Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Ten New Messages - The Rakes

One of the main problems with the post-2004 indie explosion is its decided lack of substance. The mix and match musical stylings of most of the genres progenitors are without suitable context or conceptual framework, thus leaving it open to accusations of vacuousness. While The View sing about wearing the same pair of jeans for four days in a row, which may have resonance for a large section of its fanbase, you have to ask yourself: WHERE ARE THE ISSUES? Which bands are railing against the injustices of the world, the social inequities? Many assign themselves with charities and fundraising events, which has to be applauded (although the cynic within us sees it as a purely self-serving exercise), yet which artist explores these issues within their music? Time and again we are told that our generation is the least politically aware, the most apathetic, yet no artist seems prepared to voice their concerns. If they do they are met with derision. It seems that we don’t want a statesman.
One of rock criticisms’ key aspects is its revisionistic tendency. Whilst seen in some quarters as a pitfall, others revel in its fluidity. This malleable characteristic means that popular opinion of an album is never fixed. It often transpires albums that are now much lauded and considered part of the musical canon weren’t well received when initially released. It is also often the case that albums released to (the hated term) “critical acclaim” are now vilified. The Rakes, whose debut Capture/Release was one of the keynote releases in the first wave of indie darlings and was well received on its release in 2005, are one such band. The last three years have been less kind, and the singles apart, it now leaves behind the impression of a band that weren’t yet ready for the studio. Having formed only a year beforehand this was hardly surprising.
This is why Ten New Messages is a welcome step forward, both sonically and thematically. Whilst still capturing the sensation of being a twentysomething living and working in the capital, the album has a heart and social conscience absent from their debut. True, the jerky rhythms of their debut were ready made for the indie disco, and in Alan Donohue they had a frontman who was an intriguing mix of Ian Curtis and David Brent. As with many bands that ploughed a similar musical furrow (identikit post-punk/art disco. Key influences: Wire, Joy Division, XTC, the Postcard bands, Buzzcocks/Magazine, The Strokes) it all felt too clearly demarcated – they wrote songs that ticked all the right boxes but were purely perfunctory. “22 Grand Job” and “Work, Work, Work (Pub. Club, Sleep)” were polite deferences to the cycle of working and drinking in the city that, whilst capturing the emptiness of this traditional working environment, lacked a wider appreciation of social issues.
Opener “The World Was A Mess But His Hair Was Perfect” is a less than veiled indictment of this scene and their dissatisfaction with it, though this is slightly tempered with the knowledge that it was originally conceived as a backing track for a Christian Dior fashion show. There is a melancholy air that shrouds the album, making it a more sombre affair than their debut. Perhaps it is a question of timing, because Donohue’s lyrics are particularly affected by the spectre of 7/7. The three bombs that detonated within 50 seconds of each other affected more than just the 52 victims and their loved ones. The lack of public inquiry affected public confidence; the economic impact was huge but more important to Donohue is the media response to the attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 7/7, as in 9/11, there was an outbreak of racist discourse in certain sections of the media that they obviously felt uncomfortable with, examined on “Suspicious Eyes”. The track uses many voices, a clever narrative device that allows them to investigate the racial tension that overshadows life in London these days from multiple perspectives. Laura Marling joins Phil Morais and Raxstar, plucked from MySpace obscurity, to provide backing vocals. On “When Tom Cruise Cries” they detail the anxiety of searching for a loved one in the immediate aftershock of the bombings. Since 9/11 this scene has entered the cultural lexicon, informed by images of faces on billboards, flowers on sidewalks, a cloud of dust billowing down a street, tear stained faces appealing for information, for anything, as the local newshound attempts to keep it together.
Where the album fails is where it leaves this narrative cycle; leadoff single “We Danced Together” is, as the title suggests, a knockabout song primarily designed to fill the dancefloor at your local indie night. It’s as if they’ve adopted Franz Ferdinand’s maxim of “music to make girls dance” and taken it too far – spiky guitars and disco drums combine on nearly every track, with little to break the uniformity. Admittedly they do try and disrupt this (Lethal Bizzle guesting on the reissue of “22 Grand Job”), but depressingly the songs feel more and more like artifice. The Rakes' endeavours to wrestle with various issues on this album is welcome, but as of yet they lack the songwriting craft to supplement Donohue’s lyrical preoccupations.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The main problem that a ‘supergroup’ will face is to make music that exceeds the sum of its parts. Supergroups tend to go down one of two routes: the first is that they become a star vehicle, ruled by the cult of personality and a complete lack of restraint in terms of musical excess. The second is to adopt a reductionist strategy and attempt to sublimate themselves (and more importantly their egos) within the body of work. Both paths are fraught with danger, and while both are well trod they seldom end in success.
