Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (2018) – Album Review


Sure, we all hate Trump. Right? But Superchunk hate all of his supporters too, and hate them hard: “All these old men won’t die too soon/Flesh balloons still waving their arms around”. Ouch.

Because they’re getting on a bit themselves, they’ve been around since 1990 the old codgers, Superchunk get away with this blatant ageism, although perhaps not their oversimplifying of why white people voted for Trump in the first place: “Darkness was all you wanted”. Hell, there were legitimate reasons to be frustrated with Obama’s America. And I’m sure many people saw hope in Trump for genuine change, as absurd as that may seem. Yet there’s no denying that everyone who voted for him was well aware of his sickening misogyny and racist attitudes, and in choosing to ignore that they deserve the world’s contempt. Superchunk certainly think so: “There’s a crooked line that runs/Through every crease in this map/And you want to take us all the way back” they spit at everyone who voted for him.

Perhaps a little more empathy would’ve made this a great rock album. But as it stands, it’s a terrific, waspish punk album with a driving purpose. Most tracks tackle Trump and his supporters head-on, as so little music has thus far. “How has it come to this?” the album gasps in horror, gazing at the moral abyss that is the Donald. “What a time to be alive!” it exclaims, with several lifetime’s worth of sarcastic resentment built up; the combined age of the four band members is close to 200 (and you can sense that weariness in “Erasure”).

Middle-aged they may be, but Superchunk have put out their most cohesive, youthful-sounding, and invigorating blast of rage so far. Since their renaissance in 2010 with Majesty Shredding they’ve been getting steadily better, more confident and dynamic with each release. What a Time to Be Alive zips by in just over half an hour, but it brims with great ideas, such as getting Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield amongst others to join them on choruses to create a sense of community that counteracts the sense of alienation with their country. The overall feeling is uplifting not depressing, with “Break the Glass”, “Erasure”, and “Reagan Youth” perhaps their catchiest and most involving songs ever written. The music is welcoming rather than hostile; fun rather than abrasive. Song after song hits home, sometimes in less than two minutes. It’s all over so fast, like many of the best punk albums, but it’s catchy enough to merit the many replays its length allows for.

For a band that sounds so excited by music, Superchunk were brave enough to declare that they actually hated music in 2013, and in 2018 they still don’t think it’s good enough. Here’s lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan promoting the album: “I didn’t buy the silver lining some were promoting that ‘well, at least art and music will be great now!’ Obviously, any sane person would gladly trade four to eight years of terrible music for not having our country dismantled to satisfy the whims of a vengeful child and his enablers.”

Right on. I’d do anything for this album to not have to exist. But we’re here now; and Trump’s still in the White House; so hey, let’s make the most of it and play this one fucking loud.



Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet: Landfall (2018) – Album Review


In which two of America’s finest experimental artists team up to create a modern classical suite about Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which caused approximately $68.7 billion of damage (the fourth largest amount in American history). The damage happened to include Laurie Anderson’s house in New York, which had to be evacuated during the storm. That understandably traumatic experience provides the narrative drive of this album.

Kronos Quartet, fresh off their excellent collaboration with Malian collective Trio Da Kali last year, here create a frightening impression of the hurricane, with their traditional lineup swirling around each other in frenzies that sound bigger than the four instruments that are playing, simply because of the forcefulness and technical skill they evince. The way each player scrapes and drives the sound out from their respective strings can be frightening in intensity, particularly on “Dawn of the World” and “It Twisted the Street Signs”, which really do sound like their titles. They convey a fierce natural world, one that has no need for human interference and can easily eradicate mankind’s achievements with just the barest of warnings.

Laurie Anderson drives the apocalyptic vision of these pieces even further with glitchy electronic beats, distortions, and samples that rumble ominously beneath the acoustic instrumentation and occasionally erupt above them, as on “Never What You Think it Will Be”, which suddenly disrupts the somnolent flow of the previous track “Galaxies II” with its almost dubstep-like heavy introduction.

Yet I’m disappointed with the lack of Laurie Anderson’s distinctive narration on this album; she appears on only 6 out of the 30 tracks. To some of us, her spoken-word performances are as iconic as any of those by modern music’s great vocalists: so far as I’m concerned, she can proudly stand alongside Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, and of course her late husband Lou Reed. She’s every bit as distinctive, weird, tender, and frightening; her enunciation and timing is to die for. She should be considered the gold standard by any other spoken word performance artists. So the fact that Landfall is a mostly instrumental album at first limited my good impressions of it. Had she finally run out of verbal ideas?

