album review: laura mvula – sing to the moon

4 Mar

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It would be a bit of an understatement to say there’s a weight of expectation for Laura Mvula’s debut record: she was shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice award at the BRIT Awards and finished fourth in the BBC’s Sound Of 2013 list. She’s even had a new genre invented to describe her sound: ‘gospeldelia’.

Of course ‘gospeldelia’ is a ridiculous term that sounds like something Alan Partridge might use. So it’s amusing that ‘Sing To The Moon’ was written with Partridge’s conductor sidekick and ‘the most talented easy-listening batonsman of his era’ Glen Ponder (ok, his real name is Steve Brown and he’s very talented but still…). Together they have created a debut album that is assured and inventive enough to make her plaudits seem worthwhile (and make redundant all the Partridge jokes that I had lined up).

That she studied composition at Birmingham Conservatoire is clear in the crisp orchestration and the space she gives to the offbeat orchestral soul she creates. The album glows from start to finish, starting with the burst of sunshine that is ‘Like The Morning Dew’. It’s both plaintive and panoramic and every time you get to the chorus you’re raised up as it unfurls and she sings “I tried to write the perfect song for you / then I realised it didn’t belong to me.”

Her voice, as clear as a cloudless morning, hints at Jill Scott and Erykah Badu; there’s a touch of Winehouse in there somewhere too. But she’s too talented to be pigeonholed next to any of those. There’s also the feel of Common in some of the textures as well as touches of more folksy acts like Fleet Foxes – she’s even been described as Nina Simone sings the Beach Boys (seen most clearly in ‘I Don’t Know What The Weather Will Be’). Not bad comparisons to have.

The futuristic doo-wops of ‘Green Garden’ bring to mind Janelle Monae, and its effortless shimmying makes it a standout. ‘Can’t Live In the World’ feels as introspective as its title suggests, though is still sprinkled with magic dust: “Remember how far you’ve come” she cries, as the vocals layer up on each other in climax and a harp strums in the background. ‘Father, Father’, about the father to whom she no longer speaks, is equally as heavy but she takes the anguish of her experience to create something defiantly upbeat.

The lightness of Mvula’s touch is shown by the fact that even the most leaden songs here have a moment where they catch fire. Just take ‘That’s Alright’ whose militaristic beats feel overdone until she cries “Who made you the centre of the universe?” and breathes life into the track; while ‘She’ slowly builds from nothing into a glimmering climax.

That’s the key. Unlike, say, Lianne La Havas, when Mvula is at her peak on this record there’s a vibrancy, and a beautiful eccentricity that mark her out as an artist akin to Jessie Ware, Janelle Monae and Solange. She’s able to bring elements of sounds like gospel and psychedelia together. Now, if only there was a term to sum that up.

7/10

live review: melt yourself down @ the shacklewell arms

3 Mar

Tonight’s Melt Yourself Down gig takes place on an icy cold Wednesday in the cramped confines of the Shacklewell Arms – but it could easily be in a hot and sweaty club in South America. This sold out show is packed, and bursting with energy as the seven members of this ‘supergroup’ cram themselves on to the stage, blasting out their jazz-infused hybrid of kinetic, jittery music. If you’ve ever wondered, ‘How much is too much saxophone?’, tonight it’s answered. There is no such thing as too much sax.

Pete Wareham and Idris Rahman’s Tenor saxophones are involved a continuous duel against each other; they play with a vigorous fury, creating patterns over hypnotic rhythms. But it’s Kushal Gaya of Zun Zun Egui, a giant of a frontman, who provides the charismatic focal point for a band where so much is going. He leaps into the crowd right from the first blast of sax and doesn’t stop for the rest of the gig, his long black hair swirling around, his arms aloft beckoning the crowd to give more. At one point he simply screams ‘Make me dance!’ over and over.

When I say Melt Yourself Down are a ‘supergroup’ I more accurately mean they’re a collaborative project featuring not just Gaya, Wareham and Rahman but also Hello Skinny’s Tom Skinner, Ruth Goller of Acoustic Ladyland, Satin Singh of Transglobal Underground and Leafcutter John.

