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Assorted Albums Almanac // Mid-Year Madness

So many albums. So so many albums. So so many things, generally. The last few months have been a haze of essays, exams and mutilated sleep patterns, all soundtracked by a weird mix of Beyonce, Deerhunter, St.Vincent, Owen Pallett, songs from Adventure Time, and the occasional strategic burst of Future Islands to jump-start my mind. I also got to see Annie Clark roll around on the floor like a total idiot on Jools Holland and make me feel bad about yet another person I find cool; hear Kasabian’s new, dubiously dancey, horrifyingly laddish (well, the video anyway) single ‘EEZ-EH'(Christ); and, of course, see a bearded woman win Eurovision.

I also got to fall completely behind all musical developments except for the ones I really care about – by which I mean Owen Pallett. But that’s probably for the best, since, as my review of The War on Drugs will show, I’ve also become hopelessly bored by miserable, bearded white guys singing over slightly lo-fi music. Unfortunately that seems to constitute most music nowadays, or at least a weirdly disproportionate amount of the music that gets good reviews. That hasn’t stopped me listening to everything Bradford Cox does, though, but then again he doesn’t have a beard and his misery is sort of justified by being born with a deformity.

Anyway, a bounty of reviews. Too many reviews some would say. Most would say that, truth be told.

Liars // Mess

The trajectory of this band whose only consistent descriptor seems to be ‘angular'(or just ‘weird’) is all but impossible to discern. Jumping wildly from album to album across punk, prog and, on WIXIW (Wish You), electro-rock, Liars have never been content with merely consolidating. With Mess you could argue that’s changed. Building off its predecessor, it pushes the electro angle to pounding, glitched-out excess and returns to the relative inaccessibility of albums like 2007’s eponymous work. The relative normality of WIXIW is ditched for a swirling mass of sound – chaotic, oppressive and inconsistent. The sheer relentlessness of Mess is to be admired, but, ultimately, its name is more fitting than you’d hope.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that an album that begins with a fuzzy voice intoning ‘Eat my face off’ is pretty, well, in your face. The problem lies in Liars inability to restrain that madness. The first half of the album is a relentless assault on the senses, quickly turning from interesting and bold into repetitive and almost irritating; by the time Darkslide arrives to slow things up the album’s already become stuck in something of a mire. The slower, more atmospheric second half benefits from the change of pace, but nonetheless it just doesn’t grab as it should. Perhaps it’s because you’re already worn out by that furious opening, but Mess really feels like a drag at times.

Amidst the sprawl there are glimmers of inspiration, moments where the madness coagulates into a form more familiar; on Can’t Hear Well, the shock and awe treatment of the album’s opening is dialed back in favour of pulsing Vangelis-esque swirls, and, much like on WIXIW, Angus Andrew’s fuzzed up vocals dovetail with the gloom to create a strangely gripping atmosphere. Mess on A Mission, the pre-release teaser, similarly benefits for a more controlled, subtle approach. The sprightly, almost melodic, absolutely hypnotic beeps and bops sustain the trance-like beat before a slightly more dodgy chorus steamrolls in. It’s all patterns and loops and swirls, but only a few of them ever really grab your attention the way they should. Andrew’s vocals grate when they’re too stripped of fuzz to cover up his deficiencies, and the eerily enigmatic, almost gothic, lyricism that he formerly brought out so well is ditched for loops and cycles.

The quiet dread and strange mixture of emptiness and oppressiveness that characterised WIXIW will forever be associated with cold winter nights in Exeter to me. It oozed atmosphere as much as it knew how to flip out, but Mess can’t pull off that trick with anywhere near the same consistency. Only on the late-in-the-day would-be saviour Dress Walker does the vision they had for the album comes together. The hazy vocals, the gloom and the electro nod to WIXIW, but it pushes off somewhere new, bold and uniquely brilliant. It’s weird and chaotic, but it sounds layered rather than just messy.