But then I realised that the lack of spoken word performances was on purpose. Because Landfall is not just a concept album about Hurricane Sandy, it’s also a concept album about the failure of language to either describe or protect us from cataclysmic events.

Indeed, Anderson’s only attempt to describe the hurricane itself goes like this: “From above, Sandy was a huge swirl/That looked like the galaxies/Whose names I didn’t know”. She ends the description with a shrug, an acceptance of the limitations of her knowledge, and suggests how language can’t quite adequately describe the storm – she hasn’t got the words for it, she can’t offer up the names of those galaxies that it looks like. Then on the album’s centrepiece, “Nothing Left But Their Names”, Anderson contemplates how extinct animals eventually become nothing but their names in a book. Some people might think that this existence in a book grants the animals immortality, but Anderson knows better; in a later song called “Everything is Floating” (everything), she sees all of her books and all of her life’s work floating around in the basement after Hurricane Sandy, dissolving in the water, and she realises that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever, not even the written word. Language is transient and inadequate; it cannot save us.

So it’s suitable that Laurie Anderson’s voice is lost in the storm on Landfall. Her musings float around the album’s wreckage, so ably conveyed by Kronos Quartet, like everything does in her basement following the storm, signifying so much, and yet signifying most of all human being’s insignificance in the face of the universe’s frighteningly unstoppable natural forces.

So it’s a work about our mortality, much like her previous masterpiece, 2015’s Heart of a Dog. And it’s a work about the frustrating limitations of language and technology, about the difficulties of human interaction in the modern age, much like her magnum opus, 1984’s United States Live.

It returns to all of her favourite themes then, but most of all, unspokenly, to her Buddhist faith. Because how does she react to the realisation of the pointless existence of mankind, and particularly of all the material possessions that we’ve accumulated, as she surveys the wreckage in her basement? With these words, in her inimitable voice:

“How beautiful/How magic/And how… catastrophic.”


Rich Krueger – Life Ain’t That Long (2018) – Album Review

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In which a 58 year-old paediatrician from the US cobbles together his debut album (!) out of various folk-country-gospel-rock-R&B-jazz combinations. It works, partly because it’s so excellently produced and performed, but mostly because he writes his ass off and sings his vignettes in a style that evokes so many of the great singers from Van Morrison to Randy Newman.

Ironically, considering the album’s title, it can feel a little long (average track length is over 5 minutes), but Krueger uses the spaces in his songs to flesh out the many intriguing details. From past lovers to a car salesman to Sid Vicious and all the way back to Emperor Nero, his wit and perception can illuminate just about any character who wanders into the path of his keen writer’s gaze. Plus when he describes the year 1977 in “’77/17”, when he fucked it up with a perfect girl called Nancy, the setting feels as alive as any of his characters; everything he calls to our attention from the Bee Gees to “Susan Sarandon’s perfect tits” combine to paint a portrait of the past that reverberates with cynicism. And if you don’t get the decidedly bitter picture from the words then a rumbling, angry sax solo is there to help you understand.

Indeed, most of the musical touches manage to support the drama of the stories, and the overall ambition of the album is impressive. Girl group pop that’s been passed through the medium of Bruce Springsteen is evoked on “Then Jessica Smiled”; one of Van Morrison’s 70s live epics seems to ignite the spirit of the 7-minute “The Wednesday Boys”; some of The Band’s slower numbers (perhaps most of all “Unfaithful Servant”) bubble up to the surface of “What We Are”; Marvin Gaye and “Amazing Grace” are prominently quoted, both times for a good reason. With the exception of a female chorus that sentimentalises more than it energises, particularly on the icky (to my ears) “Can’t See Me in This Light”, all of Krueger’s choices sound magical. A violin that weaves its way in and out of many of the songs? Especially so.

I can only thank Robert Christgau for introducing me to yet another ace singer-songwriter, whose work I shall now follow for life. This is special, enlightening, and entertaining. I want more.


Mary Gauthier: Rifles & Rosary Beads (2018) – Album Review


In which a singer-songwriter from Nashville co-writes eleven songs with American war veterans and their wives; the result of her work with the charity SongwritingWith: Soldiers, this is Mary Gauthier’s most humane and moving album to date.

