Fever Ray: Plunge (2017) – Album Review

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“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!

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

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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.

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

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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!’

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The National: Sleep Well Beast (2017) – Album Review

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The cliché about bands like these is that they’re ‘growers’, i.e. you have to play their albums quite a few times before they begin to make sense. That cliché happens to be true with The National. Put on any of their discs and the first thing you’ll notice is Matt Berninger’s mumbling baritone, which can be quite alienating in how it drolly resists emotional affectations.

But give them a fair chance and the music starts to blossom – including Berninger’s vocals, which like so many rock singer’s gain heft when you start to notice how astutely they pivot on his natural-born limitations. There’s a great moment for instance on Sleep Well Beast where Berninger sings about seeing his wife, Carin Besser (who co-wrote many of the songs), for the first time: ‘I wanted to ask if you could stay’, and he deliberately misses the note on ‘stay’, making him sound just like an immature little boy afraid to ask his crush out on a date. It works; moments like these accrue until you start to become pretty impressed with what you’re hearing.

The other easy entry point for newbies is Bryan Devendorf’s drumming, which is obviously virtuosic without ever being distracting, and conjures up unusual rhythms whilst tricking you by repeating them until they sound obvious. Noticing his distinctive patters can lift The National’s music from being just good background music into your foreground consciousness, and once it’s there you can then begin to notice other excellent things such as Aaron Dessner’s guitar and the subtle musical arrangements. On this album, orchestral flourishes and electronic distortions on the intros and outros subtly comment on the moodscape being created, without ever dipping into fullblown melodrama, as Elbow tend to do, a band with whom they are frequently (for some reason) compared.

I think the first half of Sleep Well Beast is their best work to date. On ‘Day I Die’ they reach the level of genuinely anthemic for the first time, with Berninger’s best-ever vocal searching for an answer to the moving question ‘The day I die/Where will we be?’, his voice projecting the last word harder than he’s ever done before, into the uncertain future that his mind is conjuring up in a weed-induced haze. ‘Walk it Back’ is a rather alarming mumble-rap in which Berninger at last sounds as ancient as Leonard Cohen used to, and where he’s interrupted by a truly bizarre sample of Karl Rove (senior advisor to George W. Bush) talking about ‘creating other new realities’ that proves the concept of ‘alternative facts’ is nothing new (Rove hated the song, which is perhaps its most glowing endorsement). Lead single ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ finds space for Aaron Dessner’s stinging guitar solo, lighting up spectacularly in order to contravene the idea of total darkness. And ‘Turtleneck’ is a straight-up garage rocker, wild and unhinged and finished in just 3 minutes, a flash in the pan where the band are normally content to simmer.

These are all career highlights; the pace doesn’t sustain. Although Dessner’s piano playing is real nice throughout, it dominates far too many of the ballads on the album’s second half, undermining the band’s usually spare aesthetic. Most of the tracks towards the end meander onwards way too long. They wander off into the rumbling darkness and tend to get lost, particularly on the title track, and the lyrics aren’t quite interesting enough to save them.

Still, this deserves a promoted place amongst their oeuvre, and the first half of the album (plus ‘Guilty Party’ and ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ on side two) should keep you coming back.

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Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (2017) – Album Review

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Tackle Box’s opening two tracks grab Donald Trump by the pussy that he is and refuse to let go. The first starts off by sampling one of literally hundreds of infamous quotes from the election campaign: ‘I’d like to punch him in the face’ (talking about a protester). The song’s called ‘Safe’. The second worries aboutbringing up a son in a country where the leader and first lady have no ‘spiritual core’. The song’s called ‘The More You Know’.

As you can tell from these examples, irony abounds on Tackle Box. Most ironic of all are four interludes, interspersed across the album, about a Froggy who goes to school and grows up to have a Froggy wife and kids. These cartoonish moments seem wildly incongruous at first. But then it occurs that there’s currently an orange buffoon sitting inside that serious institution we call the White House, so why not have a green frog interrupting the flow of a serious political album? It’s no more or less unlikely. All rules are out of the window in America, and on this album.

Not that Hamell on Trial, a.k.a. middle-aged singer-songwriter Ed Hamell, has been much beholden to rules in the past. He defies easy categorisation, though he’s been classed as ‘anti-folk’ in some quarters; this doesn’t help much because that subgenre is itself defined by difficulty (the description on Wikipedia is ‘artists [who] seem to observe the “rules” of music, but then deliberately break them’). Hamell sure doesn’t sing pretty – in fact he barely sings at all, often preferring the spoken word with dramatic inflections. He ain’t Joan Baez, that’s for sure. So I guess that makes him anti-folk, but to me he feels more rock & roll, because of his no-bullshit voice and often harsh, difficult, and confrontational manner.

