Saturday, 30 November 2013

Britney Spears - Britney Jean

In the opening of Kill The Lights, from Britney's 2008 'Circus' album, she's described as "our very own pop princess now queen of pop".  At this point, six albums into her career, Britney was undoubtedly a superstar.  But what does that make her now?

Spears is a classic example of not knowing when to stop.  Now eight albums in, she's struggling to keep up with younger artists.  Her name simply isn't enough anymore - she's no longer relevant.

Her career has been filled with lip synching allegations and 'Britney Jean' just exemplifies her lack of singing ability.  Even on the promotional artwork for the album, Spears looks dead behind the eyes.  This is an utterly soulless record, devoid of personality and with barely a single note that hasn't been auto-tuned into place.  On lead single Work Bitch she doesn't even attempt to sing for most of it.

There's also a complete lack of variety on offer.  'Britney Jean' comprises ten tracks of noisy and repetitive EDM that perfectly match the robotic vocals.  That produced much of the album should come as no surprise, each track simply a dated series of bleeps and bloops.  David Guetta even crops up on a couple of tracks.  It's as if Britney's gathered a team of the key players who have ruined pop music in recent years to create the ultimate album of electronic trite.

Perfume is the only real ballad on offer but even that has a pounding beat behind it.  And any semblance of romanticism is ruined by the central lyric "I put on my perfume, I want it all over you, I'm gonna mark my territory", a bit like a cat pissing up a wall.  The rest of the album does attempt to inject some personal lyrics into proceedings, but they're smothered in electronic noise and robotic vocals devoid of emotion.

There are plenty of club bangers here, the shuffling rhythms of Tik Tik Boom and the thumping beat of Body Ache especially.  Yet when Work Bitch is one of the best tracks, you know you've got one of the worst albums of the year.  It makes you wish Spears would just bow out gracefully.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Work Bitch
* Perfume
* Tik Tik Boom

Listen: 'Britney Jean' is released on 2nd December (if you really must listen).

Thursday, 28 November 2013

One Direction - Midnight Memories

One Direction’s success makes for an interesting case study.  This is a boyband whose branding is more important than their music, who have escaped the X Factor bubble and risen to fame through sell out tours, a film and legions of crazily obsessed fans.  They may have had nine top ten singles in the UK across their three albums, but for the most part their music is an afterthought.

Yet the boys have had greater involvement in the songwriting for ‘Midnight Memories’ which may lead you to think they’re taking the music a little more seriously.  Unfortunately, serious equals dull. 

The songs fit neatly into two camps.  Firstly are the upbeat pop-rock tracks like lead single Best Song Ever, the very 80s Diana, the title track (ripped from I Love Rock and Roll) and Little Black Dress.  These certainly fit the “edgier”, “rockier” tone they’ve been striving for, but lead the band down a void somewhere between pop and rock.  They’re clearly trying to ‘mature’ and move away from the former, but they simply don’t have the cool to pull off the latter.  The rest of the album comprises Mumford-esque power ballads, such as current single Story Of My Life and Through The Dark which both feature plenty of acoustic strumming.  At times the songs do have a certain charm – the typical boyband fair of You & I (with its falsetto note leading into the final chorus) and the Ryan Tedder (of One Republic) penned Right Now.  Mostly, though, ‘Midnight Memories’ is utterly lacking in thrills.

Lyrically, the boys do their best to inject some excitement, with plenty of (now customary) innuendo aimed squarely at teenage girls.  “Said I had a dirty mouth, but she kissed me like she meant it”, they sing on Best Song Ever, whilst on the Gary Lightbody (yawn) penned Something Great they croon “You say we’re better off together in our bed”.  Apparently this is what your younger sister is getting off on these days.

