28 August 2017

The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

I have been anticipating this one for a while!  The War on Drugs have finally followed up on Lost on the Dream (our review linked here), an album that I like but it was not without flaws.  When it comes to Dream Rock, they are always a band who are at the forefront of my mind.  This can largely be attributed to the song "Red Eyes", which has grown into one of my favourite songs of all time, something that I blame my old radio presenting friend Barry Wilson for.  This song is one of the reasons for me following them, hoping that it is not just a one off.  A Deeper Understanding was released on August 25th, 2017 to much acclaim, but there is still some negative reviews out there as well.  Well, it is time to find out how it sounds myself......

01 - Up All Night

"Up All Night" sounds like the stage of night when dusk is starting to descend and the lights are being turned on to illuminate the dark.  It has a feeling that the potential is there for excitement, love and other things.  The song simmers along with a promise that it does not quite reach, it is constant audio titillation and then it sorts of dissipates into nothing.  For a six-minute song, it says a lot and then it fails to reach the highs that it was promising.

02 - Pain

The song that gives the album its title, "Pain" is the sound of the night coming back to haunt the protagonist.  There is a heartland rock feeling to this one, a feeling that it is born of a pedigree that has transcended the usual style of TWoD, as if they are hitting a level of song writing.  This is not trying to emulate the past, but it is hinting at something new for the future.

03 - Holding On

"Holding On" is the second single to be released from this album, this one is an upbeat number musically and it has a lot of positive energy throughout the song.  To be honest with you, it feels as if it is trying to recreate the sound that gave the world "Red Eyes" on Lost in the Dream.  This is not the worst thing in the world, but the familiar feeling before you have finished your first listen is something that haunts this song.  That said, if you are going to attempt to recreate one of your old songs, might as well make it your best one.

04 - Strangest Thing

Slowing things down, "Strangest Thing" is a song about how the world is a hard place, how a new direction is required to escape the limbo of existence.  It starts off at a plodding pace and I was in fear that I was going to fall asleep.  But then the chorus hook kicks in around the two minutes forty second point, at this point I almost had an accident.  The build from that point is nothing short of dramatic, full of beautiful passages and heart-breaking moments of tender contemplation.  When a song can make that sort of instant connection, it transcends everything else that has come before it and this is one of those moments for TWoD.  It is a beautifully crafted number, one which requires patience and gives some much in return.

05 - Knocked Down

Now this is a strange song, one that shares a few similarities to the Minnie Riperton classic "Loving You".  Once more we are in ballad territory on "Knocked Down", but to be honest with you, after the drama of "Strangest Thing" it is a bit of a let-down.  It plods along with all the excitement of a rainy Tuesday afternoon in a closed seaside town in October, it is easily the poorest song on offer here and it does not improve with further listens.

06 - Nothing to Find

As if sensing that an injection of energy is required, "Nothing to Find" comes along like a ball of fun with a jaunty little beat that gives the world a warm glow.  It is as if sunshine has returned to the album, making everything seem exciting and full of possibilities.  It is a fun track, a little filler that does not try to be anything be a good song.  You need numbers like this sometimes, just a fun tune that makes the world feel better for a little while.

07 - Thinking of a Place

Returning to their reflective side, "Thinking of a Place" is an eleven-minute track which looks at the need for companionship and for solace.  This was released as a single of Record Store day 2017, so it has been given much hype and it has been built up by so many reviews.  It is hard for this song to live up to the hype that surrounded it, but it is an interesting song, one that sounds like a dream sequence love song, giving people hope of a brighter future.

08 - In Chains

With a Dream Rock riff that would sound perfect on any summer's day, "In Chains" follows a similar pattern to other songs on this album.  The song is another love song, one that looks at the chains that we can place on ourselves.  I love the music here, but it does go on a little too long.  It could have been edited down slightly and been the little gem that it is now, this is a sadly familiar pattern on this album.

09 - Clean Living

We are approaching the end with "Clean Living", which starts with an atmospheric, almost religious sound to the sound.  It speaks to the Celt in me, making me think of the nature and it is very smoothing.  The lyrics do not quite match the power of the music, they seem to be singing to a different song in some ways.  But the music is so captivating, it takes you on a journey and it is a vein of sound I hope they explore in the future.

10 - You Don't Have to Go
Ending the album is the slow waltz that is "You Don't Have to Go", which has a melancholic malaise that feels as if the party left you a while ago and you are tidying up the tables.  It is a heartbreaker from the beginning, one that builds up slowly and you feel as if it is going to give you a euphoric release.  It almost delivers, it almost reaches that lofty goal and you will notice the word "Almost".  The problem here is it could have been done just as effectively with less time and the payoff is not the euphoric moment that should have sent this album on its way.  It is a shame it ends on a decent note, when it could have been so much more.