Take for instance the standout track ‘Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops)’, an anti-cop diatribe with the wordiest and most powerful chorus of the year: ‘Hey fuck face/I’m trying to teach my kid there’s some authority that needs to be respected/But we have no respect for you/Now I’m trying to teach him to NOT GET SHOT!’ Hamell plays the guitar on top with such force it’s like standing next to a helicopter, being blown backwards by the air surge. It’s the force of righteous anger, and it feels like the spirit of rock & roll to me (check out the video below, and make sure to hang around for the killer punchline at the end).

Yet rock & roll was never just about anger, and neither is Hamell on Trial. So on top of all the froggy numbers, there’s also an ode to dancing and several tributes to his wife. These moments fight Trump and racism in a more subtle way: with love, or as Hamell might put it a ‘spiritual core’. It’s a nice sentiment, one that unfortunately doesn’t quite work due to Hamell’s limited vocal ability and relexive sarcasm (he should perhaps have gone down the Stephin Merritt route, as on 69 Love Songs, of using replacement singers to sweeten the less sarcastic moments). Lana Del Rey played around with the same idea more convincingly on ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, which used her softly floating voice to dream away the world’s troubles with a touching naïveté that Hamell is a tad too old and cynical to muster.

Hamell occasionally goes too far with his cynicism, such as on the cruel takedown of an Australian ‘Mouthy B’. The song’s savage verbally but lacks the rapier wit of peak Dylan; it leaves a sour taste. So does the lewd ‘She Ride It’, which is rather like that unfunny Father John Misty line about bedding Taylor Swift in the Oculus Rift dragged out to nearly four minutes.

But Hamell’s guitar never stops, even on these lesser moments, and neither does his eagerness to entertain – which separates him from the likes of Father John Misty. Hence why I’ll always prefer him to Misty, and to most other modern folk/anti-folk singers.

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American Epic: The Sessions (2017) – Album Review

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American Epic is a four-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on PBS in America and BBC Four in the UK. The first three episodes look at the lives of some of the earliest recorded American folk musicians, all of whom came from rural and very poor backgrounds, went on to make a few songs for $25 per record (more money than they’d ever seen before), and then returned to their hidden corners in the country’s great expanse – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, even Hawaii. Most were never heard from again (there were exceptions, The Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt being the most prominent). All of the music endures, particularly given the astonishing remastering done for these films. Meanwhile interviews with family members and contemporary musicians help to illustrate just how important these disparate strands of roots music, from all across America, have been in shaping popular music as we understand it now. Blues, gospel, country, Hawaiian, and Latin styles eventually converged to form rock & roll, in the shape of Elvis Presley, informing virtually everything we listen to today.

The fourth episode is a two-hour special called The Sessions, in which modern musicians are seen recording new songs and remakes of early folk songs on a reconstructed 1928 Western Electric machine. That machine was the first electrical recording device, and is the only one of its kind still remaining and in operation. It’s an amazing machine, one that records straight onto disc; it’s operated by a pulley that drops slowly to the ground, and when it reaches the ground, in the space of about 3 minutes, the disc suddenly stops recording. So you have less than 3 minutes to record your song, and in just one take. There’s no overdubbing or any other audio manipulation that can be made to the disc post-recording. So what you play is what you get. It captures live performances, then, attached to a single 360° microphone in the centre of a recording booth, around which the musicians must gather as if round a campfire. The stars brought in by director Bernard MacMahon and executive producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record on The Sessions are evidently thrilled to be in the studio, using the exact same recording device as some of their pioneering heroes. The excitement caught on camera is infectious. The film is a joy to watch.

American Epic: The Sessions is the fruit of their labour: a 2-CD, 32-track compendium of those live recordings, and they’re also a joy to listen to. The guests form an impressive variety of modern pros: Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Beck, Ashley Monroe, Alabama Shakes, Nas, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos, Blind Boy Paxton, Taj Mahal, The Hawaiians… and many others, including the biggest surprise Steve Martin, who ably equips himself on banjo on a slowed-down cover of ‘Coo Coo Bird’. In fact, they all ably equip themselves, showing off their talents within the strict limits brought about by the primitive recording technology. Indeed, the tech caused some challenges: in one moment captured on the documentary, Beck found himself struggling to get his voice across on ‘Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods’ above the powerful din of the gospel choir behind him, so Jack White stepped in to tell the choir that they should sing facing the wall! Fourteen takes later, ironically, they got the job done.