It takes until song thirteen to reach a decent pop track: Little White Lies.  Written by should-be-popstar Ed Drewett, it takes a leaf out of Taylor Swift’s book with its dub-step infused pop and super catchy chorus.  If the boys released a whole album like this then they’d likely deserve their success.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what drivel One Direction release as it’ll shoot up the charts regardless – the brand is simply too strong.  Already ‘Midnight Memories’ is set to be the biggest selling album of the year.  Life’s just not fair.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Diana
* Right Now
* Little White Lies

Listen: 'Midnight Memories' is available now.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Weeknd @ The O2 Arena

Both The Weeknd and his support act Banks have a sense of the futuristic about them.  Their music is dark and moody, with space age synths and cinematic beats.

With Banks, though, the futuristic reference is twofold - this singer from LA is definitely one to watch for 2014.  Her high, fragile voice has a pronounced vibrato that contrasts with the grinding laser synths and pounding drums - of breakthrough single Waiting Game especially.  Alongside tracks taken from her most recent EP 'London' - named after the city she "fell in love with" - she performed an exposed, acoustic version of Warm Water that revealed her soul roots and a cover of Lauren Hill's Ex-Factor (another major inspiration).  "Every woman is a fucking goddess", she cried and as she slinked and strutted across the stage, this was only plain to see.

Backed by futuristic Japanese neon signs and with a set divided by animé adverts, the epic sound of The Weeknd (a.k.a Abel Tesfaye) was almost as overwhelming as the reception he received from the crowd.  Having only released his second album earlier this year, he seemed surprised to have sold out the O2 Arena at this relatively early stage in his career.  Yet the crowd was filled with devoted fans, who were overjoyed that Tesfaye performed "the motherfucking classics" from his previous 'Trilogy' album as well as tracks from his most recent album 'Kiss Land'.

What was most remarkable, however, were his skills as a showman.  In a nod to his mysterious persona when releasing his early mixtapes, the opening number was sung from behind a veil.  But when the veil dropped, Tesfaye emerged singing in his high-pitched falsetto, spinning and dancing around the stage and conducting his incredible musicians.  In the live arena, the Michael Jackson comparison is more pronounced than ever.

And like all good showmen, Tesfaye knows how to play to his audience - an audience of predominantly female Londoners singing back every one of his sordid lyrics.  "Can I make it sexy for you London?", he asked before hip-grinding and flicking his tongue at the camera and the legions of screaming fans.  And in the finale he claimed "I never write a song without thinking what would the UK think of it", before plunging into a final rendition of Wanderlust dedicated to the country.

Tesfaye had already proven himself musically on his albums (in particular his exceptional mixtape 'House Of Balloons'), but with this gig he also showed he can put on a great show, despite pandering to the audience.  The future is definitely bright.


Listen: 'Trilogy' and 'Kiss Land' are both available now.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Sweeney Todd @ The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The Exchange really is an odd little theatre. Set inside the old cotton exchange building, the theatre itself is a self-contained, transparent box of modernity set in the round. Yet this proved the perfect setting for James Brining’s production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which transports the narrative from Victorian London to a Thatcherite mental asylum complete with stark, grimy set design.

Sweeney Todd is an incredibly psychological piece of theatre, something this setting only enhances.  Here every character suffers from psychosis: David Birrell’s deranged and obsessed Sweeney; Gillian Bevan’s hilariously crazed Mrs Lovett; Barbara Drennan’s bedraggled and pathetic Beggar Woman whose matted white hair sprouts grimly from her balding head; Don Gallagher’s self-flagellating Judge Turpin struggling to contain his paedophilic desires; and Ben Stott’s tragic Tobias descending from innocence to insane murderer.  Even Niamh Perry’s traumatised Joanna pulls a gun on her captor.

The psychotic tone of the piece surely reflects the grotesque horror and twisted humour at play, only emphasized by the intense sexuality on display.  If Turpin’s Mea Culpa wasn’t deliciously disturbing enough, Little Priest sees Todd and Lovett becoming increasingly aroused as they delight in the prospect of their morbid business arrangement, the song acting as foreplay to both the murderous plot and their sexual relationship.  As such, Brining’s production takes Sweeney to the darkest depths of the human mind.

