Capsule Review: Doolittle – Pixies

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in May 2017. Audioxide invited a couple of guest writers to contribute very short pieces about Doolittle for their 100th review, and this is my sorry attempt at trying to do justice to one of the greatest rock records of the last few decades in about two-hundred words. I usually enjoy writing capsule reviews, but when confronted with a work as monumental as Doolittle, the form cannot help but feel somewhat inadequate. Or maybe it’s just me that’s inadequate – who’s to say?

If Doolittle isn’t the greatest album ever made – and, frankly, it isn’t – it at least succeeds in briefly convincing you that it very well could be. There’s an ebullience and a forcefulness of feeling throughout that, in the moment, makes it seem as if it’s the only thing that could possibly matter in the world, as if it’s the only party you need to be at. And, make no mistake, Doolittle is a fucking party; just about the most generous, gregarious, fun record Pixies made. It emphasises the latent pop sensibility of Surfer Rosa, but not at the expense of the band’s idiosyncrasies and rough edges; Pixies remain as ferocious and strange as ever on Doolittle, but even the record’s most skeletal tracks (‘Mr. Grieves’, ‘Crackity Jones’, ‘Silver’), as well as those that play as dumb in-jokes (‘La La Love You’), invite you in with a compelling hook and/or a memorable moment. It is, in a word, infectious. And sure, nothing here throttles you quite like the opening of Surfer Rosa’s ‘Bone Machine’ – really, what could? – but it more than makes up for that by swinging and bouncing in a way that their debut never really does. As I said, it’s just about the best party, and why would you ever want to leave?

Capsule Review: Last Place – Grandaddy

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in March 2017.

It’s tempting to simply exalt Last Place for being an actual, legitimate, bona-fide Grandaddy record, because holy shit it’s an actual, legitimate, bona-fide Grandaddy record! I’d love to just skip around and rhapsodize about how it’s not some ersatz approximation that kind of, sort of sounds like Grandaddy’s woozy, bittersweet brand of indie-rock, and about how much of a relief this is. We are, however, talking about a band that has only recently returned from a lengthy hiatus, so I appreciate that such statements cannot stand on their own, because what the fuck is a Grandaddy record, anyway?

Well, as with Grandaddy’s best work, Last Place is a deeply sad thing. The band always had an easy-going, slacker’s charm about them – a strange way of working a sense of nonchalance into tracks that lesser bands would have turned into grand gestures – but this quality often betrayed a weariness and a melancholy. They were never the sort to quiver in the throes of despair or make Big Statements about how terrible everything is, but would rather shrug, sigh, and maybe crack a joke about the inexorable sameness of existence, or the insecurities and loneliness woven into modern life. Grandaddy were resigned, but never whiney or self-important: they were grounded, relatable; your depressed, stoner best friend, slumped on the sofa with a fragile grin and a profound longing in their eyes. Turns out they haven’t moved off that sofa in the eleven years since 2006’s Just Like the Fambly Cat. That is to say, Last Place is an actual, legitimate, bona-fide Grandaddy record not only because the band employs the same sonic palette and songwriting quirks as before, but because, even in the seemingly perky numbers, it retains a sense of melancholy nonchalance, an acceptance that we’re always on some kind of scrap heap. It superficially sounds like a Grandaddy album, yes, but it also works on you like a Grandaddy album; it’s entirely of a piece with their earlier work, and, given how long they’ve been away, that’s quite remarkable.

Capsule Review: Drunk – Thundercat

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in March 2017. All I’m going to add here is that Thundercat’s brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., made a markedly better album than Drunk this year. I’m planning to write about it soon(ish), but I thought I’d mention it here because seemingly no fucker has heard it, and that’s a crying shame.

Of Drunk’s twenty-three tracks, only six exceed three minutes. The record is fifty-one minutes long, so the average track sticks around for roughly two minutes. Albums such as J Dilla’s Donuts and Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! have demonstrated that this kind of structure is better suited to creating the illusion of formlessness: an album that’s rapid and seamless, that careens through short tracks that are mixed to function not as discrete units, but as movements within a larger, constantly shifting piece of music. Drunk diverges from this model in two respects: first, it’s fractured and elliptical rather than fluid, comprising entirely of short songs that function as discrete units; second, it’s more downtempo and mellow than exhilarating, consciously eschewing memorable hooks and melodies in favour of luxuriating in textures and grooves.

