Janelle Monae//The Electric Lady
An album that I was massively excited for, but also cautious in my expectations of, Janelle Monae’s prequel to her stellar Archandroid manages to vindicate both my feelings about it. On the one hand, tracks like Givin ‘Em What They Love and Dance Apocalyptic are some of the best of the year, and perhaps even surpass their predecessor, but, at the same time, a sense of slight disappointment tinges the whole affair. It’s merely pretty good a lot of the time, and pretty good is a pale shadow of the near-perfection it follows.
The Archandroid is comfortably in my top 5 albums of the nascent 21st century and Monae had no right to match it, never mind top it, but all the same, Q.U.E.E.N.’s early release did little to fill me with confidence. Whilst not a bad track, particularly the Erykah Badu outro, it withered in the shadow of what it attempted to emulate. The change to a more 70s/80s, James Brown style was jarring and didn’t really mesh with a singer who, in spite of her incredibly powerful vocals, can come off as cold and somewhat soulless. On The ArchAndroid that worked to her advantage – and even emphasised her vocals – but on Electric Lady it’s not quite the same. Most of the time her voice is as strong as ever, but it nonetheless edges into try-hard territory when it comes to applying the soul.
The new direction is a mixed bag, working to stunning effect on Givin ‘Em What They Love -perhaps my track of the year and, as the opener, enough to quell my doubts and once more raise expectations sky-high – but also leading to insipid affairs like It’s Code, a song that stands as one of the most cringe-inducing of the year. This inconsistency is everywhere on the album and it’s perhaps its greatest failing. Spread across 19 tracks, it’s an album that you can easily lose interest in – especially now Monae’s lyrics are less snappy cyber-romance and more “Booty don’t lie” – and this is particularly true of the comparatively mediocre second half. It lacks an instant classic like the opener or mid-album reboot Dance Apocalyptic and greatly suffers for it.
The Electric Lady is nonetheless an excellent album, one that reveals a new side to Monae and challenges any questions about whether the robotics hid an essentially cold artist. As a tribute to the glam and soul of the 70s it’s only intermittently effective, but tracks like the second Overture and Ghetto Woman – a riposte to Stevie Wonder’s Ghetto Land – reveal Monae’s inspiration buried beneath the filler. As a follow-up to The ArchAndroid it falls short, but stylistically it stands out enough to render serious comparison moot. As a demonstration of her talent and a piece of music to recommend, it’s an emphatic yes.
Givin ‘Em What They Love, Dance Apocalyptic, Electric Lady
Josh Homme, you magician of a man. Ever since he seized the reins on Humbug, Arctic Monkey’s have been a band reborn, shedding the nasty lad-music connotations of their breakthrough and becoming one of the classiest, though seediest sounding, acts in music. On AM the transformation from feisty lad-rock to smooth desert stoners is complete, personified by Alex Turner’s magnetic croon and an album opener so laid-back and cool it sounds like they barely broke sweat to play it.
Before release, Turner had talked up how the album would draw on the ‘dirty’ side of their previous album – the quietly brilliant Suck it and See – and then showed off how much he meant it by making himself look like a very shit, very British biker. R U Mine showed it wasn’t just an image-thing and simultaneously raised expectations ten-fold for a band who had quietly revolutionised themselves and, in the process, faded somewhat from the forefront of the scene. As an album to restore them to the top of the pile AM is perfect; it’s bigger and more bombastic, but also more refined and lacking some of the jagged edges that made Suck it and See so fun yet flawed; it’s accessible and poppy, but also the truest representation yet of the new Arctic Monkeys.
What isn’t new (and it’s basically an obligation to mention this) is how good Matt Helders is on drums. In short, he’s really, really good at them, and not in an ostentatious way. What’s clearer than ever, however, is how crucial his vocal contribution is. From its humble beginnings crying “She’s dynamite” in the most graceless way possible on I Bet You Look Good, Helders work has been an evolving feature of the band ever since. It’s grown in quality and quantity with each album, and on AM, in particular the superb Mad Sounds, it’s better than ever. Really, if there is one standout element to this album it’s those vocals on Mad Sounds, in part because of how devastatingly simple they are. I can assure you you won’t hear a better ‘Ooh-la-lala’ all year.
Whilst it has moments like that of real quality, the album is nonetheless flawed. Its casual sound is an easy listen, and one of the classiest things you’ll listen to in a long time, but at times it can grind to a bit of a crawl. It’s both a criticism and a compliment to call this a pleasantly dull album at times. After the electric opening it can all wash over you a bit, but not once will you be compelled to actually turn it off.
Where Arctic Monkeys go after this is major. They’ve recaptured mass following and now they need to pull out something big to capitalise on it; ‘witty’ filler like Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High only works once(and even then it’s kinda dull) and now they need some substance to go with the class and the crooning. AM is a great consolidation of the progress they’ve made and contains some standout moments, but now they need something really special.
Mad Sounds, R U Mine, Do I Wanna Know
Kings of Leon//Mechanical Bull
A light at the end of the tunnel? A glimmer of hope? A return to form? Kings of Leon are in desperate need of all of these. On their 6th album, Mechanical Bull, they hint at them. Having seemingly sold their soul for the big time, Kings of Leon seem to be edging their way out of their faustian deal and back from the arena to the bar. Perhaps most importantly, they seem to have rediscovered at least a trace of the passion and vitality that propelled them to success.