Initially, the asylum feel is established during pre-show: a man stares blankly at a television screen, a woman shuffles slowly around the stage, another rocks back and forth on the floor and, in a subtle link to Joanna, a man creates origami birds accompanied by The Carpenters' Close To You.  Yet disappointingly this notion is used only to enhance the psychotic themes rather than as a narrative framework and therefore feels underused.

The Exchange theatre certainly brings its own set of constraints, but there is something thrillingly eerie about watching the bloody bodies float across the stage rather than through a trapdoor.  Yet whilst the reduced orchestration loses none of its impact, musical director George Dyer struggles to keep control of both the players and the singers.  His frantic conducting is particularly distracting on the screens dotted around the theatre, which some of the singers appear to ignore.

The worst offender here is Birrell whose use of rubato is a little indulgent (and clearly frustrating for Dyer!). That said, his booming vocals and incessant staring are suitably frightening – in his Epiphany especially.  Elsewhere, the singing is equally as characterful and with excellent diction from both the ensemble and the leads.  Bevan plays Lovett with a little more subtlety than usual, though her comic timing is exceptional.  Michael Peavoy’s Anthony is appropriately more horny youth than romantic lover, with a beautiful tenor voice.  However, Perry’s Joanna (as is so often the case) has a nasal, shrill upper register – I long for the day I can hear Green Finch and Linnet Bird sung by a sweet soprano rather than a smurf.

Brining’s thoroughly engaging production may not be a perfect machine, but the dark psychological feel is well suited to Sondheim’s musical thriller.  Moreover, this production can stand tall next to last year’s London production, proving you don’t have to be in the West End to see an exceptional musical.


Watch: Sweeney Todd runs until the end of November.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) - Francis Lawrence

If the first Hunger Games film was a comment on our obsession with celebrity culture and reality television, then Catching Fire is a more personal take on the darker side of fame and the shallowness of the celebrity facade. 

Picking up where the last film left off, we again follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) now living as the victor of the previous games.  Yet life is far from perfect.  Katniss not only struggles with the psychological trauma she’s endured, haunted by those she’s killed in the past, but she continues to (frustratingly) flit between love interests with alarming frequency: the strong, blue-eyed Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the whiny Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  Then there’s the wider revolutionary plot – can she escape her position as President Snow’s puppet (Donald Sutherland) and rise to her own revolutionary symbol of the mockingjay?

Where the novel dragged a little during the first half, the film does a great job of building character, wisely focusing the plot on Katniss with few trimmings.  Though she’s supported by some great performances (Sutherland’s contemptible Snow and a hilarious turn from Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket), only an actress with the acting ability of Lawrence could carry the oppressive weight of this film (as well as providing hilarity in one lift-based scene).  It’s largely thanks to her that the film is such a success.

This might be a film aimed at teenagers but its downbeat tone certainly has an adult feel.  The dystopian world is bleak and daringly true to life, accompanied by James Newton Howard’s sombre score.  By comparison, the Capitol is a spectacular but garish and hyperbolic take on a possible celebrity-obsessed future.  Most of all, the morbid themes and overbearing sadness will certainly appeal to the darker side of teenage audiences.

The film may be long but it remains well paced, thoroughly gripping and often beautifully shot.  The second half is all out action: brutal, sadistic and always thrilling, with convincing special effects.  Nothing is more torturous, however, than the cliffhanger ending and the long wait until the third film.

Catching Fire builds and improves upon the first film, resulting in a fantasy saga that’s exciting and engrossing, with a reluctant heroine who’s easy to root for.  And as an adaptation of the book, fans will not be disappointed - the odds are definitely in our favour.


Pentatonix @ O2 Academy Islington

A capella singing may seem like a niche genre, made mainstream by the likes of Glee and Pitch Perfect.  But it’s clear that American five-piece the Pentatonix are set to change that.  At this, their first ever gig in the UK, the self-confessed “choir nerds” were overwhelmingly treated like superstars.

