Friday, 15 May 2009

Polly Scattergood - Polly Scattergood


Bittersweet’s a difficult thing to achieve over the length of an album. Too much of the downers leaves the happy notes sounding trite; too far the other way, and run the risk of seeing the sad parts sounding contrived. Doing it effectively is a balancing act that most artists fail miserably at. Not so Polly Scattergood, the latest addition to a female singer-songwriter genre which is fast becoming overwhelming. Indeed with her eponymous debut, Scattergood achieves a poise that would make Olympic gymnasts proud.

From the frankly epic opener ‘I Hate The Way’, via the haunting heartbreak of ‘Untitled 27’, a track so thoroughly, deliciously depressing it would be unbearable if not for the brilliant sequencing of following it with the Cabaret-styled happiness of forthcoming-single ‘Please Don’t Touch’ (Amanda Palmer, beware), to the wonderful ‘Bunny Club’ and beautiful closing offering ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’, the album scarcely misses a beat. Armed with pop hooks to die for, a lyrical dexterity that never fails to raise a smile (or a tear - this remains bittersweet territory, lest we forget) and an unfailing ability to perfectly balance the sweet and the sad, this is a wonderful opening offering.

It isn’t without its dud notes, though; ‘I Am Strong’ ventures too far into Kate Nash territory, adding nothing interesting whatsoever. Sadly for an artist so adroitly capable of skipping genre at will, it sticks out as a particularly sore thumb; an entirely unnecessary afterthought, best never entertained. To focus too closely on criticisms, though, would be to do Miss Scattergood a tremendous disservice. Rarely does a debut album herald the emergence of an artist so at ease with their own sound, and capable of pressing all the emotional buttons to such brilliant effect. Polly Scattergood - really, rather good.


Thursday, 7 May 2009

Little Boots - Little Boots E.P.

Top of the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2009’ poll, and with debut album (Hands) due in early June, Little Boots looks set to conquer the UK musical world this summer, and January’s Little Boots E.P. does little to dispel such a motion. Blessed with melodic vocals, synth-dance rhythms, and an ear brilliantly attuned to the most ensnaring of pop hooks, she may not break any particular musical ground, but Little Boots certainly knows how to write a good pop song; opening track ‘Mathematics’ could easily have been the best Britney Spears song since pre-head shaving mentalness.

Sure, there’s something of The Ting Tings (the band we all loved 12 months ago for saving pop music, if you’re ahead of the curve and have already forgotten) about her, and the nagging suggestion that we’ve heard it all before just won’t quite go away. But if Little Boots can provide a full album that sounds this catchy, then who’s complaining?


Friday, 1 May 2009

Bat for Lashes - Two Suns

Hauntingly beautiful return for Mercury-nominated star

Few artists could open their second album with a biblical passage - the Song of Solomon, in this case - and not risk ridicule and accusations of mass pretension. Bat for Lashes (a.k.a. Natasha Kahn) is, thankfully, one of a very select few who can openly do so. Incidentally, she is also one of a very few women who can pull off the wearing of a gold headband without looking entirely stupid: Danielle Lloyd, take note.

Focussing on the music, though, and following up 2006’s Mercury-nominated, and unjustly beaten, Fur and Gold was never going to be a simple task. Yet with Two Suns, Kahn takes the best elements of her debut offering, does away with its weaknesses (a relatively low longevity), and has crafted a collection of fantastic collection of tracks combining the catchy (‘Daniel’, ‘Sleep Alone’), the slow-burning (‘Siren Song’) and the indescribably beautiful (‘Moon and Moon’). It is, though, opening offering ‘Glass’ which best characterises an album filled with wonderful contradictions. Ethereal, immediate, haunting, exciting, poetic - it is BFL’s finest moment, and a track that should be heard by anyone with a serious interest in the indie scene.

There’s also significant experimentation and progress evident here; the trip-hop heavy ‘Pearl’s Dream’ represents a significant departure from the recognisable BFL sound, delivering a track that retains a recognisable character, but blends it with a fantastically invigorating soul-funk sound, and a chorus which bores straight for the memory banks upon first hearing.