There’s something strangely, kinetically gripping about Mess, but it’s just not interesting enough. This dark, mental kind of Kraftwerk is, ultimately, actually quite a change for the band. The roots may be familiar for once, but it’s clear that Mess’s entire sonic dynamic is another gamble for Liars. It’s one that hasn’t quite paid off, even if it has kept their perfect record for surprise.

B-

Mess on A Mission, Can’t Hear Well, Dress Walker

Metronomy // Love Letters

Oh, hey, what’s this? Did the album just start now? Why would you wait until a minute and a half into the fourth song to have a song that has any kind of tempo? And why would you sing so badly over your one beacon of hope? Love Letters the title track just about sums up Love Letters the album. It’s confusing, weirdly cheap and the worst kind of retro. It’s a 60s pop tribute that has become a pastiche of itself, a sly nod that’s simultaneously the punchline to a joke it didn’t hear.

And what happened your budget, guys? You’ve gone from big and lush and layered to literally like two cheap keyboards and a metronome. Where’s all the money from The Look getting used in every ad ever gone? Did you spend it on you album cover? Because it’s crap. You definitely overpaid for it. And the first three tracks? A write-off. I had rants written about them, but they don’t even merit that.

It’s all a bit crap, basically. If they’d capitalised at all on the potential hinted at when the title track kicked off, then I might not have been so harsh. But even then Metronomy manage to trip themselves up. Month of Sundays switches the vibe from crap 60s pop to 70s psych-rock, but by that stage I’d already abandoned hope for Love Letters. The fact that that’s only halfway through the album is a sad state of affairs.

In some ways Love Letters is closer to their early work, like 2008’s Nights Out, but, much like them, its surprisingly simplistic melodies grow repetitive fast, and any charm they might have had is soon gone too. They’ve shifted from an up-tempo, invigorating electro-pop act to one content to elicit a foot-tap or a head nod at best. The dark, bitter tone of The English Riviera and the acerbic lyricism has turned into something vaguely farcical – reminiscent of The Unicorns but more self-important and less fun – and, with that, the slightly sinister edge to Joseph Mounts vocals has gone too. Instead, its imperfections are amplified as your search for something to catch the ear in a lifeless soundscape.

At a push I’d say The Most Immaculate Haircut is worthy of making their last album – the mid-song diving sounds help – but even then it’s not exactly great. It’s inoffensive and lacking some of the rough edges and novelty feel of the rest of the album, but it’s by no means memorable.

The fact I had just been listening to The English Riviera, and was in a real Metronomy mood when I realised their new album had been released, only served to exacerbate my disappointment when I listened to Love Letters. Love Letters is an album about break-ups and miscommunications; and that’s exactly what’s happened here. There are sparks of a good band still hidden away in the dank corners of Love Letters, but they’re few and far between. In Joseph Mount’s attempts to recreate that inimitably plastic, glitzy, jaunty vibe of 60s pop he’s only ended up taking his band back in time; back to immaturity, novelty, rough edges and unfulfilled potential.

C-

I guess The Most Immaculate Haircut is okay, and Love Letters and I’m Aquarius are good for a little while

The Horrors // Luminous

Primary Colours was an album that was great; Skying was an album that was great in concept, pleasantly okay in execution. It wasn’t bad, but it was enough for me to not harbour even remotely the same interest that I had for its release upon the arrival of its follow-up, Luminous. That my expectations were so lowered meant that my shock when Luminous finally roared into action (it only takes 3 minutes for something to actually happen) was all the more amplified. Luminous is the album that Skying should have been. It’s an explosive blend of their classic 80s New Wave influences and Primary Colours jagged blend of shoegaze; it’s propulsive, sweeping and musically lush.