A Deeper Understanding is a good album that does not know when to stop, which sadly keeps it from being a great album.  Each song (including the ones I adore) could have lost a minute or so each and the album would have had the same impact, which is proven by the band themselves when they released an edited down version of "Holding On" that sounded just as good as the original full-length song.  However, this album is like a dream that aims for lofty heights.  I can hear the influences of Bruce Springsteen and Mark Knopfler on this album, it has big, massive ideas and it is trying to wrestle them into a form that pleases both the artist and the audience.  Much like Lost in the Dream, it is an album that has flaws which stop it from reaching the next level.  I still have faith in The War on Drugs, they still sound amazing and it is always so close to greatness.  It is a good album overall, I applaud the fact that they have the faith to attempt this record, but it could have done with a little bit of editing.

7 out of ten - This is good and worth checking out

Top track - Strangest Thing

You can purchase A Deeper Understanding on Amazon here.

You can visit The War on Drugs website here.

You can follow the activities of The War on Drugs on Facebook here.

You can stream A Deeper Understanding on Spotify here.

You can stream A Deeper Understanding on Deezer here.

You can stream A Deeper Understanding on Tidal here.

27 August 2017

Mercury Music Prize 2017 - Round Up Review

It is that time of year again where we look at the nominations for the 2017 Mercury Music Prize, but I am doing this review a little differently.  Normally, when there was a team of us, each album would get a full-length review.  As there is just me and I have submissions to complete, I am going to complete this as a round up review.  The nominations were announced on 27th July 2017 and the winner will be announced on 17th September 2017 in London.  Once again, anything metal or hard rock has been ignored (expected) as has the underground electro scene which I found surprising.  So, let us get on with the reviews......

Alt-J – Relaxer

With Relaxer, alt-J have not just changed my mind about them, but they have won my heart with effortless ease as well.  Each song grows with each listen, the album makes leaps and bounds upon each return.  alt-J have created a strange album that does not follow any wave or fashion, they have released an album which is not constrained by their own hesitation or having to follow a formula.  They have created a piece of art, an album that I can truly appreciate and more importantly, one that justifies the hype.  It might not have a scene or a wave being it, but all pioneers have had to make their own way in the world.

8 out of ten – Oh, now you have my attention and maybe my time, money and heart.

Top track – Deadcrush

The Big Moon – Love in the 4th Dimension

An Indie band that rocks is something of a rare beast in the Mercury Music Prize awards, one that uses a distortion peddle is akin to seeing a unicorn and bigfoot playing table tennis.  The Big Moon deal in slow indie in a style that has not been heard in the UK since the days of Echobelly and Elastica, with a fashionable slice of glam rock and punk added to the mix.  There is nothing that has not been done before, a few of the slower tracks could have been jettisoned to be honest.  Not too bad, but nothing memorable either.

5 out of ten – Not for everyone but played well.

Top track – Happy New Year

Blossoms – Blossoms

Blossoms seem to be the most hype band of this year's list, the one which was plastered everywhere and seemed to be on every TV channel and radio station for so long that it is impossible to ignore them.  Blossoms (the album) is an inoffensive batch of three minute Indie Pop songs that could have been done by any act over the last fifteen years, they will appeal to the masses as they have an incredibly safe sound that mixes an 80's undertone to their brand of Indie.  But it is just so average, I mean it is painfully average in place with no distinction that it is a struggle to get to the end.  Well played, catchy and sadly, dull.

3 out of ten – It could have been a bit better.

Top track – Blow

Dinosaur – Together, As One

Filling this years' Jazz quota, Together, As One is their debut release and Dinosaur been described as "Trumpet-Led instrumental music".  There is a vein of talent running through this band that would be able to break down walls, the craftmanship is phenomenal and it is a brilliant Jazz album.  It is not an easily accessible record as it does go on wild journeys at time, it will not be everyone's cup of tea.  The only thing that knocks it down for me is the synths seem to be out of time at some important junctures on this record, even if you are a massive jazz fan it becomes a bit too much to bear.  However, this still does not change the end result of the album too much and I still enjoyed it.

7 out of ten – This is good and worth checking out.

