modern, broken family. Summer vacation. Cute girl next door.

Yes, the script to The Way, Way Back practically writes itself.  Within the first few minutes the clichéd plot has been predicted and you’re left wondering what the film can bring to the coming-of-age genre.

Yet none of that matters when the film is so incredibly charming, following on from Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.  The narrative follows Duncan (Liam James), a shy, polite and gentle soul forced on holiday with his loved-up mother Pam (Toni Collette), her controlling boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his slutty daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Trent takes them off to his beach house to spend time as a family, but, simmering beneath, the foursome are far from a tight unit.  The vacation proves to be a rite of passage for Duncan, as we watch him grow and blossom over the course of the film from a boy to a man – far more than the “3/10” Trent describes him as.

At its core, The Way, Way Back is a film about the need for a father figure.  We never meet Duncan’s real father and Trent is a poor substitute.  Duncan is left alone not knowing where he belongs, until he eventually meets the lazy and eccentric Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner of the local water park.  It’s in Owen that Duncan finds the guidance and acceptance he needs and where he learns it’s ok to simply be himself.

This may seem like a saccharine message, but it’s subtly played amongst simple, clear cinematography, a truthful and honest script, great use of music and some wonderful performances that are comedic and heart-wrenching.  Carell is infuriating as Trent – a Machiavellian stepfather whose manipulative ways are clear only to Duncan and the audience.  His antithesis is Rockwell, who oozes charisma in a performance that is equally hilarious and tender.  His outlandish behaviour is only outdone by Allison Janney as the overly friendly and talkative neighbour Betty.

At the centre, though, is James as Duncan.  In one frown he manages to encapsulate the ennui of family holidays and the frustration of teenage youth – when he finally cracks into his goofy grin it will melt your heart.  His is a character that every audience member can relate to and sympathise with immediately.

The Way, Way Back is the sort of universal film that affirms your faith in humanity; that will have you cheering and punching the air with delight; that fills your soul with that warm, fuzzy feeling and leaves you feeling like you can take on the world.  To call this the feelgood film of the year would be a huge understatement.


Diana Vickers - Music To Make Boys Cry

It’s taken Diana Vickers three years to follow up from 2010's debut album Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree, so has she spent this time wisely evolving her sound? In short no - but this is a good thing. ‘Music to Make Boys Cry’ is an album with a similar feel of bright and breezy songs but with more of a tilt towards electro-pop than her debut was.

The title track and album opener skips along in a carefree manner and that is the theme throughout. It’s easy to get swept up into Diana Vickers’ world which appears to be filled with dizzying fairytale romance, evident on songs like Cinderella (“Because for you I would lose the both of my shoes”), Dead Heat (“It’s not a matter of life and death but if I had to choose between love and breath”) and Boy In Paris (“Dancing in the dark with the boy I met in Paris”). All this makes for a strong case that someone is definitely loved up and the songs certainly evoke images of those classic black and white romance films that get shown on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2.

It’s not all joyful love stories however as Mr. Postman depicts a lovelorn tale that aims to imitate a 60s girlgroup-esque songwriting style but kind of falls somewhere between The Marvelettes Please Mr. Postman and Britney’s E-mail My Heart without being as good as either. Closing track Blame Game is one of the album's strongest tracks and is sonically quite adventurous in terms of electro-pop. The album was co-written by Miranda Cooper of pop creating behemoths Xenomania and Blame Game certainly has the feel of a Xenomania-lite production and wouldn’t be out of place as a Girls Aloud album track - which if anyone has taken the time to listen to the quality of Girls Aloud album tracks will know this is quite a compliment.

In many ways ‘Music to Make Boys Cry’ is quite similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 album 'Kiss': fun pop songs that fizz along splendidly yet something about them fails to capture the attention of the general public beyond pop lovers, which is a real shame as this album really deserves to have a wider audience. The disadvantage it has is that it does take very few musical risks but nor does it wish too - it’s the perfect soundtrack to getting ready before a Friday night on the tiles as you pre-load on the Lambrini.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Music To Make Boys Cry
* Dead Heat
* Blame Game

Listen: 'Music To Make Boys Cry' is available now.

Review courtesy of Stefan Jackson - follow him on Twitter @stefanatical

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Drake - Nothing Was The Same

“This is nothing for the radio”, claims Drake on the opening track of ‘Nothing Was The Same’.  However, his recent success with single Hold On,We’re Going Home would suggest otherwise.  Since receiving mainstream airplay on radio it’s risen up the charts, giving the rapper the most exposure since his featured rap on Rihanna’s What’s My Name.  Yet this single sticks out as a pure R&B track with crooning, soulful vocals in an otherwise predominantly rap-based album that’s likely to be his biggest yet. 