And when all these talents come together it’s brilliantly vital. They start with ‘We Are Enough’ and proceed through a kaleidoscopic hybrid of psychedelic jazz, Afrobeat and post-punk that is intense and primal. The slower songs don’t work as well and sometimes they go down a wormhole too far, but when these ragged collages come into focus they prove irresistible.

They encore with ‘Fix My Life’ an overpowering explosion of sax riffs and thudding bass. It’s a party in a song basically; dark, enticing and exciting. As Pete introduces the band, he mops his brow and thanks the crows, “This is the warmest I’ve been in months.” It seems the temperature is only set to increase. It’s easy to see these exotic sounds hypnotising festivals right through the summer.

7/10

feature: interview – suuns

3 Mar

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I’m sat at a bar in Shoreditch with Ben Shemie, the lead singer from Suuns. We’re talking about their incendiary live shows and I mention that I saw the band’s first ever London show a mile down the road at CAMP in 2011. “You were there? What a dump,” he laughs.

The gig was anything but. It felt dark and strange, a heady cocktail of ominous dance and kraut-guitar music. It was disorientating, claustrophobic and unsettling in the best way. It took their debut album ‘Zero QCs’ and re-imagined it, pushing it in new, rougher and more jagged shapes.

“We have a different thing onstage. We started as a live band and we didn’t record our first record for three years, we just played a lot of shows. I always thought it’s more important to be a live band than anything else.

“I mean the music your record is the music that people live with in their lives but I think the experience people have at your shows is more important. So our live shows are the next notch up. We’re not as careful and we just kind of let it go.”

This was more than evident when I caught their raucous, post-midnight show at The National’s ATP last December. “It felt good and we got a good reaction from the audience. It was our first time playing at ATP and it’s totally different from playing other festivals or club shows.”

It was there they showcased tracks from their new album ‘Images du Futur'; a fantastic record, layered and enveloping, full of rich textures and freak out moments. On record though it’s a different type of animal – more introspective and headphones affair than the way it had appeared on stage at Camber Sands.

It’s something that makes complete sense to Ben. “I don’t believe bands should play the album the way the album is on record. I mean, fuck it, you have a horn section in your live band but you’re not going to play an MPC that plays horns or has samples on it. Just play it faster.”

But listening to ‘Images du Futur’ on record is just as engaging and it’s clear that it’s the album which could see Suuns really make their mark. It’s a confident growing of their sound from their debut record and builds upon its complex arrangements and shadowy intensity. Ben is eager for people to hear it. “I’m very proud of it. It’s hard to judge when it’s your own music, you don’t have the same experience that everyone else has. It’s hard to be objective about it but I’m definitely very excited.”
The record’s title comes from a science exhibition that ran in Montreal from ’86 to ’96. “It was in the old part of the city and it was an exhibition which was kind of like a science fair which happened every summer for that decade and it was all new media. Now it looks comical because it’s like 8-bit graphics and things like that but I went there when I was a kid and it was amazing because everything was so new. It was a mindfuck. I think that works aesthetically with what we’ve tried to do with the record as well.”

But, let’s make this clear, this isn’t a concept record. “It’s not the theme – it just kind of happened at the same time. In terms of how we designed the record the final product definitely reflected that idea but it’s not like we thought ‘we want to write the music from the future.’”

It’s a record that takes you on a journey. From the dancier moments to darkly textured soundscapes, it’s an eerily-alluring album that demands your full attention. Does he have a favourite song? “I like ‘Powers of Ten’. I think that sums up the record in a way, aesthetically. And I like ‘Edie’s Dream’ a lot.”

‘Edie’s Dream’ was the first taster of the album, a woozy, intoxicating track with a hypnotising bass line and vocals about dreams and visions. Listening to it you feel like you’re spiraling down a wormhole. Why was that put out first? “It kind of lends itself well to a music video. It’s also a lyrical song and I think what’s cool about it as a first single is that it doesn’t necessarily sound like anything we’ve done before. I think for our fans, who we think of first, it’s nice to kind of throw something at them they’re not expecting.”