Top track – Living, Breathing

Ed Sheeran – ÷

There has been a bit of a backlash against Mr Sheeran recently, but his fans are still flocking towards his music.  Personally, I do not begrudge him his success and think he has done well for himself.  That said, this album is poor and the amount it has sold bemuses me.  He should not be allowed to rap, it sounds awful.  Also, he is suffering from Korn-syndrome - when an artist/band still talks about his/her/their issues when they are a multi-million dollar/pound artist who can afford the therapy. He is a young kid who can do better than this, this music is the sound of bland thunder and I expect copies of it to be in charity shops soon. It is not for me, hence why I have not reviewed its release earlier this year.  It is too easy to write off and who really needed another review slagging Ed Sheeran? 

2 out of ten – If only there was some quality control.

Top track – Perfect

Glass Animals – How to Be a Human Being

More synth driven indie here with Glass Animals and their second album How to Be a Human Being.  Unlike the Blossoms though, this does not sound as if it was created after a listening binge to Now That Is What I Call 80's, but it is sometimes comes very close to it.  The main selling point is that you can invest in these songs, they have a substance about them which is not always present in modern Indie Pop.  A thoughtful and interest record, one of the few here which thoroughly deserves the nomination.

7 out of ten – This is good and worth checking out.

Top track – Pork Soda

J Hus – Common Sense

This Mr Sheeran, is how you rap.  J Hus is one of two grime/hip-hop artists on this year's list and I can see why he has been nominated.  This is a fantastic hip-hop record from the first beat, one that keeps the energy high and the bass loud.  In places, he reminds me of Roots Manuva, he has a brilliant delivery that would tempt even the staunchest of Angels into Hades.  It is a couple of track too long, but that does not change the end result.

9 out of ten – Almost perfect, almost......

Top track – Clartin

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

The last time Ms Tempest was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, we were not too keen on it – this release does not change that opinion.  This is poetry thrown over synths, bad synths at that. It is a poor-person's Stephen Ignorant at best, just bad beat potery at its worst.  She has a powerful message and I applaud that, she has a lot to say and the words are dramatic in places, but the delivery does not do those words justice.

3 out of ten – It could have been a bit better

Top track – Europe Is Lost

Loyle Carner – Yesterday's Gone

More hip-hop, this time with a slower soulful vibe that gives it a reflective feeling.  The thing about this though, it suffers from the same thing which afflicted the Kate Tempest album, the finally delivery does not do the talent behind the record justice.  It is a decent record with some good music in the mix, but ultimately it is pulled down by a feeling of boredom that casts it shadow over the performance.

4 out of ten – Well, it's alright, but still....

Top track – Stars & Shards

Sampha – Process

Sampha is a name I have heard for a long while now, he has been a "go-to" guy who has done collaborative work with the likes of Kayne West, Jessie Ware, Drake and other top names in hip-hop/soul/r&b.  Process is a solid debut release, there is a lot of talent on this record, but there is a slight emptiness to the sound which makes it hard to love.

5 out of ten – Not for everyone but played well.

Top track – Under

Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer

This is the other big name from the list, one of the few I had heard of before the announcement of the nominations.  Stormzy is a fantastic rapper, that is not in doubt and anyone that says otherwise is talking shite.  It is a little long for my tastes, but I can see why this grime album reached number one in the UK.

7.5 out of ten – This is good and worth checking out.

Top track – Big for Your Boots

The xx – I See You

The XX have sort of passed me by for many reasons, mainly down to me hunting down as many Frank Zappa records as I possibly can listen to in one life time.  I See You however is a beautiful chill out album, one that works best in those dark nights when you are still awake, whilst everyone else is asleep apart from the night owls and your own thoughts.  It is sounds as gentle as a lover’s caress, as deep as first love and it is beautifully produced.  I think I need to listen to some of their earlier work now as well.

8 out of ten – Oh, now you have my attention and maybe my time, money and heart.

Top track – Replica

So, here is how I have it:

01 – J Hus
02 – alt-J
03 – The XX
04 – Stormzy
05 – Dinosaur
06 – Glass Animals
07 – Sampha
08 – The Big Moon
09 – Loyle Carner
10 – Blossoms
11 – Kate Tempest
12 – Ed Sheeran

So, I fully expect one of the bottom four to win it, either way I must say that it has not been the best year for nominations.  In fact, I think it might be the worst year on record over all.  The list is missing acts is quite long in my mind, especially when you are missung such acts as The Charlatans, Sleaford Mods, Bonobo (this one is the biggest mistake to be honest, a prime candidate for Mercury Music Prize winner), Laura Marling – I am sure I could get another 20 or so more acts and make a list twice as interesting as this one (no offense to the acts I liked here).  The way it has fallen this year, you have to question some of the juding behind the scenes, or maybe some bands just requested their name to be removed from consideration.  But who am I to judge, I am here just to review what was nominated.  Here is to the winner, hopefully next year will have a little bit more variation and if Sheeran wins - we riot!

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