‘Nothing Was The Same’ isn’t quite the revolution that ‘Take Care’ presented, but it does continue Drake’s specific brand of emotional-rap.  Having mostly moved on from the heartbreak of ‘Take Care’, much of the album sees the Canadian justifying himself and his success over dark production and cold, metallic beats.  Bravado is nothing new in hip-hop – just look at Kanye – but there’s certainly an influence of West in some of the production, in particular the earlier tracks (the pitch-shifted sample of Whitney’s I Have Nothing in Tuscan Leather for example, or the soulful piano sample in the second half of Furthest Thing).

The major difference between the two, though, is humility.  Where Kanye struggles with his own god complex, Drake’s lyrics are full of self-awareness that makes his confidence more palatable – “how much time is this nigga spending on the intro” he jokes on lengthy opener Tuscan Leather.  And as we’ve come to expect from Drake, ‘Nothing Was The Same’ is an incredibly personal and emotional listen.  Started From The Bottom details his rise to fame above crystalline production, whilst on From Time he discusses his relationship with his father (“just me and my old man getting back to basics”) and Sampha provides a beautifully emotive chorus hook on Too Much.  As he jokes on Own It, “niggas talk more than bitches these days” – Drake has a hell of a lot of dirty laundry to air, adding a more personal spin on the usual themes of “drinking on the low, mobbing on the low, fucking on the low, smoking on the low” (Furthest Thing). 

What makes Drake stand out above the competition is his rapping style, full of clarity and musicality.  Rap is, ultimately, about storytelling – something Drake has a firm grip on.  So when featured rappers are included, the tracks nosedive.  Jay-Z’s guest rap on Pound Cake proves (alongside his own ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’) that Mr Carter is passed it, whilst the grotesque raps of 2 Chainz and Big Sean on All Me are at odds with the tone of the album.  Drake is big enough to go it alone without the need for extras.

In a year that’s already seen some huge rap releases (namely Kanye’s confrontational ‘Yeezus’ and Jay-Z’s disappointing ‘Magna Carta HolyGrail’, let alone the success of Kendrick Lamar’s debut from 2012 looming over the rap community), Drake still manages to rise above his peers.  It might not be a huge leap from his previous work, but if you listen to one rap album this year make it this one.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Started From The Bottom
* Hold On, We're Going Home
* Too Much

Listen: 'Nothing Was The Same' is available now.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Jessie J - Alive

There’s no denying that J-J-J-Jessie J has one of the most remarkable vocals of our generation.  Unique and instantly recognisable, her vocal runs and stuttering diction are technically impressive – something she was keen to stress to her ‘team’ when she was a mentor on The Voice.  Yet it’s her tendency to over-sing each song, camouflaging the melody with riffs, that causes the emotion to get lost, spoiling what could otherwise have been a decent pop album.

It’s the lyrics that truly drag down ‘Alive’, however.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with feminist empowerment, but Jessie J stretches this to the point of preaching.  She tries so hard to be a role model to her female fans that it's to the detriment of her songwriting.  The result is upbeat "anthems" like Sexy Lady ("just be proud, you're a sexy lady") and saccharine ballads like I Miss Her.  Even one of the highlights, Gold, gets off on the wrong foot with its opening lyric: "everyone dies but not everyone lives, everyone takes but not everyone gives".  As Domino is testament to, Jessie J is best when she stops trying to change the world and just has fun.

And remember when, once upon a time, Jessie J broke out with Do It Like A Dude as an edgy, cool popstar?  Where did that go?  The closest we get here is Wild, which doesn't quite have the same personality.  Her refusal to swear in the chorus of Excuse My Rude not only makes little sense in the context of the song, but indicates a refusal to push boundaries she may once have stretched.  It's as if she's a female Samson, all of her songwriting strength lost along with her hair.

As a whole, then 'Alive' is a safe album from a talented artist who doesn't live up to her potential.  Even the album's highlights - the 80s synths of Thunder and the upbeat Whitney-feel of Daydreamin' - slot neatly into current trends.  As with her 2011 debut, Jessie J has 'the voice' but lacks the capacity and originality to truly show it off.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Thunder
* Daydreamin'
* Gold

Listen: 'Alive' is available now.