Elsewhere, the atmospheric and ambient title track shows the array of sounds in Suuns’ sonic arsenal. “We planned that we’d record it ourselves super lo-fi with strings and feedback but because we were in this really nice studio it became this big giant production. I don’t even know how half the shit happened.

“But I think it really works well, because to me the album does have a kind of time and space theme and that song has a real cosmic vibe. And it’s at the end of the record and if you listen to the whole thing – which is how it’s designed to be listened to – by the time you get to it, it’s kind of a relief.”

The fact that Ben speaks of a ‘relief’ hints at how intoxicatingly dark the band’s sound is. Is that a choice or is that naturally how the music comes out? “I think it’s a bit of both. We’re not necessarily a dark band, I’m not dark – we don’t have any issues or things like that, it just comes out that way and we kind of roll with it. It’s certainly the kind of music that we like. We listen to a lot of that kind a stuff so that I guess that’s where it comes from.

“I’m really digging BEAK>, which is very krautrocky. We get labeled that a bit, which I like cos I think there’s that repetitive thing is part of what we do and I love that shit. And that in and of itself is a dark thing and lends itself to a dark atmosphere.”

‘Images du Futur’ finds Suuns deepening their approach, adding even greater richness and variety to their sound. Does the fact that the band play around with such a variety of sounds make it difficult to create a cohesive album? “A lot of people say that about the records we make. But generally speaking whether it’s more electro dancey or it’s more rock I still feel like it still kind of sounds like us. Like there is an identity, there is a sound, so I think that helps too. It’s not like we’re changing genres; we’re still fundamentally a rock band and we write in a certain kind of style.”

They’re now heading out on the road for a lengthy tour, something which he’s looking forward, with a certain trepidation. “It’s extremes. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. But I like it cos I like to perform. All the schlepping and the driving sucks but the payoff is that you play gigs. Every gig is a challenge but if you can play a really great show and it makes it all worthwhile.”

They’ll be bringing their blistering show to the UK, and it’s something you don’t want to miss. Ben can’t wait to play in front of British crowds again. “You can’t generalise about UK crowds – you have to talk about the different cities. Every city is super different. You get the quiet crowds in some cities and the crazy crowds and the sweet crowds.”

“I don’t want to pick anyone out but in Brighton they’re not crazy but they’re the most enthusiastic and they’re chilled out. They’re happy to be there and there isn’t any kind of a front. Gigs in London have always been really good too.”

The release of a fantastic new record and an increasingly growing and glowing reputation. It looks like it could be Suuns’ year. But living in Montreal means Ben doesn’t feel like the band are any more admired than they were before.

“No.” he laughs, “We’re not really that popular there so I never get the feeling that we’re doing that good. I mean it’s different when we come and we play shows. When we come to London and we play a show and it’s sold out and it’s fucking crazy – but it doesn’t feel like the reality.”

This was first published on This Is Fake DIY.

live review: kanye west @ hammersmith apollo

3 Mar

 

“Remind me again who’s the original super-fly? And I got love for Hov but I ain’t fucking with that ‘Suit & Tie’.”

It wouldn’t be a Kanye West gig without some controversy and a healthy display of his enormous ego. And, tonight at Hammersmith Apollo, he duly obliges. And let’s face it, you’d be pretty disappointed if he didn’t.

As the show – which has been breathtaking and was perhaps going a little too smoothly – nears an end, he breaks down ‘Clique’ (which he actually raps on with Jay-Z) and delivers a ten-minute tirade about the state of the music industry, the rap world and… well anything that seems to enter his mind really.

Hov wasn’t the only target that Yeezy had in his sights – his scattergun outburst also took aim at Grammy Awards, racism, Obama, and the rap game becoming a business. So we get “I don’t give a fuck what the president got to say”. We get: “I’ve never won a Grammy against a white person”. And we also get the bon mots: Remind me again why the Grammys can suck my dick”. He also took on money-hungry corporations, “I hate business people… People get at me and say …How much shampoo can you sell with yo face on it and shit?”

