The biggest and best international releases from the past six months
Time Out staff
Need something new on your iPod?
Our resident music nerds share some of their favourite international releases from the first half of 2014, and slay a few sacred cows along the way. From edgy indie to plastic pop, there’s plenty worth hearing here.
Pharrell GIRL Pharrell Williams isn’t in his forties. No mister, he’s in his phwoar-ties. Few men reach their fifth decade oozing such boyish appeal to opposite sex. Fewer still hit a career peak at that age. After defining the 2000s as a star player of production team The Neptunes, he raised the bar with his spot on ‘Get Lucky’. His freakishly youthful manchild face is now squarely in the spotlight, but here’s the thing: he is getting older and this solo album proves it.
The most obvious sign of maturity is the broad theme of celebrating women. Some may say it’s a cynical reaction to ‘Blurred Lines’, his blokesploitation hit, written with Robin Thicke. Others may worry that by constantly addressing women as ‘girl’, he misses the point entirely.
Both are debatable, but songs like ‘Brand New’ definitely recall the sweet earnestness of Stevie Wonder at his most effusive (‘You came along, and made me strong... I just wanna say thank you’). Just ignore the mind-blowing moment on ‘Lost Queen’ when he somehow rhymes ‘multi-tasking’ with ‘passion’.
Another sure sign of ageing is the sound. Years ago, Pharrell’s love of technoid sci-fi beamed into his songs (he called his label Star Trak after all). The sonics here are still club-ready but far tamer: a solid block of Michael Jackson disco, Hollywood strings and snappy funk-rock riffing. The strongest comparison is his work on 2002’s Justified by Justin Timberlake (a guest on the album, along with Daft Punk, Alicia Keys, and erm, Miley Cyrus).
But my word, what shines is Williams’ ability to put a bowtie on pop through arrangements that grab your imagination and bore into your cerebellum. Grooves are both melancholic and head-nodding on ‘It Girl’, basslines come alive on ‘I Know Who You Are’. There’s even a strange interlude where a song emerges that turns into a baroque ode to penetration. And that’s before you factor in ‘Happy’.
The best you can say is that Pharrell has created, hands down, one of the biggest and best pop albums of the year. The worst is that, well, it sometimes sounds a bit Virgin FM. Oddly age-appropriate, in fact, for one so young looking. By Oliver Keens
Coldplay Ghost Stories It may have been said back in 2000, but Coldplay never quite shook off the sharp critique Creation Records boss Alan McGee made at the start of their career – that they wrote ‘bedwetter’s music’. After Chris Martin’s divorce (sorry, ‘conscious uncoupling’) from wife Gwyneth Paltrow, however, that figurative bed is now soaked in an altogether more emotional human discharge: tears.
Sad though any divorce is, it’s reasonable for music fans to hope that heartbreak might inspire greatness. Dylan, Lennon, Gaye and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few, all turned splits into hits. Yet, on an awkward, unremarkable missed opportunity of a record, Chris Martin has soundtracked heartbreak the way he would a car advert.
Weighing in at a scant 40 minutes, the tone of Ghost Stories is electronic and plodding, not guitary and surging. Forget the idea of Coldplay writing for stadiums – this is the sound of a band restraining themselves and desperately holding it in. Take the heavy use of vocoder on single ‘Midnight’ – a stark barrier between his brain and ours. Then there’s Martin’s piano playing, once robust and anthemic (as on 2002’s ‘Clocks’), and now just faint and ambient, as the chill-out tinkles on ‘Another’s Arms’ show.
A deeper problem, though, is context. Coldplay’s global success to date has hinged on stirring emotions with sonic rushes to the head, but set to lyrics so bland that listeners could legitimately own their songs for themselves, and impart their unique emotions onto them.
Yet given the scale of his celebrity and the column inches devoted to the death of his marriage, it’s impossible to hear lines like ‘All I know, is that I love you so’ and not wonder if he’s specifically talking about the star of Iron Man 3 or not. It shouldn’t matter, but it damages Coldplay’s standing as an everyman band and makes listening to their sixth album an uncomfortable exercise in celebrity rubbernecking.