She sets the words and thoughts of these people to music that is respectful, sometimes harsh, and yet always empathetic. Overall, the album’s sound reminded me of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; it has the same desolate atmosphere, a combination of acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica in which that trio of instruments sound so lonely and apart that they seem to offer no comfort to each other.

And yet here, coming in at expertly judged times, are electric guitars, violins, fiddles and a piano, which aim to soothe the broken souls on display in the lyrics. The music ultimately shows that we are “Stronger Together” (as the final track is purposefully called), and seeks to heal the minds broken by combat.

The veterans she collaborates with offer terrible glimpses into the mental devastation wrought by their time in war zones. On the opening “Soldiering On”, for example, there’s this heartbreaking turn of phrase: “I wore my uniform with honour/My service was not a sacrifice/But what saves you in the battle/Can kill you at home”. It sets up this album’s main driving purpose, which is to show that some veteran’s deepest scars are on the inside. How can you live with yourself after having killed others, paradoxically in order to have lived yourself? It’s a circle of hell that’s frightening to imagine. And this album helps you to imagine it.

Even more devastating is “Morphine 1-2”, in which a survivor wishes they could trade places with two of their dead comrades, and “Bullet Holes in the Sky”, in which another survivor views the celebratory atmosphere of Veterans Day with a mixture of emotions: “They thank me for my service and wave those little flags/They genuflect on Sundays, and I know they’d send us back”.

That last line is about as political as this album gets. It shows a repressed rage at the complicity of the masses in America’s ongoing fascination with war, and reminds us of so many scenes in Born on the Fourth of July. The leftist in me wishes there was a little more of this righteous anger on the album. A country that’s been constantly at war since the 1950s, and allowed so many of its own citizens to die or suffer for pointless military excursions, should be thoroughly taken to task. It’s not enough to point out that veterans need our help, as Mary Gauthier does so well; there needs to be calls for no more veterans to exist at all.

Yet the humanist in me finds this album to be a marvel, and also very important, in its acknowledgment of the ways in which women, as well as men, suffer in war. Seven of these eleven songs were co-written with women, including “Brothers”, in which a female veteran bemoans the language of Veterans Day (“Brothers in arms your sisters covered you/Don’t that make us your brothers too?”), and “The War After the War”, in which wives detail the difficulty of caring for their husbands after they’ve returned from combat (“I get no basic training/I get no purple heart”). Perhaps most tragically of all, “Iraq” tackles the issue of sexual abuse in the military, with a female mechanic finding herself fighting off the unwanted advances of a host of male supposed-comrades and ultimately concluding “My enemy wasn’t Iraq”.

I’m inspired by the braveness shown in taking on these thorny issues, and by Mary Gauthier’s determination to give a female voice to the traditionally masculine field of war and its traumatic after-effects. And I applaud the restraint of Gauthier’s own voice, which sympathetically relates the stories of all of these veterans without romanticising them all that much. Her unfussy vocals are perfectly suited to relaying the horrors that accompany the daily grind of survival for veterans.

In all, her album shows that most people will cling onto anything in order to survive, whether it’s something destructive like rifles in battle, something comforting like rosary beads at home, or something healing like music.



Top Albums of 2017

Here are my favourites of the year. I think it was a fairly strong one for music, although from my perspective there were no instant classics to match the likes of Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. My number one choice is a little too uneven for my liking, and try as I might I couldn’t find much jazz, metal or electronica to tickle my fancy, all of which I find disappointing. Still, I had a busy year, and I still managed to discover these 40-odd albums of good-to-great quality, without much difficulty. Which goes to show that the industry is still going strong for us poptimists. As usual, I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed – please feel free to share your favourites. I’m always on the lookout for more great music. Just please don’t mention Father John Misty…



1) Angaleena Presley – Wrangled

It can feel pretty lonely as a British country music fan – there are sadly too few people to share my passion with. So two years ago I attended one of Angaleena’s gigs in Bristol, and along with the 100 or so other people gathered there I was transported to another realm that was as exhilarating as any live experience I’d ever had. Angaleena embodies all that I love about the best country music: its plain-spoken everyday wisdom, its addiction to “three chords and the truth”, its striving for beauty over innovation. Wrangled is far from perfect. But Angaleena’s seeking out of her own brand of perfection within genre limitations, driven by a poignantly unrealised desire for commercial success, inspired me like nothing else in music this year. Plus “Bless My Heart” is the funniest country song since “Gravity’s a Bitch”.


2) Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

This has the best Love/Lust duo of the year (sorry, Kendrick), and for once Lana’s ethereal voice sounds tethered to a grounded optimism. It’s long, but then who sets a stopwatch on amazing music?


3) Music From the American Epic Sessions

I loved everything about the American Epic project – the 3-part documentary series exploring the lives of some of the founders of American music, the 1-disc soundtrack, the 5-disc collection – but most of all I loved this, a 2-disc celebration of the series’ music with contemporary artists recording old and new songs using the very first recording equipment. The primitive technology means that they have to record live in the studio: one take, no multitracking, no overdubs. The results are revelatory and enormous fun. Highlights include several Jack White numbers, Nas demonstrating through his cover of “On the Road Again” that gangsta rap is as old as time, Ashley Monroe sweetly duetting with a sonorous cello on “Jubilee”, and Beck sounding like he’s discovered gospel for the first time on “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods”. But there’s so much more.


4) Randy Newman – Dark Matter

This cynical old bastard just keeps on getting funnier – and as he gets funnier, remarkably, he also gets sweeter. Dark Matter summarises the state of the world in 2017 pretty well, one in which Putin naturally gets centre stage, much to any thinking person’s dismay. Yet it finds redemption in curious places. Not least in the pathos of “She Chose Me”, which could easily have appeared on the Toy Story 2 soundtrack.


5) Fever Ray – Plunge

Take the plunge into this sometimes harsh, dissonant electropop and come out drenched in erotica and right-on political creeds to quote at your enemies. Go on, I dare you.


6) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

I resisted for a while, because I missed the deeper funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s damn hard to resist the pull of the greatest rapper alive. There’s simply no doubt that this is the most lyrically engrossing album of the year: profound, interconnected, mysterious, and of course challenging, like all of the best art. I still find it a tad musically inconsistent. But it’s the earworms of “DNA.”, “LOYALTY.”, “LOVE.”, and several others that keep me coming back again and again to explore the words.


7) The xx – I See You

So gentle it’s easy to miss. Indeed, it’s been passed over in many EOY lists. Yet its calmness bespeaks a confidence: the band use samples without worrying about dullards in the indie circle who bark on about “real music”, and their songcraft this time around has a hopeful romanticism about it. Their sound is forming an ever-clearer vocabulary of its own, that is nevertheless always evolving. And I’m all on board.


8) Sampha – Process

Proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. He’s the most promising Mercury Prize winner since The xx. He sketches soundscapes with vivid imagination, shading them with snatches of melody that are usually affecting. Many want him to come through and change the R&B world, but I merely want him to be himself, because the self that comes through is so scintillating.


9) The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

50 songs covering 50 years of Stephin Merritt’s life rarely get tiresome, even as the music flits from style to style, e.g. from solo ukulele to disco to new wave pop. Though it’s not a straightforward A to B autobiography, covering musings on various other topics, its autobiographical details when they come are always lovingly and humorously sketched, maximising emotional involvement.


10) Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling

In which Rhett Miller thanks God for Irish Whiskey and Pretty Girls, and God (a woman) tells him to behave himself. Yea verily, the time has come in this band’s life to contemplate their own mortality, just like countless others before them. Luckily they’re no hacks and their sturdy country-rock, the best by far this side of the Drive-By Truckers, is up to the task.


11) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions

12) Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

13) Conor Oberst – Salutations

14) Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris

15) Paramore – After Laughter

16) Tinariwen – Elwan

17) The National – Sleep Well Beast

18) The Bob’s Burgers Music Album

19) Sunny Sweeney – Trophy


21) Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

22) Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

23) Jlin – Black Origami

24) Jay-Z – 4:44

25) Chuck Berry – Chuck

26) Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box

27) Syd – Fin

28) Saint Etienne – Home Counties

29) Nicole Atkins – Goodnight Rhonda Lee


31) Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers THREE

32) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

33) Margo Price – Weakness EP

34) Swet Shop Boys – Sufi La

35) Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan

36) Alvvays – Antisocialites

37) Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

38) Dawn Oberg – Nothing Rhymes With Orange

39) Charli XCX – Pop 2

40) Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – Among Horses I

41) Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite

42) Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love

Top 10 Songs of 2017


I love lists, always have done. But let’s face it, they’re a pretty ridiculous exercise in trying to exert order over chaos. Why do these 10 songs, out of all the tens of thousands released this year, particularly appeal to me? I can try to explain, but really there’s no logical explanation. They just hit me in the gut, and make me want to scream about them from a rooftop. It’s that latter part that makes this all worthwhile – it’s fun to scream about things you love. And maybe you’ll find 1 or 2 songs here that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about had a madman not been screaming about them from a rooftop.

