The Bubble Album Reviews No. 18

The xx- Coexist

The xx’s debut album, released in August of 2009, was an undisputed triumph. It became a ‘modern day classic’, quietly sneaking its way into British culture. Even if, somehow, you managed to avoid listening to the album, you would no doubt recognise their syncopated hooks that saturated the radio, TV ads and sports reels the following year. The accolades the band received were well deserved; the album won the 2010 Mercury Prize and went platinum soon after. It has been a long time since such a genre-defying and critically acclaimed album has gained this level of commercial success. Their follow-up album has been eagerly anticipated; could ‘Britain’s favourite band’ still sound as fresh as they did? Rarely has the difficult second album seemed so difficult.

Coexist starts with “Angels”, a song that would fit so comfortably in their debut you may have to check you chose the right record. Romy’s soft vocals and sparse reverb drenched guitar loops sound as they did three years ago. But their minimalist style has matured, the live percussion seems effortless and the pauses between verses are confident and mesmerising. From the somewhat stagnant start The xx gradually show how they have progressed. The pace rises as the club music influences seep through into “Chained”. But “Fiction” is where the album really gets going. Jamie xx’s production and percussion track is refined and constantly evolving; Sim’s baritone vocals are more assured as he seduces his listener.

Lyrically the album fails to excite, staying comfortably within the realms of love, loss and relationships – the band seem atypically conformist. Not to say the lyrics do not suit their brand of music. Romy and Sim’s gentle whispers complement each other, especially obvious on songs like “Reunion”, where they trade phrases and come back in unison giving the impression you are listening in on lovers’ private conversations.

“Tides” is another stand out track; ghostly strings and sparse distant percussion create an eerie backdrop to an infectious bass loop, forming a wonderful clash of styles. Coexist pulls on influences far from their minimalist indie roots; taking grooves found typically in house music in “Swept Away”, using desolate dubstep synths that creep into the album, no doubt thanks to Jamie xx’s extensive DJ and remixing experience garnered over the past few years. “Our Song” is a serene conclusion to the record. Spiraling synths infuse waves of energy into the song lifting the album to its climax. Listen to this song on headphones and it is easy to imagine the two singers whispering in each other’s ears, “The walls I hide behind / you walk through”.

On first listen, I was disappointed by how closely The xx had stuck to their original formula, but on closer inspection I don’t really care. The xx have produced another immaculate album in a genre no one else comes close to equalling. Silent voids so tense they will kill any dinner conversation, there is not a single unnecessary note played. Choosing rather to refine their minimalist darkened sound than to move on at first asking, The xx prove they can enthral a listener just as they did three years ago.

By Robbie Sinclair

The Vaccines- Come of Age

The release of Come of Age should have been the turning point in a musical era, haunted by auto-tune and high-belted, white-toothed music producers that have dominated what we call popular music for so long now. Indeed, to call it hype doesn’t really cut it for all those hoping that a guitar might finally replace the aforementioned at the summit of both the album and singles charts. But alas, despite hitting Number 1 in the UK in a closely-fought battle with Ireland’s Two Door Cinema Club, The Vaccines’ second coming feels all too premature for a band that have been together for little over two years to the day. The Beatles comparisons aside, many expected The Vaccines to carry the future of their genre forward, but the aptly-named Come of Age feels more childish than anything else.

“No Hope” opens like a lost adolescent but ironically offers quite a hopeful start, boasting lyrical honesty as Justin Young scrapes out a “self-absorbed” challenge to any of those who may have expected too much and perhaps this is Come of Age’s implicit downfall. However, it’s far from a bad album – the catchy “Ghost Town” and cleverly-written “Aftershave Ocean” serve to ensure this – nevertheless it still feels as if The Vaccines are simply trying too hard to be fashionable. Recently having confessed to wanting to become a “rock and roll band”, Justin Young’s Bob Dylan impersonation grows tiresomely tuneless during “All in Vain” and references to John Lennon and the 50’s poster boy Frankie Avalon in the stand-out track “Teenage Icon” reiterate the nervousness with which The Vaccines’ approach their task. It’s more like state-controlled rock and roll rather than the raw, angst that an album filled with songs such as “Bad Mood” could have given. However there are glimpses of brilliance. ‘Life is easy when you’re easy on the eye’ Young croons on “I Wish I Was A Girl” and guitarist Freddie Cowan flirts with Radiohead as he distorts and floats across “Weirdo”.

Come of Age should have been an album filled with the screams of Norgaard but it unfortunately and fittingly shows that The Vaccines are too shy to solo, intimidated like the boy in a bar as he watches the girl sail away. Clever but forgettable, The album is still very much as immature as What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, but despite the long hair and awkward facial hair, their second album feels more like a false attempt at innocence than anything else.

By Roy Manuell

A.C. Newman- Shut Down the Streets

2012 has been a tumultuous year for A.C. Newman. The likeable frontman of Canadian indie-rock supergroup The New Pornographers, Newman’s latest solo album is largely affected by the death of his mother, and birth of his baby son. The latter issue is chronicled on the album’s finest track, the witsful “There’s Money in New Wave”, replete with a wonderful, lilting guitar line and the more personal lyricy Newman has brought to his solo career – “someday these will be familiar streets”, he sings; a line knowingly in contrast with album closer ‘They Should Have Shut Down the Streets’, a genuine and highly moving lament to his mother’s passing. Things never feel mawkish on Shut Down the Streets. This is an album which celebrates its joys and lets out its losses in a way which is both engagingly personal, yet almost comfortingly universal.

