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  • La Roux "Trouble In Paradise" review

    26 Jul 2014, 14:38

    Back in the misty depths of the comparatively recent past (aka 2009), I was initially sceptical about the La Roux sound/concept. There were several signs that didn't augur well. The notes that only dogs could hear in "In For The Kill". The controversy-baiting sound bites. The whiff of one-trick-pony Eighties pastiche; the general Sunday-broadsheet-hype...

    Then, over the course of that spring and summer, the songs themselves started to worm their way under my skin. Thanks in part to a transformative Skrillex remix, "In For The Kill" virtually snuck in from behind and - bucking the nadir of the late-noughties trend for chart-toppers by cabaret acts (Kid Rock, N-Dubz) and X-Factor Finalists - lodged itself in the pop consciousness (UK #2 for four straight weeks) as a genuine song-based hit. Slightly symbolically, during the week in which the arguable figurehead of pop's old-guard (Michael Jackson) passed away, its follow-up, the anthemic "Bulletproof", went one better and was sitting pretty at Number One. I relented and bought the self titled debut album; "I'm Not Your Toy" became a particular target for the repeat button, and I simultaneously thrilled to and drowned in the sincere synthiness of "Colourless Colour" (with its deadpan yet oddly moving reference to "early 90's decor") and "Armour Love". 350,000 UK sales, a Mercury nomination and a 2011 Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album later, and I was happy to be proved wrong: set aside the window-dressing, and Eighties-electro-pastiche this emphatically was not.

    Despite - or perhaps because of - such a concentrated period of seemingly runaway success with a debut, Elly Jackson (the surviving member of and creative force behind La Roux) surprisingly turned out to be the last of the new generation of UK pop-dance female artistes first emerging in 2009-10 (Florence Welch, Marina Diamandis, Ellie Goulding, Little Boots) to come out of the blocks and nail that archetypal "difficult second album". As Jackson herself has observed in recent interviews, a gap of five years between releases - traditionally the preserve of the Kate Bushes of this world - both is and isn't an eternity in the ephemeral, transient mainstream pop industry...embattled as much by the new normal of legitimate, paid-for streaming as that of internet piracy; and arguably struggling for truly bankable hits, and artists with staying power, more than ever.

    As those sixty months mounted up, my relationship with La Roux's music came full-circle; the first album having been retired firmly to the shelf, and a real case of "out of sight, out of mind" having set in, my first reaction to news that a second album would see the light of day after all was probably a shrug at best. In an uncanny instance of history-repeating, however, having lived with and played "Trouble In Paradise" repeatedly for the last week, I've delighted in discovering that the drawn-out absence has ended with an album which sounds absolutely inspired.

    Perhaps it's partly the uncanny timing (there's something about releases happening at the height of sultry midsummer, maybe, which result in more vivid, more visceral responses), but this feels like a textbook in classically hooky, groove-driven, pop songwriting-alchemy, where not a single ingredient, phrase, or instrument feels superfluous or out of place. You catch glimpses of this all over the album: the "lose, lose, lose/prove, prove, prove" refrain in "Uptight Downtown"; the infectious, positively fizzy "Kiss and Not Tell"; the warm, organic and effortlessly funky breakdowns in "...Tell" (which sounds like a worthy sequel to "I'm Not Your Toy") and the almost-too-perfect, Vampire Weekend-goes-disco workout of "Sexotheque".

    The extended electro-pulse of "Silent Partner" notwithstanding (and is it just me who's compelled to sing the words "BAT-MAN!!!" when the first of those keyboard stabs kick in...?!), the overall feel is one of looser, free-er, less hard-edged arrangements than the debut album, that are nevertheless either still danceable at heart or have a club aesthetic. The bass lines are sinewy and elastic, the guitar-licks are scratchy and Chic-like, the effects are nostalgic in a "where have I heard that before"-way without sounding hackneyed (in 2014, no mean feat). While it doesn't reinvent the wheel, even the record's concessions to such familiar tropes as the electronic torch song, or the epic comedown ballad ("Let Me Down Gently" and "Paradise Is You", respectively) manage to feel as if they're doing something slightly different and fresh. It's both a self-assured and engaging album, that both stands up to and rewards multiple, focused listens, so much so that even its admitted minor blips can, on balance, be forgiven. The otherwise fine "Tropical Chancer", for example, appears to start with a sporadically recurrent mastering-hiccup, and proceeds with a chord progression that at times veers perilously close to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky"; while the coda of "The Feeling" just feels subdued, and in context, plain odd.