It’s not all terrible. ‘Magic’ has undeniable soul, while closing tune ‘O’ is impressively weepy. However, the only person who’ll be haunted by Ghost Stories is Martin himself – for failing to let heartbreak inspire him to, well, just say something at last. By Oliver Keens
Michael Jackson Xscape So here we are, a (second) ‘new’ Michael Jackson album arrives from beyond the grave. Much has been made about the moral implications of Epic Records chairman LA Reid trawling through the leftover song-scraps Jackson thought unfit for public ears, peppering the late star’s raw vocal tracks with fresh productions like an injection of steroids. We’ll park the ethics for now, and stick to the artistic implications – namely, is it any good?
The opener, lead single ‘Love Never Felt so Good’, is instantly catchy, mixing Off the Wall-era soul with Timbaland’s trademark touch. I ‘A Place with No Name’ is lumpy by comparison. Opening with Jackson’s trademark vocal ticks, a dark and dirty bass patch drives the verses, more Depeche Mode than ‘Smooth Criminal’, and by the repetitive outro, Jackson’s vocal clearly looped, it’s easier to see why this sketch may have been left on the shelf.
‘Chicago’ takes the ‘contemporisation’ process further, slapping on a slick radio-friendly urban groove, more hip-hop than MJ ever went. By ‘Blue Gangsta’ super-producer Timbaland’s influence is overwhelming, the meticulous assault of urban beats leaving little room for the intended melody. Title track ‘Xscape’, however, is a vintage Jacko hit-in-waiting, leftover from 2001’s swangsong Invincible, and clearly more malleable to modernisation.
Much painstaking effort has been taken to avoid the pitfalls that critically mauled Michael (2010) fell into. And while the arrangements shine, we can’t help wondering if more regard could (should?) have been paid to the artist’s original intentions. Most tellingly, Timbaland has admitted he threw the original instrumental recordings out without listening to them, starting fresh from Michael’s a capella vocal track (why?!).
You can’t help the feeling that if the recordings were good enough in the first place, then beyond some respectful touching up, all this re-production is unnecessary. The best of Michael’s music sounds timeless, and if these songs stood up, they wouldn’t need tampering with so. Worse – the tampered recording risk being dated far more quickly than the originals, which at least have biographical intrigue.
Musically, there’s much here for both fans and the curious to enjoy. But Reid’s drastic ‘contemporisation’ project feels an unnecessary beast at best, and pure sacrilege at worst. But as we said at the outset, we’re here to talk music, not morals. And musically, folks, this is a sandwich, not a salad. By Rob Garratt
Owen Pallett In Conflict Guitars are out. Violins are the new instrument of choice for those wanting to up their coolness. Don’t believe us? Take Canadian multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett’s arty, achingly personal, violin-led ballads. A niche musical area perhaps, but in Pallett’s capable, creative hands, one that has led to him touring with Arcade Fire, being nominated for an Oscar (for the score he co-wrote with Arcade Fire’s William Butler for Spike Jonze’s Her) and working with legends like Brian Eno.
In Conflict, the fourth solo album from Pallett (previously writing under the name Final Fantasy), is a sublime demonstration of why he’s held in such high regard. Striking a fine balance between avant-garde and accessible, it’s an intense listen, but full of universally appealing, sparkling melodies, with Pallett’s unfaltering falsetto melting over the top. Don’t be surprised to find passages from ‘On a Path’ or ‘I Am Not Afraid’ lingering with you.
Towards the end of the album, stripped-back love songs give way to something approaching grandiose orchestral rock – a term that understandably fills people with dread. With Pallett at the controls, however, it’s a glorious, engulfing journey, layered with furious riffing and epic vocal turns.
In Conflict is a beautiful and powerful album, light as a feather in its delivery of complicated musical and lyrical ideas, but packing a punch that’s sharp enough to floor most other records released this year. By Tristan Parker
Beck Morning Phase If we rated albums with togs rather than stars, Morning Phase would be a 15. Warm, expansive, richly textured and thick with shimmering vocal reverb, the twelfth album from Beck Hansen is the spiritual successor to 2003’s Sea Change – on which the ‘Loser’ author washed slacker irony and two-turntables-and-a-microphone skip hop aside with the first folky strum and sincere, heartbroken couplet.