The album’s concept is played pretty fast and loose, with musicians being allowed to play pretty much whatever they want – within the realms of the rootsy and bluesy gestalt, of course. There are triumphs in the pure blues department: Taj Mahal tackles the gravelly groan of blues’ grandaddy Charley Patton on ‘High Water Everywhere’, audibly channeling that man’s protégée Howlin’ Wolf whilst brewing up a suitably apocalyptic storm. Then there’s Petty Lafarge’s take on ‘St. Louis Blues’, which I was biased against from the start because Louis Armstrong’s 1954 version is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time – however Lafarge still managed to blow me away by the end. There’s Alabama Shakes’ version of Memphis Minnie’s ‘Killer Diller Blues’, which is both killer and diller, I think. There’s Rhiannon Giddens’ flat-out hilarious you-gotta-come-inside-me-in-‘One Hour Mama’. There’s…

You get the point, it’s an incredibly strong set of music. All of the artists sound like they’re discovering music for the very first time. And perhaps in some sense they are.

Here’s the best of the best. Firstly: the ubiquitous Jack White, producer and audiophile extraordinaire whose enthusiasm on this project deserves our gratitude; he’s so good on ‘Matrimonial Intentions’ that a dubious lyric is brought to expressive life, as he brings worlds of humour into simple asides (‘hmm’ he sings wistfully and mockingly to himself, it seems). Secondly: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, old pals working together again – with a touching and overt fondness for each other, they end both of their duets in warm chuckles. Thirdly: Nas, who covers the Memphis Jug Band’s blues ‘On the Road Again’ with great panache, fastforwarding 60 years to the era of gangsta rap as he does so and demonstrating the link between the two genres undeniably. He said of that song in the documentary: ‘as long as there was English and black people, there was rap.’ You better believe it.

The unsung hero of the recordings is Lillie Mae Rische, a session musician who displays prodigious chops on the fiddle and gorgeous Emmylou Harris-esque backup vocals. She regularly soars and pushes the celebrity singers to greater heights.

I won’t poop the party by pointing out the dud moments, because there are a couple. I really don’t want to do anything to prevent you from seeking out either the album or the documentary. They really are worth it. If you care at all about modern music, as you should, then this collection is relentless in its offering up of contemporary pleasures, whilst also looking back to the roots that were formative influences on everything modern generations listen to. You can’t understand the present without looking to the past.

Of course you should seek out the original 1920s and 30s folk recordings too, which are essential to gaining an understanding of 20th century music. To that end, two further soundtracks have also released as part of the American Epic project: the one-disc American Epic: The Soundtrack, and the five-disc box set American Epic: The Collection. I’m still exploring these collections, and I can’t quite vouch as to whether they match up to Harry Smith’s incredible Anthology of American Folk Music.

But I can vouch for American Epic: The Sessions: it’s truly epic, great music, and so much more.

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Margo Price: Weakness (2017) – Album Review

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Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the most promising country debut of last year: warm, sincere, literate, open, and very well crafted. Now she opens up this four-track quickie EP with: ‘Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf/Sometimes I’m James Dean’. With that, I’m sold. Interestingly, despite being only 15 minutes, Weakness sees her stretching out, particularly in the 6 minute ‘Paper Cowboy’, which starts off as a subdued 3/4 waltz dirge and finishes as a stonking 4/4 jam session in which her band show off their chops: the bass carefully goosesteps around some ace pedal steel guitar lines (from Luke Schneider) and solos that come straight at you out of 70s classic rock and 60s psychedelia. It surely is a lot of fun, and complemented by the title track’s more conventional country lament set to a rollicking tune, it sets up a promising outlook to Price’s future projects. Undermined slightly by ‘Just Like Love’, a far from invigorating number produced with a melancholy quietude that sadly exposes Price’s vocal lack of subtlety – she should do some research on Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, and Sunny Sweeney, to find out how these minor-key moments can be done properly. Which is only to say that in this killer time for country ladies, perhaps the greatest ever, Price will need to step up her game in order to stand out. But then the final track, ‘Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)’, convinces me that she might have a fair shot: a piano-led tribute to a friend of hers who died of cancer, a 28 year-old drummer, which through tiny inflections manages to mediate a sense of loss whilst bypassing histrionics. It’s a keenly felt moment that tells us much about death. Perhaps as much as the tragedies of Virginia Woolf or James Dean, two sad lives I hope Price will never really try to emulate.