With her second album, Bat for Lashes cements her reputation as Britain’s answer to Tori Amos - that is, the astonishing early-90s Amos, as opposed to the rather uninspired sounding late-‘noughties’ version, but we digress. In much the same way as her sonic predecessor, Kahn produces songs of fantastic depth and beauty, allowing voice and piano to soar far beyond the realms of the ordinary singer-songwriter and approaches genuine, unequivocal musical genius. She is, perhaps, a once-in-a-generation act; she is to be treasured.


Monday, 27 April 2009

Metric - Fantasies

Album-of-the-year you'll never hear.

Fantasies, the fourth album from Canadian quartet Metric, should by all rights be one of the biggest albums of 2009. It won’t, of course - the music industry doesn’t work that way. But any such heady combination of nailed on vocals, commercial hooks, lyrical populism and tightly-constructed songwriting deserves to produce the string of hits and subsequent ‘sound of the Summer’ feel that it surely would were it released by any more popularly recognisable act.

Right from the Garbage-esque opener ‘Help I’m Alive’, Fantasies grips you by the balls and refuses to let go until you’re singing, dancing and, hell, proselytizing until everyone around has either joined in, or wandered off to the Radio 1 playlist wondering what this music that the taste-setting bods refuse to give deserved exposure could possibly be. Indeed, were ‘Sick Muse’ to be given the radio play it undoubtedly deserves, there’d be a guaranteed top-10 single on the band’s CV. With singalong chorus, textbook indie guitars, and genuine girl power vocals, it’s a freakishly brilliant song.

The real genius of the album, though, comes in the awesome ‘Twilight Galaxy’. Built on Postal Service-esque lo-fi beats and shimmering synths, it’s here where the band sound most at ease. Balancing soothing loveliness with insane slow-burning catchiness, you’ve never wanted Emily Haines more.

The subsequent ‘Gold Guns Girls’ unfortunately, suffers in comparison, desperately trying - and someway failing - not to sound simply like a sped-up version of the previous track, pimped out with extra guitars. Typically, given the album’s commercial sensitivities, though, mark this song up as an offering by the staggeringly inferior Paramore, and the uninformed would lap it up. And it’s a pattern followed again, and again, throughout the album (except, perhaps, on the somewhat insipid 'Collect Call' - the token 'slow song', lacking the conviction to fully convince).

As with anything so pop-sounding, doubts persist over the album long-term appeal. But then, for a ‘sound of the Summer’ album, immediacy rules supreme over longevity. And with immediacy in spades, it’s time the mainstream woke up to the strengths of Canada’s best non-Crystal Castles export.


Sunday, 26 April 2009

Twisted Wheel - Twisted Wheel

Eponymous debut provides serious punk-a-long promise

Northern three-piece Twisted Wheel have finally released their self titled debut album following on from a little heard 5 track LP in July last year. Despite a scathing review from NME, whose main problem with the band seems to be that they were given a vote of confidence from Liam Gallagher, which is admitably rather like having your ex-rocker uncle turning up at your gigs), these guys have done their time on the gigging circuit and are finally reaping the rewards with a solid album of songs that owe more than a passing nod to the punk rock 70s giants.

Listening to the opening track, ‘Lucy The Castle’, you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd accidentally put The Jam on instead. Punchy and in your face with a toe-tapping drumbeat it's a great start to the album. Followed by the too-short anthem ‘She's A Weapon’, it all seems to be shaping up nicely. Unfortunately, by striving for variety, the Wheel have come up with ‘We Are Us’ and ‘Strife’, slower, Brit-rock style songs, which sandwiched between faster, punkier tracks, show creaking weaknesses in lyrical ability. Their attempts on social commentary are at best unenlightening and nothing we haven't heard before.

Having said that ‘Let Them Have It All’, gets the second half of the album back on track. With definite influence taken from happy-go-lucky indie sounds, this is a fierce, upbeat tune with dancefloor potential and an overcharged middle solo. Twisted Wheel are at their best when not trying so hard, pounding guitars and lyrics that you don't so much sing-a-long to, as shout and scream, the anthems of ‘She's A Weapon and You Stole The Sun’, are real belters.