The album’s sound is largely a return to Newman’s debut solo album, The Slow Wonder, and a departure from the heavier sound of his awkward sophomore release, Get Guilty. Shut Down the Streets is an album replete with catchy handclaps (‘Hostages’), jangly guitar lines (‘Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns’, a collaboration with New Pornographers bandmate Neko Case contains the pick of the bunch), and gentle electronic beats (opener ‘I’m Not Talking’). Musically, it doesn’t really push the boundaries beyond anything A.C. Newman has done in his solo career, or with The New Pornographers, but the majority of the songs on show here sound so fresh and tuneful, that it’s easy to forgive Newman for playing it safe. There is the occasional misstep – penultimate track ‘The Troubadour’ sounds like a lightweight Paul Simon rip-off – but even in its few weaker moments, Shut Down the Streets is still an album which possesses a restrained charm.

The album is in danger, in places, of sounding a little too indistinguishable from one track to the next – a criticism I would certainly level at Newman’s previous release, Get Guilty. The instrumentation is fairly varied, but the style of melody is slightly too consistent for its own good. This is saved from being a problem, however, by both Newman’s voice and his excellent lyrics; his talents lying as much in being a storyteller as they do in anything else. The former is at its strongest on ‘Wasted English’, both powerful and restrained. The latter comes to the fore most impressively on closer ‘They Should Have Shut Down the Streets’ – Newman lamenting on the worth of his mother’s life, by imaginging how her loss would have fittingly (for him) been taken – the roads “lined with people cap in hand and crying”. Newman’s attempt to convey both personal experience, and wryly-told tales – ‘Hostages’ being an excellent example of the latter – is a gambit which has payed off.

Shut Down the Streets is not a perfect record; its songs sharing too much of the same DNA in their melodies, and one or two tracks not quite hitting the mark; but it is a very good record. Mature, moving and generally very pleasing on the ears, Shut Down the Streets is a welcome return to solo form from A.C. Newman, and provides a fascinating portrayal of life and loss, wrapped tight inside sunny melodies and bright instrumentation.

By Dave Burin

Godspeed You! Black Emperor- Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend!

Despite their enigmatic presence, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been around enough to leave calling cards in their music. Indeed in such dense post-rock albums that Godspeed produce, listeners often need something solid to hold on to, else they get sucked into the music’s intense oblivion and then spat out an hour later without being too sure what happened to them.

The first sign is an overriding theme binding the album. Godspeed have indulged us in their unhinged musical interpretations of apocalypse, religion and politics. This time the collective focuses on modern warfare. The album’s cover is of a bunker, and contains songs like “Their Helicopters Sing” and “Mladic,” named after the Serbian war criminal. In fact “Mladic,” the first and best song on the album, seems to be a 20-minute project on the Bosnian War, where it begins with corrupted radio signals, followed by what seems like flares being shot off and concluding with a Balkan sounding klesmer-jam. The album name Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend! also suggests a religious aggression, which was not only apparent in the Christian-Muslim conflicts in the Bosnian war, but also in the present troubles in the Middle East, thus making this album very much a contemporary cultural document.

Godspeed’s second calling card is a healthy ratio of tense sounds and loud catharsis. The two are often connected by a single riff that pervades throughout the entire song, kept alive by the various instruments. Their new album certainly delivers this ratio. “Mladic” formulates itself into a driving battle cry that even reaches the frontier of danceability, albeit in the vein of a violent barmitzvah. The other 20 minute song “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is a more drawn-out catharsis not dissimilar to a Sigur Rós one-last-stand number. The two shorter songs that alternate the longer ones share not this ratio but are instead pure tension. “The Helicopters Sing” sounds like an orchestra slowly decaying and the final song “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable” emanates a giant grinding machine. These are possibly the two shortest songs in the Godspeed oeuvre, not even topping the 10-minute mark, and so one has to wonder why they were included in the album. For they are not really songs on their own by Godspeed’s goliath standards, and only really add atmosphere to the album. Perhaps the two songs are segues, there to insist that the album is not a diptych of huge independent songs but instead a blended whole. Perhaps they are hints of Godspeed’s transition from post-rock to ambient music, in many ways a purer version of post-rock.

The final calling card, which this album lacks, is a significant speaker. In F#A#∞ there is narrator describing the post-apocalypse landscape in “Dead Flag Blues”. In Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada there is the protester being interviewed. In Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend!, the only voice we hear is the repeated radio signal “with his arms outstretched,” which nicely combines the themes of war and relgion. For it could describe either a man praying, or being arrested. Of course Godspeed is not required to include spoken word in their music, and in fact the album operates perfectly without it. Perhaps this lack of speaking is a statement within the album, expressed earlier in Slow Riot, that freedom of expression has been quashed by religious and military oppression, and the music relates this crushing pain.

Thus Allelujah! delivers. For it harks back to the band’s greatest strengths of intense focus and feeling, while also giving new impetus to a future sound. Above all it is the album most immediate to our times, and should be treated with care.

By Oliver White

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