The Bubble Album Reviews No. 24

Check out the playlist here!

Foals – Holy Fire
Foals’ popularity in the indie-rock music scene can be traced back to the release of the addictive and catchy single ‘Cassius’ in 2008, which made its mark at the end of the ‘New Rave’ music era. Holy Fire is arguably Foals’ best work, encompassing the playful sound of their debut album with the emotional, dreamy indie rock of their second album with a newfound grungy, noisy edge.

The first track of the album is a four-minute instrumental indulgence with an intense layering of soft instrumentals finally reaching a obstreperous crescendo for the last 90 seconds. We are reminded that Foals, the band, isn’t just comprised of Yannis Philippakis’, their front man- who has massively domineering stage presence- but three other talented musicians. The second track, ‘Inhaler’ bombards us with howling guitars and a lot of noise; showcasing a rockier side to the band. It’s already been received exceptionally well, reaching number 28 in the charts, a higher placement than any other Foal’s previous singles, despite not being a typically ‘mainstream’ track. The strong beat, constantly changing dynamics, catchy electric guitar riffs, feels strangely like Kasabian or Kings of Leon.’ The third track ‘My Number’ is reminiscent of ‘Miami’ from their second album Total Life Forever. The melody reminded me a of an edgier Two Door Cinema Club and you soon find yourself singing and moving along to the chorus ‘You don’t have my number, we don’t need each other now.’ It’s playful, funky and uplifting with the lyrics “I feel the love, feel the love” and arguably the best track on the album.

The dynamic shifts from rocky, indie staccato beats to slower more emotionally complex tracks. The lyrics have more emphasis as we hear Philippakis’ voice sound rueful with lyrics such as in ‘Bad Habit’: ‘Oh would you forget me now?’, ‘wash the stains away’. As the guitar slowly builds up again the tone feels similar to ‘I still remember’ by Bloc Party. This feeling is built up in the last tracks of the album, which are atmospheric and slightly oppressive. The final track called ‘Moon’, feels extra-terrestrial and magical; in many ways it made me feel weightless.

Holy Fire isn’t an obviously likeable album but you can’t fault Foals on their unpredictability, as their third album is considerably distinguished from their first two. Foals have played around with new sounds, complemented by Philippakis’ haunting voice. Not every track is successful and some of their lyrics were lost on me like ‘Now I’m the last cowboy in this town. Empty veins and my plastic, broken crown’. Yet the gently relentless momentum carries the album through, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written purely with festival performances in mind. Some of the tracks are stadium floor shakers with a melody, others are just noise. Nevertheless the raw energy and excitement is still there and eventuating what is their best album to date.

By Rosie McleodCat Power – Sun
Cat Power (41 year old Chan Marshall) caused a good amount of upset with the release of Sun: to begin with nobody was even sure if a new record would ever emerge after 2008’s Jukebox and once it had, Chan Marshall was forced to postpone its accompanying world tour because of financial problems and health issues.

It must be said that on first listen, Sun does not sounds like an album blighted by difficulty. Some of its predecessors (The Greatest and What Would the Community Think in particular) have a much greater feeling of struggle in them than Sun seems to. It suits its name: much of it exists in the major key, a lot is up tempo – indeed it sounds like summer, as though it must have been recorded somewhere in Southern California near a beach. ‘Songs like Manhattan’ and ‘3, 6, 9’ are absolutely great tracks, and the lead single ‘Cherokee’ is irresistible.
Lyrically it is not Marshall’s best, but it is revealing nevertheless. She certainly seems very sad. Although Marshall’s writing ability has hardly been pushed to its farthest by a song like ‘Ruin’, it is a telling song. She laments those who are ‘bitching, complaining when some people who ain’t got shit to eat.’ It seems likely that she sees herself as part of the problem; that her soul searching lyrics are no use in reality. ‘Peace and Love’ highlights changes in attitudes since the ‘peace and love’ generation, and the time when ‘choosing Black Flag was choosing a race’, with Marshall questioning why she cares how many hits she gets on the internet.

One of the strongest feelings I have been left with by this record is that Marshall is edging around her best ability, as though fearing what she will have to face if she attempts to write with the brutal honesty, seen before on releases such as You Are Free and Moon Pix. While before now I’ve sometimes had a sense of discomfort listening to Cat Power records because they are so visceral, so revealing, now I feel discomfort at what Marshall is hiding from herself, and a feeling of sharing in her own obvious confusion regarding where her place now is.