And rightly so.  Originally started by school friends Scott, Mitch and Kirstie (and later joined by Avi and Kevin), the singers rose to fame on American talent show ‘The Sing Off’ – basically X Factor for choirs.  Since then they’ve run a hugely popular YouTube channel, released three albums and are now embarking on a European tour.

As such, their setlist comprised songs from throughout their career (despite a few disappointing omissions – their cover of Gotye’s Somebody I Used To Know and their recent Daft Punk medley especially).  Favourites from the ‘Sing Off’ like Let’s Get It On and Video Killed The Radio Star were performed alongside a medley of Beyoncé hits, Lorde’s Royals, original songs and Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive that was accompanied by Kevin on cello.  Speaking of which, the beat-boxer was allowed his own moment in the spotlight with his own “cello-boxing” routine that was immensely impressive.

That said, all five members of the group are incredibly talented.  Their upbeat, complex arrangements are full of personality and unique riffs and inflections to ensure that each song has been moulded into their own style.   This continued between songs, with plenty of friendly banter – Avi and Kevin in particular making a hilarious double act, particularly during the audience participation section.

Individually, their voices have their own distinct character: Scott’s gravelly runs, Mitch’s pure falsetto and Kirstie’s welcome femininity.  Kevin’s beatboxing is rich with interesting percussive effects, but Avi was clearly the audience favourite.  His bass voice is so shuddering and low it quite literally shakes the floor – even his speaking voice was enough to induce screams from the crowd.  He even showcased some Mongolian overtone singing – weird and wonderful in equal measure.

Together, though, their voices blend perfectly.  A real highlight was original track Run To You – a gorgeous, intimate ballad full of warm suspended harmonies that proved the group can do emotive singing just as well as upbeat pop.

The crowd may have been full of musos and choir geeks, but the Pentatonix are less a choir and more a pop group, their performance as thrilling as any band gig.  More than anyone else they’re making a capella singing cool – and that’s no mean feat.


Listen: 'PTX Vol II' is available now.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe

Dev Hynes has multiple guises, but he’s probably best known under the moniker Blood Orange for his work with Solange Knowles on her ‘True’ EP (as well as the recent Flatline from MKS).  Yet on ‘Cupid Deluxe’, his second album as Blood Orange, he’s worked with a number of guest vocalists including Caroline Polachek of Chairlift, Samantha Urbani from Friends and rapper Skepta.  What’s missing, though, is a certain Knowles sister.

‘Cupid Deluxe’ is a true showcase of Hynes’ ability as a producer.  His idiosyncratic production is polished to an impossible sheen and follows on from his previous work with breezy pop melodies, Balearic beats, funk basslines, noodling guitars and synth washes.  The first half in particular contains some brilliant tracks, gliding in smoothly on lead single Chamakay’s hazy waves and Polachek’s fluttering vocal.  It’s followed by You’re Not Good Enough, a mid-tempo groove of funk guitars and a strutting bass; the quietly up-tempo Uncle Ace and its sun-dappled textures; the light, falsetto vocals of Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors on No Right Thing; and the shimmering, percussive ballad It Is What It Is.  The sound of ‘Cupid Deluxe’ frequently stuns.

Yet the sound mostly expands and consolidates his previous work – whilst the album often thrills with its outstanding production, it rarely surprises (except, perhaps, for the hip-hop tracks Clipped On and High Street).  With no real star-power holding the album together, interest swiftly wanes in the second half suggesting this may have worked better as an EP.

The missing link?  Solange Knowles.  Sure, Hynes may have established his sound first, but it’s now become so deeply ingrained with Solange’s recent work that for most of ‘Cupid Deluxe’ we’re left waiting for her slinky vocals to arrive.  It’s clear that their relationship is a musical symbiosis: Hynes provides the vision, Solange provides the spark. 

