February

Blank Realms//Grassed In

A bit like a whinier, longer, more unfocused Crocodiles (and Crocodiles are already flawed enough), Grassed In is a debut album that holds promise, but has far too many rough edges to really endorse. Every now and again, as on Baby Closes the Door,  Blank Realms settle into a ghostly, krautrock-meets-jangle guitar sound that’s reminiscent of an early REM, but with the vocals of Tom Verlaine or The Cramps or something. They’re a band that seem too indebted to the influences of others to really create a sound of their own; and, without a better vocalist, or some better music and lyrics to go along with it, I can’t see this band ever being more than a niche act.

Grassed In isn’t an album without its moments, but often they’re fleeting or only satisfying in a pretty simplistic way. With many of the songs pushing 6 or 7 minutes, they also stretch out these already fairly threadbare ideas much longer than is necessary. That’s less of an issue on the slower, more textured second half of the album – a marked improvement on the chaotic, garage rock jumble of the opening – but all the same there’s no real reason for any of these songs to be as long as they are. Another boon for the latter half of the album is that the core of the sound largely drowns out the vocals – drawing attention to the fact that most of the songs are basically well-crafted, just a bit, well, basic.

The album leaves you on a high, with album closer Reach You on the Phone perhaps the finest cut on the album, but Grassed In is just too long and too staid for most listeners to bother persisting that far. If they do, they’ll be rewarded with a B-grade shoegaze EP saddled down by a C to D opening.

C

Against Me!//Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Channelling the punk sound, vocal ferocity and vitriolic lyricism of Holy Bible-era Manic Street Preachers, Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a crunching, howling, no holds barred tirade directed at gender politics. Led by transgendered frontman/woman/crap, this is dangerous territory, Laura Jane Grace, the album is loaded with anger, angst and seriously violent guitar.

Although that anger, punk sound and weird approach to lyrics – pack as many words as possible into a line and then awkwardly fit them in in a totally inimitable style – harbors many similarities to the Manics, Against Me! Mark themselves out with a sound that is clearly from across the Atlantic. At times channeling the likes of Weezer (in their most angry, emo mode) and other mid 90s hard rock acts, they also bring in something of the blues they mention in the album title. The resulting sound is a kinetic, aggressive, angst filled one – albeit somewhat rough around the edges – that harks back to simple, youthful garage rock, but here refined and polished.

At times this sound can turn more overtly derivative, and some of the whininess that plagued Weezer and their legion of imitators can appear in Grace’s vocals. It’s also just a bit miserable. It’s high class emo fare(as evidenced by titles like FUCKMYLIFE666, Dead Friend, Two Coffins, Black Me Out…you get the idea) but it at least has a point. The focus on gender uncertainty means they can get away with this occasionally clichéd songwriting, and lends Grace a sincerity and passion that so often is phoned in by similar acts.

Brief, explosive, and sincere enough to get away with being clichéd, Transgender Dysphoria Blues has everything it needs to achieve some measure of cross-genre success that their 90s forebears had, but ultimately remains as limited too. Punky, spunky, but not particularly adventurous.

B

Temples//Sun Structures

God, they’re everywhere these bands. Since when did early 70s psychedelic rock become so ubiquitous? And in such cookie-cutter form too. Trying to discern the differences between Temples Sun Structures and any of The Black Angel’s work (all their albums are pretty much the same) is an exercise that demands the full weight of a man’s nit-picking powers. I guess the vocals are, like, slightly more high-pitched and a little less fuzzy? Maybe the guitar is more, like, ethnic-y? Maybe it’s a bit more lush, kind of.

Basically, it’s somewhere between The Black Angels and Brian Jonestown Massacre, and therefore not very original, even at being unoriginal; but also, like all these kind of bands, ridiculously solid. Like, nothing’s actually bad, but nothing’s particularly amazing. Or ground-breaking — least of all ground-breaking. You’ve already heard this album somewhere, but you don’t really mind it being on again.

I’m not sure what to say about this trend, and Sun Structures as an album. I have no real complaints, other than with regard to originality, and I’m more than happy for people to keep making music like it. Maybe they should organise some kind of rota so only one of them releases one of these a year. Or all release them at once and attempt to trigger a zeitgeist/timewarp back to 1970. Or maybe they should all just accept that Tame Impala have this whole genre nailed down; except Brian Jonestown Massacre, those guys can do what they want because they are all insane.

B

Erm, god, it’s all a bit of a blur really. They’re all quite good.