Morning Phase is also the most anticipated leftfield album of 2014, following a six-year gap in which Beck has done everything (including overcoming spinal injury and confounding the download generation with a book of sheet music) except release an album. A 12-song cycle set in the tender, uncertain hours of dawn, it bathes in the ’70s West Coast vibe of Beck’s youth, with dew-spangled guitars and psychedelic melodies slowly turning their crumpled faces to the sun.
‘Wave’ swells with sensuous unease, like Scott Walker covering Bjork. With Beck’s majestically weary tenor at full-bloom, single ‘Blue Moon’ has the emotional lift of Duran Duran’s ‘Ordinary Girl’. Swaddled in self-production, Morning Phase is an absorbing and moving mood album. But if the other Beck record pegged for a 2014 release turns out to be a lo-fi beatbox-blues slap round the face called ‘Wake-Up Call’? All to the good. By Bella Todd
Kylie Minogue Kiss Me Once Lately, Kylie Minogue has been giving off mixed messages. First she split from her long-term manager and joined Jay Z’s Roc Nation stable, suggesting a desire to explore cooler musical territory – more hip-hop, less dance-pop. Then, just months later, she signed up to ‘coach’ on mumsy BBC talent show The Voice. Was the little Aussie pop rocket actually heading to the middle of the road after all?
Either both moves were red herrings or the singer got cold feet, as Kiss Me Once is basically a typical Kylie Minogue album – albeit a very good one. Sure, the disco-ish ‘I Was Gonna Cancel’ boasts production from chart-dominating trendsetter Pharrell Williams, and there’s a dreadful dubstep-flecked dirge called ‘Sexercize’, but generally, pure sparkly pop is the order of the day.
Though it lacks a single as indelible as ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, the singer’s twelfth studio album has plenty of catchy, likeable pop bangers. The title track has a gorgeous chorus you’ll hum for days, ‘Feels So Good’ is a sublime electro slow-burner. By Nick Levine
The Horrors Luminous If there’s one thing The Horrors have always been good at, it’s surprising people. With their early singles and first album they did it by playing breakneck garage-punk and dousing audiences in black paint and feathers. With their second LP, they unpredictably turned into respectable sonic innovators – and with their third, they started selling records. Now it’s time for album four, and they’ve done it again. Luminous is one of the biggest, tightest, most engrossing records we’ve heard from a British band in years.
The band’s songwriting confidence, which ebbed and flowed on 2011’s Skying, reaches new heights here. The sublime ‘So Now You Know’ is probably the most ‘pop’ song The Horrors have ever written – but Luminous is also admirably envelope-pushing. It takes real guts to begin what’s ostensibly an indie rock album with almost three minutes of semi-ambient electronics and percussion. Opening track ‘Chasing Shadows’ not only pulls it off, but goes on to become a synth-gazing stand-out track.
That said (and even though it’s a crashing contradiction in terms) practically every track on Luminous is some sort of highlight. The dance floor-ready ‘In and Out of Sight’ flickers and shimmers enthrallingly, ‘Jealous Sun’ packs a monstrous, sickly shoegazing riff, and ‘I See You’ builds and builds into an overwhelming coda – before ‘Change Your Mind’ uses a skeletal verse to prove that The Horrors don’t have to be big to be clever.
It looked after Skying as though The Horrors were on the cusp of something brilliant, but Luminous shines even brighter than anyone had any right to anticipate. Our only worry is how they’re going to top it next time around. Then again, if there’s one thing they’ve always been good at… By James Manning
Lily Allen Sheezus Three and a half years ago, Lily Allen announced she was ‘retiring’ from pop, and precisely no one believed her. Sure enough, the queen of chart-friendly snark is back with a third album whose title wittily sends up Kanye West, who, with characteristic hubris, named his last album Yeezus.
Allen’s own resurrection doesn’t capture the zeitgeist as effortlessly as her sunny, ska-tinged debut, 2006’s Alright, Still, or the melancholy electro-pop of 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. And it feels messier too, as Allen struggles to reconcile her new life as a well-off mum of two coddled in the Cotswolds with her hard-partying, sharp-tongued past.