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Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017) – Album Review

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This is the best Randy Newman album since 2008’s Harps and Angels – which is not saying much, seeing as Harps and Angels was his last album. But it’s also saying a lot: that Randy Newman is nothing short of the most consistent albums artist of his generation, biding his time and releasing near-perfect works once a decade for the benefit of us who know him for more than just the Pixar soundtracks that have made his fortune.

It opens with three of his all-time greatest satires. First up is the 8 minute display of genius ‘The Great Debate’, in which science is put up on trial against religion and comes out losing 3-0 because, and this joke kills every time, a gospel choir keeps butting in to declare: ‘I’ll take Jesus every time!’ And when Mr. Randy Newman himself, a long-standing and well-known atheist, is called to the stand and accused of using straw men arguments in his songs to mock religion… well, I can’t quite convey how ingenious the comic value is, you must simply hear it for yourself. Then comes ‘Brothers’, with the novel idea that John and Bob Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs in order to rescue Celia Cruz and bring her back to America, perhaps a little like the slave trader who wanted to rescue poor Africans in ‘Sail Away’. And then there’s ‘Putin’, which mocks that awful leader with a precision that becomes all the sharper if you listen to it whilst browsing through these recently released macho photos of him on holiday in Siberia. ‘Makes me wanna be a lady!’ indeed.

As is par for the course with any new Randy Newman album, the somewhat grotesque satires that adorn Dark Matter have been met with bafflement by some (there are people who still believe that ‘Short People’ is a genuine attack on midgets), which is excusable for casual listeners, but for critics who get paid to listen closely it’s unforgivable. This review in The Observer really irked me, complaining that ‘Putin’ ‘pokes way too gentle fun at Russia’s dark lord’, which makes me wonder if they noticed the line ‘He can power a nuclear reactor/With the left side of his brain’ at all, but also demonstrates their lack of understanding of the way in which Newman’s best songs work. Like a good Louis Theroux documentary, they seek to humanise monstrous men, including racists and misogynists and slave traders, so as to get our brains actively questioning any assumptions we might hold about them, without ever denying their essential awfulness. We want to know why his characters are bad people, not to be told that they’re bad people, which would be the sign of a lesser songwriter.

Worse, there’s this misreading of ‘The Great Debate’ on Exclaim: ‘The whole thing is musically scattershot, and only follows a logical thread if you can entangle where Newman is being earnest and where he’s not’. Newman’s earnestness is really irrelevant: like any great satirist from Jonathan Swift to Trey Parker/Matt Stone, he deliberately obscures where he’s coming from in order to skewer the pretensions of both sides of the argument at hand, in this case science vs. religion. Good satire shouldn’t take sides, at least not overtly – that’s for propaganda.

Accusing it of being ‘musically scattershot’ meanwhile is no less simple-minded. Really that should be changed to ‘musically complex’, and I’m sure you’d agree that musical complexity is no bad thing when the complexities massage the jokes and tease out hidden ironies. As they do all over Dark Matter, for example when an Americanised version of Cuban dance music strikes up as the Kennedys start yapping on about Celia Cruz on ‘Brothers’. Or when the Putin Girls pop up as backup singers to prop up the leader’s tenuous ego on his song. Or when ‘The Great Debate’ switches from Dixieland jazz to church hymnals and back again as the argument zips from secular to religious. The arrangements are without doubt some of the most complex of Newman’s career, but unlike that Exclaim writer I found disentangling them to be a constant reward, because nearly every time there was an outstanding joke behind every choice.

Elsewhere across the most consistent album of the year (so far): there’s an amazing real-life tale about blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, whose identity was stolen after he was murdered; there’s a rerecorded version of a so-so theme tune to 2003 detective series Monk; there’s a poignant love song that sounds like a present tense rewrite of Toy Story 2’s ‘When She Loved Me’. They all dispel the notion, in case anyone still believed it, that Newman’s merely a one-trick-pony ironist.

If Dark Matter‘s not as passionate as Good Old Boys, or as precise as 12 Songs, there’s still more than enough here to keep us busy unpacking until the next release. Which according to the current work schedule will be in 2026, when the great man’s 82 years old. I can’t wait to discover what new insights he will have uncovered by then.