Twisted Wheel deliver gutsy, punky, rock and roll with some genuinely good songs. It may not be about to start a musical revolution but it'll get you stomping your feet


Monday, 20 April 2009

Franz Ferdinand - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

Innovative return for British indie leaders

The “difficult third album”: an infamous rock cliché, never more true than for Franz Ferdinand. Four years after You Could Have It So Much Better, and almost eighteen-months after re-entering the studios, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand finds a more inventive and less-formulaic band than the Britpop revivalist leaders of previous offerings.

Despite a more evolved sound, though, it would be misleading claim a massive sonic departure has taken place while the band have been away. Lead-single ‘Ulysses’ picks up from the gender-bending seduction of the debut-album’s ‘Michael’, with Kapranos’ half-whispered, half-desperate vocal delivery at perfect ease with disco-guitar instrumentation. The later ‘Can’t Stop Feeling’, meanwhile, sits comfortably alongside ‘Take Me Out’ as owner of FF’s most infectious riff. It certainly isn’t just standard Franz Ferdinand fare here, though: ‘No You Girls’, is driven by a sound so reminiscent of David Bowie’s ‘DJ’ as to demand direct comparison, while the opening of ‘Dream Again’ could easily be his ‘Warszawa’. Indeed much of the album carries a watermark of Berlin-era Bowie, breeding the same combination of dance floor friendly pop riffs and darker lyrical matter. “Heroes” after the wall came down, perhaps.

There is, though, one track which entirely and utterly dominates Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Clocking in at just shy of 8 minutes, and just under a fifth of the entire album’s running time, ‘Lucid Dreams’ is perhaps the furthest from their comfort zone that the band have ever been. From nowhere, after 4 minutes of sonically intensive indie rock, suddenly a full-on acid house breakdown gatecrashes the party. All heavy drumbeats, crashing percussion rhythms and schizophrenic electro riffs, this wouldn’t feel out of place in a Simian Mobile Disco setlist. And it completely and utterly works. Coming out of a spin of Tonight:…, there’s only one track you’ll remember. The black hole in the centre of the album, devouring the entirety of the energy from around it. If ever there were a suspicion that Franz Ferdinand had a defined sound that they were incapable of diverting from, then this track is the entire case for the defence.

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand? Tonight: Lucid Dreams, thanks very much.


Saturday, 18 April 2009

Kings of Leon - Only by the Night

An RH Online Retrospective

The eagerly awaited fourth studio album from the Followill foursome; the UK’s third biggest selling number one album of 2008; two Brit awards; three Grammy nominations; a UK number one hit single. It is fair to say that the boys from Nashville, Tennessee have come a long way. Moving away from the quirky Southern Rock sound of Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, towards an epic, anthemic, stadium trajectory.

From the opening moment we hear the familiar sounding two-note ‘Because of the Times’ guitar riff, only with a delightful twist of a gut-punching snare drum, and a second effects guitar, creating incredible unearthly phonics in the background. And then… Caleb, his expressive, raucous voice, singing about pure elation, while the musical storm bubbles up from the sea around him, to generate a sinister but musically enriching overture.

Following ‘Closer’ is the grimy, distorted guitar sound of ‘Crawl’, a truly anthemic record with everything you could possibly desire from a rock song. All about the guitars. ‘Sex on Fire’ follows, with admittedly clichéd lyrics, giving listeners one of the biggest sing-along anthems of the year. ‘Use Somebody’, meanwhile, steers off into completely new KOL territory; a rock power ballad? Caleb’s longing vocals and the infectious ‘oooh woooah’s’ in the chorus just broadened the band’s listener audience even further.

‘Manhattan’ shows evidence that KOL have not lost their roots and influences of the southern, countrified sound, and even in ‘I want you’ with the almost banjo-like subtlety on top of the sturdy bass riff.

The outro track ‘Cold Desert’ is as raw and pure as can be. Recorded in one sitting, Followill reeled all but the first verse completely off his tongue while in a drunken state of euphoria. His honest and meaningful lyrics are supported greatly by the expressive profundity in the music. A soft drum rhythm behind a driving bass riff with eclectic and experimental guitar sounds eventually fading out, drawing only by the night to a alleviating close.

It is no doubt that ‘Only by the Night’ has made the family Followill incontestably massive, and truly one of the biggest stadium bands of 2008/09.