    All in all, however, Elly Jackson and her collaborators can take a bow for having retained so much of the spunk and raw talent that made the La Roux debut a legitimate double-take moment, while also managing to develop and nudge the La Roux sound forwards. While it'll be interesting to hear some of the perkier and sunnier of these songs by the time the tour rolls around in the chill of autumn (tickets are bought, and I can't wait), it has a deserved place in several year-end best-of lists. I've been re-converted in this past week, and whether the follow-up ends up taking as long as another five years to be finished, one thing I can be sure of is I'll be less indifferent to La Roux in future. It's been good to be proved wrong a second time, and I hope that Elly's rewarded.
  • Sophie Ellis-Bextor live review

    22 Abr 2014, 18:11

    Fri 18 Apr – Sophie Ellis-Bextor

    Sophie Ellis-Bextor ("SEB" hereafter!) is, it's fair to say, fairly giddy. Her self-funded fifth studio album, "Wanderlust", released in January 2014, has just been certified silver, and has already outperformed its ill-fated, criminally underrated predecessor, 2011's Make A Scene, five times over. It's the start of a long holiday weekend for the vast majority (if not all) of the audience, who could also be forgiven for being in a slightly raucous mood. To SEB's expressed astonishment, however, they're "quiet during the quiet bits", itself no mean feat in an age of gig-going where the distraction of a restless fellow audience member commemorating their attendance with a #selfie or social media check-in is never far away. Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised: despite a notable contingent undoubtedly lured here by the nothing-to-lose PR-fillip that was SEB's autumn 2013 participation in the BBC's flagship ratings hit "Strictly Come Dancing", her cultish, fiercely loyal fanbase dominate, and are not only appearing to hang on every note but are singing along to the hooks with gusto; the as-yet-unplayed-on-radio parts of Wanderlust included.

    This being SEB, "giddy" is of course a relative term. From the commanding, Levantine opening strings of "Birth of an Empire" onwards, and for the duration of Wanderlust's rollercoaster emotional arc (from the bonkers, racing, borderline gypsy-punk of "Love Is A Camera" and "13 Little Dolls", up to the impossibly old-Hollywood glamour and warm-and-fuzzy romance of "Young Blood", "When The Storm Has Blown Over" and a gorgeously-executed "Interlude"), she's both imperiously controlled and scrupulously professional, right down to the effusive votes of thanks she offers for her current commercial good fortune. (Strange, as these are perhaps the very qualities that elicit the tired and unwarranted charges of "icy" or "stuck-up" from her perennial detractors, including those who weren't won over during the "Strictly" popularity-contest). Even her one mis-step, a Creme Egg slightly mis-aimed at a member of the front row (it being the Easter weekend) has a line drawn under it with a frank, smilingly unembarrassed "I'm terribly sorry, Sir!"). If the music were to ever dry up altogether and she found herself competing in the assessment centre of a bluechip company (God forbid), she'd walk it on communication, presence, and that ever-elusive "emotional intelligence" alone.

    This was my first time seeing SEB "up close" (a completely free PA at 2013's Leeds Pride officially doesn't count, not least due to the dire sound), and to my shame, I caught myself thinking the "she's like a china doll"-comparisons that have followed her throughout her now fifteen-year career. Given this susceptibility to clichéd analysis - indeed, the continued potential distraction of SEB's undeniable and enduring photogenic-ness - it's a good job that Wanderlust transcends its movie star-good-looks, and manages to sound so inspired throughout; a top-notch triumph of sheer melodic songcraft. Despite the natural and unsurprising ease with which it's been lapped up by Radio Two playlisters, it somehow never lapses into all-out middle-England beige-MOR territory: instead, it's generous with its moments of darkness, drama and soulfulness, and for all the Slavic aesthetic flourishes, it also never feels camp, contrived, or as if everything but the kitchen sink is being thrown in. (Indeed the two most arresting Wanderlust tracks are arguably found in the uncomplicated melancholy of "Under The Stars Collide" and "Wrong Side of The Sun"; in an alternate, more just universe, either would be no-brainers for the end credits of the next hit drama on HBO).

    This being a pop star with an intuitive understanding of what her audience want, and what made them fall in love with her in the first place, the show culminates in an ecstatic disco medley, leading to an interesting realisation: the second coming of disco possibly wasn't ushered in with "Get Lucky" at all, but instead with the filter- and sample-heavy sound that populated dancefloors around the turn of the millennium. "Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)", "Lady (Hear Me Tonight)" and "Sing It Back" in particular, despite being staples for anyone who's caught the SEB band at a festival more than once over the last five years, are elevated to a transcendent, copper-bottomed "classic" plane (with "Take Me Home", "Heartbreak", and SEB's signature "Murder on the Dancefloor" not far behind... and I suspect -or hope!- that this might be more than misty-eyed thirtysomething nostalgia talking). SEB deftly inhabits the dance numbers with so much of that strange charisma that's equal parts girl-next-door and ageless-film-siren, you momentarily forget that with more than one, she had no hand in their original creation.

    An SEB show is a fascinating, enthralling mess of contradictions; not all of them straightforward to fully rationalise. She's warm and distant, cerebral and unashamedly pop, a balladeer and a dance diva, a persistent underdog who nevertheless seems (at least in 2014) to have emerged from a recent period in the wilderness and hit pay-dirt at exactly the right time. For all these discrepancies, it's hard not to share in her visible, unadulterated joy at having made such a direct connection with a self-confessed "risky", uncompromising record, that's clearly close to her heart. This lady knows the fickle ups and downs of the music business more than most: her humility (and possible bemusement) at the fact she's not only been granted another crack at the whip, but also on her own terms, is contagious, and something to celebrate.