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Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life (2017) – Album Review

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Besides the great ‘High by the Beach’, I’ve never really connected with anything this melancholic pop chanteuse has done before. I disliked her Born to Die and love-as-Ultraviolence eternal teenager schtick, despite being fascinated by that floating voice. And I found the oh… so… slow… dirges of Honeymoon just… too… lethargic.

So it was with great excitement that several listens into Lust for Life I noticed my total engagement as a listener, throughout every single one of its 71 minutes. The first couple of times it sounded too long, for sure, but when I finally set myself the task of considering which songs should be cut, I was stumped – they all succeed as entertainment, art or both.

What’s changed from the early days? How’s her consistency percentage suddenly shot so high? Perhaps the key’s to be found in a recent interview Del Rey did with Pitchfork, where she reveals: ‘When things are good, the music is better.’

That sounds like wisdom to me. Maturity, even. One of the biggest fallacies in music is that you have to suffer for your art: life is full of pain, we all know that, but that doesn’t mean it’s only pain. Nihilistic despair, particularly with regards to romance, is an easy trick to deploy in pop music because it generates instant empathy from an audience with plenty of problems of their own. Artists who acknowledge the simple pleasures in life, without making it sound schmaltzy or too ignorant of real-world pain, deserve a lot more respect, I believe.

So on Lust for Life it’s no coincidence that things are going pretty well in Del Rey’s life and the music is better. In fact, just as she predicted, they’re interlinked.

Along with long-time producer Rick Nowels and a team of co-writers, Del Rey fashions an album that still sounds downbeat on the surface – there’s lots of minor-key ballads, funereal tempos, and eerie multitracked vocals – but that also manages to hide plenty of subtle summery touches underneath. So the haunted ‘White Mustang’ starts off with just a soft piano accompaniment and Del Rey’s quiver, before it starts piling on trap beats like a pop Bolero, soon taking it into an unexpectedly danceable realm. It shouldn’t sound inspirational, but it does.

Fun is to be found round every corner, with a lust for life and music very much keeping her alive. She quotes Iggy Pop on the album title and cover, of course, but throughout the album she also drops references to such classic rock staples as The Angels, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sam Cooke, and Neil Young (the ending ‘Out of the black/Into the blue’ is nicked straight from Rust Never Sleeps). Her distinctive contralto, shuffling between octaves with ease, also deliberately evokes past greats such as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Amy Winehouse. Her love and respect for the culture that created her comes across powerfully, perhaps most entertainingly on a duet with Sean Ono Lennon where she suddenly exclaims: ‘“Isn’t life crazy?” I said/Now that I’m singing with Sean/Whoa!’ It’s a great moment, with the Stevie Nicks collab ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’ further proof that Del Rey should do more duets. The fangirldom of these moments are incredibly fetching – they sound distinctly like her fallback pessimism being shattered and replaced by the communal spirit that good music should bring.

Darkness gets dispelled everywhere on Lust for Life – even on the political cuts, which are a first for Del Rey. At first you might suspect the title of ‘God Bless America’ to be ironic, considering the nation’s current president, but then consider the subtitle: ‘And All the Beautiful Women In It’. Irony melts away. Then the following track asks: ‘Is it the end of an era?/Is it the end of America?’ and bravely answers it with ‘No, it’s only the beginning.’ That song’s called ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, but an alternative title might be ‘Fuck Trump – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

Elsewhere there’s an ode to love (you guessed it, ‘Love’), followed by an ode to sex and dancing on the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign with The Weeknd (‘Lust for Life’). There’s also a search for ‘something real’ that ingeniously uses a backdrop of faker-than-fake synthesizers (’13 Beaches’). And then there’s the last track, ‘Get Free’, which has been criticised for snatching its melody from Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, and indeed it does. But then Thom Yorke’s never penned a lyric as smart as this: ‘Take the dead out of the sea/And the darkness from the arts/This is my commitment/My modern manifesto’ (I don’t know who wrote it, but Del Rey owns it). In fact, it’s the very antithesis of Yorke’s own philosophy. So whisper it: I think ‘Get Free’ is a much better song than ‘Creep’.

Back in 2014, Lana Del Rey sang on Ultraviolence: ‘I look pretty when I cry’. Lust for Life is here to prove that she looks and sounds a whole lot prettier when she smiles.

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My Top 10 Beatles Covers

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My favourite band of all time – not a controversial opinion I’m aware, but an honest one – had such an outstanding trio of songwriters at their core that any list of their ‘standards’ must extend way past the obvious hits and into the deep album cuts that are the pitfall of so many lesser groups. Therefore Beatles covers, inevitably, are greater in quantity than those of any other band, and also greater in quality, because the couple of hundred modern folk songs they penned were so universal and hence difficult to ruin through misinterpretation.