Here, producer Greg Kurstin offers a slick, melodic update of her last album’s radio-friendly electronic sound (complete with gratuitous use of Auto-Tune), over which Allen riffs on everything from celebrity culture (‘Insincerely Yours’), to the media’s preoccupation with her upbringing (‘Silver Spoon’), to the joys of married life (‘As Long as I Got You’). Crucially, her trademark wry rhymes can still raise a smile. Sheezus isn’t a total triumph, but it’s great to have her back all the same. By Nick Levine
Pixies Indie Cindy Here’s the bad news: this is the worst album that the Pixies have ever released. That said, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.
Compiling the bits and pieces of new material that the Pixies have released over the last year, Indie Cindy is the reunited alt rock titans’ first LP in 23 years – a year longer, even, than it took My Bloody Valentine to follow up Loveless. But whereas last year’s m b v was up there with its creators’ best work, Indie Cindy only sometimes comes close to rivalling the gut-punch excitement of Pixies’ shrieking, shredding, euphoric run between 1986 and 1993.
True, opening track ‘What Goes Boom’ growls and thrashes convincingly, and the expansive, wobbling riff on ‘Greens and Blues’ wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Doolittle’ or ‘Bossanova’. The glam-stomping ‘Blue Eyed Hexe’ is another highlight, echoing David Bowie’s cover of the Pixies’ ‘Cactus’.
But the title track is cringe-inducingly wacky, and there are several songs that tick along too pleasantly, without the abrasive shock and thrill of the band’s classic material. In fact, the whole thing sounds a lot like frontman Black Francis’s (aka Frank Black’s) solo albums. That’s no surprise considering his long-term foil, bassist Kim Deal, left the band last year – apparently because she didn’t see the point in writing any new Pixies material. She might have been on to something. By James Manning
Paolo Nutini Caustic Love Let’s be honest: a brooding, acoustic guitar-wielding pretty boy delivering heartfelt indie love songs was guaranteed to have schoolgirls and mums hooked at first glance. That was the case almost ten years ago when Paolo Nutini’s debut LP These Streets went double platinum.
But to keep the spark alive long enough for a change-of-genre second album (the Americana-infused Sunny Side Up) then a five-year hiatus, and now a well-crafted, weighty third record, is quite a feat. Nutini’s clearly got some substance to go with that ‘too folk for soap’ style.
Consistently funky and heaped with production tricks (the Bettye LaVette sample on ‘Let Me Down Easy’ is unexpected but inspired), ‘Caustic Love’ presents glimpses of a new Nutini sound. There are dark and blues-drenched ballads – ‘One Day’ and ‘Iron Sky’ – and classy, honky-tonky hiccups on ‘Numpty’. Lead single ‘Scream (Funk My Life Up)’ and ‘Fashion’ are both slick, funk-led head boppers and obvious Top Ten dwellers, with the latter featuring a rap interlude from US soulstress Janelle Monae (she and the gravelly-voiced strummer are top mates now, dontchaknow).
Although the filler tracks remain recognisably Paolo – they’re raspy, pop-rocky and oh-so radio-friendly – there’s a measurable amount of nouveau Nutini here to warrant re-categorising him in your iTunes library.
With nary a sway-inducing song about hand-holding or heavy petting in sight, the Last Request days are long gone: this a more subtle but still swoon-worthy Paolo. The Scottish-Italian singer is still only 27, but he sounds (dare we say it) more mature and more accomplished. Caustic Love may well recruit a new generation of Nutineers. By Elizabeth Darke
Kaiser Chiefs Education, Education, Education & War It has been a very long time since Leeds heroes Kaiser Chiefs were acquainted with the zeitgeist, their stock having been largely wiped out during the great landfill indie crash of ’09-ish, their chief songwriter Nick Hodgson having recently bailed. But things are looking up: frontman Ricky Wilson has wangled himself a plum gig as a mentor on BBC’s The Voice, the newly slimline 36-year-old now standing as the unlikely the voice of youth on a panel consisting of the going-on-middle-aged (Will.i.am, Kylie) and the aged (Tom Jones).