    Setlist

    Birth of an Empire
    Until The Stars Collide
    Runaway Daydreamer
    The Deer & The Wolf
    Young Blood
    When The Storm Has Blown Over
    Do You Remember The First Time
    Wrong Side Of The Sun
    When You're Lost, Don't Want To Be Found
    13 Little Dolls
    Love Is A Camera
    Cry To The Beat of The Band

    Take Me Home
    Groovejet/Lady/Sing It Back
    Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)
    Murder On The Dancefloor

    Interlude
  • Review of Goldfrapp, York Barbican, April 5, 2014

    9 Abr 2014, 13:04

    Sat 5 Apr – Goldfrapp, We Were Evergreen

    There’s an intriguingly unscripted, incongruous between-song moment mid-way through Goldfrapp’s York Barbican performance. Though the associated tour is primarily in support of the duo’s sixth studio-set Tales of Us, a brooding, slightly eerie collection of musical vignettes addressing (among other things) such traditionally party-pooping themes as infidelity, murder, and transgenderism; the otherwise-reverential atmosphere is suddenly punctuated with a shrieked, borderline-pleading heckle. “…Play ‘Rocket’!!!” cries out one anonymous lady somewhere in the crowd, clearly having the time of her life but apparently also chomping at the bit for a gear-change.

    A mischievous murmur ripples out through the audience: fans who’ve done their homework know that the almost impossibly perky Van Halen-esque lead single from 2010’s Head First is now regarded as something of an unloved, illegitimate child by Goldfrapp themselves –ostensibly rushed out under pressure from former parent label EMI; and something they would, with the supposed benefit of hindsight, only have been happy to supply to another singer (… and which sadly, therefore, will probably never be heard live again). Alison [Goldfrapp] ponders the request for a few tantalising seconds (…is the infamous Goldfrapp-artistic temper of legend about to get another airing, some are surely wondering), before uttering a carefully considered reply of “…Nnnnnooooo.” It’s a matter of a few seconds that seems to crystallise a lion’s share of the very essence of Goldfrapp-fandom in all its joy and frustrations: the inimitable humour that’s equal parts camp and deadpan, an underlying sense of tease, and a back-catalogue that’s both abundant and divisive at the same time.

    For an act who owe a large part of their success over the last 15 years to relatively accessible yet deceptively simple dance-pop (the finest examples of which; “Train”, “Strict Machine”, “Number 1” and “Ride a White Horse”; are all rolled out in the show’s exhilarating final section), Goldfrapp are nothing if not assiduous in their attention to detail with their markedly more subtle most recent direction. The multi-layered tracks from Tales of Us are allowed in their live incarnations not only to breathe but also to soar: “Annabel”’s starkly exquisite, oddly-cathartic four-minute-long sob is enhanced even further; “Alvar” and “Clay” pulse and swell with hitherto-hidden layers of rhythm and momentum; “Thea” is a pounding power-house of dynamics, which somehow manages never to feel cluttered or overwhelming. The oldies-but-goodies are also, by and large, excellently-chosen, and provide a showcase for what made the duo such a unique pair of musical geniuses in the first place: the vocal effects of “Lovely Head” still sound like the stuff of a space-age nightmare, the synth-string stabs of “You Never Know” build inexorably to an almost Hitchcockian climax; even “Yellow Halo”, which originated on a begrudgingly-delivered, contractual-obligation “best-of”, is able to sound definitive; a master-class in warm and expansive electronics in a world where the labels of “ambient” and “chill-out” are ubiquitous but, more often than not, misapplied.

    This was my eighth time seeing Goldfrapp (if their Tales of Us cinema-experiment of early March 2014 is also counted), and after so many repeat outings, true objectivity – and true constructive criticism – both arguably become more difficult. While one hesitates as a non-practitioner to lapse into praise such as “note-perfect”, the impression of a flawlessly sung and played-show nevertheless seems inescapable. The fact that Goldfrapp and their team of session colleagues seem to still, enviably, be at the very top of their game perhaps logically leads to a picky superfan-suggestion: given the breadth and range of that previous output, you’d hope it wouldn’t be too optimistic to speculate on whether they might, just maybe, shake things up a bit on future live jaunts. How amazing would it be, for instance, to hear an update of the electro-filth of “Twist” or “Slippage”, the melancholy of “Pilots” or “Eat Yourself”, the cinematic swoop of “Let It Take You” or “Simone”? The choices are endless, and time will of course tell. Just don’t ask for “Rocket”…

    Setlist:
    Jo
    Drew
    Stranger
    Alvar
    Annabel
    Clay
    Yellow Halo
    Little Bird
    You Never Know
    Thea
    Ride a White Horse
    Number 1
    Train

    Utopia
    Clowns
    Lovely Head
    Strict Machine
  • Goldfrapp "Tales of Us" - review

    29 Sep 2013, 16:22

    I can sometimes feel slightly odd, having greedily devoured (and loved) all five of Goldfrapp's previous studio albums. Maybe it's just an unusual type of person who's as enthralled by faux-glam-disco-sleaze as they are by ambient-psych-folk (although Alison and Will's sound has of course encompassed umpteen other things, and perhaps the one thing that they can be relied upon to produce each time is something that eludes precise definition anyway). I bailed on hearing their sixth opus, Tales of Us, at its official premiere (a stiflingly hot Manchester International Festival), perhaps due to a feeling of trepidation...as a diehard fan, what if I wasn't instantly smitten? (I did something similar with Björk's Biophilia in 2011, bought the record, then promptly kicked myself for missing the live shows). Lesson clearly not yet entirely learned, here is my take on the new Goldfrapp in its more polished, less raw form...