That said, The Beatles were also some of the greatest performers of the century as well. If their vitality was remotely easy to reproduce then our music scene would be a lot richer than it is (our most popular songwriter of the moment, Ed Sheeran, makes me want to weep with boredom). So in this list of my favourite Beatles covers, only no. 1 and, at a push, no. 2 manage to convince me that they’re better than the original. I long for the harmonies and tight economy of playing that the Fab Four bring, even when the artists covering them are major.

Every single one of these is still worth listening to. And together they form a moving tribute to the endless, endless joy to be derived from the sunny songwriting of these boys.

 

1) ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’ – Joe Cocker

Most prefer the slow-burn soul of Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, but I’ve always found this jaunty little number far more impressive: whereas in Abbey Road it got somewhat lost in the second side’s suite, here it stands boldly and plainly on its own, and Cocker’s throaty vocals bounce off the country-twanging guitar and piano to create real rock n’ roll excitement. The only Beatles cover I play with any kind of regularity.

 

2) ‘I’m Looking Through You’ – Steve Earle

The reason I’m writing this piece is because I’ve recently discovered this gem of a cover, stumbling across it whilst exploring the work of Steve Earle, an artist I formerly knew only from a small part in The Wire. It appears on his gorgeous acoustic roots-rock album Train a Comin’, which also includes an unmissable duet of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ with Emmylou Harris. I so fell in love with its deepening of the country rock logic that forms Rubber Soul’s primary appeal, that I had to write this list just to let y’all know about its existence. Check it.

 

3) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Prince, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood & Jeff Lynne (2004 Hall of Fame Inductions)

I only love one of these musicians, and my God does he steal the show here: skip to 3:27 for one of the finest live guitar solos of all time, a moment so indelible it went viral shortly after his death. The great man demonstrates a playful virtuosity worthy of making his own guitar weep, for sure, and it probably makes the chumps on stage with him weep a little inside too.

 

4) ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ – Miley Cyrus & The Flaming Lips

Miley Cyrus gets a lot of stick from far too many rockist dinosaurs, who love the commercial pop music of The Beatles and really should know better. But her brand of eccentricity eases the sometimes pompous prog-psychedelic noise of The Flaming Lips, whose Sgt. Pepper covers album With a Little Help From My Fwends was wackily uneven. Cyrus gets the ethereality of this song pretty much spot-on.

 

5) ‘Hey Jude’ – Wilson Pickett & Duane Allman

It interests me how many of these are billed as collaborations, the spirit of collaborative fun being one of the key reasons for The Beatles’ enduring popularity, I believe. The Beatles were famous for many things, but never for bringing da funk – but then again neither was Duane Allman, and Wilson Pickett manages to bring it forth from both of them. Scream for scream he matches Paul on the fadeout, and the horns should remind us all of the Motown and R&B hits that were formative influences on these northern England white boys.

 

6) ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ – The Breeders

This White Album highlight was always on the brink of chaos, structurally quite absurd, so it fits well with The Breeders’, and grunge’s, aesthetic of sloppy just-about-holding-togetherness. It’s from one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, incidentally, which should help sell it to you.

 

7) ‘Dear Prudence’ – Siouxsie & the Banshees

Another Lennon highlight from the unwieldy White Album – the chord progression and lyrics are, surprisingly, no less sweet in this gothic interpretation. I don’t believe Siouxsie was ever a great singer, or her backup a great band, yet a feeling of kinship with The Beatles’ darkest and most fascinating member shines through here, brighter than anything she wrote herself.

 

8) ‘We Can Work it Out’ – Stevie Wonder

Joint first as the most tonally audacious work in The Beatles’ canon (along with ‘A Day in the Life’), a perennial battle between Paul’s jaunty optimism and John’s pitch-black interjections of death. Dark and light, it’s made to bounce all the same by Stevie Wonder, who doesn’t approach the original’s complexity, but damn sure doesn’t seem to care as he sings his big heart out.

 

9) ‘In My Life’ – Johnny Cash

The Man in Black really does sound like he’s at the end of his life here, which is what makes it so moving. The Beatles’ version was the sound of a maturity beyond their years. Cash’s version is the sound of those years having been stripped away, leaving nothing behind but a profound simplicity, of voice and expression. That’s maturity.

 

10) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Jake Shimabukuro

Repeating myself, I know. But I make no apologies. This guy kills it.