Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Rainbows by Radiohead

I'm sure you heard the sound reverberate around the globe when millions of jaws collectively hit the turf as Radiohead announced the impending release of In Rainbows without the help of any label or distributor - major or minor. One of the risks that they ran was that the immediate hype generated by such an act would overwhelm the music, or inflate expectations so greatly that the 10 tracks that eventuated would be a letdown.

But Radiohead, contrarian musical giants that they are, seem genetically incapable of producing anything that conforms to expectations. In fact, today, no one really has the bollocks to predict what a forthcoming Radiohead record will sound like, as everyone has, at some point, been proven wrong.

So, what exactly is In Rainbows like?

Well, like pretty much every other Radiohead recording, it sounds like both a radical departure from everything they've ever recorded and the natural culmination of the past six records at the same time. Opener, "15 step" is the beat-heavy, "Idioteque"-era Radiohead, but with added guitar, and minus several layers of distorted beats. Once again, while unlike much of the rest of the album, In Rainbow's opening track sets the scene for what is to follow. Because the album is positively naked, arrangements, while still astonishingly - and possibly wilfully - complex, instrumentation is pared back, guitarists Johnny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien often found gently plucking out duelling arpeggios while Thom Yorke's still developing howl wafts beneath (and above, and around, he's positively everywhere on this record). Perhaps this newfound instrumental restraint is the motivation to finally include "Nude", a live staple for the past 10 years, which here springs vibrantly to life as a studio piece.

In fact, this album bears all the hallmarks of a debut, each recording having been thoroughly tested to audiences for some time (with the exception of Faust ARP, which had never been heard before, and is the most subtly beautiful thing Radiohead have done since "Bulletproof...I Wish I Was") and, having all been published by Rolling Stone online, are all live winners. Any changes from these live performances has been unquesionably for the better, "15 Step" benefitting from a guileful fusion of electronic and drum beats, while "Nude" and "House of Cards" both become more exquisite for being fleshed out in the studio. But it is the stunning "Reckoner" which morphs from out-and-out rocker into a gorgeous, gentle, traditional verse-chorus-verse number, with Yorke's (cliche alert) soaring falsetto in its finest form ever before coming to a string-drenched finale, that is the real gem. Meanwhile, closer, "Videotape" a missive to a loved one via the dearly departed VHS, is another highlight in an album not short of them, gently easing the listener out of the 45 minute experience.

Finally, after teasing for 10 years since The Bends, Radiohead have made what is, to be sure, a straight-out rocker. It's undoubtedly complex and still disobeys much of Rock's dogma, but, while songs will undoubtedly grow and develop with care and attention, this record is immediate, attention-grabbing and stunning.

Absolutely stunning. Again.

4 1/2 stars

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Proof of Youth by The Go! Team

Man, I love that exclamation mark. Everything that was so totally ace about The Go! Team's debut, Thunder, Lightning, Strike! was encapsulated in that one modestly (yet audaciously) positioned piece of punctuation. Vibrant, modern, bold and catchy as all fuck, the Team combined samples, cheerleading rhythms, primary school chants and a genuine pop music sensibility, it sounded like FatBoy Slim had about 6 love children with George Michael. And it was ace. So naturally, the release of Proof of Youth was greeted with joyous cheers at MAtR.

Opening track "Grip Like a Vice" didn't disappoint, so long as one was looking for much the same as the found on the debut. And therein lies the problem with Proof of Youth. It's one thing to stick to a winning formula: Maximo Park proved it earlier this year with Our Earthly Pleasures, which didn't diverge far from 2005's A Certain Trigger, but maintained a sense of vibrancy and was still chock-full of hooks to be worthwhile. Just nice and safe. It's another thing however, to release what is essentially a record which sounds like a collection of tracks that missed the cut the first time around and then received the full treatment. The full treatment, in this case, being another session in ne band member's bedroom or another.

It's not that Proof of Youth is bad - it isn't - but it's just the same again, just no really as good. Each song is solid, there really aren't any bad tracks, it's just that there aren't really any good ones. Where is the killer cop-show horn section from "Junior Kickstart" or the ultra catchy chanting of "Bottle Rocket"? They certainly aren't here.

Fear not, fans of The Go! Team, they'll come back strong. They're clearly too good to remain mediocre for too long, but this record is clearly a case of sophomore blues.