    "Jo"
    Tales..., counter-intuitively, opens with perhaps one of the most subdued cards in the pack. The tone of chilled instrumentation set against sinister or ominous lyrics is set from the word "go", however. Built on a recurring, two-chord piano trick, and a "you'd better run for your life" refrain, it succeeds more as a scene-setting, mood piece rather than a traditional "song", allowing some of the subsequent tracks to, rightly, take centre-stage. (6/10).

    "Annabel"
    Stop-in-your-tracks emotional and arresting, the gender-confused child back-story, while mildly diverting, hardly matters when the atmospherics and music are as goosebump-inducing as this. Built on a mournful, elegiac acoustic guitar line, the track builds and soars as a string section slowly hovers into view, then falls away again. While "melancholic" is an understatement, it never feels cloying or wallowing. Riveting in its bare-bones simplicity, and for its visceral punch. (10/10)

    "Drew"
    More enigmatic and mysterious than "Annabel", but still with an equally cinematic "arc". Nothing feels out of place, from the light-as-air electronics to the strings functioning almost as punctuation marks in a perplexing story of "dreams of your skin on my tongue", that somehow manages to be both seductive and creepy at the same time (8/10).

    "Ulla"
    Perhaps the most MOR-sounding moment here of all, this song is perhaps also the least successful at fully connecting, even on repeated listens. It alternates between a bright and breezy main section, and a sadder, more minor-key-sounding "bridge" (apologies, classically trained musicians), ensuring it can't be simplistically reduced to a "pretty" label as a whole. That said, I found there was little overall for the brain to take hold of (it took some skipping on my fresh-out-the-box vinyl copy for me to really start paying attention to this song). One where an accusation of "background music" might stick. (6/10)

    "Alvar"
    Mesmeric and quietly hypnotic, this track again builds slowly through a fog of insistent, multi-tracked mandolins (?) before it culminates in a totally unheralded, but no less mantric, backwards-vocal section. Although it's primarily another "mood" piece, of understated, subtle drama, there's enough interesting things going on musically for a more lasting impression to be made. (7/10)

    "Thea"
    Conspicuous by definition for being the only thing on "Tales..." with the semblance of anything resembling "beats" (and therefore the only thing likely to withstand a remix treatment with a chance of not feeling totally tenuous and/or incongruous), "Thea" elicits a marked double-take anyway due to the attention-to-detail in its production: the pounding, martial rhythm; the sound-effect left at the very end. Injects some welcome dynamic range while still staying true to the overall feel of the album, sonically and thematically. (10/10)

    "Simone"
    Initially, this track fell into the nondescript, washes-over-you category for me. However, slowly but surely, in four briskly efficient minutes, it succeeds in stealthily creating another mini world of incremental dread and intrigue, begging an appropriately dark music video or short film-treatment. (8/10)

    "Stranger"
    After the opacity of some of the album's "difficult" midsection, "Stranger" finds Goldfrapp on more accessible, familiar ground. All of the leitmotifs of delicately-picked guitar, soaring strings, and even a whistled tune possibly not heard since the days of their Felt Mountain debut, are present and correct. It succeeds, however, by including some chord changes from heaven, and in being utterly charming. (10/10).

    "Laurel"
    This has an analogue, tinny, almost cosy and nostalgic feel that once again possibly hasn't been suggested or hinted at since the very first Goldfrapp record. Wistful, romantic, effortless-sounding and yet extremely hard-to-imitate (and therefore quintessentially Goldfrapp). (10/10)

    "Clay"
    Tales ends on a widescreen, poignant and bittersweet note, with a song inspired by a love letter from a World War combatant to one of his fallen comrades. If I'm being brutally honest, I think I was in fact more "moved" by Laurel and Stranger, but this is, on its own terms, a perfectly fine coda to an absorbing album which in places sets the bar extremely high. (6/10)

    Overall: 8.1/10
    Tales of Us is by no means flawless. Alison's trademark penchant for close-miked or half-enunciated vocals doesn't allow for much of an appreciation based on the lyrics (although they're mercifully reproduced in full in the sleeve notes), and there are definite patches where the admirable striving for aural cohesion inadvertently results in vague washes of sound that are a little too soft-focus to fully satisfy. When it hits its targets, however, (Annabel, Thea, Stranger, Laurel), Tales of Us contains some genuine moments of jaw-dropping beauty, which are sure to weave yet further layers of magic as autumn gives way to the winter of 2013-14. It's a bold artistic statement from a duo which, while relying on some tried-and-tested tics, takes the Goldfrapp mission statement somewhere entirely new.
  • Bjork, Biophilia, 03.09.2013