However irritating it might be to compare an artist’s new releases to their older ones, I think with Cat Power there’s no avoiding it. It was late 1994 when the first Cat Power record was released, her recording career has been continuous since. It has also been of consistently high quality. Because of this it’s important to remember that while Sun might not be up there with the best Cat Power records: the bar is set very high. This is a really good record, but for me it has two major weaknesses. Firstly, Marshall’s voice is not the centrepiece here as it was on The Greatest and other prior releases. This is a crime when this woman has the voice of a goddess (look up her playing ‘The Greatest’ on Later With Jools Holland if you don’t believe me). Secondly, it lacks the brutal honesty of Marshall’s previous writing: it is as though she has sabotaged her own feelings, her own voice here, as an attempt to hide. And she shouldn’t, because she really is one of the best singer songwriters around, and has been for just less than two decades at this point.

By Josephine FreemanJJ72 – I to Sky
Irish trio JJ72’s second album was supposed to represent the triumphant emergence of the new Radiohead. An odd billing, perhaps, for a band that sounds basically like Placebo covering Nirvana; but nevertheless, the early-noughties music press tagged them as such. After a strong first album twelve largely solid rockers anchored by monstrous and ragged guitars in tandem with singer and band autocrat Mark Greaney’s unique delivery, the photogenic Dubliners were set to take the mainstream by storm with their 2002 follow-up. Instead, the clunkily titled I to Sky, intended to be the apotheosis of Mark Greaney’s artistic vision, did not sell at all well. In fact, it bombed, and JJ72 were unceremoniously dropped by their label, which turned down the option even to release the already-complete third album. To me the band simply did not have the ability to completely carry out their (or, more accurately, Greaney’s) conception of what they wanted to create. Moments in the album, however, are touched with genius.

It opens with ‘Nameless’, a nothing piano ballad notable only for the irritating ‘bouncing ball’ effect of the piano/vocal interplay. Quite why this track was chosen as the opener is beyond me. It might have been adequate tucked away around tracks nine or ten, but opening with some of your weakest material is evidence either of monumental chutzpah or serious naivety. Possibly both. ‘Formulae’ is much better. It breaks no new ground, with its two chords but is a simple and listenable arena-rock number. Its uplifting chorus is a highlight. After the false start of ‘Nameless’, ‘Formulae’ gets things back on track. It is also the album’s most radio-friendly single, and enjoyed moderate airplay. ‘I Saw A Prayer’ comes after, one of the album’s most ambitious and sadly frustrating tracks. The bizarre chorus-effected vocals that open the song are quickly forgotten as thick, warm, fuzzbox-distorted guitars envelop the song, building in a style reminiscent of Kevin Shields to effortless peaks for about 20 seconds. Thereafter the vocals come back with a vengeance. Greaney’s inexplicable decision to deliver the entire song in a nauseating coo, which combines destructively with horrible lyrics about soft skin and blue eyes and almost ruins the song entirely. The guitar work is great, though, and rescues it.

However, the next two, ‘Serpent Sky’ and ‘Always and Forever’, continue the downward spiral. Horrible, tuneless, distorted guitars and the piling up of pre-GCSE imagery make for a very unpleasant listening experience. ‘Always and Forever’ is slightly better. The introduction is bright and trebly, but the song meanders somewhat and makes little impression. ‘Brother Sleep’ brings us back to the light side of the Force. Yes, “rejected Damien Rice B-side” rather sums it up, but it is essentially just a pleasant, finger-picked acoustic track. Although the repetitive chorus ‘I’m going to see you through this, my love’ has been plucked directly from the Big Book of Clichés, the vocals are serviceable. In any case, the album soon picks up.

‘Sinking’ is the album’s centre-piece, clocking seven minutes. ‘Sinking’ is admirably restrained, and the verses’ sparse bass-and-drums effect is very effective. It is actually a good song; the lower-pitched, wavering vocals suit its tone and its repetitive, insistent structure works well. The next two tracks, ‘7th Wave’ and ‘Half Three’ are the album’s highlights. ‘7th Wave’ is an urgent, nagging, darkwave monster, with some huge vocals at the end that perfectly match the song’s emotional intensity. ‘Half Three’ is similar, in the sense that it doesn’t try to do too much, seemingly content to be an excellent rock song with a pleasingly plosive riff, mixing restrained verses and climactic choruses.