That slow opening to Chasing Shadows is in some ways reminiscent of Mirror’s Image, the opener from Primary Colours, sharing that same shock and awe power, but perhaps drawn out a bit too much. It’s a complaint that runs through the album, a hangover from the excess of Skying that leaves most tracks running longer than their ideas have gas for. What’s most galling is that, among the particularly meaty songs, most of them actually stand up. It’s the others, the high-class filler of Luminous (see ‘Change Your Mind’), that you feel things get stretched.

Similarly, Faris Badwan/Rotter(is he still called that, or have they ditched the horror name schtick?) remains an at times unconvincing New Romanticist. His voice, much more suited to the low-key, half sung half spoken bass intonations of the likes of ”Who Can Say”, lacks the requisite power and range to fully pull off the operatics he imitates. The husky mix of the two he incorporates on Luminous works well sometimes, less so on other tracks. It’s an interesting voice, even if part of that is because the flaws are so evident. That it is somewhat drowned out amid the wash of noise that is Luminous is both a positive and a negative – it indicates how grand and anthemic the music is that the lead vocalist can barely keep up, but it also feels like it could become something to really raise the roof with more powerful vocals.

Still, the music is what’s really important, anyway. Where Luminous succeeds most is in its return of the bass to the forefront of the action; on Skying, and at times on Primary Colours, it felt pushed down, as if the band were unaware that it was the driving heart of all their best songs. Here, on songs like single ‘So Now You Know’ and follow up ‘In and Out of Sight’, it’s bounces along, tying everything together in a dance, almost trance-esque groove. These almost dance elements are perhaps what really seperates the album from Skying, and indicates that it can stand alone as a real development for the band. The album is at times reminiscent of an extended version of My Blood Valentine’s pioneering, shoegaze meets dance, album closer ‘Soon’; but injected with the requisite 80s glitter and sheen to keep it interesting across an hour.

Indeed, the combination is so magnetic that, were it not so damn long, Luminous could arguably stand as their best work. As is, it lacks the real standouts that Primary Colours could call upon to cover up the gaps. Still, it’s undoubtedly their most polished work, and arguably their most replayable. The sheer depth to the tracks is astonishing, each seemingly buried under a sea of synths, guitar and any other kind of noise imaginable. You could complain that it’s too similar to Skying, but the manner it which it achieves so masterfully what that album only hinted at blows those claims out of the water.

A

Chasing Shadows, So Now You Know, I See You

These New Puritans // Field of Reeds

Dark jazz and powerful drumming collide in this grand, strange, occasionally compelling release. Alternating between a barely in tune crone and more dramatic wailing, Field of Reeds is divided at its core – at times sprightly indie with a dark twist, at others a messy mix of discordant piano, trumpet stabs and oddly emphatic drumming. It’s hard to say if it’s misplaced or redemptive, but that’s kind of how I feel about this album in general. The atmospherics that swirl around Jack Barnett are interesting enough – it’s rare you hear something described as ‘neo-classical art rock’ – but the vocals are too strange and, really, too crap to hold it all together. I get that it’s meant to be weird and different and stuff, but there’s no core to the sound of Field of Reeds and it all comes off as a well-put together spew of sounds.

C-

Timber Timbre // Hot Dreams

Hot Dreams opens in bizarre fashion. The ghostly sensuality of Beat The Drum Slowly sorta sets up the rest of the album in that sense. Sounding a bit like Portishead crossed with Destroyer, Timber Timbre’s fourth release is a peculiar mix of the fun-house with the earnest, like a 50s Vegas show trapped in The Twilight Zone.

Taylor Kirk’s rich baritone is smooth in a very classical sense, but with the subtle wryness of his contemporaries. You can tell he’s aware of the oddness of the sound, but is persisting through it anyway. On Curtains?! he even joins in the fun, slapping some gothic-sounding effects on his voice to create a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a Cramps album from half a century ago.