On album opener Supersoaker, Jared Followhill rolls back the years to put in one of his most powerful vocal performances in a long, long time. Raw, gruff and gravelly, it’s a real rock performance, the kind you hear so rarely amongst all the neutered, choirboy leads of indie. It’s a song with heart, guts and, most importantly, melody. It’s the first time in forever that I’ve listened to a Kings of Leon song and thought ‘damn, that’s a really good riff’. The chorus is more suspect, but even then it’s not particularly awful. Better than that one where they dance with all the black children in a barn.
The rest of the album is where the problem lies. There’s the occasional moment where it clicks and the create something worth hearing, like the bass-tacular, bluesy Family Tree, but for the most part it’s the most middle of the road middle of the road rock you’re likely to hear all year. It’s undeniable that the band just aren’t creating interesting enough music, but a key culprit is the production.
Both Mechanical Bull and Come Around Sundown are marked by truly insipid production. Flat, toneless, totally lacking in atmosphere, and relentlessly uninventive, it’s a far-cry from the likes of Knocked Up and Trunk. Even their early albums, whilst not particularly notable for their mixing, had energy, punch and dynamism – all things sorely missing from Mechanical Bull. It’s as if the band are playing in straitjackets. The moments when they ‘rock out’ feel so tame and laboured by comparison to their youthful revelry, but I guess we should be glad they exist – remember, it could be Use Somebody.
The fact they’ve created anything salvageable is testament to how the band are edging closer to rediscovering some of their mojo. There are times on this album when they penetrate the stultifying swamp of arena rock and express some of the personality and soul that made them so kinetic and fun in the first place; but, for the most part, they remain an act in redevelopment.
Also, it’s about 4 tracks too long. Or maybe 5. They all blend into one after a while.
Supersoaker, Don’t Matter, Family Tree
Chvrches//The Bones of What You Believe
So, Chvrches are this year’s synthpop thing then? They follow in the footsteps of bands like I Break Horses and Neon Indian in having been touted by NME and Pitchfork and then unleashed upon the world. Chvrches are the biggest yet, and the poppiest too. Are they the best? Ehh..
Sounding like something straight out of Drive, The Mother We Share is an explosive opening that takes everything that made the 80s good and makes it bigger. The vocals may be somewhat cookie-cutter, but, driven by a sea of propulsive synths, The Bones of What You Believe makes up for a lack of subtlety or character with an electronic assault on the ears.
We Sink and Gun continue the album’s strong opening with infectious energy and a powerful mix of 1985 synths and 2013 scale and production. Production is perhaps the album’s strongest element – always big and always polished to a sheen.
Unfortunately that doesn’t always translate to interesting music; from that strong start the album begins to tread water, starting with the dreaded ‘slow song’. Chvrhces appeal is powered by their energy and their scale, so slowed down it just doesn’t work. Without a strong vocalist the band tread a treacherous line, and any slip in momentum is fatal. When that inevitably happens the struggle to recover it is a laborious one.
Equally troubling is the lack of variation. As mentioned earlier, the attempts at slower, more emotional stuff are uninspired, but the real problem lies in sustaining 50 minutes of synth shock and awe. It’s a near impossible task, and eventually Chvrches aural bombardment begins to tire. Even mixing up the vocals on Under the Tide fails to arrest the decline, thanks in large part to the fact that they’re kind of grating in a miserable, hipster way.
Ultimately, The Bones of What You Believe is a strong album…for a while. The combination of middle of the road vocals, a cold kind of soullessness, and increasingly one-note musical tricks leads to an album that soon wears out its welcome. When it works, The Bones of What You Believe is great; but when it doesn’t it’s an unpleasant experience.
Literally the first three songs
Bill Callahan//Dream River
Bill Callahan’s efforts since his switch from the moniker Smog to his real name have been marked by a sense of maturity more than anything else. A long-time impresario of the indie scene, Callahan is entering into his third decade of releasing music and Dream River has all the hallmarks of an artist settled into a style, now content with refinement over experimentation. Dream River is a fitting title for a work that is more calm and measured than adventurous, but nonetheless bears hints of the psychedelic and the experimental. It’s soothing and strange all at once, and occasionally it’s also great.
In many ways Dream River reminds me of Muchacho, Phosphorescent’s release from earlier in the year; for one, it’s being lapped up by the indie community, but it also suffers from the same pedestrian pace at times. Much like Muchacho it’s lit up by one moment of magic, in this case Javelin Unlanding. The only song with any real momentum, it surges along powered by a winding, whip-like riff. It’s also the only real ‘song’, which works greatly to Callahan’s advantage when you factor in his somewhat suspect vocals.
On the rest of the album he envisions himself as more of a storyteller than a songwriter; this leads to the measured, almost meditative, mood of the album, but it also means it can all blend into nothingness quite easily. On Summer Painter he weaves an interesting enough narrative, and mixes things up enough musically, to pull it off, but elsewhere the album is nothing more than pleasant background noise and half-crooned, half-spoken, mostly out of tune vocals. The world music feel of the album – classic folky guitar layered over pipes, flutes, violins and varied, propulsive percussion – makes it an interesting listen, and speaks of an artist who’s culled his sound together from years of experience.
Whilst not as dull as Muchacho, Dream River falls victim to the same pitfalls. Never unpleasant to listen to, it nonetheless fails to excite(barring Javelin Unlanding) and ends up being fairly middle of the road indie-folk fare. Its short length means it doesn’t overstay its welcome like Phosphorescent does, but Dream River isn’t an album you’re going to revisit very regularly.
Javelin Unlanding, Summer Painter, Spring