Monday 23 September 2013

Divas Unsung @ Leicester Square Theatre

What’s so refreshing about Songs Unsung’s productions is their focus on unique and unusual musical theatre repertoire.  No longer must we endure endless Lloyd Webber melodramatics, shouted jukebox numbers or mangled Sondheim lyrics – instead we are treated to something new and different.  It’s this approach that ensured the company’s one-night-only show ‘Divas Unsung’ at the Leicester Square Theatre was an unexpected delight.

The song choices were taken from a wide spectrum of shows spanning decades of musical theatre: from ‘Twang!!’, to ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’, ‘Carrie: The Musical’ and more recent efforts like ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and ‘Betty Blue Eyes’.  Many of the shows are widely considered to be flops (‘Carrie’ especially), but that doesn’t prevent some hidden gems being uncovered for this cabaret style show.  The songs were varied, allowing not only for some technical singing but characterisation and storytelling within the limited setting.  The audience may not have been familiar with each number, but they could easily feel the sweeping emotion emanating from the ‘divas’.

The six ‘divas’ boast some impressive theatrical credits and sang with enough powerful belting to push Celine Dione clear off the Titanic, despite the odd screeched top note.  An early highlight was Ambra Casserotti and Kirby Lunn’s rendition of Ready To Be Loved from ‘Edges’, featuring some huge notes and intricate vocal runs.  It was also a rare example of ensemble singing, more of which would have certainly added to the variety of the show.  That said, what diva ever sings with others (although the back-up from the MTA choir in certain numbers was a welcome addition)?  Ashleigh Gray’s vocals were superb throughout the evening, with excellent control and diction.  The real standout performance, however, came from Rebecca Trehearn.  Her rich tone was sumptuous, her rendition of Come To Your Senses from ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ heavy with emotion that left the audience shaken.

‘Divas Unsung’ was not just another musical theatre cabaret show, but a show filled with under-appreciated talent – both the singers and the composers.  Look out for more shows from Songs Unsung in the future, not only for a thoroughly entertaining evening but some cracking audition songs for aspiring performers.


Sunday 22 September 2013

Avicii - True

Avicii, a.k.a Swedish DJ and producer Tim Bergling, has been at the forefront of the burgeoning EDM scene over the last few years.  Originally rising to prominence on a wave of controversy when his track Collide was swiped by Leona Lewis, he's since gone on to release some huge singles: Levels (later pretty much copied by Flo Rida on his track Good Feeling), Silhouettes, I Could Be The One (vs Nicky Romero) and, not least of all, recent smash Wake Me Up.

It's a huge surprise, therefore, that only the latter appears on 'True', Bergling's debut album (I Could Be The One especially is a big oversight).  Instead, the album is new material that's 50/50 full dance mixes and EDM pop tracks, all catered towards a common denominator mainstream audience.

What's also surprising is the emphasis on real instruments.  Wake Me Up introduced the world to his electro-country style with its guitar riffs and infuriating melody - something that continues with the likes of Hey Brother and the dramatic strings of Heart Upon My Sleeve.  These are not genres that should be put together by any means.

Beyond this, 'True' doesn't push any boundaries and instead sticks to generic EDM fare influenced by house artists like Swedish House Mafia, Eric Prydz and Daft Punk (who are all infinitely more exciting talents).  The extended cuts of Dear Boy, Hope There's Someone (which samples Anthony & The Johnsons) and Canyons feature little that stands out from the pack.

Thankfully there's a couple of decent tracks in the middle - the vibrant, electronic vocals of Shame On Me and the funk-pop of Lay Me Down, both of which are clearly influenced by Daft Punk and represent true hands-in-the-air moments.  Avicii may have been voted third in DJ Magazine's 2012 Top 100 DJs list, but perhaps all that gigging has left little time to really focus on the album - an album criminally lacking the big singles he's best known for.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Shame On Me
* Lay Me Down

Listen: 'True' is available now.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Icona Pop - This Is...Icona Pop

A major concern with 'This Is...Icona Pop', the Swedish duo's UK debut album, is the sheer amount of time it's taken to cross the North Sea to our shores.  'Icona Pop' was originally released last year in Sweden and since then the album has morphed and evolved before seeing release here.  Would something get lost in translation?

At a glance, the track lists between the UK and Swedish versions may hint towards very different albums, yet in practice the duo's sound continues from one to the next.  Yes, the UK version drops some of the quirkier EP tracks (Sun Goes Down, Manners) in favour of formulaic tracks that follow in the wake of I Love It.  Girlfriend, for example, with its Tupac quote, seems especially tailored to English audiences.  Yet when the formula is so strong does it really matter?

