“Never judge a book by its cover.” Well, not this time.
In the past, judging a Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ album by its cover seemed like a fairly safe bet. Exploding onto the music scene around a decade ago with their debut Forever To Tell, one simply had to read the band’s choice of name to think: okay, these guys mean business. Wrapping together the powerful vocal stylings of lead singer Karen O, along with the kind of raunchy, energetic punk pop so unique to early noughties New York, Yeah Yeah Yeahs produced some of the best music of the late 90’s post-punk revival.
Albums two and three provided similarly energetic offerings. Like Blondie on speed, Yeah Yeah Yeahs had complete control of their own little punky niche. An appropriate comparison, as Karen recently dyed her hair from jet black to bleached blonde.
So with a band name such as theirs, an album name such as this, and an album cover such as… well, look above… you could definitely be forgiven for assuming this album would continue on a similar trajectory. Yet, you’d be wrong. Despite the alarming album graphics, this modern opus showcases some of the band’s most sensitive work to date.
The album opens with a single guitar note, over which Karen O sings a toned down story of regret and heartbreak. Her own distorted voice echoes back in between lines, like some kind of twisted alter ego. Then the drums come in a little tentatively as she utters the song title word, ‘sacrilege’, and this is it, the album is taxiing along the runway. Confusingly enough, this subtle, soulful start to the album is then flipped completely on to its head, as the song descends into a full blown bonanza of gospel choir raucousness. It’s energetic and engaging, but a bit of an anomaly.
More typical of the album are songs like ‘Subway’, which takes place entirely over the rhythmic ‘cah-thud-cah-thud’ of a sampled freight train, the endearing ‘These Paths’, and the slightly creepy ‘Under The Earth’ (‘down down under the earth goes another lover’, says Karen O, calmly and cooly). What makes these songs so special is their complete disregard for what one might call “typical” pop song structure: no real concept of chorus or verse, just gradual building up from an initial guitar riff or drumbeat, reminiscent of 20th century minimalism (for those of you who ever studied GCSE music.) It’s a winning formula, and one which Yeah Yeah Yeahs have got down to a tee. What’s more, it gives you, the listener, a chance to really appreciate the lyrics, as well as Karen O’s fantastic voice.
Elsewhere, the album has several good stabs at replicating the gig-filling, club-rocking energy that plagued their previous albums. Unfortunately it never quite works. The title track, ‘Mosquito’, is fun and feisty, but not much more. A couple of listens and you’re already a bit bored with hearing the mosquito scream ‘I’ll suck your blood!’ The eighth track, ‘Buried Alive’, features some fantastic, well-placed rapping from guest star Dr Octagon. A lot of future potential here, the punk/rap crossover works brilliantly in the context. It’s just a shame that the song itself is a little uninspired. It takes a while to get going, and once it does, doesn’t really arrive anywhere satisfactorily.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have given us their most toned down album yet, fusing plaintive, poetry-like contemplation, with buzzing punk-rock backing. It’s just funny that they chose to advertise it the way they did, with a massive mosquito picking up a screaming, naked baby by its leg… Meh, cryptic is the new obvious. Just as blonde is the new black.
By Patrick Brennan
Following the release of Charli XCX’s 2011 single, ‘Stay Away’, and a succession of free online mix-tapes, the hype surrounding the Tumblr poster girl’s debut LP began to accumulate rapidly. Many view her as the synthpop rebirth’s answer to James Blake’s revision of (Burialesque) dubstep; a subtly refined best-of compilation of a ferociously “marmite” genre, a homage almost, rather than anything particularly progressive or original. The (warranted) critical acclaim of Blake’s two albums justifies this peculiarly revisionist route in tackling a principally cultish area of music. Charli XCX succeeds similarly.
Even before the overwhelming popularity of Nicholas Refn’s Ryan Gosling vehicle (pun not intended) ‘Drive’, and concomitantly, its soundtrack, synthpop had been undergoing not so much of a revival as a revolution. Artists such have as Kavinsky and Chromatics have soared to commercial and critical success because of the sudden surge in the sub-genre’s fan-base. However, despite Charlotte Aitchison’s music being pigeon-holed indisputably under synthpop, the opening sixty seconds of True Romance is blissfully witch-house. Aitchison’s distorted vocals plead desperately for romantic mercy, supported by a choir of mumbling lost souls and minimalistic white noise. It wouldn’t sound out of place as the softly spoken final song on a Crystal Castles album. Then comes the kick, an explosive collaboration of synths and drum machine. The opening track, ‘Nuclear Seasons’, exemplifies Charli’s sound: it’s very loud, it’s very brooding, and it’s very, very cool.
The second song, ‘You (Ha Ha Ha)’, is one of my favourite tracks of the year. Aitchison mixes a Gold Panda sample with a background of downplayed synths and a delightfully spiteful attack on an ex-boyfriend. Inexplicably, it flows beautifully. Perhaps that’s the highest praise I can thrust upon Charli and True Romance: her album is aesthetically gorgeous.
While there’s a lack of “filler” songs, some stand out substantially more than others. The previously mentioned ‘Stay Away’ is an atmospheric, angry letter of warning to, yet another, ex-boyfriend. The refreshingly traditional pop song ‘Set Me Free’ features her best vocals on the LP, more reminiscent of a Robyn whisper of disaffection than an Alice Glass scream of anguish. This is immediately succeeded by ‘Grins’, funnily enough an Alice Glass scream of anguish, with a whiff of Lily Allen’s cheekily literal discourse. ‘You’re The One’ is sublime, a spectacularly heavy bassline steadying a dangerously erratic outburst of frantic proclamations and insecurities. While not technically a bad song, ‘Cloud Aura’, which features Brook Candy, is incongruous in the context of the rest of the album, mainly due to Candy furiously spitting her verses like a politically-incensed Missy Elliot. It’s an angry R&B song, not an angsty pop song.