Hynes’ production work is exemplary, something that ‘Cupid Deluxe’ only reinforces in abundance on every track.  As an album in its own right it falls a little short, but as a précis to Solange’s next album (not to mention MKS), it’ll do very nicely.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Chamakay
* You're Not Good Enough
* It Is What It Is

Listen: 'Cupid Deluxe' is available now.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Majestic Casual - Chapter I

Music and technology go hand in hand.  And in today's digital realm, that statement is truer than ever.  The way we consume music has shifted, with more and more people looking to powerful sites like YouTube to discover new acts.  And now, a simple YouTube channel has become big enough to release its own album.

Originally established in 2012 by a 21 year old from Stuttgart, Germany, Majestic Casual is part of a growing emergence of 'bedroom tastemakers' able to influence the public and even break new acts, all accompanied by artistic photography.  With over a million subscribers, it's been a major success story - what began as one man's passion for new talent has culminated in a full compilation album.

The first of a planned series, 'Chapter I' provides a cross-section of artists who have appeared on the channel over the past year or so.  The channel claims to cover a variety of genres, the main criteria being "emotive, soulful and spellbinding music".  Whilst these criteria certainly describe much of the channel's output, in practice the sound is predominantly experimental electro - spectral, laidback and icily cool.

This may seem limited in scope across forty-odd tracks, but there's plenty of diversity on offer.  Key, well-known, artists include the likes of AlunaGeorge, Disclosure, SBTRKT, Flume and Chris Malinchak, whilst more up-and-coming artists like Sampha, BANKS and Bondax also make an appearance.  On the pop end of the spectrum, there's Ellie Goulding's cover of Tessellate, a Cyril Hahn remix of Gabrielle Aplin and Friendly Fires remixed by Tensnake, whilst other tracks delve into rap and hip-hop.  Further still, many of the artists are likely to be unknown to the average listener, the album operating on an educational level as well as celebrating the channel's success.

The result is an album that mixes glitchy electro, dance beats, club remixes and edgy pop.  There are plenty of 'best of the year' style compilations available, but if you're looking for something off the beaten track then look no further than Majestic Casual.  After all, the channel was set up to expose undiscovered talent, something its first album definitely achieves.


Listen: 'Majestic Casual - Chapter I' is available now.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

New Pop Roundup

We're well into Q4 of 2013 now, which means not only are there some big albums and tracks being released in time for Christmas but we're beginning to look into what the future holds for next year.  Here are some names to keep an eye on...

Lily Allen - Hard Out Here

Forget the bear and the hare, THIS is the Lily Allen comeback we've been waiting for.  And it's essentially the antithesis of fluffy animals and Christmas - a biting, satirical look at sexism in the music industry.  Musically, she pokes fun at R&B with the lyrics ("forget your balls and grow a pair of's hard out here for a bitch"), the synth breakdown and the ironic use of autotune.  Yet Hard Out Here is still obviously a Lily Allen track, from the amusing content to the central piano riff.  For all the controversy, this remains a brilliantly catchy track.

Then there's the video, filled with twerking, cheeky product placement, champagne pouring and Allen deep-throating a banana for a suited music exec.  Some have accused Allen of racism (something she's adamantly denied) and claim it sends out a mixed message that undermines the song.  That said, Allen herself sings in the verse "if you can't detect the sarcasm you've miss-understood".  Plus anyone who can so brazenly take a stab at Robin Thicke in the following fashion deserves a medal in my book:

Most of all, Hard Out Here is a talking point and a springboard for further discussion.  And for a popstar who kick-started the MySpace generation, Allen is no stranger to sparking Internet debate.


Listen: Hard Out Here is released on 16th November.

Metronomy - I'm Aquarius

After the success of their previous Mercury-nominated album 'The English Riviera', the stakes are high for Metronomy and their comeback album 'Love Letters'.  I'm Aquarius is the lead single: a typically stylish and minimalist track based around a mesmeric organ riff and the interweaving vocals of Joseph Mount ("I'm Aquarius") and Anna Prior ("shoop doop doop ah").  Clean, moody and icily cool, this is exactly what you'd expect from a Metronomy track.