2 1/2 stars

Sunday, September 16, 2007

From Here We Go Sublime by The Field

Minimalist techno is not a phrase you hear very often around the MAtR offices, most people involved here having an inbuilt aversion to the droning repetition of trance and house music, as well as the tendency towards laziness - i.e. taking a (bad) sample from a (bad) song from the 80s and throwing a beat at it - most notably Eric Prydz's woeful effort in 2005 "Call on Me". So when announced that the debut album from The Field, a pseudonym of Swedish producer Axel Willner, From Here We Go Sublime, was the best album of the year, there was an obligation to raise eyebrows, blow fringes out of eyes, then head to the record store and give it a go.

The opening lines of the opening track, Over The Ice, didn't provide any stunning surprises, except that it was clearly a cut above any other techno that had come out of late, with beats that in other hands would be thumping club anthem style fed through a filter about a mile thick, and a sample of, well, something, cut and shaped down to a female voice repeating the letters 'e' and 'i' in two octaves. The funny thing is though, it gets under your skin. Buries itself deep inside your head, and comes back to you at three in the morning, when you're winding down. Suddenly that sound of a massive rave happening next door makes perfect sense, and you realise that now, 30 years after Brian Eno invented ambient music, his natural successor has arrived. The Field has not made a dance record. This isn't for the revolving dancefloor, but for the couch.

This gets reinforced on the next track, "A Paw in My Face", which takes its cues slightly more from the ambient milieu, quietly building to the point where another sample, a guitar piece, again cut and shaped out of all recognition, kicks in, and the songs finds another gear. However, it's at the very end, 5 1/2 minuted in, where the true beauty of the song is revealed. The last 6 seconds, the track unspools, ends its seemingly endless repetitions, and unveils the sample in its true form, the guitar intro from Lionel Richie's fairly flavourless A.M. radio staple, "Hello".

And this is the wonder of the record. It is the brief moments that drop your jaw, bring you back from the reverie which the simple, gentle beats send you and give a swift, strangely caressing, kick in the guts.

Some people will never get into trance, or house, or dance music in general. And that's ok, it's not for everyone. But anyone seeking to find an entry into this most mysterious of genres, look no further than From Here We Go Sublime.

4 stars

Friday, August 24, 2007

Kala by M.I.A.

Maya Arulpragasam, or M.I.A. as the moniker she understandably performs under, is not one for backward steps. However, after her debut in 2005, Arular, was critically lauded and announced a new talent to the world, the inevitable questions began to be uttered: where to now?

Well, the answer is here, in the sequel, Kala, a stunning melange of Bollywood rhythms, hip-hop sensibilities and a mish-mash of funk, reggae, jungle, gunshots, chanting, guest vocals and indigenous Australian rappers.

MIA has long been known for her fairly radical political views (and for the daughter of a rebel fighter with the notorious Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who has been a refugee in India and traveled the world after losing her father, who can blame her?), and it turns out that they're responsible for the production of the most amazing hip-hop record to come out in years (and yes, that includes everything Kanye West has ever released). MIA was refused a visa to the US in 2006 when she was scheduled to work with uber-producer Timbaland on a number of tracks, awhich likely would have resulted in the necessary homogenisation endemic in US hip-hop right now.

Unfazed, she traveled the world, becoming something of a musical sponge, soaking up influences from African tribal beats ("Bird Flu"), Australia ("Mango Pickle Down River"), her native subcontinent ("Boyz", "Jimmy") and European garage ("Bamboo Banger"). The resulting record is an incredible mix of rhythms, samples and rhymes, positively oozing sweat from every pore, a feverish, thumping album of party pop unlike anything anyone has heard.

Perhaps it is he sheer audacity of Kala that is so intoxicating, sounds that appear in each speaker seem unannounced, uneccessary and utterly extravagant, but it is this superfluous soundscape that makes the record such compulsive listening. At no point is the listener left alone to await the next verse, sample or generic rhyme; instead, gunshots fire in the left speaker, while bleeps lifted from old Nintendo games jump out of the right, Bollywood strings jerk and shimmy over thumping tribal drums, didgeridoos and all manner of synthesised noises.

In short, Kala is a triumph, a veritable smorgasboard of wonderful, inventive, creative and utterly delicious sounds that cannot fail to leave the listener dazzled. While M.I.A.'s debut was a startling wake up call to the world, Arular was the stark, beautiful monochrome compared to Kala's delectable technicolour.

4 1/2 stars.