Probably not though. Most likely you’ll look at these 10 songs and think “ok then” and move on with your lives. Which I’m cool with. But as they mean the world to me, prepare to be shouted at. Here goes:


1) The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions

Proof, if any more were needed, that bouncing male and female vocals against each other atop joyously modulated waves of synthetic music, with a killer rhythm section and hooks thrown in for good measure, creates guaranteed jubilation. Like much of the best pop music, what this band says matters far less than how they’re saying it. And like much of the best recent indie, how they’re saying it is with a goofy grin and a tongue-in-cheek nod back to 80s pop. It’s pastiche done right. So right.


2) Kendrick Lamar – DNA

The double helix around which the rest of the album revolves. The themes of Loyalty, Lust, God, and all the others, so vital to Kendrick’s vision of himself at this moment in time, all pop up in various forms. So if you were going to save just one song from the album, this would be it. It epitomises everything else. And oh yeah, it’s also the catchiest and has the slinkiest beat to boot.


3) Conor Oberst – Napalm

If you’re going to crib from someone, might as well be a genius like Dylan. And if you’re going to crib from Dylan, might as well be his “wild mercury” sound from Blonde on Blonde – it’s so distinctive, so magical. Luckily Conor Oberst has the talent and the backing musicians to pull it off; with added snottiness, this could easily have fit onto that great double album. Yet here it is in 2017, proudly serving as the highlight of Oberst’s underrated (he’s always been underrated) Salutations. It’s a must-hear for anyone who still clings on to that musty old dream we call rock n’ roll.


4) Fever Ray – To the Moon and Back

Chipmunk-styled synths would normally make sane people snigger, but not in this case. Because this is the most powerfully erotic song of the year, squeaking its way towards an unbridled ecstasy that’s seemingly related to Fever Ray’s recent divorce and her subsequent release of homosexual energies. “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, and the surging musical backdrop makes that idea sound every bit as exhilarating as her voice portends.

There’s a bonus for Donald Trump in the music video; just check out the golden showers, sir!


5) Lorde – Green Light

As far as I’m concerned, this is the second time Lorde’s topped a pretty good album with its irresistible lead single. I’m in the minority, I accept, but in the future when I fancy me some 2017 Lorde, I’ll likely just play this one and stop. Why go downhill from such a high?


6) Khalid – Young Dumb & Broke

He ain’t dumb or especially broke no more, and he won’t be young for much longer. This look back to goofing about with relationships in high school tacks refreshingly away from the opposable perils of nostalgia and cynicism. Instead, it manages to steer a perfect course through lazy memories of adolescence, guiding listeners unsentimentally through their own.


7) Randy Newman – The Great Debate

In which the irascible equal-opportunities-offender puts everyone on trial in the form of a debate: believers, atheists, straw men, Randy Newman… Who wins? Come off it. This is satire, so everyone looks worse coming out than they did going in. Brilliantly arranged for maximum comedic impact, I’ve yet to tire of this elaborate joke, which is less a song than an operetta, complete with distinct movements separated by recitative.



With its demented sax riff and boogie-inducing rhythmic propulsion, this is my favourite of the many tracks released across BROCKHAMPTON’s three SATURATION albums this year. Seeking to redefine the label of “boy band”, which they assigned to themselves, they lay out their clearest statement of intent within this track’s madness: “Best boy band since One Direction/Makin’ niggas itch like a skin infection”. Um, does that count as lucid? Perhaps not. But it makes me giggle – these young hip-hop hopefuls really are a lot of unruly fun.