So what is this formula?  On the surface, Icona Pop make pounding, in-your-face electro pop.  Shouty melodies, big beats and hugely euphoric choruses all feature heavily for a sound that sits between power pop and electro-house sliced up into neat three-minute chunks.  Throughout its eleven tracks, 'This Is...Icona Pop' is immediately appealing, infectious and relentless in its noisy, hyperactive production: from lead single I Love It, to the J-Pop feel of closer Then We Kiss.  The formulaic approach does run out of steam towards the end though, leaving tracks like Ready For The Weekend to stand out for its opening chorale, processed vocals and choppy synth samples that shake things up a little.

Dig deeper however, and there's a darkness to the lyrics that undermines the exhilarating club feel.   For all the grinding synths of I Love It, the duo angrily shout "I threw your shit in a bag and pushed it down the stairs / I crashed my car into the bridge", whilst on Girlfriend they sing of "the lights, the dirt, the shit that hurts".  The combination of music and lyrics results in a bombastic and empowering album with hints of punk that reflect a modern sense of girl power.

In an ideal world, Icona Pop will release some sort of 'special edition' album that combines both the UK and Swedish versions into one super-album.  This, sadly, is probably a pipe-dream, but in the meantime 'This Is...Icona Pop' is an essential listen for all pop fans.


Gizzle's Choice:
* We Got The World
* Ready For The Weekend
* Girlfriend

Listen: 'This Is...Icona Pop' is released on September 24th.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Goldfrapp - Tales Of Us

Remember when Goldfrapp released exciting electronic music: music that fizzed and bubbled; music of Strict Machines, Black Cherries and Rockets; music that was sexy and…fun?

Well the band originally began with a more ethereal, fantastical sound on their 2000 debut 'Felt Mountain', a sound they returned to with the release of ‘Seventh Tree’ in 2008, which resulted in the sublime single A&E.  2010’s ‘Head First’ saw a brief return to electro-pop, but following last year’s release of ‘The Singles’, Goldfrapp are determined to head further into acoustic territory.  Perhaps as the band mature they wish to be taken more seriously, but in the process they’ve lost what made them so exciting.

‘Tales Of Us’ is sort of beautiful in its own way, often evoking wintery English landscapes.  Guitars are gently plucked, strings shiver in the background and Alison Goldfrapp’s soft, ghostly vocals haunt as ever (though they often feel a little blank and emotionally detached).  At its best it revels in a folky simplicity, whilst the warped sound of Thea retains the electro of the band's previous material and the sweeping orchestration of Stranger has a retro, almost James Bond feel.  For the most part, though, 'Tales Of Us' is whispy and ethereal with little depth, lacking the memorable melodies and hooks of the band's best work.  It chugs along nicely enough in the background, but nice just isn't good enough.

And as each track is named after a specific person, it makes you wonder who these people are to inspire such boring music.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Drew
* Thea
* Stranger

Listen: 'Tales Of Us' is available now.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe

Glasgow may be more famous for its rock and indie bands, but this year it's CHVRCHES who are putting the city on the musical map.  And they're doing so with the essential electro-pop album of 2013.

With four singles from the album previously released, the trio's sound will already be familiar.  What makes their music so effective is the age old pop balance of melancholy and ecstasy.  The production fizzes with neon synths, infectious beats and bright melodies, but lyrically the album is full of heartbreak, sadness and menace - a combination that is intrinsic to much Scandinavian electro from the likes of Robyn and The Knife.  The chorus lyric of debut single The Mother We Share contrasts with the shimmering synths and vocal hook, whilst on Gun singer Lauren Mayberry taunts "I will be a gun and it's you I'll come for" above production that positively sparkles.

This central juxtaposition is embodied by Mayberry's vocal.  Girlish and sweet, there are similarities with the likes of Grimes and Purity Ring's Megan James, yet there's a great sense of emotional weight owing to the lyrical content: from spiteful heartbreak on We Sink, to heartbreaking fragility on Recover.  Mayberry is CHVRCHES not-so-secret weapon, elevating the trio above the competition.  Those tracks that focus instead on male vocals are less remarkable.

That said, there is simply not a bad track on 'The Bones Of What You Believe'.  The singles may stand out for their familiarity, but other tracks explore new directions: the 80s action film feel of Science/Visions with touches of Daft Punk's Tron soundtrack, or atmospheric closer You Caught The Light.  What the trio do best, though, are big, punchy, immediate pop tracks and there are plenty here.  This is a confident debut of a consistently high quality and one of the finest pop albums of the year.