Lyrically, Aitchison has nothing really that remarkable to say. The subject matter is hardly varied; True Romance swings from love song to break-up song before reverting back to love-song mode. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem if she articulated herself through interesting images and conceits, but she plays it safe. She spouts clichéd idioms and illustrates basic scenarios: ‘I need to run,’, ‘I’m dancing in the dark,’ etc. It’s the poetry of a heartbroken 15-year old to her cruel ex.
Besides the lyrics and the one-track anomaly, finding fault in the rest of True Romance would be nit-picking. It’s a well-structured, aesthetically beautiful journey through Aitchison’s back catalogue of scummy exes and lost loves, and is one of the best albums of the new synthpop movement so far.
By Kieran Devlin
Push the Sky Away, the much anticipated 15th studio album by Australian alternative-rock outfit Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, hit the shelves a couple of months ago, and fans of the ne’er-do-well cooler than cool mustachioed old men have been going crazy for it. After the news that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ side-project Grinderman (and if The Bad Seeds are ne’er-do-wells, Grinderman are outright psychopaths) split in 2011, fans mourned, but with a quiet sense of hope, because the split hinted that maybe The Bad Seeds were writing again, for the first time since 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!.
And they were right. Push the Sky Away was born from Grinderman’s still-fresh corpse. But what the Seeds give us in the album is not some geriatric rockers’ explosive affirmation that they can still crank ‘em out; the Seeds, having produced so many albums that shift from rock, (murder) ballads, blues, folk, and dozens of other genres, haven’t got anything to prove. Rather, Push the Sky Away is a slow, spectral album, where Cave takes on his roles of rapturous preacher and lovelorn poet. There are hints of Grinderman in the album, signaled by the experimental looping in tracks like ‘We No Who U R’ and ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’. Lyrically, the album reaches the heady heights of their previous albums Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and Henry’s Dream. They span from eerie beauty (‘The night expands I am expanding/I watch your hands like butterflies landing’), to dark but deadly serious humor (‘Hannah Montana does the African Savannah… She curses the queue at the Zulus’). The crowning track is undoubtedly ‘Jubilee Street’; a mournful and slowly climatic track recounting a man’s obsessive love for a prostitute. Injected with eroticism and a bluesy tone, Cave narrates this story. It’s worth checking out the video for this song as well, if you want to see Ray Winston perspire as he submits himself to the girl.
Push the Sky Away is the ghost in the Bad Seeds’ ever-rattling machine. Cave bears the weight of Sappho and Auden, Robert Johnson and Lead Belly, the whole of Gothic Americana and Classical Literature, and with his Bad Seeds each album is underpinned by such influences. Push the Sky Away, however, takes a step in a new direction. References to Miley Cyrus, Wikipedia and the Higgs Boson show that the band isn’t stuck in some outdated or overcooked genre. The album is everything dedicated fans could hope for, and for new listeners, it’s as good a place as any to start.
By Ralf Webb
Possibly the strangest duo in contemporary music return with this sleek, dark third album. In many senses it’s a hard one to review: it’s very similar to everything they’ve done before. If you’ve heard this group before, you’ll know their sound: pounding, anthemic backing beats with haunting, often disturbing vocals laid over the top.
This album is essentially more of the same, but it’s not exactly like they’ve gone stagnant – it’s hard to make music this weird and be called ‘stagnant’. The differences between this and their other albums are there, but they’re subtle. On (II), for instance, lead singer Alice Glass’s vocals stand out in front on several tracks; here, on all but one, they inform the melody of the track but are completely undecipherable. In this sense, (III) pushes more towards the instrumental, even where it includes vocals, because it focuses less on their content but on their sound and how that fits with Ethan Kath’s ethereal production. What this translates to in a listening experience is something further away from their earlier work (like the glitchy nastiness and raw energy of Alice Practice) and into a floating, pulsating zone that’s not quite of this world.
Some songs – like ‘Plague’, ‘Wrath of God’, ‘Pale Flesh’ – feel very much like an old Crystal Castles not quite getting out of their rut. But around the middle of the record, beginning with ‘Sad Eyes’, a whole new experience begins to emerge. ‘Sad Eyes’ is really something to write home about. It’s a floor-filler in the way that the best Crystal Castles can be, but also manages to be a sleek, twisted look into the mind of Alice Glass. She’s the real mystery behind their music, as ever, and her personal experiences and individual outlook power the band beyond the dance floor and into, say, the cold night of European cities. This is not the escapism of Justice or Daft Punk, but anthems that are both for and beyond the streets. ‘Violent Youth’ is another intense offering, with trademark floating vocals and an organ-esque arrangement. Rumour has it that Kath ditched synthesisers for this album and used entirely keyboards and pedals to achieve the sound; if so, then this song is not just great, but also an incredible technical achievement.
The stand-out track, where the band finally achieves what it appears to have been aiming for throughout the album, is ‘Child, I Will Hurt You’. It’s a fitting finale for an often chilling record: opening on a lone, music-box-style track, it grows with Glass’ angelic, echoing vocals before leaving us again with this music box, retreating into silence through heavy reverb. It’s vintage Crystal Castles, but at the same time feels entirely new: the melody stays with you long after the album stops playing.
The big question I suppose is: should you listen to it? True, some of the album won’t be new to those who’ve heard Crystal Castles before; but who’s heard them and doesn’t want more? To those for whom this will be the first experience of this singular group, give it a try. Leave your expectations at the door and let Kath and Glass take you through to another world.
By Will Webb