9) N*E*R*D – Lemon

Like most of the tracks on N*E*R*D’s latest album, the ace up this one’s sleeve is its guest star. True, it manages to work up a sweat all on its own, thanks to the Neptunes’ production which works an irresistible beat that feels like it could suddenly bounce off in any direction – just like dropping a lemon. But it’s Rihanna who gives “Lemon” its life force. She breezes in sounding like the baddest motherfucker in the world, which she undoubtedly is. Her frosty flow is so self-assured it commands the attention every time, like Jay-Z at his best. Her swagger’s always been perfect for hip-hop, and here the production is strong enough to help maintain her at career peak level, which began with last year’s ANTI and I hope won’t end any time soon.


10) Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano

Piano ballads are treacherous ground for most people, but most people don’t have the keen ear of Sampha. He knows just how much to plink away at your heartstrings with his chosen instrument, the one that’s in his mother’s room and now reminds him of her absence (she passed away from cancer). His voice doesn’t go too far into over-emoting; it goes just far enough to suit the purpose of the song. It’s a triumph of exquisite judgment.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (2017) – Album Review

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Lackadaisical charm personified, this album deserves to be played next to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It’s a warm record where the underlying theme is companionship, despite the fact that there’s a cover of Belly’s appositely titled “Untogether”. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile manage to turn that indie downer and most of what else they touch (each other’s songs, new songs, and especially Barnett’s wife’s song) into good-natured noises in the extreme. It’s the opposite of Eminem’s latest, in other words.

Recorded in Melbourne, these intercontinental friends share a knack for songwriting that appears offhand but, particularly in the case of Barnett, is actually rich in illuminating details. They also share a, shall we say, tangential interest in singing, their lazy drawls (those hooked to more conventional singing should look elsewhere) easily blurring into each other on this album. Which works fine, because the general atmosphere is so hazy and relaxed anyway. And because their guitars prod and play with each other amidst the haze in such a way as to keep one’s interest; some of the licks have had a way of teasing their way in and out of my consciousness for several days now, always with a pleasing effect.

Lotta Sea Lice starts off with a bum note, however. “Over Everything” is too long and has too much Kurt Vile (Barnett is the superior songwriter), both of which could be fair accusations of the album as a whole. Because the album’s tone is one-note, and no matter how pleasing that one note might be, perhaps this would’ve hit harder as a mini-EP?

Maybe. But there are at least 5 tracks that I would have had to insist remain: “Continental Breakfast” is an acoustic delight and one of the most touching odes to friendship since “Two of Us”, “Blue Cheese” is laugh-out-loud silly, “Peepin’ Tom” is gender-bending of the highest order and contains Barnett’s best vocal performance to date, and the aforementioned cover of “Untogether” vaults over the song’s meaning to find a deeper resonance in the aurally evident enjoyment of the two working together as friends.

Skip one or two tracks if you must. Or just press play and let its affable charms wash over you, unabated, as you flick through photos of your old friends, and are reminded of one of the key reasons to live – even more important than music.


Fever Ray: Plunge (2017) – Album Review


“Hey, remember me?/I’ve been busy working like crazy.”

That lyric applies to me here in China, working away at learning how to be an effective teacher, but it applies far more to Fever Ray.

One half of the brother-sister electronic duo The Knife, it’s been four years since their last album and eight years since Ray’s eponymous solo debut. So maybe you could accuse her of slack, but you’d be wrong; just listen to this new album and it will become self-evident how hard she’s been working at perfecting her craft.

Plunge may be the Swedish auteur’s most triumphant work of individualism to date. Always the more intriguing half of The Knife, she takes her electronic wizardry and carefully articulated vocals to new heights, and then douses it all in the kerosene that is her personality.

Where Fever Ray was a slow, sombre meditation on marriage and motherhood, Plunge erupts with a midlife vitality borne from the ashes of turmoil. Because, as 42-year-old Fever Ray, a.k.a. Karin Dreijer, confirmed to The Guardian in November: “Yes, I got divorced… This [album] is about freedom, and curiosity. Now I think it’s absolutely possible to create a family that isn’t a nuclear one.”

So Plunge is the sound of her explicitly breaking free from those domestic shackles, breaking free into the wider world again. In fact, it goes even further than that: it breaks free not just from the concept of marriage, but also from the idea of heterosexuality.