Gizzle's Choice:
* The Mother We Share
* Gun
* Night Sky

Listen: 'The Bones Of What You Believe' is released on 23rd September.

Watch: CHVRCHES have a number of UK gigs in October.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

The Pride @ Trafalgar Studios

Playwright Alexi Campbell may have written The Pride back in 2008, but in today's world of sexual liberation, legal same-sex marriage and Russian repression - a world where homosexuality is at the forefront of social and political consciousness - Campbell's play is more topical, pertinent and important than ever.

The Pride has a dual narrative of two parallel stories depicting homosexual relationships.  In the 1950s, Oliver (Al Weaver) is a children's author who embarks on an illicit affair with a married man - Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton), the husband of his illustrator Sylvia (Hayley Atwell).  In this time, the word 'homosexual' alone is enough to leave a heavy silence hanging in the air.  Gay relationships are full of secrets and deception and, in the case of Philip, seen as a mental illness to be cured through horrific psychotherapy.

Flash forward to present day and we meet a new Oliver: a recently single man addicted to anonymous sex.  'Queer' may no longer be a dirty word with society more open to same-sex relationships, but violence still occurs with many gay men exiled to parks, phone applications and (hilarious) roleplay.  The narrative across both time periods forces all the characters to ask themselves fundamental questions about commitment, relationships, marriage and having pride in oneself.

The parallel stories are reflected by the over-sized, decaying mirror that forms the backdrop of the set.  With the audience visible in the reflection, we are literally forced to question our own views - are they as archaic and decrepit as the mirror?  As the plot flows naturally from scene to scene, clever staging places each time frame in direct juxtaposition.  It shows just how far society have come in their views since the 1950s and equally how far we still have to go - something that's further communicated with the 'To Russia With Love' placards during the bows.

There are some hilarious comedic moments, largely stemming from Matthew Horne in a series of cameos.  Yet this is a human drama with serious intent.  Weaver, Atwell and Hadden-Paton all cope well with creating distinct characters for the differing time frames using Campbell's contrast of clipped English and a modern conversational style in the script.  We come to empathise with each characters' plight and perhaps to admire their strength as we invest heavily in their emotional journeys.

The result is a play that is an open, honest and truthful look at homosexuality ripe with political significance; a play that puts into sharp relief the differing views not only from the last sixty years but across nations today.


Watch: The Pride runs until November 9th at Trafalgar Studios.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Rush (2013) - Ron Howard

Sport is full of infamous rivalries, but few sports push their players to the limits of life and death.  Formula 1 racing is one of them.

Howard's film is based on real life events from the World Championship of 1976, in which Britain's James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria's Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) were involved in a bitter rivalry for pole position.  The intense performances from both actors are remarkable: Hemsworth as the charming, egotistical lady's man Hunt who revels in fame and swaggers onto the track; Brühl as the technical and calculating rat-faced Lauda who constantly measures the risks.  Hunt is the extrovert, Lauda is the more ambiguous introvert.  Together, there's is a turbulent relationship of yin and yang, each man pushing their cars and themselves to the limit in every race.

Howard's cinematography truly captures the rush, noise and excitement of racing.  Low-lying cameras and point-of-view shots put the audience in the centre of the action, using fast-paced editing and jaunty angles to emphasise a real sense of speed.  The use of sound, too, shudders through the speakers - the roar of the engines and Hans Zimmer's thundering score paralleling close-up shots of every rattle and click of the gears, every twist and turn of the steering.  The use of filters and stock footage also add an authentic 70s twist.  Rush is an incredibly visceral experience.

At it's core, though, this is a film that explores what it means to be competitive and, in turn, notions of masculinity.  Playboy Hunt may sleep around off the track, but women only prove to be a distraction to his winning ways.  To be a contender means to be focused and alone - except, of course, for your rival.  Over the course of the film, the two men come to appreciate their symbiotic relationship as each is dependent on the other to thrive on the track.  As Lauda claims towards the end, having a nemesis may seem a curse but it can be a blessing - it's competition that pushes both Hunt and Lauda to the limits of life and death.  Equally, if one man tragically fails, how responsible is the other for taking his rival off the racetrack - and getting him back on?

Rush doesn't quite get under the skin of its protagonists, but it remains a tightly-focussed thrill-ride of a drama that is never less than gripping, intense and exhilarating.