    4 Sep 2013, 20:18

    Tue 3 Sep – Björk

    On a balmy, early September evening in London, pipe-organ renditions of selected highlights from Bjork's vast, now twenty-years-long solo back catalogue usher her loyal fanbase (who, despite a preponderance of impeccably-groomed facial hair among the men, elude precise characterisation as any one single demographic) into Alexandra Palace's Palm Court, the antechamber for this one-off show, tickets for which were pounced upon when it was unexpectedly announced back in June. (The gig is, in turn, closing a two-year tour which is unlikely to be mimicked or bettered any time soon). Although the tunes are familiar, given the momentary cognitive dissonance that occurs in hearing them re-presented through the organ-y leitmotif so dominant on Biophilia the album, the slightly disorienting effect is not only one of hearing Bjork's "greatest hits" dragged into the present (or recent past), but also of something akin to awaiting a twist on the traditional wedding ceremony, or perhaps a populist, atemporal pagan carol-service untied to any one season or climate. Just on the way in, incidentally, we've managed to brush shoulders, twice, with Tilda Swinton (narrator of the recent rapturous Channel 4 documentary on Biophilia costarring David Attenborough, whose unmistakably dulcet and authoritative tones introduce each of the "new" tracks in their live versions): this is clearly going to be no ordinary night.

    In a similar vein, to call the scope of Biophilia (whether viewed as a cultural happening, educational project, or interactive app-album-template for the beleaguered 21st century music industry) "ambitious" would, of course, be to simultaneously redefine the term "understatement". Its ten songs' subject matter cover everything from unfathomable mysteries of the cosmos, through the origins of the universe, and end up in childlike wonderment at the minutiae of sub molecular phenomena such as DNA replication and viruses infiltrating cells. The unifying high-concept? My own take is that it's how a close study of nature, filtered through the twin enablers of music and technology, is key to connecting and engaging on a spiritual as well as scientific plane; revealing as it does order, patterns and structures in what might otherwise appear superficially as a randomised, arbitrary, and chaotic world. This overarching theme isn't quite always successful at coherently and fully hitting its lofty targets: Biophilia's more obtuse, self-consciously "avant-garde" tracks ("Hollow", "Dark Matter"), for instance, are more successful in mystifying at best, or, at worst, alienating, members of the audience more nostalgically inclined towards Bjork's '90's commercial zenith. But as one of my friends accompanying me to the gig (having admitted to "struggling with" Biophilia-as-listening-experience) wryly concedes "...You've gotta love her for trying".

    What seems to be less up for debate are the sheer virtuosity and attention-to-detail evident in Bjork and her supporting cast, which includes a 24-strong female choir, and a number of instruments tailor-made for the Biophilia project. As cliched as it might sound, tonight the star really is the music. Bjork rises to the occasion (and, one suspects, the crowd's sky-high expectations) by being in particularly captivating voice - her control and dynamic range remain truly awesome to behold, whether in her trademark, meticulously front-rolled "r"s in opener "Thunderbolt" (...think "craving mirrrrrracles"), the reverential, hymnal phrasing of "Solstice", or the jolly, irreverent whistles liberally sprinkled through an enchanting, percussion-led encore of "One Day". 

    More impressively, and with kudos to the sound engineers, Bjork's harmonies with her umpteen backing singers are somehow pitched at just the right level, and never swamp or muddy the overall atmosphere; the choir deftly stand in for the whole soaring string section, for example, in an other-worldly, brilliantly-executed "Isobel" (tantalisingly overheard as a soundcheck in the adjoining Alexandra Park earlier in the day), making for a live arrangement that manages to both tread newly innovative ground and still, at the same time, deliver the emotional wallop of the very first listen to the original parent CD. The choir seems, in addition, to double as a beguiling quasi-Greek chorus-cum-amateur-dance-troupe; whether head-banging and thrashing along to "Nattura", embodying the propulsive, ecstatic crescendos in "Mutual Core", or scattering themselves across the ingeniously set in-the-round stage for a subtly-choreographed "Crystalline", they also inadvertently lend the audience some stealthy visual cues for response, particularly the aforementioned contingent confused (or frustrated) by the overall dearth of 4/4 tempos and stereotypical singalong verse-chorus-verse.

    A show with as uncompromising an artistic vision and as premium an asking price as this (even by current industry-/London norms) was never going to satisfy all comers at once: overheard instant reaction on leaving the venue ranged from those rueing the £80 price tag to those nearly speechless with joy at what they'd just witnessed. For this particular punter, however, minor quibbles about the venue's relatively out-on-a-limb location and haphazard approach to crowd control were ultimately made redundant when set against the non-negotiable unique-ness of what's being attempted with Biophilia. While the concert film being made on the night (which occasioned a strangely stop-start feel to proceedings as certain songs were performed twice, leading Bjork to muse on how "this is the chattiest I've been in ages") will be a worthy souvenir, it will also only ever scratch the surface of what it felt like to have been in the room for what was an unparalleled, unhinged and enthralling piece of performance-art for the digital age. In the final analysis, it's for her peerless invention, and daring to contemplate ideas and themes that wouldn't even enter the heads of most common-or-garden "pop stars", that we should continue to regard Bjork as an international treasure. You've gotta love a trier, after all.