The Good, The Bad and the Queen fall somewhere between these two stools. In presenting themselves as a raffish East End Last Gang In Town they attempt to establish credence for the notion of themselves as a musical entity entirely separate from their predecessors. Indeed the band themselves claim to have no name and that they are together to perform music, pure and simple, shunning the traditional band mentality. Yet when you take a roll call of the incumbents’ previous musical projects (Blur, The Clash, Gorillaz, Mali Music, The Verve, Fela Kuti and Afrobeat), the sense of musical history and legacy becomes hard to ignore and each member’s past pervades the album. This personal history led Albarn and Simonon to choose venues for their debut tour that they have an affinity with. This idea of a specific place, both isolation and association with, is a key theme on the album. The album itself takes on the form of a loose concept album, united by its core themes, in which Albarn takes on the role of a psychogeographical explorer, corresponding relentlessly from the emotional hinterland that their music occupies. Albarn has often used London to map complex emotions, and this latest work is no different. He uses the topography of the city to create a narrative of unease, of malaise, of despondency in the gasworks, canals, empty places and unseen histories of the city that is genuinely disarming. The drift of memory is a constant presence, from the Victorian painting by Thomas Shotter Boys of the Mint burning inside the walls of the Tower on the cover, to the attempts by the writer to document his escape from his past.
Which brings us to the music. Like an old LP the album is split between two distinct sides. The first six songs are the more dynamic on a purely surface level, whilst the second side is less upbeat. The first side is denser, the whole mix pervaded with a sense of dread which jars with Albarn’s vaudevillian sensibilities. It is a trait that has been evident in almost every project that he has been involved in as a major song writing partner, from Leisure to Demon Days. This finds its voice principally on opener “History Song” and “80s Life”, the former building on a sparse yet exciting guitar line to create an organic music hall meets dub structure, while the latter possesses wonderful doo wop vocals, swooping harmonies and excellent muted arpeggios from guitarist Simon Tong. Tong’s playing throughout is understated, perfectly restrained and phrased. Rhythm section Simonon and Allen create a rocksteady foundation, with Allen taking a backseat on the majority of the second side, augmenting the sound with flicks and sparse beats. The synth line in “Northern Whale” is perhaps the most danceable melody I heard in all of 2007, while “Kingdom of Doom”, with its promise of ravens flying overhead, continues to create the environment of dread. “Drink all day, coz the country is at war”, Albarn intones. Considering the context in which it is made, it is an admirable sentiment.
The standout track on the album is “Herculean”, the band’s first single release. The layered vocals, processed sounds, synths, Tong’s measured minor key guitar motif and the scattershot drums offer the most fractured, somnambulant and eerie soundscape the album has to offer. It is also the track that best exemplifies producer Danger Mouse’s alchemic skills at the desk – from such simple stock a track of wonder is created. “Behind the Sun” is the most Gorillaz-esque song on the album, an effortlessly bucolic song that points to the remainder of the album in its final moments with a wonderful string refrain George Martin would have been proud to put his name to.
What is evident when comparing The Good, The Bad & The Queen to the early Blur albums is that Albarn has stripped the music back to its barest. This is witnessed in both the sparse lyrics, with oblique references replacing the vignettes of life in England that dominated in his early writing. The sonic palette is also reduced, and while this has led to criticism in certain areas I strongly believe that the tonal consistency adds coherency to the whole album. Whilst unmistakeably a bleak record it contains elements of light and beauty. It is an album that looks back to its references yet is resolutely grounded in the here and now, with all the preoccupations of this flaccid, turbulent century. Welcome to the dread zone.

Monday, 3 March 2008

A vague preamble

I like music. A lot. Sometimes it will be all I think of for days on end. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new record. It can be enervating, offer a retreat, inspire and provide catharsis. Perhaps it is finding myself in the wilderness of my mid-twenties that lends such romanticism to that great escapist art, music journalism. Music journalism is by its very nature self defeating. It is an attempt to construct something concrete out of the cerebral, to convey a sense of that most subjective of devices, musical taste, to the reader. Mostly it fails, but it is with these same lofty ambitions that I started this blog.
The blog is in essence an attempt to create something lasting. The basic premise of this one is simple: one, sometimes two, reviews of an album or track will appear each week. Hopefully one will be a new release and the other a classic album. That’s not to say that I will be reviewing Led Zeppelin IV or Thriller each week because there are far more reviews than necessary of those albums. Rather it will be albums I believe need revisiting, demand re-evaluation. It is not a desire to be deliberately esoteric or to obfuscate, purely a call to look beyond the canonical works and view those left in the margins. Some will be old and neglected, others works that slipped through the cracks first time round. Again this comes back to the central problem when critiquing music – it is my taste that will determine what to write, and my intention to convince you of the music’s inherent graces or flaws. Here’s to discovery.