Saturday 14 September 2013

The Songmen @ Kings Place, London

The Songmen have a hugely varied repertoire.  Having met singing in cathedral choirs across the country, all six men have a strong background in church music.  Yet they take their audiences on a journey through the ages, from French madrigals, to Scottish folk, negro spirituals and swing numbers like Mr Bojangles and I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby, all sung a capella.  This range of styles has manifested in two albums: the pop and jazz 'Midnight' and the renaissance 'A Sacred Place'.

Whether singing intricate fugues or juicy jazz harmonies, The Songmen consistently impressed in this intimate performance at Kings Place.  Including two counter-tenors, they have an unusual sound with a vocal range as wide as their repertoire.  Jon Beasley's bass singing kept the singers rhythmically tight, whilst the others shared melodic and harmonic duties.  The sweet falsetto singing of both Guy Lewis and Ben Sawyer floated effortlessly above the others with surprising power, though as a whole the sound was warm, hushed and well-balanced.

As some of the songs lent themselves towards a more dramatic performance, there was some especially characterful singing.  Best of all, though, were the simple songs that allowed the audience to luxuriate in their pure voices and harmonies.  An original arrangement of Heartbeats (originally by The Knife but famously covered by José González) was simply stunning.

A capella singing is becoming increasingly popular, but where some groups focus solely on pop covers, The Songmen have a solid foundation in classical music that sets them apart from the pack.  Their singing simply cannot fail to put a smile on your face.


Listen: Both 'Midnight' and 'A Sacred Place' are available now.

Watch: The Songmen will be performing across the UK in the coming months (details on their website).

Friday 13 September 2013

V V Brown - Samson & Delilah

Well this is a turn out for the books.

V V Brown may be something of a household name following breakout hit Shark In The Water from her doo-wop style debut album 'Travelling Like The Light' (2009), but it's taken the London singer four years to release any new material.  Since splitting from Island Records, Brown has been free to experiment - not only with a career in fashion, but with her latest, avant-garde album 'Samson & Delilah' released on her own label.  The result is one of the most unusual and unique albums of the year - something that deserves to be celebrated.

Influenced by the likes of Bjork, 'Samson & Delilah' is a concept album based on the biblical story.  As such it's a suitably dramatic album, with a futuristic gospel sound.  Church organs collide with sub bass and disco beats, whilst yearning, chant-like melodies are evocatively archaic.  The overall effect is electronic yet ethereal and as gothic as a grand cathedral drenched in strobing, neon moonlight: sombre, downbeat and haunting.

Paralleling the musical development is Brown's vocal, which sits somewhere between opera and Grace Jones.  It lends the music an otherworldly feel that's enhanced by the use of vocoded effects.  On I Can Give You More especially, Brown sings like some seraphic, godly presence calling out from the beyond.

The production sets up a consistent sonic world across the album, though there are some standout tracks.  Opener Substitute For Love slowly and hypnotically weaves its magic into your consciousness; previous release Samson is characterised by rolling percussion and its calling "what you waiting for?" chorus lyric; current single The Apple is a delicious slice of late-night disco.  And amongst the dance rhythms there's still room for some balladry: most noticeable on the beautifully mesmeric Faith and the emotionally charged lyrics and muffled vocal of Knife, on which Brown laments a past relationship ("I don't really feel like crying, there's no tears here anymore").  Then there's the violent bass rumbles of Igneous and the shimmering atmospherics of Looking For Love - the list goes on...

Ultimately, this is a call to forget the pop aesthetic of Brown's earlier material.  'Samson & Delilah' is a remarkable artistic release, a biblical vision brought to musical life through incredible use of mood and drama.  Nothing else sounds quite like it.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Substitute For Love
* The Apple
* Knife

Listen: 'Samson & Delilah' is available now.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Ghost Beach - Miracle

Dynamic duo?  Brooklyn-based?  80's style electro-pop?

So far so ordinary.  Yet Miracle from Ghost Beach certainly stands out from the pack.  Describing their sound as 'tropical grit pop', it features syncopated guitars, bubbling synth bass and jerky beats that together create the perfect pool-side vibe.  The high-pitched, joyful vocals and slap-bass middle eight are simply the umbrella in this musical pina colada.

And if you enjoy Miracle, then give next single Moon Over Japan a go.  Similarly featuring big electronic drum pads and a bass so fizzy it practically tickles your ears, it might as well be taken straight out of an 80s teen film.