So this is a really, really good time to release a new Kaiser Chiefs album. To some extent, and despite the personnel change, Education, Education, Education & War is business as usual: relentlessly tuneful, endearingly gauche, proudly proletarian… even the title is a dig at the UK’s Tony Blair government of the band’s heyday. And opener ‘Factory Gates’ is a solid ‘ta-da – we’re back!’ moment, swishing in on an imperious wiggle of keys with Wilson in full-on bellow mode as he roars about the cruelty of the weekly grind like an aggrieved bull elephant. But there’s something weird about that bullishness – something a bit… metal? Which is fine: it’s a pretty angry song and the extra brutality gives it some heft.
But when we advance to track two, ‘Coming Home’, and it crowns out in a Slash-alike guitar lick, alarm bells start to ring. Then we reach ‘Misery Company’, which goes from endearingly eccentric beginnings to full on cock-rock bluster.
Okay, EEEW (unfortunate acronym there) is not quite the Kaisers’ hair metal album: the music is largely synth-based pop in an indie mould. But there’s just something disconcertingly big about it all. Wilson rarely misses the opportunity to roar when he might once have sang, guitarist Andrew White’s riffier moments are relentlessly inappropriate, and this once nimble band find it disarmingly hard to finish a song in less than five minutes.
Education… is fine, really: if you’re in the market for old-fashioned indie pop-rock, you’re unlikely to be aggrieved. It’s just a bit disconcerting, like bumping into an old friend who’s become weirdly hench since you last saw them. Tuneful, but not charming. By Andrzej Lukowski
Black Lips Underneath the Rainbow On its own terms, the Black Lips’ seventh album succeeds utterly – for the simple reason that the Atlanta quartet have no real interest in doing anything other than making the same album they’ve already made six times.
This is not as easy as it might sound: if you asked U2, or Oasis, or Snoop Dogg, or The Spice Girls to exactly remake their debut albums in terms of tone and quality, but with different songs, they would each turn in a work of indescribable bilge.
The Lips, however, manage to keep pumping out tuneful garage punk of solid quality without the faintest sign of exhaustion. Possibly their notoriously dissolute stage practices (breaking things, stealing things, fighting things) have somehow conspired to help them keep that young man’s edge.
In any case, Underneath the Rainbow has a certain amount of diversity to it: opener ‘Drive-By Buddy’ shows of the band simply doing the Stones’ ‘The Last Time’; ‘Smiling’ is like a punked-up out-take from the ‘Grease’ soundtrack; ‘Boys in the Wood’ slouches about with boozed up, bluesed up menace; ‘Dandelion’ explodes with the type of effortless fuzzbomb energy peers like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club wish they could still muster.
If you were told this was the debut album from some long lost Detroit band from the ’60s, you would freak out. Knowing it’s just the latest from the Black Lips is undeniably less exciting. But they’re the kings of what they do, grumpily basking in their own eternal summer. By Andrzej Lukowski
The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream First things first: the incredible new album by The War On Drugs does sound quite a bit like Bruce Springsteen. It has a harmonica, lots of piano, a husky vocal, and some gnarly classic rock guitar. If you can’t stand ol’ Bruce (if you’re ag-Bosstic, perhaps) then Lost in the Dream may not be for you. Shame: this is one of the best rock records in years.
That’s ‘rock’ on its own – no ‘roll’, no ‘alt’, not even an ‘indie’ – a term over which the spectre of the Drive Time Compilation (looking a lot like Jeremy Clarkson) hangs heavy. Lost in the Dream (the third album by the Philadelphia band) won’t change that overnight, but it does suggest a future for the long-form, lyrical guitar jam, a species previously thought on the verge of extinction.
Precisely tooled together over two years and three cities by TWOD main man Adam Granduciel, Lost… incorporates some impeccably chosen leftfield sounds – The Cure’s heartrending sprawl, Slowdive’s total sonic immersion and Neu!’s endless drive – alongside the Springsteen and Dylan refs. So far, so 2014.
What sets this LP apart is its sheer, sublime immediacy. Its high points (‘Red Eyes’, ‘Under the Pressure’, ‘An Ocean Between the Waves’) tap so cathartically into the old themes of life, loss, and loneliness that despite all that classic rock baggage, they come up sounding startlingly new.