Plunge isn’t a “coming out” album per se, but it’s clearly a party thrown to celebrate the queer aspects of Dreijer’s identity. The most ecstatic moments come from sexual unions with women: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, as a chorus of jubilant synths voice their approval, on the BDSM fantasy of “To the Moon and Back”. “She makes me feel dirty again” she sings with a sly confidence on “Falling”. And then there’s “A Part of Us”, set in a gay club, which is described as a “safe space”. Why? Because there’s “No disrespectful gaze.”

What makes this album so interesting is the apparently conflicting ideas of danger and safety combining in queer spaces to provide an electrifying union of sexual and romantic possibility. That’s what you can see in the video for “To the Moon and Back”, the album’s first single, in which the alluring (for some) transgressions of a BDSM gathering take place in the most innocent of settings: a tea party. And that same duality is all over the album: compare the fetishistic urgency of a song like “This Country” (“Gag me, awake my fighting spirit”) with the almost banal pronouncement of affection of a song like “Mama’s Hand” (“The final puzzle piece/The little thing called love”).

The frissons of sexual excitement and romantic possibility in the air, despite her frequent acknowledgments of heartbreak (“Wanna Sip” can be painful to listen to), give Fever Ray’s music huge reserves of confidence and buoys up the overall atmosphere. It’s a world away from the funereally paced and haunting dirges of Fever Ray. The beats are generally fast and punchy, the electronics upbeat and vivacious. It’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiously positive vibes. The great “IDK About You”, for instance, rips along at 150 BPM, seemingly denying the uncertainty of its subject matter through the vigour of a musical whirlwind.

It’s her most consistent set of songs to date, including the 5-minute instrumental title track, which several listens have taught me to respect as essential to the album’s narrative. Its ever-changing rhythmic backdrop captures the uncertainty of this moment in Fever Ray’s life, but its strength manages to convey how she will power through regardless. It’s a “Plunge” into the unknown that close listening reveals to sound truly exhilarating, and is vindicated by the celebratory “To the Moon and Back” that follows it.

If Ray’s style is still a little too arch for my tastes, a little too wilfully bizarre, well, that fault is probably my own. Because objectively speaking I admire every single one of these 11 tracks. And subjectively speaking, I enjoy returning to over half of them. Which is plenty.

Plus, there’s the very best political jibe of the year: “This country makes it hard to fuck”.

And she lives in Sweden!


Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (2017) – Album Review


Public Enemy + Cypress Hill + Rage Against the Machine = FUCK TRUMP3.

So goes the formula for this group, formed during last year’s appalling US election campaign, which smashes Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy, B-Real from Cypress Hill, Tom Morello and the rhythm section from Rage Against the Machine, all together in a Hadron Collider of rage.

Don’t use the word ‘supergroup’ though – as Tom Morello told Rolling Stone last year: ‘We’re not a supergroup, we’re an elite force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.’

Erm, ok then Tom. To be fair, I do understand what he’s trying to say – most supergroups are formed in order to massage their member’s egos and make them feel self-important, whereas Prophets of Rage have a specific purpose that exists outside of themselves, which is to create a ‘revolution’ I guess. Yep, I’m being snide: I don’t believe these chaps are any more capable of starting a genuine revolution than Russell Brand.

But then I like Russell Brand, quite a bit actually, because he’s the rare celebrity who genuinely cares about improving himself and the world around him, even if his confusion and egocentrism often gets in the way of results. What’s more, he talks in a genuinely musical way, with a casual poetry that is quite absorbing on a surface level.

So it is too with Prophets of Rage: they don’t have the discipline to really change the world, but anyone expecting that from them is missing the real satisfaction, which is at the surface level: they’re rock stars and they rock pretty fucking hard. Anyone looking to rock stars to effect genuine change is delusional at best, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. If it gives you an outlet for expressing repressed anger about the current political scene, that’s great, but don’t expect any Trump fans to suddenly jump on board the progress train because a rap-metal album is yelling ‘No hatred! Fuck racists!’ at them (the chorus of ‘Unfuck the World’).

Me, I hate Trump and the way the world is going so much that I’m thankful for any soundtrack to vent my frustrations, and this album does the trick. Even if it never comes close to the subtlety of It Takes a Nation of Millions, the fist-pumping calls to action here make you feel a part of a community who genuinely care, if only for 40 minutes. Then it’s back to watching the news and feeling western democracy’s collective sanity eroding away…

It gets me pissed off and head-banging more than any other metal album I’ve heard this year, which is a good thing, when that anger is channelled into a cause rather than directionless, as is the case with so much heavy metal. And if Tom Morello falls back on his collection of sound effects rather than communicating genuine revolutionary fervour on his solos, the Rage Against the Machine rhythm section is the musical highlight here, particularly Tim Commerford on bass who funks it up to provide the catchiest moments – check him out on ‘Unfuck the World’ and ‘Smashit’.