    Setlist

    Thunderbolt
    Moon
    Crystalline
    Hollow
    Dark Matter
    Hidden Place
    Mouth's Cradle
    Isobel
    Virus
    Sonnet/Unrealities XI
    Possibly Maybe
    Where Is The Line
    Mutual Core
    Cosmogony

    Sacrifice
    One Day
    Nattura
    Declare Independence
  • Madonna "MDNA" - my review

    1 Abr 2012, 15:39

    Having lived with this album for a week now - and other reviews/opinions for slightly longer! - I can't guarantee that what follows will sound like an entirely original assessment of Madonna's 12th album. For those who are interested, though, here goes...

    "Girl Gone Wild"
    Kind-of the love child of Celebration, Sorry and Get Together, album opener "GGW" finds Madonna on familiar, self-plagiarising territory. It starts with a portentous spoken-word prayer intro with synthy strings before descending into a common-or-garden four-to-the-floor number. The phrases "The room is spinning/Must be the tanqueray" and "Here it comes/When I hear them 808 drums" probably didn't originate in Madonna's head, but this is high-camp which - for all its faint whiff of ridiculousness - manages to seem way more convincing than any po-faced films M might put her name to about The King and Mrs Simpson. 7/10.

    "Gang Bang"
    A menacing, borderline-unhinged electroclash track, this wins bonus points for managing to sound not quite like anything M's ever recorded before now. People will either absolutely love or absolutely hate it. The dubstep breakdown - although it could have been borrowed from any number of modern tracks - might not be entirely unexpected but is still executed well enough to elicit a double-take on first listen. 9/10.

    "I'm Addicted".
    Where MDNA really takes off, and lives up to its title. Euphoric, intense, effects-laden. Does what it says on the tin, and very hard to dislodge from your head once it's wormed its way inside. 10/10.

    "Turn Up On The Radio"
    The verses on this are more interesting than the chorus... which promises and teases lots but (to these ears) never quite manages to soar. Sustains the breakneck pace set early on, and will win plaudits simply for being so unashamedly upbeat...but still could have been better melodically speaking. 7/10

    "Give Me All Your Luvin'"
    Confused-sounding, ill-fated lead single, too juvenile-sounding for BBC Radio 2, too retro/anachronistic for BBC Radio 1, which (somehow) manages to redeem itself slightly in an album context. Some interesting production flourishes from Martin Solveig if you listen close, but still manages to sound derivative, hackneyed and gimmicky in a way that somehow seems slightly beneath even Madonna (the cheerleader chart refrain being the feature that's still hardest to swallow). You imagine Team Madonna hoped - or presumed - the association with Nicki Minaj and MIA might have been enough in itself to win pop radio round. And/or this song was composed to fit around the idea of launching the album campaign at the Superbowl, rather than the other way around... 6/10

    "Some Girls"
    Better. A briskly efficient, Ladytron-like track that really benefits from the understated-cool of Robyn collaborator Klas Ahlund. The main melody line of the refrain ("Some girls are not like me/I never wanna be like some girls") starts off pitched quite low and monotone, but ends up high and almost atonal. An album standout. 9/10.

    "Superstar"
    Frothy, simplistic, bubblegum pop which - while more subduded than some of the fare on offer here - manages to hit more of its targets than its sibling "Give Me All Your Luvin'". Easy to dismiss as tinny and insubstantial on the first few listens, it wins you round over time mainly due to an old-school, sunny charm. 7/10.

    "I Don't Give A"
    Sounds like it could have fit on either of American Life or Hard Candy... but manages on this occasion to avoid falling into the trap of coming across as the kind of "woeisme" multi-millionaire self-pitying which has hobbled Madonna when she's attempted this subject matter in the past. A shame then, that the lyrical candidness comes in what might be MDNA's most "filler-like" moment. 5/10

    "I'm A Sinner"
    Bass-heavy, woozy, psychedelic, and very hard not to move to, this is Madonna and William Orbit partying like it's (still) 1999 and the latter never left. It uses the "Some Girls" trick of taking the vocal refrain higher and higher as the song progresses. By the time the couplet "St Anthony, lost and found/Thomas Aquinas, stand your ground" is deployed in the middle-eight, all further resistance is futile. I love - love - when it goes all throbby and tribal in the final 16 bars or so. 10/10

    "Love Spent"
    Forums have buzzed with talk of this track as having "sampled Hung Up". I personally hear the Pet Shop Boys' "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)". Either way, it's a good fit for Madonna, although I agree the key change in the middle ushers in a slightly less powerful final act. Succeeds as a whole in the way it manages to sound both intimate and anthemic at the same time. 8/10

    "Masterpiece"
    Setting aside a rather clumsy Mona Lisa metaphor at the start, this is a highly competent, classic Madonna ballad, the likes of which she's not really touched with a bargepole since the late 90s. It's just a shame that it's probably been included here primarily by virtue of its association with her own "W.E" vanity project. 8/10

    "Falling Free"
    The ultimate comedown song, and the only thing on MDNA bereft of beats altogether, Madonna again manages to sound familiar while treading totally new ground in the pretty, almost folk-y melody of this closer to the main album. Could perhaps have been cut down slightly, but on the whole works very well. 9/10.