It’s hard to tell whether this is a carefully choreographed diatribe to court controversy or whether we’re witnessing a nervous breakdown live in West London (though the fact that he doesn’t do it at the show the next night claiming he ‘was in a bad way’ at this show suggests it might be the latter). Whichever it is, one thing is clear: it’s not surprising. These type of rants are standard fare for Kanye now. You’re kind of expecting it – the hypocrisy of it all (considering how much tickets were for tonight) and the self-awareness and the humour. He knows we’re expecting it.

The only thing you hope is that it doesn’t detract from the show. Because it’s extraordinary. It highlighted, if it needed highlighting, what a superstar Kanye West is. The Apollo is an intimate gig for him now and tonight it seems to scarcely contain his ego talent. He seems to have pulled out all the stops. The stage set up is stunning – gigantic cinema-like projector screens are all around and above. The stage itself has been made into a ramp.

He enters to a blast of ‘Cold As Ice’ and huge images of icebergs. He’s wearing all white, looking slightly like a yeti and prowling the stage. The scope of the show is staggering. Through it we get lightning, thunder sunrises, space and it even starts to snow halfway through the show (it seems like all the money was spent on the set and not on the merchandising). It feels like you’re involved in an absurd and extravagant post-modern opera piece about the changing of the seasons.

There are no special guests and the band are at the side wearing masks – this is undiluted Kanye. If you were playing Kanye bingo you would have got a full house. He actually says “I’m motherfucking Kanye West” at one point and during the tirade reprimands the keyboard player saying “You’re not the lead instrument, I’m the lead instrument”.

But this is Kanye; this is what you want. And the set means he can get away with it all. It’s a show heavy on hits from a mixture of his records – we get tracks from ‘Graduation’ and ‘808’. ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘Say You Will’ are tossed away early on and during ‘Heartless’ he wears what looks like a white stormtrooper-autotune helmet.

Other highlights are an anthemic, soaring ‘Homecoming’ and a segwayed ‘Flashing Lights’ and ‘All of The Lights’ backed by pulsating illuminations which get the crowd bouncing. And by the time he gets to ‘Stronger’ and ‘Run This Town’ they are worked into a frenzy.

But that ego of his is never far from the surface and he stops ‘Good Life’ midway through to claim that Taylor Swift is a 6-year-old and again state Beyonce was robbed (yes, he’s still going on about that!). He doesn’t even bother to finish the song.

And the batshit-ometer goes even closer to going off the scale as he performs his own version of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ while wearing a diamond-encrusted gimp mask.

The crossover of the crowd – the most varied mix I’ve ever seen at a show; from rap fans and those dressed up to the nines, through to hipsters – shows what a star he is. It’s a show that is completely Kanye West. It’s extravagant and self-indulgent – and it’s brilliant. For all the ridiculousness of everything else, tonight Yeezy manages to pull off intimate and grandiose at the same time very well. It was just him on stage and at times it felt very stripped back. And that’s an incredibly hard dynamic to pull off.

The rants, the diamond masks, the stadium-sized screens crammed into a tiny venue and the fake snow. This is undoubtedly the most bizarre, crazy, entertaining Saturday night out in a while.

You think he’s finished as he stares out at the crowd singing an extended (that’s an understatement) ‘Runaway’ – asking us to toast the assholes, the douchebags, the scumbags and the jerk-offs – and then climaxes with an bombastic but touching ‘Lost in the World’.

But as the stage goes dark he returns to end with a rare outing for ‘Gold Digger’. He drops the mic, it lands with a deep thud and he walks off. No more words are needed. He’s said enough.

8/10

This review was first published on This Is Fake DIY.

track review: the postal service – a tattered line of string

3 Mar

 

It may have taken The Postal Service ten years to offer up a new track but, luckily for fans of delicately delivered existential angst (and who isn’t?), ‘A Tattered Line of String’ shows their sound hasn’t dated anywhere near as badly as The OC.

One of two new songs to be taken from the 10th-anniversary reissue of Give Up, it sees Ben Gibbard again playing the fragile narrator as he tells us about a couple who, for all their trying, can’t make their relationship work out. “When we woke we agreed that we would not ever speak of this night to anyone”.