It’s no small feat to make rock music sound this fresh nowadays. Amid the hordes of bands pulling the same old tired moves, we embrace The War on Drugs. By James Manning
Bruce Springsteen High Hopes The celebrity duet trend – in which artists cover their own back catalogue with the help of famous pals – came and mercifully went a few years back, hitting its apparent nadir with Ray Davies and Mumford And Sons conspiring to murder ‘Days’. But just when you thought it was safe, Bruce Springsteen inexplicably decides to revisit one of his loveliest, most politically piercing songs – 1995’s hushed acoustic hymn to economic migrancy, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ – in the caterwauling company of Rage Against the Machine’s resident grumpy adolescent Tom Morello.
The result is seven turgid minutes of bellowing and shredding – think Nickelback meets Woody Guthrie. The rest of High Hopes is more pleasant, but no less dispensible. It’s a ragbag of covers – a jangly take on The Saints’s ‘Just Like Fire Would’, a droning album highlight in Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’– and offcuts, many of which suffer from the same booming, happy-clappy overproduction that marred the recent Wrecking Ball.
There are highlights: joyous strumathon ‘Frankie Fell in Love’ sees Bruce in a goofy mood, while ‘American Skin’ is an old live favourite treated tastefully and ‘The Wall’ is a pompous but heartfelt ode to Jersey rocker and Vietnam casualty Walter Cichon. Overall this feels like the Boss on autopilot: big chords, big band and lashings of wide open imagery. Far from essential Bruce, but it’s still Bruce, after all. Tom Huddlestone
Mogwai Rave Tapes Nearly two decades since they started making music, Scots post-rock quintet Mogwai still bring forth surprises. Releasing their eighth studio album on bubblegum-pink cassette (among other formats) is one such curveball. Basing it on a modular synth is another. And if you’re predicting the loud-quiet-loud dynamic with which the Glasgow band made their name, think again: their latest meditation is complex, nuanced and minimalist instead. But it’s no less fascinating.
There are further clues that Rave Tapes is a key progression for these masters of ruckus. Since their last studio album, 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, they’ve been celebrating technology, and their artwork too now embraces science – or rather science fiction. The packaging of Rave Tapes pops with multi-dimensional graphic polygons, waveforms and all-seeing eyes.
Yet, despite these day-glo headways, Rave Tapes does not reinvent the reel-to-reel. Mogwai still have their knack for conjuring beauty from darkness – and vice versa – and their main weapons are still guitars and drums. Working again with their intuitive long-term producer Paul Savage, they continue to cast long shadows from their Castle of Doom recording studio in Glasgow: tracks like ‘Deesh’ and ‘Hexon Bogon’ are fraught with the same sense of transcendental dread that Mogwai have always invoked so exquisitely.
But the record’s greatest revelations arise from elevating Moog symphonies like the sublime ‘No Medicine for Regret’ and r single ‘Remurdered’, whose chilling electro-rush evokes Mogwai’s Rock Action labelmates Errors and reveals an ongoing enchantment with sci-fi/horror director John Carpenter. Its title also nods to the group’s recent soundtrack for the zombie TV series Les Revenants and suggests, in thrilling terms, that even the undead can dance. Rave Tapes is Mogwai’s death-disco album. All hail their (re)murder on the dancefloor. By Nicola Meighan
Get the Blessing Lope and Antilope You may be familiar with Portishead’s rhythm dream-team of Jim Barr and Clive Deamer. You may not know, though, that since 2000 they have been members of a jazz band called Get The Blessing. For the fourth GTB album, Lope and Antilope, the group (also including trumpeter Pete Judge and saxophonist Jake McMurchie) have worked with two guests and longtime friends: Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley and Bat For Lashes guitarist Tim Allen. But despite the big name credits, all egos are left at the door as these highly skilled musicians come together in a jazz setting to display their remarkable musicianship.
Get The Blessing formed through a shared fascination with Ornette Coleman’s improvisatory prowess, and although they have experimented with improv in earlier albums, Lope and Antilope (recorded in an empty pottery in Pembrokeshire, with sounds collected on the road as inspiration) is their first fully improvised record. Not that you’d guess, as it sounds deceptively thought out – this is considered and careful improv, testament to the long time the musicians have been playing together, which results in an experimental yet measured sound.