But all this strangeness would be for nothing if it was just odd. The classicism of the sound belies the complexity and assuredness of the tribute, and the instrumentation is the secret ingredient to the success of Hot Dreams. Simple, seductive, nostalgic, and almost clichéd but just too self-aware; it’s a mixture of James Bond guitar, horror show keyboard, soul singer drumming and enigmatic, rumbling basslines. The symbiosis of these elements with Kirk’s mysterious croon is a sound that would be menacing and cinematic, were it not so prone to putting a smile on your face. It’s the kind of music you can see being used in off-beat horror as creepy, but enigmatically character-filled texture before something horrible.

Hot Dreams balances the pastiche with the professional with unfailing class. Its veneer is never less than impeccably produced and performed, and it’s varied enough to keep the act going all album long. The brilliantly Johnny Cash-esque Grand Canyon is like a relic from a by-gone time, at once a fun assemblage of tropes and a sincere country effort. The mix of the surprisingly emotive, pained surges of strings dovetails with the classic sci-fi keyboard swell to communicate everything you need to know about Hot Dreams. If it wasn’t so fun it would still be brilliant as something serious.

You could argue it fades somewhat over the second half of the album, but the dip in quality is really pretty negligible. The Three Sisters is a slower, more atmospheric instrumental closer and leads to the album ending on something of a whimper rather than a bang, but it works nonetheless.

Bizarre, brilliant, strange, sincere, touching, hilarious. Hot Dreams is many things at once, but most of all it’s a remedy for the relentless gloom and self-absorption that characterises so much of the indie folk scene (see The War on Drugs). Maybe that disenchantment with the current malaise affecting so much music has inflated my rating, maybe Hot Dreams is just too much fun to turn down.

And it’s Canadian, too. Because of course it’s Canadian. It’s always Canadian.

Beat The Drum Slowly, Curtains?!, Bring Me Single Men

 A

Fear of Men // Loom

I like Fear of Men. I like that their albums are super short (last year’s Early Fragments was only 25 minutes and Loom is just under 40) and that there is a genuine sense of development to their music.  They’re still nothing particularly special and I still feel they’re not a band that I’d ever actually recommend to anyone, just because they’re so….god, I dunno…so ordinary. I’m not saying they’re bad – not by a long shot – but I wouldn’t say to someone “Hey, listen to this band Fear of Men, they’re completely run of the mill”. They’re one of those bands where they don’t actually do anything bad, they just don’t do anything amazing. So you’re left with nothing to actually criticise other than natural talent and inexperience, which feels a bit harsh.

All the same, Loom is a good album. It’s bigger, lusher and bolder than their debut (which isn’t saying much when it’s that short) but doesn’t become overwrought in the process. It’s still built on the fundamentals of a pretty voice, punchy drumming, guitar that harks back to mid-2000s indie(a bit of crunch but also quite melodic, think Funeral), and the occasional ornamentation from strings; and the band still know when to end a song, too – a vital attribute lacked by so many. Other than Inside, nothing goes over 5 minutes, with most hanging around the three minute mark.

What’s most markedly different is what they do with that time. Sure, there’s a sort of down-tempo intro to the album, but once it gets started it flies along with a pace and urgency lacking on their debut. The vocals are more layered without becoming messy, the drumming even more frenetic and the sense of time and momentum impeccable. The balance between instrumental and, erm, not, is delicately maintained throughout – perhaps best seen on album mid-point Tephra. Tephra also demonstrates with its conclusion the slightly rougher edge to a band that were slightly choral before, and in a sort of inoffensively dull way.

They sort of remind me of Owen Pallet on Loom. They have that same mix of frantic pace and quiet fragility, choir boy innocence and sinister undercurrent, and a grand, lush cinematic sound steeped in indie reference points. There’s also a running theme – something about water and waves and being carried away – but that’s sort of a thin comparison to Heartland’s whole weird ‘Kill Owen Pallett’ narrative.

One minor criticism is directed at the song Green Sea. All the other songs on Loom, right down to the title, are one word; Green Sea is two. It’s irritating.

B

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