    "Beautiful Killer"
    An odd omission from the main album (perhaps sacrificed in favour of the more dramatic "Gang Bang"), this midtempo pop-dance number has eerie lyrics - "Can't really talk with a gun in my mouth/Maybe that's what you've been dreaming about" - at odds with its largely chipper disposition. Very hooky, string-soaked middle-eight. Ends even more awkwardly and jarringly, with the sound of a single gunshot. 8/10

    "I Fucked Up"
    Uncharacteristically frank electro-ballad which sees Madonna rueing her contribution to a match supposedly-made-in-heaven going irretrievably pear-shaped. A distant cousin of "Drowned World/Substitute For Love", with its shifts in tempo and ultimate ambivalence about the problem-at-hand. 8/10

    "B'day Song" (featuring M.I.A.)
    Completely throwaway, goofy, and perhaps unmemorable, this 60s-sounding faux B-52s-y track is unambiguously B-side/bonus track-fodder, but again has a certain irresistible charm about it (in the vein of "Superstar"). 6/10

    "Best Friend"
    Probably the most disarming and perplexing of the "bonus" tracks, and packed-to-the-gills with what seems like a multitude of weird synthy sounds buzzing and fizzing around its periphery, for all of the sound and fury of many of the 15 preceding tracks, MDNA ends with something of a whimper, albeit an affecting one... a startlingly candid and poignant insight into M's state of mind about her divorce from second husband Guy Ritchie. 9/10.

    All in all (average 7.8/10):
    While MDNA might not ultimately be able to claim the pioneer or genius status of some of the totems in her back catalogue (Ray of Light, Music, Like A Prayer), and although I'm not sure at this point how well it will hold up in weeks and months from now, it's a tangible improvement on 2008's hollow-sounding Hard Candy, which will appease a sizeable chunk of M's hardcore fanbase. It's far more enjoyable than anything even the most optimistic Madonna-watcher had the right to expect, especially given the excruciating wait of the last four years - a period in which Madonna was increasingly distracted by various non-music projects and business ventures. It's a zeitgeisty, shamelessly au-courant record which capitalises on America's contemporary mania for dance sounds, while still managing to avoid the out-and-out vacuousness of the Top 40 fodder churned out by Guetta et al. I'm reassured to hear that Madonna's ear for a good producer and melody (the real clue to her 30-year staying power) is undiminished by time, and gratified to see her redefining the kind-of music our culture "expects" a 53-year-old woman to make.
  • My Best Tracks and Albums of 2011

    22 Dic 2011, 9:52

    So, my top ten (in no particular order)....

    1. Beth Ditto "I Wrote The Book" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UECeJzd-G30&ob=av2e)

    All the promise of "Cruel Intentions" - her 2009 collaboration with Simian Mobile Disco - and then some (James Holden repeated his production trick of course in November, with Little Boots' "Shake"). My enduring memory of this track is it going down a storm on the dancefloor at our wedding. The video is also an example to other "artistes" (... mentioning no names!) of how a Madonna homage should really be done!

    2. Cut Copy "Pharaohs and Pyramids" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxF4Ps7tl0Y)

    This track has a build-up and breakdown that kills me every time. Those who know me well (... and even those who don't) will be able to tell which bit I mean!

    3. Sophie Ellis-Bextor "Starlight" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qolwP5UxIMY&ob=av2e)

    Very amusing fan indignation at the "cheap" video, as if people were oblivious to the fact that she really is a DIY-pop star now. Anyway, this is a lovely song, and I love a Richard X production. Oh, and thanks to Frank of course for pointing me to the Da Brozz remix...! :-)

    4. Jessica 6 "In The Heat" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IBqVNbGEGM)

    ... everything Hercules and Love Affair's (disappointing) second album should have been! I need to hear this while out and about, in the worst way!

    5. Sneaky Sound System "Really Want To See You Again" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FOOZZq_OVs)

    This track is full of hooks and I love it... resistance (for me at least) is futile...

    6. Bag Raiders "Sunlight" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TLCkIGV2mw)

    These guys are kind of an Australian Basement Jaxx - they're geniuses, their long-awaited debut album didn't disappoint, and this track brightened my January no end. This also went down well at the wedding!

    7. Katy B "Broken Record" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oES929aenGc&ob=av2e)

    New UK female singer where the hype - for a change - was largely justified.

    8. Gus Gus "Over" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K703vlIgens)

    From Iceland. Been around a long time. They know what they're doing!

    9. Azari and III "Reckless (With Your Love)" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMEhf9iw55M)

    ...Toronto in da house!!!

    10. Flight Facilities "Foreign Language" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI6fDb6IBmU)

    I think the description of this duo as a kind-of hybrid of the best bits of Quincy Jones and Daft Punk is pretty accurate... I also hear Crazy P (when they're on form) in hear as well. The Beni remix also comes highly recommended.