Listen: I'm Aquarius is available now, with 'Love Letters' released on March 10th.

Tanika - Bad 4 U

London singer Tanika comes from a strong musical heritage: her grandmother a saxophone and piano player, her great-grandmother a New York jazz singer, and her great aunt a music teacher.  Bad 4 U, though, is straight up urban pop with a killer chorus, filthy bassline and a seismic beat.  With an album out next year featuring production from Naughty Boy and StarGate amongst others, plus a support slot on Naughty Boy's UK tour, expect to hear far more from her in the coming months.


Listen: Bad 4 U is released on 24th November.

Femme - Heartbeat

Femme, a.k.a Laura Bettinson, is an utterly unique artist.  Having written and produced her own music, as well as directing and starring in the video for Heartbeat, every element of the track is infused with her signature, quirky style.  "I've no heartbeat" she intones above deep, clattering percussion.  This is the sort of marketable track that you can easily see being snapped up for licensing deals, thanks to its unique appeal - someone get on it quick.


Listen: Heartbeat is released on 25th November.

Only Girl - Perfect High

Ellen Murphy is releasing new tracks as Only Girl at a rapid rate of knots and, incidentally, has worked with Femme in the past.  Her previous releases revealed different sides to her sound: the sombre, gloomy synths of End Of Time and the folky, dreamy feel of Mountain.  Perfect High sits neatly between, Murphy's cooing vocals floating above a dreamy bed of synths as she sings "you're lifting me higher" with effortless melisma.  With an ever growing body of work, Only Girl is one to watch for 2014.


Listen: Perfect High will be released in early 2014 as a full EP.

Lulu James - Sweetest Thing

I'm running out of superlatives to describe Lulu James.  Soulful, futuristic and sexy as hell spring to mind, but still don't really do her justice.  Sweetest Thing is her latest jam, all pulsating beats, a deep electro bass and slinky vocals, accompanied by a video that's a stylish as we've come to expect from her.  When her debut album is eventually released, it should be pretty special indeed.


Listen: Sweetest Thing is available now.

Velour Modular - Forward

Velour Modular bring a sense of French artistic cool to ominous electro-pop.  The duo comprise French singer Guilhem and Spanish producer Hektagon, for a pan-European sound that bubbles menacingly beneath the mesmeric vocal lines that stem from Guilhem's background in traditional Indian singing.  They've also been inspired by science-fiction and the poetry of William Blake, manifesting in the futuristic yet spiritual feel of this track - the first from their forthcoming EP.  Fans of The Knife will be sure to lap this up.


Listen: Forward is available now.

The Fauns - Seven Hours

Shoegaze has been making a big comeback recently and fans of the genre will be eagerly awaiting the second album from Bristol-based band The Fauns.  Seven Hours is the first track to be taken from the album and it's typical stuff: ghostly vocals from frontwoman Alison Garner above a sea of evocative, shimmering guitars for a widescreen sound with cinematic appeal (film composer Clint Mansell is a big fan).  There's plenty of specific cinematic influences on the full album (entitled 'Lights'), including Tron and Mansell's Moon soundtrack - be sure to check it out come December.


Listen: 'Lights' is released on December 2nd.

Abigail Wyles - Mantra

Wyles would probably describe herself as more of a singer-songwriter than a popstar.  Her smoky, rich vocals have a soulful feel matched by a sense of jazz experimentalism in her music.  Yet she's been snapped up by Chase & Status' MTA Records label, undoubtedly responsible for the sombre, electronic beats.  It's a wonderful fusion.


Listen: Mantra is available now.

Sam Smith x Nile Rodgers x Disclosure x Jimmy Napes - Together

The soulful vocals of Smith, the disco guitar of Rodgers and the woozy, skittering electro of Disclosure.  Yes, this is just as cool as you imagine.


Listen: The result of a single studio session, fingers crossed this sees general release.