Wild Beasts//Present Tense

My god, what is going on? Has music collectively entered some kind of…Hot Tub Time MachineTM over the past year? The 80s revivalism in the air would almost be suffocating were it not for the fact that it’s all really, really good. Not six months ago MONEY were invoking the spirit of Morrissey, Bono and Echo & the Bunnymen on their debut release; now, St.Vincent is channelling David Byrne and Prince, whilst Wild Beasts, with their fourth album, summon forth Tears for Fears and Orchestral Manouevures in the Dark from wherever 80s pop stars go to die. Maybe The Horrors unmemorable but stylish Skyingwas onto something after all?

Or maybe everyone has just realised there’s something strangely, almost hypnotically, powerful about vintage keyboards and operatic vocals. They evoke some mystical – almost dreadful, almost wonderful – atmosphere that has a sense of place like no other, but also an ability to transfer to any time and sound like the future. On the ironically named Present Tense, Wild Beasts synthesize the already ubiquitous influences of their earlier works into their most cohesive, polished work yet.WildBeasts

From the moment those opening bars of Wanderlust phase in, it’s clear that Present Tense is a bigger, darker album than before. The swell of harmonies builds into a gothic cacophony of sound straight from 1985, whilst those distinctly repetitive, yet forceful, drum pounds hammer away a kinetic propulsion to support the sea of cold synths. It’s the sound ofSmother lit up with neon, or Skying with something happening.

What seperates Wild Beasts from their forefathers is their ability to combine surprisingly subtle lyrics with complex, interesting sounds. It may all be rooted in 80s nostalgia, but it’s a varied tribute – from the Joy Division-esque Mecca to the moody, Numan-meets dubstep-meets Health Daughters.

There’s nothing quite as anthemic as Don’t You orHead Over Heels, but Wild Beasts have greater consistency of sound and a unique character to it. There’s something unquestionably new about Wild Beasts, even as they indulge in all the synths. The tone has changed somewhat from Smother, with the choral elements downplayed and Thorpe brought to the fore. This character means they can pull of slower tracks onPresent Tense without becoming dull or just relying on sad sounding keyboards. Instead it’s just as lush as what came before, but filled with more subtle sounds – quietly rumbling drums, discordant violins, white noise hums.

Of course, it’s not really 80s without something slightly cheesy. You could say that’s Hayden Thorpe’s vocals, but, dramatic as they are, they’re also rich and grounded enough to pull it off (on album closerPalace there’s even some strange shades of Elbow to his voice); and their moodiness and gloomy lyrics bring them closer to Joy Division than Simple Minds. No, what’s cheesy about Present Tense is what Wild Beasts permit to be cheesy – fun pop indulgences likeA Simple Beautiful Truth (truly one of the cheesiest songs I’ve heard in a long time, but kind of endearing for it), or that jangle-y guitar on Sweet Spot.

The difference with Sweet Spot is that, while it may deploy familiar tropes, it absolute nails them. It’s beautifully crafted pop, right down to –no, especially –that jangle-y guitar. And those vocal harmonies. And that keyboard bridge. And all of it. Sorry, Still Life, this is the best 80s song the 80s never had.

Present Tense is an album that goes beyond mere tribute. It’s a vintage album in every sense of the word, a blossoming of the already great Smother. It’s the 80s brought up to date, the sound of the past made undeniably present (almost like they, you know, changed it to Present Tense). It’s big, dramatic and fun, but without losing any of the subtleties in-between.

Beck//Morning Phase

Beck’s a weird artist. By turns a so-bad-it’s-great folk-rap loser; an experimental, sample-heavy fusion of rocker and DJ; a trippy, 70s callback artist; and a melancholic, slow, airy indie sad-man.

Also, a scientologist.

On Morning Phase, his first proper release since 2008’s Modern Guilt (that ‘make your own music’ stuff is invalid on grounds of pretentiousness), he returns to the sweeping, lush sounds of Sea Change. Whilst I never really got the praise lavished on Morning Phase’s ‘companion piece’, it’s hard not to appreciate the widescreen, surround sound splendour of his return. A grand, ancient- sounding colossus of an album, Morning Phase is a breathtaking return to form. His most heavy, serious, mature and majestic album yet, it might also be his best.Beck

Heading into this album that spot was previously occupied by Modern Guilt. It didn’t get the same acclaim as Odelay orSea Change, but it was also less weird and more fun. The addition of Cat Power introduced a new dynamic to his sound – that of just sounding nice and pretty in an airy kind of way – that Beck’s taken and ran with here.  In many ways, however, it’s the antithesis to his previous release. WhereasModern Guilt was a brilliantly simple bit of retro psych-pop, Morning Phase is slow, not particularly fun, layered with sound, and positively futuristic.