His funk also allows the band’s roar to accommodate the three rappers, who manage to react with their heavy metal without combusting. Predictably, Chuck D is the most absorbing to listen to, his indomitable bass being one of the most consistent pleasures in musical history. Yet B-Real arguably gets more chances to shine, adding a touch of lightness on the weed-supporting ‘Legalize Me’ and then suddenly getting serious about homelessness on ‘Living on the 110’ to prove he’s not just a Flavor Flav. The difference of their unmistakeable timbres makes for intrinsic interest throughout.

I wish they’d call out Donald Trump more often, and by name. But as a collection of political sloganeering it has the same chant-along power of RATM’s ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ It’s far more likely to move drugged-up crowds at a festival than get people marching on Washington, true. But then, ever since the 60s, that tradition has gifted us with a lot of terrific music, and if this doesn’t stand with any of the hippie-era’s greats, it’ll do the trick just fine at this awful moment in time.


The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (2017) – Album Review

The Bob's Burgers Music Album.png

After writing yesterday’s post about The National’s new album I was reminded to revisit this collection, in which the band feature on a bonus EP called ‘Bob’s Buskers’ (along with St. Vincent and Stephin Merritt) singing songs from the show. To hear the perennially humourless Matt Berninger cooing along to ‘Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom’ is an unmissable treat, especially for those who take indie-rock’s pretensions with a pinch of bath water salt.

The rest of The Bob Burger’s Music Album is comprised of 107 original songs taken from the acerbic and potty-mouthed American animated sitcom about a family who run a burger joint. The average length of the tracks is just over a minute – they make their point quickly and leave in a rush. As such, for those who aren’t well acquainted with the show, the experience of sitting and listening to them all in order can be an overwhelming experience, an onslaught of silly voices and fart jokes rushing by without subtlety or grace. The first time I listened all the way through it gave me a headache.

But revisiting it has assured me of the quality of the music here. An ace review over on The Skinny describes, better than a non-fanatic such as myself ever could, the importance of music to the show’s overall scheme. Bob’s son is supposed to be some kind of 11 year-old musical genius, a modern-day Mozart obsessed with scatology and cheap pop songs, and as such great care has been taken to make the satirical numbers genuinely musical, in honour of his genius. There are chirpy pastiches of James Brown (‘Funky Finger’), riot grrrl (‘Bad Girls’), musical theatre (‘Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl’), and country (‘I’ll Trade You These Tears/I Won’t Go Solo On You), to name a few. There are covers of pop perennials such as ‘One Way or Another’, ’99 Red Balloons’, and ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (changed to ‘Don’t You Love Cotton Candy’). All of these homages are, surprisingly, very respectfully done – the satire never descends into being needlessly gloating or cruel. And the production is just wonderful, crisp and clear, and with superb musicianship audible, particularly on the bass guitar and banjo which appear throughout. The ditties all have bounce, and are crafted with care: this is no cash-in hack job.

As for the jokes, they come thick and fast too, so it takes quite a few listens to catch most of them. Again, not being a fanatic of the show, I’m sure I missed a lot more. But there are many that tickle me: ‘The Prince of Persuasia’ is a laugh-a-second riot from the perspective of a douchebag misogynist dating guru (like Tom Cruise in Magnolia), ‘T-I-N-A’ is an acronym that ends with ‘Asthma’, ‘Taffy Butt’ reels Cyndi Lauper in for her best performance since 1983’s She’s So Unusual, and ‘The Spirits of Christmas’ has Kevin Kline repeating ‘bourbon’ until it starts to sound like ‘burping’ in a truly surreal coup.

There are plenty of missteps, but that’s just the nature of these kind of rapid-fire comedy skits, and a remarkable number really do hit the mark. It may be impossible to sit and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, but when you split it up into digestible chunks, it transforms into really top-notch entertainment.

And it proves once and for all that ‘if it ain’t man on elephant love, it ain’t worth singin’ about!’