Same story, different decade, you could well be thinking. But if all this gives the feeling that ‘Tattered Line’ is some casually tossed off b-side dusted down to promote their money spinning tour, don’t fear. Thankfully this is far better than it had any right to be. It won’t be changing anyone’s mind about the band but it’s full of a spark and bounce that pitches it somewhere in between the traditional Postal Service and Death Cab sounds – which surprisingly means something akin to the arch pop of the Pet Shop Boys.

There are still Tamborello’s whooshes and buphs of the trademark bubbling keyboards but here the sound is augmented by a very 80s sounding guitar line and stuttering Jenny Lewis backing vocals.

Lyrically Gibbard is on typically yearning form with lines such as “We did some things that we knew not to do/ In the glow of the night’s golden hue.”

It means that what made The Postal Service so loved – the tension between Tamborello’s intricate production and Gibbard’s idiosyncratic voice – remains. Seth Cohen, wherever he is now (probably working on Wall Street), will be pleased.

This review was first published on This Is Fake DIY.

track reviews: the strokes – all the time

3 Mar

 

So what will Comedown Machine sound like? After hearing two songs we’re still no closer to finding out. After the A-ha shaped ‘One Way Trigger’, The Strokes have now hit us with ‘All The Time’ and it shows that it’s becoming harder and harder to pin down what the ‘sound’ of Strokes 2.0 actually is.

Fans of 2001 will rejoice that this is closer to their ‘classic’ sound. The louche swagger of the song immediately reminds you, if you needed to be reminded, of the unique cultural and sonic influence the band have had. It is a song where you can almost see the worn leather jackets, Converse and skinny jeans in its DNA. That is to say, it’s pretty much superb.

It’s all of those things that made people love The Strokes in the first place – Julian’s nonchalant mumble, the strut of the rhythm section and the splashes of guitar. There’s also Nick Valensi’s traditional spidery, though never self-indulgent, solo.

It starts off sounding like ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’, before giving way to an ascending chorus where Julian tells us that ‘All the time that I need is never quite enough’ before shout-mumbling ‘You’ll never ask why’ (I think).

Over in just over 3 grottily-alluring minutes, it never outstays its welcome, leaving you with a warm tingle of nostalgia, as well as an expectant curiosity about where exactly The Strokes will go next.

This was first published on This Is Fake DIY.

live review: kraftwerk @ the tate modern

3 Mar

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As the four members of Kraftwerk stand motionless behind their brightly lit keyboards looking out across the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, there’s a brief moment of silence between songs. “Superstar DJs!” a man next to me shouts, in a broad Yorkshire accent.

Such audacity to actually shout something here feels like sacrilege amid the hushed awe felt in the rest of the venue. This former power plant is their church; we are here to watch in reverential silence.

The man has been in his own private rave for the whole show – but though his yell might not be entirely accurate, the feeling behind what he’s saying rings true. Tonight Kraftwerk are playing ‘The Man-Machine’. It’s one of their masterpieces, packed full of hits (including ‘The Robots’, ‘The Model’ and ‘Neon Lights’). It’s also my favourite Kraftwerk album – and listening to it tonight, it’s even easier to see it as the blueprint for synthpop that it’s often claimed to be.

The eight dates that Kraftwerk announced at the Tate Modern have been imbued with a magical aura. Maybe it’s because people were so relieved they actually had tickets, or maybe it’s because of the wonderful space the shows are in. Whatever the reason, there’s a relief that they more than live up to the expectations.

‘The Man-Machine’ is Kraftwerk’s (synth)pop album. And, tonight, over six tracks and 36 minutes, they recreate their paean to the march of mechanisation and relationship between, er, man and machine in front of a rapt audience (which includes Brian Cox, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Tennant) and bring it to life.

They start, not how we’re expecting, but with the title track which closes the LP – and finish with ‘The Robots’. Throughout it’s remarkable how incredibly they presented this vision of the future and how it still sounds so contemporary now, more than 30 years later.