The difference between Sea Change andMorning Phase is that Beck’s new work sounds less like a slightly sad man searching for a way out of the niche he’s dug himself (and responding by making a slow, pretty bit of music to wallow in), and more like an artist finally free to go big and express himself however he damn pleases. Beneath the down-tempo vibe, Morning Phase is ultimately an optimistic, blue-skies kind of album. Where Sea Change was claustrophobic and numbing for all its lushness, Morning Phase is liberating.

Beck first teased Morning Phase as one of two upcoming albums. At the time he claimed this was the acoustic one – and technically I guess it is – but at the same time it is so much more than just a guy and his guitar, especially the decidedly un-acoustic closer Waking Light. Much like its predecessor, Morning Phase deals with pretty run of the mill themes of loneliness, longing –the usual. He’s less entertaining as a serious man with serious problems than he was in his younger days (see Truck Driving Neighbours Downstairs for a weird, funny swipe at trailer trash), and it can get a bit trite at times – Wave, great as it is, ends with him repeating the word “Isolation” (sigh) – but for the most part he avoids becoming grating. Only on the un-surprisingly country-based Country Down does it turn from clichéd to kitsch; and even then it’s not bad.

Perhaps at the heart of how Morning Phase is able to get away with its scope and seriousness is the return of Beck’s voice. Pretty much strangled by back problems during Modern Guilt, here he’s able to open up his pipes a bit more and show off his surprisingly strong voice. On Blue Moon, a more up-tempo number destined to soundtrack a feel-good indie movie, he demonstrates the kind of dynamism and harmonisation that Cat Power provided before.

In some ways Morning Phase reminds me of Dennis Wilson’sPacific Ocean Blues – a slightly sad kind of album that fills the ears as it weaves between the heartfelt, even homely, and the ethereal. In terms of his contemporaries, think John Grant (see Glacier and Beck’s Waves) and Bill Callahan (Javelin Unlanding and Blackbird Chain), but now imagine them drifting helplessly in space with only an acoustic guitar, some synth decks and a full string orchestra. The sad emptiness of Beck’s vocals as he drifts, an indie Sandra Bullock filled with visions of Xenu, is tempered by the overwhelming beauty and warmth of those monumental strings. It’s an album that sounds like a journey, one that shows how far Beck has come since the days when he could only get a hit by singing about how much of a loser he is.

St.Vincent//St.Vincent

St. Vincent is a statement album. With her reputation secured after releasing three critical darlings, Annie Clark made her first move to the hallowed halls of ‘the crossover’ with 2012’s Love This Giantwith David Byrne. Now very much out of the shadow of former collaborator Sufjan Stevens (he of fleeting Pitchfork acclaim and who no one really cared about), on her eponymous fourth album she’s declaring who she is and what she’s about – and doing it in style.

St.VincentSt.Vincent is a difficult act to pin down; it channels influences from all over and condenses them into a furious, energetic mix of funk, rock, dance and pop. The jerky, jagged music plays off Clark’s supreme vocals to create a singularly eccentric blend of the baroque, the plastic and the artsy. Her work with Byrne shows on an album that redoubles the funk and the 80s of Love This Giant, creating perhaps her most alive album yet. In many ways its strange, electro-retro-futuristic funk harbours similarities to Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady; however, where Monae suffered for lapses in momentum and an inconsistent sense of adventure,St.Vincent soars across 40 beautifully measured minutes.

Always engaging, always different and always unique, Clark’s vocals are what really hold the album together. They enable her to move seamlessly from the furious, scattershot energy of album opener Rattlehead to the down-tempo, very 90s R&B I Prefer Your Love without missing a beat. The purity and sweetness of her voice is matched only by its variety and Clark’s masterful handling of it. Perhaps best evidenced by the odd, haunting, and strangely witty Every Tear Disappears (in particular note how seductively pure that opening line is), Clark’s vocals are alternately fierce, sultry, choral and fuzzed up; a universal selling point for a frequently strange album.

That St.Vincent manages to incorporate so many leaps in style without losing its cohesion is testament to production that manages to mould the many stylistic motifs into distinct wholes. The core elements of her music remain largely the same, but teased out in different forms. The wickedly funky, crunching guitar and choral ambience of the mesmerising Prince Johnny (perhaps the single best demonstration of her unique talents) are staples of her sound, here brought front and center. On Bring Me Your Loves it’s all discordant, clanging keyboards and swirling vocal harmonies over an impossible to place sense of tribal chaos.

The result is an album that blends the dreamy with the dirty, the divine with the dissonant, and the art with the pop. Few are the albums that combine so many disparate elements together with such grace, but St.Vincent does so with nary a misstep in sight. An early high-bar for musical adventurousness and consistency of craft, St.Vincent is the kind of smart, bold music you usually expect to be saddled with smug pretentiousness and aspirations of high art; what we’ve got instead is just fun.

Prince Johnny, Every Tear Disappears, Rattlesnake

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