Get The Blessing are never ones for the ordinary, often seen sporting colourful cellophane headpieces on their album covers, and here they show their cheeky side by having fun with the track names: ‘Open’, ‘Lope’, ‘Antilope’, ‘Trope’, ‘Hope’… you get the picture. Once album opener ‘Quiet’ has set the record up with its otherworldly pitch bends and exacting grooves, the subsequent tracks take the listener through heavier territory and back again, ending with the calmer atmosphere of ‘Numbers’.
This is trip hop-informed contemporary jazz-rock at its very best. Get The Blessing’s distinctive, dubby sound infiltrates this album, but Lope and Antilope feels more relaxed than their previous work. Clever use of guitar pedals and electronic effects create an absorbing ambient space, and the improvised tracks are powerful but skilfully controlled. The musicians may have big credits to their names, but they’re at the height of their powers on this superb album of improv jazz inflections. By Roseanne Hanley
Sophie Ellis-Bextor Wanderlust Ellis-Bextor’s career highs have come when she has taken her haughty hue and used it to stand out in the world of throwaway electro-pop. She reported a ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ with a plummy reserve that was more BBC World Service than E! News – and it worked. But elsewhere the same icy reserve has come across as dead-eyed boredom rather than enthralling cool. Ellis-Bextor somehow lacks the crowd-pleasing appeal of Kylie, a pop star who was always at home in sequins.
So it is satisfying to find Ellis-Bextor in self-confident, mature mode on her fifth studio album, made in a whirlwind two weeks with gloom-peddling producer Ed Harcourt. Ellis-Bextor has called Wanderlust ‘the biggest present to myself,’ and it shows. First single ‘Young Blood’ is a delicate love song, awash with soaring strings and simple piano that work in perfect harmony with her voice.
Vintage melodies and themes reappear elsewhere. ‘Runaway Dreamer’ opens like the strings-laden soundtrack to a Humphrey Bogart film, and its musings on escapism remind us that this is SEB’s ‘artistic freedom’ album. ‘Interlude’ is an irresistible ditty that crackles as though the singer is crooning along to an old record player whilst lounging alone on a velvet chaise longue.
The album’s rowdiest number, ‘13 Little Dolls’, breaks the spell a little with its incongruous, Amy McDonald-esque ‘rock-out’ guitars. Better is ‘Love Is a Camera’, which builds towards a gypsy polka finish with an increasingly frantic piano accompanying Ellis-Bextor’s mischievous vocal (‘Run, run away from the house on the hill / There’s a witch in the house and she’s living there still!’). It’s one of the more energetic moments on ‘Wanderlust’, and a welcome break from lullabies (such as ‘The Deer and the Wolf’) that risk monotony.
Wanderlust is very much a statement of intent. It won’t appeal to everybody, but it deserves to recruit the singer a new fan base who are happy to find her in buttoned-up lace. By Clare Considine
Maximo Park Too Much Information On ‘Too Much Information’ the five-piece have created the kind of lively, zesty mix that bands with over ten years in the game are able to mix. Produced with customary good taste by fellow North Easterners Field Music, this is a varied album – more mature and pleasingly wider in scope.
There are a few important caveats, however. If you still associate Maximo Park with jerky post-punk rhythms and emo-tinged mosh-em-ups, jog on. They’ve opened up to the downbeat disco of Chromatics for example (on ‘Is It True?’) or Hurts’s formula of mournful sophisti-pop (as heard on single ‘Leave This Island’).
The change in sonic styling opens up another potential hurdle for the casual fan: Paul Smith’s lyrics. He’s always been a sensitive soul, but now that he’s purged the protective layers of guitar fuzz around his vocals, his earnestness beams like a lighthouse. Lines like ‘she didn’t bore me with her consummate display’ (from the delicately-titled ‘Lydia, The Ink Will Never Dry’) will undoubtedly annoy those with a low tolerance for the pretentious.