    ... with "honourable mentions" for...:

    •Fenech-Soler "Demons"
    •Jamie xx "Far Nearer"
    •Metronomy "The Bay"
    •Joe Goddard "Gabriel"
    •Calvin Harris featuring Kelis "Bounce"
    •Adele "Rolling In The Deep"
    •Hercules and Love Affair "My House"
    •Breakage "Fighting Fire"
    •Britney Spears "Hold It Against Me"
    •Britney Spears "I Wanna Go"
    •Fox "S-S-S-Single Bed" (not, in fact, a track from 2011 at all, but in honour of BBC4's re-runs of "Top of the Pops" from 1976 which started this April... a track so damned funky it's painful)

    And my top ten albums (again in no particular order)....

    1. Sophie Ellis-Bextor Make A Scene
    2. Björk Biophilia
    3. Jessica 6 See The Light
    4. SBTRKT SBTRKT
    5. Cut Copy Zonoscope
    6. Kate Bush 50 Words For Snow
    7. Bag Raiders Bag Raiders
    8. Friendly Fires Pala
    9. Katy B On A Mission
    10. The Sound of Arrows Voyage

    ... with "honourable mentions" for...:

    •Jamie Woon - Mirrorwriting
    •Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise
    •Nicola Roberts - Cinderella's Eyes
    •Little Dragon - Ritual Union
    •Kate Bush - Director's Cut
  • Goldfrapp, Leeds Academy, 03/11/08: Review

    4 Nov 2008, 18:36

    Less than a month after it opened, and before the site for the mooted 12,500-seat Leeds Arena is decided upon, there’s still a sense of giddy excitement at arriving at a credible city-centre live music venue that’s not the (University) Refectory with its highly erratic sound system. The Leeds Carling Academy, as it’s now known, attained an almost mythic status in the 1990s as the Town and Country Club, but the novelty is tempered somewhat at what must be one of the stickiest carpets in the free world – perhaps a sign that the new venue is already a victim of the thousands who’ve already come through its doors, as well as a reminder of its more regrettable recent incarnation (the unwieldy, hellhole nightclub that was Creation).

    Such trivial matters of venue atmospherics are perhaps not on the mind of Alison Goldfrapp. “Hey, you. Yes, you. If you plan on filming this entire gig, your arms are going to fucking ache”. For a notoriously shy performer, with an anecdotally fearsome temper behind the scenes, this pretty transparent threat to a member of the audience - who's chosen to flout a pre-show exhortation over the venue’s PA system - disarms the rest of the audience into thinking they might be about to witness the diva herself storming off. Fortunately, Goldfrapp and her band stick around for a show that was business-as-usual … if business-as-usual can be said to include a woozy, ten-minute length psychedelic Pink Floyd wig-out, in the shape of “Little Bird” – perhaps this tour’s setpiece, and one of the standout tracks on Goldfrapp’s recent album Seventh Tree.

    For all their populist appeal, a Goldfrapp show does not curry favour with the casual listener. The first half of the gig is weighted towards the meandering, folklore-like whimsy that runs through Seventh Tree, though an opening line like “No time to fuck” is a surefire way to grab attention with your first song.

    Goldfrapp and her colleague, Will Gregory, made their name on eerie, cinematic, gloriously-downbeat synthy stabs of melancholia; showcased to stunning effect in the likes of the BBC3 animated satire “Monkey Dust” (among a plethora of other likely soundtracks). Tellingly, though, it’s towards the close, when tracks from the band’s bawdy Weimar disco phase (circa 2003-5) are played, that the audience truly become animated – revealing that, for most people, and despite the executive decision to go back to basics with the latest album, the abiding frozen image of Ms Goldfrapp is that of an electro-glam dominatrix beating a theremin into submission with her crotch (said theremin makes an appearance tonight, but escapes in tact).

    Perhaps the cornerstone of Goldfrapp’s charm is that, tried by anyone else, their schtick really would come across as opportunistic cabaret or pastiche. However there’s something so simplistic and obvious in the soundtrack of The Wicker Man that introduces them onstage (and so blatantly represents the aesthetic of Seventh Tree, as well as inspiring the backdrop to their stage set), or the faux-Edward Lear lyrics (“she’s like a little bird/that flies from A to B/to see what she can see/she’s far away from me”), that the unabashed wearing of influences on their sleeves is somehow forgiveable. Or, it’s redeemed in the transcendent power of their songwriting; their mastery of the full gamut of aural dynamics, from wall-of-sound assaults right through to quiet and introspective moods; or the way Alison unleashes a full-throttle, skyscraping soprano phrase out of seemingly nothing. A woman of limited, choice words other than clipped “hellos” and “thank yous”, Goldfrapp retains an allure of mystique and unknowability as a performer. Her and her band’s sincerity, however, is clearly undiminished.

    Setlist:
    Paper Bag
    A&E
    Utopia
    Cologne Cerrone Houdini
    U Never Know
    Satin Chic
    Eat Yourself
    Clowns
    Little Bird
    Number 1
    Happiness
    Ooh La La
    Caravan Girl
    Train
    (encores:)
    Black Cherry
    Strict Machine