So, to summarise: Thundercat wants to luxuriate, but briefly; he’s adopted an album structure that’s restless and befitting of rapidity, but often plays with a languid tempo that makes two minutes feel like four; he doesn’t want to exhaust an idea, getting in and out of a song as soon as possible (often to its detriment), but has at the same time stuffed this album with so many ideas that it drags and becomes exhausting. Drunk is, in other words, an album of irreconcilable contradictions, and the way it was put together makes no fucking sense to me. It has its pleasures, of course: Thundercat is a magnificent player, a funny guy, and an inquisitive musician who trades in an intoxicating blend of jazz, soul, electronic, funk, and hip-hop. When these strands coalesce on tracks such as ‘Tokyo’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’, it’s undeniable and indelible. But the way in which this album has been presented makes these highlights feel more ephemeral than they perhaps are, drowned out by the surrounding noise. It is, ultimately, a baffling construction, and an unfortunately unsatisfying experience.

Capsule Review: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer – of Montreal

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in February 2017. Because I really didn’t like that Elbow record, I got to choose the older album we’d all review the next week. I went with of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, are You the Destroyer? because: A) it had recently turned ten years old; B) it’s fucking outstanding, are you kidding me? Also, it turned out that André and Andrew hadn’t heard it, so if anything it was my gift to them.

Hissing Fauna, are You the Destroyer? is a primal scream that can easily be mistaken for a laugh. Much of the record was written when the band’s frontman, Kevin Barnes, was cripplingly depressed in a foreign land and contemplating the possible dissolution of his marriage, and it follows that its lyrical content is largely bleak, desperate, and utterly despairing. Yet, apart from ‘The Past is a Grotesque Animal’, the swirling vortex at the album’s centre (and one of the outstanding tracks of the 00s), the songs are never presented as such. Especially on album’s the first half, they’re manic, flamboyant, playful, frankly irresistible pop numbers that compel you to sing and dance along. A plea for friendship, or some kind of positive human connection or feeling, perhaps. These songs are, of course, also endowed with a poignancy and a melancholy when read as Barnes’ attempts to patch in conspicuously absent feelings, to create a world he wished existed, but this does not obscure the essential fact that this album is a fucking hoot – an album that would rather you have a good time than feel sorry for its creator.

And so, this may be Kevin Barnes’ most introspective album – or at least his most plainly autobiographical, as he often deals in fantasy and whimsy – but it’s also his most generous and human. A lesser artist would have whipped out the acoustic guitar and put on their best (inadequate) Nick Drake impression, tried their hardest to create something ‘raw’ and ‘tortured’ and ‘authentic’. Such endeavours, of course, misunderstand Nick Drake and often produce dreary, trite, solipsistic ditties that wallow in misery and self-satisfaction. Hissing Fauna… doesn’t wallow, and I would argue that it’s more affecting, pleasurable, and emotionally honest (in my experience with depression, anyway) that Barnes explicitly rendered his desire to be anything other horribly depressed. And, because of this openness, it’s an album to live with; I wasn’t old enough to catch it when it was first released, but it’s been there when I’ve needed it, and it never becomes wearisome or threatens to lose its iridescent gleam. It’s just about the best time you can have with chemical imbalance.

Capsule Review: Little Fictions – Elbow

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in February 2017. My pal André has this neat little website where he and two of his friends contribute to a review of one record each week, and he asked me to lend a hand when one of the regular team members was away. I was looking to get back into writing criticism after about over a year out owning to various physical and mental blocks, so this was a great opportunity for me to pull my finger out. Working with André and Andrew was wonderful and I even got asked back to contribute a few times, which was nice. Shame about the album, though.

Little Fictions is the sound of contentedness. It’s pleasant. It’s gentle. It’s unassuming. Sometimes, it even threatens to be rather gorgeous. Most of the time, though, it’s barely there. It’s the product of being middle-aged and comfortable and having nothing to say. It’s deciding to rest on an idea or a groove that simply isn’t strong enough to sustain an entire song. It’s doing that seven times over, on a ten-track record. It’s the creeping realisation that, once you’ve heard the first minute of a song, you’ve likely heard the whole thing. It’s asking the listener “What does it prove if you die for a tune?” It’s asking yourself ‘Bloody hell, is this song still going?” It’s dying for a tune. It’s perking up when you hear “Firebrand & Angel” because the band finds the audacity to develop a song, and they do it well. It’s settling back down when “K2” starts, because audacity was obviously in short supply. It’s wondering whether the vocal melody towards the end of “K2” consciously evokes Magical Trevor, and whether that would make it any more interesting. It doesn’t. It’s leaving ambition and curiosity at the door, because who even cares when you’re the foremost ‘proper nice chaps’ of British music? It is, in other words, nothing you haven’t heard before, and everything you’d expect from Elbow’s post-Seldom Seen Kid material. But then again, it’s also largely bereft of atmosphere, drama, and playfulness, which, even at their most rote, Elbow could usually conjure. It’s sorely lacking a “Some Riot”, or a “Neat Little Rows”, or a “Charge”. Perhaps, then, it’s what you imagined Elbow to be, rather than what they actually were before Little Fictions. It’s inessential, verging on parody. It’s a record that’ll soon enough be forgotten. It’s a cardigan and slippers. It’s proudly making the BBC Radio 2 playlist. It’s a Sunday slot at Glastonbury, when the sun’s setting. It’s press photos on a beach. It’s fine, typed in italics and said with a sigh. Which is all just a polite way of saying it’s really, really fucking boring.