The Stage Names by Okkervil River

There's something wonderfully reassuring about dudes whose songwriting chops are so terrific that it totally outweighs the fact that he's not all that much of a singer. Not only that, but he (or she) sings with such commendable vigour and enthusiasm that you just don't care anyway. Will Sheff, frontman for Texan troubadors Okkervil River, is most definitely one of those men. On nine numbers on their new release, The Stage Names, Sheff manages to pump

bellow and howl his way through all manner of emotions, volumes and tempos, each time attacking it with such fervour that you can't help but emote along with him, all the while tapping a foot or breathing a sigh.

What's also reassuring is bands like Okkervil River (and for that matter, fellow Texans Spoon, whose drummer Jim Eno produces here) that can produce solid, modestly ambitious middle-American rock without falling into cliche or bland reproduction. When Sheff self-references Okkervil River as a 'mid level band' on "Unless It's Kicks", one of many highlights, it is indicative of the lack of hubris surrounding the group, who have been around for so long without any kind of raging success to know their place in the world.

But that said, when it comes to sheer solidity of songwriting talent, it's hard to look past these guys. They don't reinvent the wheel - they don't want to - but they rarely, if ever, fail to come out with a hook-laden piece of pop magic, be it "You Can't Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man", with it's rollicking downtempo, late-night barfly rhythm, or any of the numerous gorgeous, introspective, stripped back pieces, foremost of which is the beautiful "Title Track", which demonstrates the band's confidence by allowing Sheff's vocals to rest delicately over a gently strummed guitar, before the rest of the band jump in on a full-bodied (in the most late-night red wine sense) chorus.
Another one of 2007's essential albums has come out, replete with fully formed characters, struggling through life in a world that doesn't quite seem to give a shit, and who always remain accessible enough for the listener to care more. Okkervil River have proven - again, as if they needed to - that they are among the best in the world at producing sad, serious and pretty rock music. A pearler.
4 1/2 stars

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Weekend in the City by Bloc Party

Bloc Party are a lot of things: ambitious, serious, dedicated and earnest. Oh, so very earnest. When Bloc Party decide to take their epic (ish), dead serious power pop rock in a slightly different direction, you know damn well that they'll do just that. And still have a message to push. And push it they will. With vigour.

After Silent Alarm in 2005, with its onslaught of energy and immediacy, Bloc Party announced themselves with a piercing yell that easily pushed them to the forefront of the many, many exciting debuts of that time (Arcade Fire, The Go! Team, Maximo Park et al), serious subject matter being married seamlessly to dancefloor riffs and beats, driven by one of the most furiously tight and tidy rhythm sections since Rage Against the Machine. Suddenly, Lindsay Lohan and Brad Pitt were rocking up to gigs. So where do you go for a sequel? Well, these guys still are dead serious, and the riffs are still there, but something's a bit different. They're still irony free, and while that can easily get irritating, you can't help but believe them, and that they really give a shit. Of course, there are a series of bonus features not heard on Silent Alarm, most notably singer Kele Okereke's - slightly forced - falsetto on lead track "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)", before kicking into more familiar thumping riff territory in the second half. It's actually a real corker, and it's Bloc Party's real strength: if nothing else, these guys are professional, thorough and precise. Songs are crafted here, unlike the aural energy bursts of the previous record; "Hunting for Witches" opens with digitally mixed random noise and beats before drummer Matt Tong steps in with some of his (now trademark) creative drumming and the riffing, thumping song proper kicks in. And it's great.

And that's the thing: much of the record is great. Not just that, but it's the one thing you wouldn't expect a Bloc Party record to be: a grower. A real, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, dead set grower (hence the review coming some months after the release). In fact, the most accessible song here, "I Still Remember", the second single, is also the weakest. And that is no co-incidence. Opening single, "The Prayer" which, from a band that seems enthusiastically atheistic, is actually Okereke hoping to get the balls to hit the dance floor and pull chicks, is positively thrilling, tribal drums thumping along over pseudo-electronica-with-instruments, and it's, once again, great. And it's not isolated: "Waiting for the 7:18" is a genuinely pretty little love song, "On" is the most creative track here, and "Uniform" is a gentle breather.

However, there are some sequencing issues. The second half falls a litle flat in patches, not least on the by-the-numbers "I Still Remember", with its paint by numbers lead riff and Okereke's truly awful jumper in the film clip.

But in the end, not many bands can ake themselves this bloody seriously, try so damn hard, and not sound complete turds. Bloc Party is most definitely one of those bands. They can suck occasionally, but A Weekend in the City is evidence that if you've got the time, the talent, and the sheer pig-headedness, you can put together a solid, mature and thoroughly enjoyable record.

4 stars