It’s really a shame that track ten, ‘Glimmer’, comes in between the previous two and ‘City’, because ‘City’ is another very strong offering. Slightly sonically different to the rest of the album, anchored with a Kiwi-rock guitar riff, ‘City’ is an electronic stomp which shows that JJ72 have more than one string to their bow in terms of likely Pumpkins, Joy Division and MBV influences. I need, for my own sanity, to keep discussion of ‘Glimmer’ to a minimum. The riff is plain annoying, the verses bland, the choruses directionless, and the lyrics an abomination. However, closer ‘Oiche Mhaith’ is nothing of the sort. A sleepy number – ‘oiche mhaith’ is Irish for ‘good night’ – it puts the album to bed nicely, building to a muted but effective climax.

In short, you might say that I to Sky is a mixed bag. It’s very hard to put on paper quite how I feel about this album. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, because I genuinely love parts of this album, as much as I love the fact that the band has not stayed inside its comfort zone. The album’s deficiencies – of which there are many – come about as a result not necessarily of poor musicianship but excessive ambition. JJ72 have such naivety, such gauche, misguided self-belief – that led them to try and create a masterpiece with the largely rudimentary tools at their disposal – that they are hard to dislike. Indeed it makes it so much more accessible as a piece of work. Rather than being swept away by its magnificence, you can really relate to it. I to Sky is a League Two team trying to play like Barcelona – who wouldn’t like to see that?

By Matt MackenzieParquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Well we’ve got our first solid rock album of the year, and looking at Metacritic everyone else seems to think so too. Which is quite surprising on first observation because the singer can’t sing, the riffs sound like a child tapping on your shoulder and the lyrics are so steeped in pseudo-intellectual slackerisms that they beg to be ignored as merely verse fillers. And yet for some reason it works. Firstly, it’s actually a tight album, the drums always have nice raw beat to them that help move the efficient riffs. Moreover, the lead guitar hasn’t been given Mascis-esque wandering rights, but instead functions as simplistic forerunner, helping flesh out the verse and lead the momentum. Most importantly, the album actually has hits. ‘Borrowed Time’ has knee-jerk danceability. Indeed after a few choruses you’ll most likely be singing along to what you think the chorus sounds like, “it seems these days I’m ‘cappin-a-miss’ (?) borrowed time!” And it’s probably this blend of fun and not caring what the lyrics mean, which makes the album so attractive. This ain’t a hipster band, they can hardly take themselves seriously enough to qualify as one. Instead it becomes a pleasure to just wallow in this 90’s slacker bliss like, “Storm chasin’ hippies at a discount mall/ Megaphone muppet poster on the wall.”

However, it would be worth seeing what these guys roots are, as this 90’s alternative rock has had a big renaissance lately with such bands as The Men, Mac DeMarco and Yuck. Firstly, Parquet Courts seem to know exactly where they’re coming from, referencing Pavement in “Careers in Combat” and “N Dakota,” and “Caster of Worthless Spells” sounds like a Guided by Voices B-side. Yet, the band’s real weight, which sets them apart from other garage-rockers, seems to come from their predecessor’s own influences. The singer sounds like Jonathan Richman, punk’s goofy godfather. Moreover, the driving bass/drum duo harks back to krautrock bands such as Neu! and Can. However, the real juicy ingredient in the mix is The Minutemen, a band whose influence has not been as apparent in since the millennium. Parquet Courts have discipled well under Boon and Watt, learning how to pack a punch with condensed songs, punchy lyrics and casual bass/guitar interplay. And, while its any reviewers (ultimately unproductive) dream to dissect a band into its influences, the method here goes to show that the fact Parquet Courts songs sound eerily recognisable, while also fresh, is that they’ve found a deep blend of influences that they can formulate into something new.

Yet these overtly underground roots may be counterproductive, and may perhaps be why Light up Gold got overwhelmingly good reviews. For reviewers don’t forsee the band upsetting any system, which could put the review site’s reputation on the line. Indeed the best this album can hope for seems to be breaking even on sales and reaching #49 on Top 50 albums of 2013 (the album actually came right at the end of 2012, but most sites are treating it as a 2013 work.) Nevertheless Light up Gold is a great foundation album. Parquet Courts now need to formulate their own image into something that is unique and necessary in the 21st century.

By Oliver White

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