Ralf Hütter, the one remaining original member of the group, stands stationary in his black lycra suit – except for a wiggle of his leg during ‘The Model’ and a flicker of a smile as he leaves the stage at the end. He’s accompanied by sound engineer Henning Schmitz, live visuals specialist Falk Grieffenhagen and programmer Fritz Hilpert.

It doesn’t really matter who they are though – the performers are subservient to the music. The point has always been it could be anyone on stage – after all, Kraftwerk are nothing if not pragmatic. The stunning 3D visuals that provide movement behind the static members are supremely literal. During ‘Spacelab’ we see a spacelab floaing through space, for ‘Metropolis’ we see a metropolis and for ‘The Model’ we see… well you get the picture.

But that’s the thing about Kraftwerk: everything is consistent, everything is carefully considered. The music utterly consistent with the lyrical subject; the visuals utterly consistent with the music. There’s nothing out of place – from the absolute precision in the rhythms, to the clipped vocal delivery.

It’s this level of thought and care they put into the whole package: into the composition, production and in the visuals that makes sure everything works together to create a real humanity. As Ralf Hütter has said: “We are playing the machines, the machines play us, it is really the exchange and the friendship we have with the musical machines which make us build a new music.”

The constructivist art references in the cover art, together with the visuals on the screen, also highlight the fact that Kraftwerk were always an act effortlessly able to use elements of the past at the same time as they were creating new ways to soundtrack the future.

Live, the thing you immediately notice is the thump and force of the sound. The basslines are warmer, the electronic pulses more powerful. More to the point, it’s louder, dancier and more propulsive than on record and there’s improvisation in the compositions.

‘Neon Lights’, the highest of highlights on the album, captures this idea, as neon 3D signs float past and towards us, it sounds every inch the hymn to the beauty of modern life. It starts as a ballad about travelling through a metropolis, with splashes of soothing colour from the synths. Then, they bring the funk – a rolling percussion of electro that warmly rushes over you.

While the venue is full of polite respect, we’ve found ourselves in the corner of the room where people are dancing. There’s no escaping from toe tapping to ‘The Model’ though and it sees the whole crowd at least nodding their head. The fact that it wasn’t a hit until being put onto a single from ‘Computer World’, a full three years later after this record was released, shows the true foresight of the music they were creating.

These dancier elements are complemented by the dreamy, nocturnal electro of ‘Spacelab’ and ‘Metropolis’, which sees them build a drone into a shimmering urban odyssey and makes it sound like every 80s synthpop songwriter owes them royalties.

It ends with ‘The Robots’. The bleeps and robo-electro riff are so sharp they could have been created yesterday and not sound out of place. They take repetition and show how they can be used to create irresistible dance music. “We’re full of energy / We’re dancing mechanic,” they sing. That it ends tonight reinforces the idea of this album as the most forward looking, visionary and downright catchy album Kraftwerk have produced.

There’s no pause as they charge up again and we get an hour and a half of greatest hits. It starts with ‘Autobahn’. “The birth of techno!” the Yorkshireman shouts, hands aloft.

They play a version of ‘Radioactivity’ updated with a Japanese verse relating to the Fukushima disaster. They play ‘Trans Europe Express’ which packs more of a punch with the stab of its rhythmic beats.

They play ‘Computer Love’ – the Yorkshireman points at the stage and shouts, “Bigger than Coldplay!”

The journey ends with ‘Musique Non-Stop’. That all these songs are offered up in chronological order makes the set feel a little uneven and only serves to highlight that the more recent work lacks the texture, power and vision of their earlier work.

Yet, it doesn’t detract from a mesmerising show – one that shows the enduring legacy of the work Kraftwerk have created and their colossal footprint on the world of music.

In 1978 Kraftwerk decided not to tour to support ‘The Man Machine’’s release. This was mainly due to the criticism of its cover art, inspired by the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky, showing the members of the band looking East and appropriated the National Socialist colours.

But it could just as easily have been because they didn’t think people were ready. The record showed how modern “pop” music could be (and was to be) in the future. Tonight’s performance is a spellbinding 3D-spectacle and showed that, even 30 years later, people are still trying to catch up. Just ask the Yorkshireman next to me.

8/10

This reviews was first published on This Is Fake DIY.

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