Brooklyn-based 80s electro duos really are the gift that keeps on giving.


Listen: Miracle is available now.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

The Weeknd - Kiss Land

These days, the music industry moves incredibly quickly.  As internet use makes discovering unsigned talent even easier, listeners swiftly move from one artist to the next in search of the next big thing.

In 2011, that next big thing was The Weeknd, a.k.a Canada’s Abel Tesfaye.  Off the back of three inventive albums released for free online, Tesfaye cut a mysterious figure representing a unique futuristic R&B sound.  Fast forward to 2013 and, having been signed by Universal Republic who promptly rereleased his albums as ‘Trilogy’ last year, Tesfaye is now releasing a fresh album of new material: ‘Kiss Land’.  It's an album that explores life on the road, whilst retaining his preference for highly explicit content.

Yet it feels like Tesfaye is the victim of the industry and the major label recording room, his sound already permeating into the work of other artists.  ‘Kiss Land’ already feels familiar, the only development being a slick layer of polish that smooths over what made his previous work so memorable.  There’s a lack of bass in the mixing, a lack of grit in the production, and a lack of soul.  This partly stems from his vocal – more and more it feels like his cooing falsetto is simply a Michael Jackson impersonation (especially on The Town), rather than the raw yearning we heard on ‘Trilogy’.  It’s not helped, however, by production that lacks the same creative spark as in the past – there are no interesting samples and few melodic hooks, just endlessly lengthy songs whose distinct sections could easily be trimmed.

What remains is a dreamy musical underworld that certainly highlights Tesfaye’s acute sense for mood and drama.  Opener Professional slowly unfurls with its sumptuous mix of glittering electronics and strings; the bridge of The Town suddenly breaks into a pulsing synth riff like a shock to the heart; the conclusion of Love In The Sky strips the production down to an incredibly sultry bassline; whilst Belong To The World is characterised by shuddering machine-gun beats.  The overall sound of ‘Kiss Land’ remains as alluring as ever: R&B and hip-hop morphing together to form something dark, sombre, haunting.  Wanderlust, later, sees Tesfaye moving towards dance territory with a track that’s certainly more radio-friendly than the seedy, x-rated lyrics of much of ‘Trilogy’. 

Yet not even the appearance of Drake can inject the invention we’ve come to expect from Tesfaye.  A talented artist, ‘Kiss Land’ is still a solid album – it’s just lacking what made him such an intriguing figure in the first place, what made us so excited by that initial discovery: mystery.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Love In The Sky
* Belong To The World
* Wanderlust

Listen: 'Kiss Land' is available now.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Miley Cyrus - Wrecking Ball

Let's start with the video.  What a mess.

Beginning with Miley having her Sinead O'Connor moment, it's clear that the video is stunningly shot by director Terry Richardson - from the extreme close-ups, to the soft lighting and the slow-motion, tumbling rubble.

But then the nudity swings in, which would be perfectly acceptable if it was tastefully done.  Yet the way the camera slowly and perversely caresses her writhing body is just too much.  The hammer lick is the real step too far however, utterly cheapening the image and undermining the sentiment of the song.  It's a video with all the subtlety of... well, a wrecking ball, designed merely to shock and rake in the YouTube hits.

Worst of all, it completely overshadows what is actually a decent power ballad.  "I never meant to start a war, I just wanted you to let me in, I guess I should've let you in", she laments in the middle-eight before crashing into a roaring, guitar-based chorus.  After her continued whirlwind romance with Liam Hemsworth, she puts in a suitably emotional performance that swaps twerking for tears.

This should have been a powerful moment of sentimentality.  Instead, Wrecking Ball has become a metaphor for Miley's sexually-charged assault on the music industry and womanhood.


Listen: Wrecking Ball will feature on the forthcoming album 'Bangerz', released on October 4th.

Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Canadians Arcade Fire are best known for their indie-rock, so moving in a more dance-orientated direction may seem like an odd decision.  On the contrary, this just shows the breadth of the band's influences and wide-reaching musical style.

That's not to say the guitars and dual vocals have been forgotten, just that they now sit alongside a drum beat characterised by conga drums, saxophone surges and synth noodling for a sound that fuses rock and house.  And at nearly eight minutes in length, it's as hypnotic as any dance track - not to mention the vocals repeatedly singing "It's just a reflektor" conspiratorially.  The track is accompanied by an interactive video (you can watch here), though it's more a curiosity than likely to set the world alight.