Capsule Review: Nonagon Infinity – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

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So, at the end of 2016, I thought I’d try and ease myself back into criticism by writing a piece about my ten favourite records of the year. I ended up writing over 2,000 words in the document, but in truth the whole exercise never went anywhere because I was mentally exhausted after a strenuous twelve weeks working for my MA. Also, I had belatedly come across Noname’s Telefone and was so floored by it that I had no idea how to do it any justice. The only summary I got to any kind of satisfactory standard was this one about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Nonagon Infinity, which I’ll publish here as a capsule review. Better that than leave it to rot in the dreaded “Things” folder on my desktop *shudder*. 

When King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard are really going hell-for-leather on Nonagon Infinity, which is most of the time, I imagine them playing atop Castle Grayskull during an unremitting thunderstorm, before a blood red sky strewn with colossal bolts of lightning and dragons breathing fire and other cool shit. This is, make no mistake, fucking ridiculous cartoon music –  a blisteringly bananas garage-/psych-rock freak out – and it’s just about the most fun I’ve had with a record this year. And sure, it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, especially if you’re into Thee Oh Sees or the myriad works of Ty Segall, but it’s elevated by the band’s irrepressible gusto, their imaginative compositions, and, most crucially in my mind, their playful touch. Indeed, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a band called King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard should accentuate and revel in the latent silliness of balls-out rock music, but I was nonetheless taken by their commitment to pushing almost every element to a glorious level of excess. And, somewhat ingeniously, this excess is as much a function of the album’s structure as it is the band’s playing (necessarily ferocious, but also exacting) or their approach to production (creating an imposing wall of sound by affording each layer very little headspace in a lo-fi smog). As was often noted at the time of release, Nonagon Infinity is essentially one infinitely looping piece of music: its nine tracks mutate, reference, and bleed into each other, and when final track ‘Road Train’ abruptly ends, opening track ‘Robot Stop’ immediately begins (provided you’ve got it on repeat, anyway). It’s a cute gimmick, to be sure. But the effect is, strangely, similar to that of a DJ set that keeps going and going and going, offering little respite for the listener or performers over the album’s (judiciously short) forty minutes. In the moment, then, it’s like King Gizzard are playing faster, louder, and, crucially, longer than just about any other band ever could. And there are fire-breathing dragons, and there’s lighting everywhere, and the band is playing atop Castle Grayskull, and it’s glorious.

Review: Holding Hands with Jamie – Girl Band

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This piece was originally published on the 28th of September 2015 by The 405. This is actually the final piece I wrote for The 405, and, given that this review is more or less the equivalent of a baffled shrug, it wasn’t the best of farewells. That wasn’t the plan, though; the plan was to take some time off to focus on the final year of my undergraduate degree and then return around Christmas. I never did come back, though, because I really needed a break from words over the winter break. Then, during the final stretch of work on my dissertation, I came down with a gastrointestinal illness that’s still affecting me to some degree. I spent most of the summer of 2016 depressed, and I wasn’t really in any mental state to write. I tried, though: I wrote about 4,000 words about why I had a terrible time at Star Wars Celebration in London, but never finished the piece because I thought it was woefully inadequate (the illness, of course, dented my already lacking confidence); I also planned to write about Marvel Studios’ unique approach to adaptation and why My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is a perfect sounding album, but I barely started those pieces for the same reason. Then, by the time my health started to improve, I was getting ready to embark on a master’s degree, which left barely any time to write for myself. In fact, I didn’t get around to writing criticism again until earlier this year, which is mad, really.

“You just shit in my neighbour’s garden!”

I don’t know what this lyric means. It works as a bold opening gambit to ‘Baloo’, and obviously makes sense on a surface level, but I don’t know what it actually means. And, frankly, I don’t know what any of it means: the palpable distress; the erratic clamour of its movement; the playful, largely incomprehensible yapping of frontman Dara Kiely. Everything about Girl Band’s debut album, Holding Hands with Jamie, is just kind of baffling to me – even after two weeks spent in its serrated embrace. Perhaps I could conceal this by suffocating some tracks with bombastic adjectives – idiosyncratic! rambunctious! delirious! – that offer no indication as to how they really feel on a gut level. I could even provide some context by expanding on the Dubliners’ history and rattling off a few tenuous stylistic forbearers such as The Fall, The Birthday Party, and Big Black. But I’m not sure whether such exercises would do any good, as they’d only suggest an authority over this album that I do not possess.

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