Get past these hurdles, though, and you have a slow-burning treat, which bridges a gap between the wide-eyed innocence of ’80s indie and the more muscular sound of radio-friendly pop. By Oliver Keens
Fatima Al Qadiri Asiatisch Fatima Al Qadiri is a New York-based artist and musician who has been making slow, steady waves for a while, first with her Genre-Specific Xperience and Desert Strike EPs, and more recently with grime-meets-R&B supergroup Future Brown. Asiatisch is her long awaited debut album, and, while it marks a conceptual departure from her two previous EPs, it’s her most polished and exciting work yet.
Asiatisch is a cohesive, yet complex album, playing on an idea of an imagined, hyperreal China as seen from the West. Its release on UK label Hyperdub is appropriate, since its sound perhaps owes more to UK bass and grime than any other genres or scenes. This is a debt that is consciously acknowledged – at their recent London show, Future Brown, were joined by seminal London grime collective, Ruff Squad.
Al Qadiri’s production on Asiatisch shares grime’s futurist, forward-looking aesthetic, and hyper-digital sound (FaQ doesn’t use samples at all in her productions). Super-clean, bouncing, slow bass and crisp digital beats underlie stereotypically ‘Asian’ sounds – such as flutes and gongs – in a comprehensive and explicit development of the microgenre of ‘sinogrime’ (a term coined by Hyperdub founder, Kode9).
There's something of a lineage between Asiatisch and China/Japan-obsessed, martial-arts sampling US hip-hop - most obviously the Wu Tang Clan. Yet, where the Killa Bees drew on an imaginary martial arts sect from the past, Al Qadiri looks to Western visions of present-day China – be they in the form of gleaming tower blocks, counterfeit designer goods or technology or hypercapitalism.
The imaginary China explored in the album is one that is created and consumed in large part through the internet – as made explicit by the song title, ‘Loading Beijing’. These experiences and images of China, so many times removed from their originals as to become a different entity entirely, are at the core of Asiatisch. The cultural detachment is in evidence throughout the album – from the opening track onwards. Shanzai, a cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ sung in nonsense mandarin, is in fact a cover of a cover found on YouTube. Later tracks contain digital voices intoning ancient Chinese poems, while Al Qadiri herself sings about dragon tattoos. There’s even an adapted version of the politically dubious Disney song ‘We Are Siamese’ from the 1955 animated film ‘Lady and the Tramp’.
All these ideas lie behind Asiatisch, but calling it a concept album would do it a disservice. Yes, there’s a coherent theme to the album, but it’s no gimmick – you don’t need an understanding of the finer points of sinogrime to appreciate its brilliance. And impressively, given the clean, sharp, hyper-digital production, it’s by no means a cold record.
While some of her peers have recently rocketed from being bedroom producers to working with massive, mainstream artists, Al Qadiri’s output and trajectory seems more considered. You’re more likely to see her performing at a Marxist chillwave night than popping up on the production credits for a Yeezy beat in the near future. Reading interviews with her, it seems she is set on making only the music she wants to make, at her own pace. The results of this care and precision are sublime. Asiatisch is a future bass masterpiece from one of the most exciting producers around. By Tamar Shlaim
Tinariwen Emmaar In August 2012 Abdallah Ag Lamida was arrested at his home in Mali. Unsurprisingly, when he was released, the group fled Africa and headed to Joshua Tree in the Californian desert to record their sixth album.
It makes sense that Emmaar was created in the spiritual home of American psychedelia. This is transportative music, an electric blues trip through Tinariwen’s sand-blasted world of long-form Tamashek jams. The songs all drift into one another, but that’s their greatest appeal: they’re all variations on a theme, a single tone that rises and falls. Moments of calm – ‘Sendad Eghlalan’, for instance – leave you drifting off into the ether before everything ramps back up on wig-outs such as ‘Imdiwanin ahi Tifhamam’.
Though guest appearances by fiddle player Fats Caplin and Red Hot Chilli Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer break the spell a little, Emmaar is never less than hypnotic and entrancing. Tinariwen have crafted a beautiful paean to the desert, an audio homage to dry heat – even if the desert this time was 7,000 miles away from home. Just one sticking point, then: the spoken word intro that begins the album. Don’t whisper at me, bro – that’s creepy. By Eddy Frankel