Reflektor itself is a different story though.  As one of the best tracks the band have released, there are high hopes for the forthcoming album of the same name.  Can they repeat the huge success of 'The Suburbs'?


Listen: Reflektor is available now.

Monday 9 September 2013

Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

"What an experience", Monáe sings on the final track of her second album, 'The Electric Lady'.  She couldn't be more right.

This is the follow-up to her 2010 concept album 'The ArchAndroid'.  Where her debut was a crazy and varied mix of genres, 'The Electric Lady' is a more focussed and concise album whilst maintaining the same electrifying musical style that's just as fresh and unpredictable.  Soulful and ever-characterful vocals collide with funk basslines, hip-hop beats, R&B grooves and electronic sparkles - from sassy recent single Q.U.E.E.N and the bubbling Dance Apocalyptic, to the sultry R&B jam Primetime and final track What An Experience.  Monáe takes an old school vibe and turns it into something futuristic and unique.

'The Electric Lady' remains a high-concept album, however.  As with 'The ArchAndroid', the follow-up continues the exploits of her droid alter-ego Cindy Mayweather.  The main album tracks are broken up with radio skits and divided into two 'suites' with overtures that totally sum up her musical style.  Yet there's a newfound honesty to 'The Electric Lady' as it becomes increasingly clear that Mayweather is a metaphor for her sexuality.  "Robot love is queer", shouts one 'listener' on one of the radio skits, a notion that is quickly shot down by the presenter.  Monáe no longer hides behind a concept, but uses it to explore her personality in a more open manner.  As she sings on Q.U.E.E.N, “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I wanna love who I am” - lyrically this is as carefree and jubilant as the production.

Despite the critical success of her debut, Monáe remains a commercially under-performing artist, which is quite frankly criminal.  Will 'The Electric Lady' finally see her hit the mainstream?  There are some clever collaborations here, most notably with Prince (Givin Em What They Love), Solange (Electric Lady) and R&B star of the moment Miguel (Primetime).  Most of all, though, there is simply not a bad song in earshot - each one brimming with exciting, funky music with serious lyrical content.

The concept might be difficult for some to look past, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more creative album released this year.  Monáe has proven once again why she's one of the most unique artists of our time with an album that deserves both critical and commercial success.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Primetime
* We Were Rock & Roll
* What An Experience

Listen: 'The Electric Lady' is available now.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Coldplay - Atlas

The Hunger Games is one of the most exciting new film series since Harry Potter.  Following Suzanne Collins' gripping novels, the second film in the series (Catching Fire) is hyped to set the world alight on its release later in the autumn.

So why have the producers chosen to feature one of the most boring bands on the soundtrack?

There might be some nice harmonies in the chorus, but for the most part this is a yawn-inducing piano ballad with Chris Martin groaning his way through on auto-pilot sounding more bored than we are.  The first film's soundtrack included the likes of Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars for an American, country-folk feel.  Now, the bigger budget has led to a bigger band in it for the money alone.  The melancholy sound might fit with the bleak outlook of the narrative, but the film deserves better music than this.

Still, the graphics in the lyric video are nice.


Listen: Atlas will feature on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire released in November.

Margaret Berger - Human Race

As the pop community continues to bemoan the lack of new material from Robyn, Norway's Eurovision entry from 2012 has stepped up to the plate.

Since placing second in Norwegian Idol in 2004, Margaret Berger released two albums before entering Eurovision this year to become quite the star.  Human Race is the follow-up to I Feed You My Love and will feature on her forthcoming third album.  It's a cosmic electro-pop track about loss of innocence - as she laments on the chorus "I don't know where I lost my faith, help me escape the human race".  The downbeat lyrics contrast with the sci-fi sounds, bleeps and bloops and glittering production, together forming this brilliant pop track.

It's clear, then, that Berger is a force to be reckoned with.  Expect to hear much more from her in the coming months across Europe and beyond.


Listen: Human Race is available now.

Friday 6 September 2013

Skream - Rollercoaster feat. Sam Frank

Well Daft Punk did it first. But Skream is bringing back disco.

Anyone disappointed by the French duo’s latest work will find much to enjoy here.  The influences are clear – digitised voices, cosmic synth lines, bubbling bass lines and even some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar wobbling.  The house-funk-disco fusion is miles away from Skream’s previous dub-step work, the spectral beats and glitchy sample-work swapped for warm, neon textures.

Cynics might see this move as a chance to capitalise on recent trends, but this is one sexy track that will sound awesome “in the club”.


Listen: Rollercoaster will be released on 27th October.